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Teaching Martial Arts in America

Jun 10, 2008
Over the holidays, I had the chance to relax and watch one of those great Chinese martial art movies. You know the ones with the subtitles and great sound effects. The film caught my interest because it was about Wing Chun, my absolute favorite martial art. The actors displayed some of the most beautiful techniques I have seen that rivaled those of the late Bruce Lee.

In one scene, the master is working with a student who apparently is one of his favorites. The master however doesn't coddle him and make life easy. Instead, he demands perfection. He yells at the student for his mistakes and tells him he is the dumbest and the most foolish of any student he has ever taught. If you have ever seen any of these movies, you will notice that the masters are extremely demanding and verbally abusive.

The film illustrates the reality of traditional martial arts instruction. I was trained this way and so were my instructors. This was also the way my father raised me. Today we call it tough love.

My father is a strong, powerful man. When he lectured me, I could barely make out what he was saying because he was so intimidating and I was so nervous. I knew however, that my father loved me and wanted me to be the best I could be. This was his way of showing it. So it was no big deal when my martial art instructors were critical, demanding, and sometimes abusive. I knew that they too wanted me to be the very best.

I adopted this teaching philosophy when I started instructing in the United States. I became as demanding as my father and teachers. I had one student who used to train in the early morning. He came to me because he wanted to learn how to fight. A big part of the curriculum for those who want to learn how to fight is building strength and endurance. It is not enough to learn a bunch of fancy techniques if you wince at the point of contact because you've never hit a solid surface.

Anyway, part of this man's training program included an endurance building exercise called kata, a simulated fight with an imaginary opponent. After watching his kata, I told him he looked sloppy and clumsy. I didn't hear from him for two weeks. This was a man who used to train every morning. Finally I called and asked him why he had not been in. He said that he felt as though he wasn't getting better and that I was just making fun of him. Contrary to what he thought, I was very fond of him.

I reminded him of an incident we had where I was very rough on him during a group class. I partnered him with one of best students in the class. Within 30 seconds, he fought so well that his adversary was in pain. You wanted me to teach you how to fight, right? I said. He smiled because he had reached his goal. I laughed and told him his kata was still sloppy and clumsy!

I learned over the years that this method of teaching doesn't work in this country. American students who have had no exposure to traditional teaching methods often feel insulted when a teacher admonishes them, when in fact the truth is that he wants them to shine. Also, many students look at their relationship with their martial arts instructor as that of a consumer and a service provider. This is contrary to the tradition of respecting the master regardless of what he dishes out.

Unfortunately, I have lost some students because of my traditional approach. I truly cared and wanted them to reach their highest potential. It was out of love as their teacher that I may at times have verbally mistreated them. For that I apologize. I have changed the way I interact with my students over the years. I try not to be as critical.

This doesn't mean that I throw out useless and insincere compliments just to make students feel good. Students who come from other systems sometimes tell me that they were complimented so much by their instructors even when they knew themselves that they weren't performing correctly. This I refuse to do. This is still a martial art school. Too much coddling is counterproductive and creates an illusion in the mind of the student.

So while I've changed my ways for mainstream America, I haven't stopped demanding that they give it all they got. I've just changed my approach.
About the Author
Calasanz is the creator the Calasanz System, a combination of various martial arts and a unique system of holistic exercises called Physical Arts, which improve strength, tone, flexibility, endurance, balance, coordination, muscle unity, and well-being for all. http://www.interdojo.com
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