The Teaching Trap – Teaching is not training

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To be a martial arts instructor you need to be a practitioner. It is easy to forget this if you are running a business or have a full time job in addition to instruction responsibilities. To be a practitioner you actually need to practice. Teaching is a great tool in the pursuit of martial arts. Teaching martial arts forces you to understand the curriculum enough to teach it. As we discussed last week, there are all calibers of teacher out there but as a general rule, one needs to understand something before they can teach it.

I believe that knowledge has an expiration date. The idea that life is “like riding a bike” meaning you can put your bike away for ten years then just get back on it and go is a little misleading. Yes, you may be able to ride after ten years but can you ride down a steep hill with confidence, can you hop a curb, can you take a sharp corner, or can you ride up that steep hill it took you months to master? Probably not, you will be back at the basics and will need to work your way back to expertise. It is the same for martial arts. If you do not practice constantly you will lose your edge and will not be able to perform as you once were able to.

As an instructor, especially a black belt, we have a responsibility to train on our own. To master anything you need to put in the time. The problem is we have lives outside of martial arts (say it isn’t so!). We have work, family commitments and other commitments that keep us from practicing our martial arts. Then when we are done with our other stuff, we are legitimately tired. We rely on our classes as the time we dedicate to our martial arts and if we spend that time instructing, we are not learning or practicing. It can get to the point where we fool ourselves into believing that we are actually training X hours a week when in reality most of that time is spent teaching.

I fell into the trap myself. Last year I did a lot of sport karate and competed in 16 tournaments (weapons, forms and fighting). It was hard and I did not practice as much as I should have due to the teaching trap. I ended up teaching and critiquing student’s forms; leading drills and coaching fighters during class. There were times that I would only have sparred once or twice in the month before a competition and would only have time to practice my forms once a week. I performed adequately at the tournaments but I was not as good as I should have been. Competition is fun and it helps identify weak spots in certain techniques but it is not as important as practicing the art itself.

I am working myself out of the teaching trap now. I have a very challenging day job with an hour and a half commute each way. I also have family obligations and other non-work obligations. That is a lot of competition for my time and there are times when my martial arts loses. In my training I am practicing three distinct styles that have some moves that are similar but not exact. I really need to practice each to get them all straight and to perform the correct version for each different class. When I am called upon to instruct, I lose the time to practice. Understand that it is an honor and a privilege to have your instructor ask you to teach. However, with that honor comes an additional responsibility that we, as instructors need to take on. We need to make more time to practice and stay on top of our game.

Working my way out of the trap is not like getting back on a bike. I know my techniques because I teach them, but I need to work on the intricacies of each move and to make sure I have mastered the techniques that I teach. This is both for me and my students. I want to be the best martial artist I can be and to do that I need to practice. I also have the responsibility to be give my students the best curriculum possible and to that I need to practice. That means that the goals of being the best martial artist you can be and offering the best curriculum have the same source, practice. Try to avoid the teaching trap, and if you are in it, don’t fool yourself into thinking teaching is training. Keep training and be a practitioner first and an instructor second.

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