Learning to Teach
The history of martial arts breaks down to one long chain of instructors teaching students, and students becoming instructors who in turn teach a new set of students. The cycle repeats and repeats and repeats, creating new generations of martial artists to carry on the traditions of their instructors. Though invention and experimentation are major parts of training, instructors are the cornerstones. You may not plan on opening your own school or running your own classes, but every martial artist teaches in some capacity at some point in their career, even if it’s just answering a new student’s questions or sharing one of your favorite techniques with your best training partners. If you train, you will teach.
Teaching, however, is an art in itself. Combat sports are complicated, brimming with subtle details and invisible nuances that while small can mean the difference between failure and success. Demonstrating and verbalizing the movements and specifics of a technique is challenging. The most fundamental and “basic” techniques, like a jab or a triangle, require a complex combination of movements. Limbs are moving in different directions. Your hips are shifting and rotating. You’re looking out for dozens of possible counters while focusing on your attack and maintaining balance. Packaging that much knowledge and giving it to someone else can seem impossible.
But you should not give up teaching, even if you consider yourself a bad instructor. I know a slew of talented fighters that are hesitant to show their techniques because they are uncomfortable with their teaching skills. If you are one of these fighters, here are some tips to build your confidence as a teacher:
1. Start out by teaching what you know. Show the simplest of your favorite techniques. You will be the most familiar with these sequences, so you will have a lot to say about when to use them and how to use them.
2. Mimic your instructors. Verbalizing the steps of a technique can be awkward, especially if you are not used to public speaking. To strengthen your grasp on the language of fighting, describe a technique the way that your instructors describe a technique. Say what they say, word for word. Use their analogies. Organize your lessons the way that they do. Though it may seem like cheating, copying what your instructors do will make you more comfortable. As you become accustomed to the process, you can start deviating and using your own material.
3. Explain a technique in layers. Do not try to describe every detail of a technique in one demonstration. Show the same technique three times in a row. In the first run, discuss only the most basic details of the technique, the very general movements that make it work. The second time around, smear on the specifics. Talk about angles and positioning and subtleties. When you demonstrate the technique a third time, share some more details that you may not have covered previously, but focus on some of the most common mistakes that you used to make or see others making. In a lot of cases, telling a student what not to do can be just as useful as what to do.
4. Teach in lockflows. A few months ago, I interviewed Alliance co-founder Fabio Gurgel. He suggested that grapplers train in sequences of three. One technique is the core. One technique sets you up for that core technique, and the last technique is a counter for one of your opponent’s counters. If your core technique is the triangle, for example, you could show an entry for the triangle, a finish for the triangle, and then a counter for a common triangle escape. That gives you three techniques, which seems to be the best balance between quantity, quality, and knowledge retention for one class session.
As you practice these techniques, both in a classroom environment and in an unofficial peer to peer capacity, do not be hard on yourself. Identify your weaknesses as an instructor, and work on improving them. With time and repetition, your teaching skills will improve, and your confidence will grow. One last word of advice: only give instruction if someone is asking for it or if you are absolutely sure that they will be receptive to your advice. You don’t want to be that guy that is always telling everyone else how they should be training. Don’t get me started on that guy.