Thursday, December 29, 2011

Teaching Martial Arts

These are some thoughts from my teacher, Master Ali Brown, head instructor at the Tukong Moosul School in Austin, Texas. Master Brown has studied under the guidance of Grandmaster Wonik Yi since age 6 and is experienced at teaching all ages of students at many stages of their development. Here are a few thoughts he shared with us on teaching.

Qualities of a Good Teacher

Ali began by discussing three qualities of a good teacher.

  1. Know What you are Teaching – “we have all had an experience of someone trying to teach us something they didn’t know”.
  2. Love What You Do – It is important to have a genuine enthusiasm for martial arts which will transfer to your students.
  3. Be Invested In the Student – Do not separate yourself from the student, but rather enter into a relationship and dialogue with the student. Each person learns differently, and has a different body type. So we must realize that they will take what you learn and incorporate it in an “organic” way into their practice. Another part of this is a genuine commitment to the student’s progress, to the extent that you want them to learn it better than you. Master Ali elaborated on this quality at length.

Investment in the Student

“Teaching Martial Arts is not a one way process” Ali said, “It is not ‘I am going to impart my knowledge upon you’ as though there were only one of you learning “When one demonstrates a technique, they must present a concept, and allow the person to integrate organically. As a teacher you cannot know how they are going to integrate that technique.

If, for instance, we were to hook up a series of sensors and probes to Grandmaster Wonik Yi, and determine exactly how he moved in a technique, then imitate it, we would not have the technique. Grandmaster Yi’s body is different, so the energy will flow differently for him than for another.

A teacher can never know how a student will integrate a technique. Ali gave an example of how changing his foot in a basic form changed his practice. However, that exact same instruction would make no difference for many others.

“Teaching Martial Arts is like teaching someone to smile” he said “Or, making Kimchee.” One can analyze every element in kimchee, use the right ingredients, the right timing, and follow a set of steps precisely. Yet one person’s kimchee will taste very different from the other. “ he said “Only the taste will tell you if the kimchee is good.”

“You are learning from them” he said “If it were possible to simply give a set of directions, postures or instructions, we wouldn’t need teachers. That is the difference between a video and a teacher”; the teacher is invested in the student, guiding them through a personal relationship.

Three Types of Students

Master Ali described three types of learning. People learn three different ways.

  1. Visual – watch and imitate.
  2. Auditory – describe the technique in detail and they will perform it.
  3. Kinetic – need to feel the posture, sometimes you have to touch and guide them to the correct posture.

Master Ali discussed visuals and cautioned teachers about some weaknesses. Visuals seem to learn the technique very quickly. They are imitating it quicker than the other styles; however, they often do not truly understand the underlying principles.

He told a story of a friend who watched a Jet Li movie where Li performed a powerful, and beautiful kick. His friend watched it and very quickly was able to leap in the air and spin like Jet Li. “Then he tried it in a fight” Master Ali added and with a wry smile said “it did not end well”

A teacher needs to realize that teachers may have trouble helping a visual learn because the visual learner thinks they have done the technique. He recommended giving the visual learner something to hit, like a bag or pad.


Master Ali recommended that one should erase your attachment to how a student performs. This attachment is particularly strong in testing situations where a teacher takes pride or is disappointed in a student’s performance. It is natural for a teacher to feel pride in a student, but can be a hindrance to good teaching.

Teaching Children

The number one goal Master Ali has when teaching students is that they must love what they are doing. This is more important with children because they often have not made a firm commitment to the martial arts training when they come. If the child doesn’t love the class, they will, sooner or later, stop coming.

Hard vs. Tender

People have different energy and respond to different styles. It is important to distinguish when to be tender and when to be firm. Knowledge of the student is very important in this regard.

Similarly, one should never give an order that one doesn’t fully expect to be implemented. If a student refuses to follow through, you have lost credibility. Also never give an order you are not fully prepared to do yourself.

Master Ali told a story of his youth. As a new black belt he asked one of the junior ranks to do 100 pushups for a minor infraction. A senor (adult) black belt was standing directly behind him and said “Good idea! Ali, please join him in his push ups.” After that, young Ali Brown was more lenient in his pushups.

He emphasized this and another story where a student refused an order to bring the focus back to the investment in the student. Orders, instructions and discipline must spring from a genuine commitment to the student’s success. “You should want a student to do something better than you”.

Culture of the Student

Some people have difficulty teaching because they view themselves as a student. They wonder why they should teach when they have so far to go in their practice. Master Ali encouraged self respect. Humility is a good quality, but one should also acknowledge their accomplishments; even if you haven’t mastered everything you have learned a lot and should impart this to others.