So I have been thinking about teachers lately. My own of course, and my role as a teacher. And that has led me to thinking about the images we hold of the martial arts teacher. When you think of a sensei, a sifu, a martial arts teacher, who comes to mind? Pai Mei? Master Po? Mister Miyagi? Or, as a kind of amalgamation of martial arts tropes, Yoda? While the image may vary, it is usually a frail looking old man who can demonstrate amazing skills and easily defeat any comers, including any of his students. It is a classic trope, really, perhaps as firmly rooted in the culture of the martial arts as anything. And like so many tropes, it is mostly BS, defying biology, logic, and at least my experience.
Of course, it does have an element of truth to it, that’s how these things start. If you want knowledge, go to those who have it. People who have been training for decades learn things. They develop skills that neophytes simply cannot have. And maintaining your training can maintain phenomenal athletic abilities even as people age- I remember Matayoshi sensei teasing me in the early 90’s about being able to jump higher than I could in one technique. A well trained 68 year old can do things a 28 year old can’t, especially if the 68 year old gets to choose the points of comparison.
But that misses the point. Yoda simply does not exist. No one is undefeatable, at any age. Everyone is just human and as we get older our bodies change, we can’t stop that. And, given that reality, the trope of the incredibly skilled master easily able to handle any challenger creates an unreasonable and counter productive model for people teaching martial arts. It sets up an expectation that the teacher be near super-human, and worse, that he or she can never be surpassed. If it is an image that the teacher feels a need to live up to it can lead to some extremely dysfunctional things, including holding students back, teaching poorly, and creating mystic “powers” or “secret knowledge”. And the same goes for the students: if they need their teacher to live up to that super human image it can create real problems, including giving up one’s own autonomy, or denying the realities of practice.
One problem with legends and myths is that we know we can’t match them. It’s a dead end. If the master is undefeatable, and I know I can be defeated, then I can never be the master. No one can, and on some level I know that as well. That can feel pretty demoralizing. I love stories about the old masters and the superhuman things they could do. But really? Defeating tigers and fighting off dozens of armed men? It’s fun, not fact. And thinking of it as fact, believing it, both sets an impossible standard and prevents people from seeing the reality of their teachers, and of their own training. If the teacher is doing (or claiming) something you know is impossible then you know that the system is, somehow, rigged to create that result. You have a choice then: buy into the system, or leave it. And this doesn’t have to be levitation or no-touch knockouts, it can just be a guy who stands in front of a class and says he can’t be hit, and then sets up a whole set of rules that makes that the case.
When you are running a class, or a dojo, you have a lot of control over what material is covered and how it is approached. Insecurity, or image, or simply habit, can lead to teachers not allowing students to challenge them (“you don’t hit sensei!”), or to running classes that play to the teacher’s strengths. For example, I am better at controlling pressure weapon to weapon than most of my students, so if we spend a lot of time on training that emphasizes that I will usually come off as “better”. If you run classes try it. You can run a class in which you are always “winning” simply by setting the rules of the drills, doing drills that play to your strengths, changing things and keeping the class catching up, and setting rules for the dojo, like limiting contact or open oppositional training. In particular setting up a training structure that emphasizes drills with specific outcomes, and maintaining an atmosphere of authority, where the sensei/instructor is the only source of knowledge and cannot be questioned, play to an image of the teacher being unbeatable pretty well.
Students may do this too. Falling when they are “supposed” to, letting the teacher get in shots they wouldn’t let in from another student, accepting information or instruction that may be questionable. They may not even know they are doing it, particularly if the rules, as I said above, support the authority of the teacher over the experience of training. If they play to the image. And if they have been conditioned to do it, on purpose or not, well….
I think this drives people away from traditional martial arts. It is clear these teachers are not super human, even the great ones. And while some folks might want the story bad enough to push down the inner voice telling them something isn’t right, more will simply walk away. Stories are great, but needing to buy into a teacher that can do things that are impossible, needing to aid and abet that story as you invest more and more into it, needing to believe something that some part of you knows isn’t true, can be exhausting. And a complete waste of energy.
Of course the image of the teacher as the main arbiter of knowledge may be important for a number of reasons. On a practical level, your students need to trust you for you to teach them. If they don’t, they won’t listen and won’t learn and every class will be a constant struggle for authority. So on one level establishing and maintaining that authority is important. But that is where this trope can become rather insidious. It can push the teacher (or the students…) to go past that needed level of respect, one that incidentally should be earned not assigned, and instead work to develop and maintain a myth. It can help create environments where the teacher (or the structure of the group, or the other students) limit and control the student, keeping them down instead of helping them grow. All to make sure the teacher stays unsurpassed. But everyone gets surpassed eventually….
A good teacher should be able to maintain authority without always needing to be “the best”. Indeed, a good teacher should be pushing his or her students to excel, not keeping them in their shadow. The teacher should also be showing students where they think their own skills are lacking and how they are working on them, so they can be an honest role model. But that heroic image is often there in the background, for both teacher and student. Breaking away from it can feel like letting the side down, like you are not the martial artist you should be, and for your students like they don’t have the teacher they could. I know from experience, both as a student and as a teacher, that students like to have a teacher that exemplifies some of the tropes, these myths. It can be inspirational, and cool; part of the experience. But in the end, myths are not real and perpetuating some of them can be damaging. How then can we situate ourselves in this context?
First off, recognize it. No one is that good. Everyone can be beat. If it seems impossible it probably is. So if you want a teacher that is super-human, re-assess. You will never find one, though you can probably find one who claims he is. (The same goes for a teacher that is a perfect human being, or can bring perfect wisdom to your life outside your training, but that is a different story.) You can, however, find a good teacher, perhaps with exceptional skills, who can help guide you in your training. So stop looking for a hero or a guru and look for a good teacher instead.
This is one area where competitive arts have an advantage. They are used to this issue and have some simple and well tried solutions. First, if the teacher is a competitor the group can see how well they do, both in a public venue and in competitive training in the dojo. Everyone understands that different people can do different things, and that everyone gets beat sometimes. While one can certainly be a dangerous opponent well past middle age, there is a reason many sports have a “masters” class for competition, and you don’t see many 60 year olds out there fighting at the highest levels of open competition. Speed, endurance, and ability to recover from injury all decline as we age. Training can offset a lot of this, but not all, and that is normal. But what does that mean for a teacher?
Experience and training hold valuable knowledge and passing it on is essential to the transmission of the art. Someone with 20 or 30 or more years of training will have skills and knowledge his or her juniors will not. And you need those physical skills to transmit them. In a sporting environment there is a pretty clear understanding of the difference between specific skills and overall competitive ability. The main role of a teacher or coach is teaching, passing on those higher level skills, focusing on the students and the dojo, not on competing themselves. The coach doesn’t have to be able to beat all the competitors, he or she has to be able to coach them.
And this returns us to the trope we started with. It implies that the best practitioner is by default the best teacher. That you should find the best fighter or master and learn from them. After all, they are undefeatable, right? Getting students by winning competitions or having a rep for being an amazing artist is a pretty common way of doing things. Just look at all the trophies, ranks, or awards you see in many dojo. They denote status as practitioners. But pay attention! They denote the teacher’s ability, their successes and status. But it might make sense to look at the students’ successes instead.
Teaching, training, and fighting are different skills. I’ve met a number of great martial artists who simply could not teach. They would have their students do the same drills they did, they would try their best, but they didn’t know how to help others learn. And while “waza wo nusumu” is essential to learning, without a good teacher it is pretty darn hard to progress, and near impossible to see your own failings and how to correct them. Sure, knowing how to succeed yourself might be helpful, but you don’t need to be the best overall practitioner to be a good teacher. To help a student progress you mainly need to know how to teach them.
Look at it this way: would Mike Tyson’s coach have beat him in the ring? Unlikely. But that coach was invaluable. I doubt any high level competitive athlete could run his or her own training program and be successful. Classical martial arts are no different. You need someone who can analyze what you are doing, understand what you need to change to improve, and develop a training program that gets those results. That is a completely different skillset to being a good fighter or martial artist yourself. That doesn’t mean there isn’t overlap, it just means that to be a good sensei, a teacher, you have to be able to teach, not just train. And you have to put in the time to learn those skills, as they don’t come from osmosis or through training. Or by being good at the art.
So instead of looking for a teacher that can defeat all comers, a silly quest anyway, one might be better off looking for a teacher whose students are consistently good at the art. If the teacher is focused on maintaining his or her status or image then they have incentives for not pushing their students to exceed them. They also have less incentive for learning how to really teach. If they see their role as a mentor as important however they may have taken the time and effort to learn how to teach, as well as taken the time to understand their own goals and their role and how that affects their practice and instruction. They may have taught themselves to understand and manage the tropes we are talking about, and their consequences. Don’t get me wrong. A martial arts teacher who is not still training and trying to learn and grow isn’t going to cut it, at least in my opinion. And a teacher better have some skills. But that image of the old, preternaturally skilled and undefeatable teacher isn’t doing anyone any favors. If you find a teacher who has been teaching for 20 or 30 years, again I’d suggest looking at his or her students. If none of them are as good or better than the teacher in any aspect of the art, if it were me I’d go elsewhere. They may be an amazing practitioner, and they may be doing their best, or they may be holding their students back, but either way they are not teaching well. And what are you there for? To sit in a room watching an amazing practitioner, or to get some guidance in how to become one?