Teaching Martial Arts

Teaching Martial Arts (and many other things, for that matter…)


What makes a good teacher?

There are many people who are good at teaching. There are also many people who are not good at teaching. This goes for karate as it does for almost any subject taught. Some people can do something very well, but just do not teach it well (there are many athlete-turned-coach examples of this in professional sports). Others have almost no actual experience doing something, yet can teach very well. Some people call themselves teachers, when all they do during their “classes” is call out the name of a technique and count as everyone repeats the technique numerous times. This is true not only in the martial arts. There are many “teachers” in schools around the world who seem to know nothing about teaching, even though they may know a lot about the subject matter that they are supposed to be teaching. I have had several professors in college who were terrible teachers. I have also had some brilliant instructors who did not even realize how good they were at teaching. Many of the best teachers have given much thought to their method of teaching. But some have not; good teaching ability may sometimes come naturally. Also, most of the best teachers seem to enjoy teaching. I suspect this is more than mere coincidence.

So what makes a teacher good? Is it the ability to pass on knowledge? That could certainly be a large part of it. Is it the ability to inspire students to learn? Or to impart a certain “spirit”? These could also be important. In addition to how well a teacher teaches, it is sometimes very important “how” a teacher teaches.

Teaching Styles

There are basically three major teaching styles, at least for physical disciplines such as martial arts. These teaching methods can be combined or blended.

This type of teaching involves time and effort of the instructor. Simply talking about a technique is not really sufficient. One must really understand the how’s and why’s. Explanations could be about how to perform a technique correctly, according to biomechanics principles. Or they could be about how to apply various types of timing, depending on the situation. Explanations could cover kata application or history. Or they could concern psychology in self-defense.

Showing people how to do things correctly or showing them how not to do things requires physical ability. Demonstrating such that observers understand the point can usually be done better when the instructor has a good idea of what to focus on to convey the desired message to students.

This method involves watching students perform and correcting them, either verbally or physically. Simply counting as students perform technique is not really correcting. This type of teaching involves either telling a student what to do or not to do, or adjusting their form through physical contact.

How do you / your instructor(s) teach?

Most karate instructors I know focus on the Correction method, with some Demonstration method mixed in to save time. I also know of quite a few instructors who try to use technical explanations, but lack the knowledge or ability to form coherent explanations. Often, teaching methods are blended, such as explaining to a student how/why a technique should be performed a certain way, while demonstrating and correcting the student as he or she tries to do as the instructor explained and demonstrated.

Learning Styles
There are three major learning styles, at least in the case of physical disciplines such as martial arts.

Analyzing theory
Whether listening to a detailed explanation or performing a simple technique, this type of student is always trying to figure things out. Analyzing students often ask questions to help them learn.

Duplicating what is seen
This student watches for clues for improvement, through observation of instructor and other students. This is the way the majority of Japanese are expected to learn almost every subject in school, as well as karate. Repetition of techniques is the way this student advances.

This type of student wants to practice technique to feel what it is like. Not content with just watching or thinking about a technique, this person must experience it. This type of student often prefers to practice less-structured sparring and might prefer to consider the application of kata movements as opposed to the physical form.

Note: Common theory on learning styles refer to the three types of learning broken up slightly differently to what I have describe above. The more common breakdown is (a) auditory – learning through hearing about something (b) visual – learning by watching and (c) kinesthetic – learning by doing. There are also two broad styles of learning commonly refered to as (x) global and (y) analytical, which combine with the first three mentioned (a, b and c).

Matching Teaching Style and Learning Style

Just because one instructor is considered by many to be the best does not mean that he is best for you. A good instructor is only good if he is good for you. If you learn best when you see a good physical example to follow, then an instructor who can perform well (or at least has an assistant who can demonstrate well) is good for you. If you feel a need to break things down into details to be able to piece them together into good technique, then someone who has a lot of knowledge and ability to share it is a good type of teacher for you. If you do not care about what a proper technique looks like or the details behind it, but simply want to experience the feeling of a martial art, perhaps you have little need for the knowledge or performance abilities of some instructors. In the end, a teacher is good when he or she can teach in such a way that can help you to learn.

“Martial Arts Teachers on Teaching,” by Carol Wiley. ISBN: 1-883319-09-9
(This is an excellent book and one that I would recommend to anyone serious about teaching the Martial Arts.)


Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published April 2001)