Thursday, July 28, 2011

On Being An Instructor

They sent a bloke along today to assess my performance as an Active After Schools Community Coach. Which was fun.

The school gets me in a couple times a year to run mickey-mouse introductory courses on martial arts one afternoon a week. It's a hangover from a programme the Howard government put in place, aimed at getting lardyassed kids out from behind Nintendo screens, and back onto the sportsfields. I don't much care about the politics one way or the other, mind you. I like working with kids, and giving them a chance to try something different.

The thing is, these courses are maybe five to eight weeks long. They're not what you'd call deep immersion efforts. I plan them out so the kids get exposure to a nice range of martial skills: throwing, grappling, wrestling, joint-locks, strikes, kicks, blocks, break-falls, body-movement and evasion... then I tie it together with some self-defence work, and throw in a few fun bits (boffer-type swordfighting; flying kicks and funky martial stunts) and we all have a good time.

Some of the kids go on to the regular class, which is great. Some just keep coming back to the intro class, which is puzzling, but perfectly okay. And of course, there's always new faces, which is good as well.

The assessment... I understand why they need to do it. The Active After School Communities programme was designed to unearth skills possessed by people not usually involved with the schools - hobby players of sports, things like that. They probably don't see a whole lot of black-belt instructors who routinely teach classes for primary-age schoolkids. I don't mind the assessor turning up and checking out the show, in any case, and he's a cluey sort of bloke. He took maybe five minutes to look over what I was doing this afternoon, and then trotted off to check the football guys. He came back two or three times, but -- not unexpectedly -- he was quite happy, and signed off on the class after asking if there was any more equipment we could use.

All of which is nice. Good to know that somebody's prepared to look in, check it out, and give me credit for being able to wrangle a few kids.

But the whole instructor thing is a weird gig. I'm forty-five now, and among my older students, I've got a handful of young blokes who are my size, and have been at this martial arts stuff for a few years now. The good news is that I can still chase them 'round the floor in open sparring, or randori, or even on the ground in full-on groundfighting mode. That's kind of gratifying, I admit.

What annoys me is that I know perfectly well, the next morning those bastards are going to be more or less fine. They'll have some bruises, sure. And because they have to work harder than me (the loser always works harder in martial arts. That's the point, after all. You want the other guy to have a worse time than you do.) I expect they'll even have a few aches and strains.

But I'm forty-five. I still have those goddam twinges two days later... and I bloody hate that!

However it be, there's something extremely satisfying about seeing people gain skill and confidence under your guidance. I should stress that I don't imagine it's down to me: these are people who have made the decision to learn, and to train, and they could pick up these skills from anybody who cared to show them. There's no such thing as teaching; there's only learning.

Mind you, I'm not denying the existence of good versus bad teachers. Good teachers understand they need to find ways to engage the interest of their students, and to present the material in a fashion which the student will find easy to assimilate. Bad teachers believe they have an important body of knowledge which they have to drill into the students, whether they want it or not.

I try to stick to being a good teacher. And yeah, it's rewarding when a ten year old kid runs up to me at school, proud as hell, and explains that he '...fell off his skateboard but he did a forward roll the way he learned at the martial class, and he didn't even get a scrape!' But the credit goes to the kid, for listening and practicing and overcoming his fears to the point where he can relax during a high-speed fall. That's a shitload more difficult than demonstrating a forward roll on a crash mat for a bunch of students!

Truly, I have no idea how long I'll go on as an instructor. One of these days, I'll get around to doing my second dan. That calls for some weapons training, among other possibilities and by no very great coincidence, I've been working in Iai-do these last few years. Between that and the ongoing commitment to the dojo, I suspect I'm probably in line to do the grading sooner rather than later.

But I don't really care. I have two or three major reasons for doing this. The first is the students: my own kids, and other people in this community. As long as I see people getting something out of what I do with them, I think it's worth the effort. And helping country kids get a start - that's a good thing.

The second reason is more selfish. Ju-jitsu is interesting. It makes me think... around corners. I meet interesting people through the martial practice. It provides an ongoing challenge which I enjoy.

The third reason is probably even more selfish. Some of the people I've admired most have been elderly martial arts instructors. Gentle, friendly, good-humoured men with white hair and stooped frames - men who could very possibly kill you by raising an eyebrow. I may never wear a red-and-white striped belt, or carry a list of dan gradings as long as my arm... but I would very much like to have the alertness and the physical skill and confidence that those dangerous, wicked, kindly, hilarious old men possess when I too reach that kind of age.

And the only way I know to ensure that is to practice, the same as they did. So: I'm going to keep dragging my bones down to the dojo, keep wearing the bruises and nursing the strains and the sprains... and let's be honest, I expect to keep enjoying it.

As an aside, there was a discussion the other night on the mat about the difference between a black belt and a good student. One of the most important and underrated things, I think, is persistence. The really good student who picks up technique easily and learns everything beautifully is in a great situation. But the one who's likely to wind up with a black belt is the one who keeps coming back, week after week, session after session, time after time. No matter how cold it gets in winter, or how hot in summer; no matter how many repetitions it takes to get things right, he or she just keeps on coming.

That's half a black belt right there. And though you may think you possess this quality, you who read this... I assure you it's a damned sight more rare than you believe it to be.

Okay. That's enough of that.

In other news: I had a phone call from Natalie about an hour and a half ago. She and Jake are now on the ground in Dublin, desperately trying to stay awake long enough to bring their jetlagged brains into synch with the local timeframe...


  1. Bypassing the great majority of your post and moving straight to 'family being overseas', my family and I will be in Sweden in about 2 weeks (Jane's bro, whom you'll recall from my wedding, is getting married).

    Is Jake still learning Swedish? If so, I'll be sure to send a few postcards, having my own words translated in Swedish my the new in-laws. Also, I was thinking maybe a book or two in Swedish. Top of my list were The Hobbit, or perhaps some quality pulp fiction like Tarzan or John Carter of Mars. I figure any of those ought to be of interest to Jake and also popular enough to have been translated from English. Happy to take your advice.

  2. Ja, studerar vi svenska!

    Postcards would be wonderful. Books would be even wonderfuller. Moomins work very well, and can be guaranteed to be found in Swedish. Comic books highly desirable - any high-profile superheroes are perfect.


  3. Yep, definition of a black belt : a white belt who never gave up. Cheers.

  4. It's funny isn't it. I got asked to coach an A grade side this year, despite having no real elite experience other than a few years in A myself and one assistants job. I have been trying to get back to reasonable fitness after a back injury and have been doing some 'extras' sessions with some of the guys. Which they think is cool, but dman I am sore for a lot longer afterwards these days.

  5. Props to you, dude. You rugby guys work damned hard. Much easier demolishing people efficiently!

    How's the back coming along?

  6. Great piece. I wonder sometimes, usually the morning after getting slammed the night before, what I'm doing dragging my creaking old carcass into the dojo at my age. I dont even have your wider responsibilities. But in the end I do have two kids, one of them a daughter I am determined will go into the world unafraid. That's enough.

    It's hard though. I dont know how you stuck at it for the years you were exiled in one country town after another. Even now I find it hard to quarantine two sessions a week on the mat. One, I can do. Two and I start getting hard looks from the other busy parent in this relationship.

    There's certain things you can do at home, especially with a punching bag and some space to move, but as you know, without a training partner most of the curriculum is lost to you.

    I find this really shows up at the end of the night, when we spar. In kumite, I'm still fast and because I have the time and space at home to work on combinations I can kick and punch and block and trap and sweep my way through most bouts with a smile.

    But go to the ground and I'm as lost as a karateka. Why? Because over the last 20 years while I've been quietly practicing a few basic things at home, over and over again, I had nobody to work on ground fighting with. And man, does it show.

  7. Yeah, the groundfighting is a bastard to keep up. Likewise good throwing technique.

    There are a few things to help, though. With throws, it's footwork and entry. Get that stuff right and the follow-up is pretty much a given. Again, though, working counters and combinations is tricky. You need a good partner for that stuff.

    With groundfighting... well, the Brazilians have really opened that up, and there's a lot of reference material around. These days, I start 'em out with a simple exercise in keeping weight focussed. Put one person on top, and allow them to spider around as much as they like. The person on the bottom has to figure a way out.

    The simple practice of keeping your weight centred and focussed, keeping the opponent on the bottom, teaches you a lot. You get used to staying mobile, and looking for opportunities like stray arms, legs and necks.

    Still, I doubt I'd last against people getting a wide range of regular, competitive stuff. So the final thing that's altered in my personal practice has been the focus.

    Mark Haseman always had a strong focus on the defensive side of things. That made an impression on me, and these days it's the centre of the way I teach. I recognise that I don't have the resources to do a lot of competitive work - but on the other hand, there's a lot of competitive technique in these MMA days which exists pretty much only because the rules (or the cage, or the gloves) make it practical. Once you more or less discard material like that, the core skills are simpler to acquire, practice, use, and pass on.

    Still. I'm a small-town country instructor. I take the opportunity to train with people from other arts and styles whenever I can do so, but as I said, I don't expect to be wearing a candystripe belt any time in the foreseeable future. But that's not why I'm doing it, so that's okay.