When we think of great teachers, I think most of us, of a certain age, think of Yoda as the greatest martial arts teacher of all time (I could be biased).

When I hear the dreaded word “try,” Yoda’s maxim, “Try not, do or do not, there is no try,” is often repeated by me to my students.

In fact, that I regularly get items with the phrase emblazoned on it. They are truly words of wisdom, and that is what we expect from a teacher. I wouldn’t want to leave out Mr. Miyaghi, who is a close second, but I think mainly for his attitude and innovative teaching methods than his memorable phrases. Ip Man is remembered for his most famous student.

I could go on with the many other Hollywood examples, but they are all similar. They are all seeking to show the honored and sometimes legendary martial arts teacher/student relationship.

Martial Arts Teacher/Student Relationship

martial arts teacher
martial arts teacher trains student in movement

The martial arts teacher/student relationship is a sacred one. From the standpoint of the student, the teacher is not just imparting knowledge, but life lessons as well. From your martial arts teacher you learn about yourself as much as the art being taught. Of course, the student must be ready to learn.

I have been studying martial arts since 1990 and I have had many teachers. I have seen the martial arts culture change as well. It used to be that the martial arts instructor was like John Kreese in “The Karate Kid.” In reality a good teacher is sometimes John Kreese and sometimes Mr. Miyaghi. You need a little of each, and a good teacher knows how much and when.

My first martial arts teacher molded a scared and weak young man into a black belt. I learned all of my important life lessons from him. My character was forged through my training. He showed me that there was more inside of me than I thought. He will always be my most honored teacher. I have been lucky to have other great teachers as well.

My second martial arts teacher taught me the power of internal arts. And my current one teaches me that age is not as important as will and desire. All of my best teachers taught different arts, but they all had one thing in common, they were great teachers.

What Makes a Martial Arts Teacher Great?

At first thought most people may think that a great martial arts teacher needs to be a great martial artist. That is not true. I have known better practitioners in each art that I study, but they were not superior teachers. A great martial artist is great at what they do, but they may not even understand why they are good at it, or what you need to do to become great.

They cannot pass on their knowledge.

What makes a great teacher is a teacher that can transfer their knowledge to YOU. That may encompass and include more than the knowledge itself. A great teacher knows you as an individual, and knows what makes you tick, how you process information. They know your goals, your strengths, your weaknesses and most importantly your fears.

Bad Teachers

chinese martial arts teacher us
Martial arts teacher from US teaching students new techniques

The bad teachers were bad for many reasons, all of which the reader should take note. I have had teachers where I was convinced that the idea of having someone obey them was more important to them than imparting knowledge or helping the student improve.

Some teachers were bad because they just flat out didn’t care about their student, and were intoxicated with the idea of being a master, of having a certain status, giving little care or effort to their responsibility. It should go without saying, but you should avoid bad teachers, regardless of what they teach.

Even if it is the latest craze, you are better off studying some esoteric art in the park with a knowledgeable teacher that is genuinely committed to you learning than a guy with a lot of titles, and chutzpah, and not much else.

Parents should be especially critical and particular of who is teaching their child. I always tell parents about my history in martial arts, so that they will know that I didn’t just start doing this last week or 90 days ago. I encourage them to ask questions, and make sure we have an understanding regarding goals for their child, and what is expected of them as a student.

Some parents have a warped perception of martial arts instruction. If the instructor is yelling a lot, they figure that the teacher is good. If that was the case I think we all have had some bosses that would be great martial arts teachers.

There are more nuances to instruction than just yelling. Teaching is a dynamic process, there is loud and soft, fast and slow, etc.

Are You a Good Student?

teacher student training
Teacher and student training in martial arts

The teaching process is not one sided though. Are you a good student? Aside, from courtesy, such as showing up on time, which should be a given. Are you an attentive student? Do you do what is asked of you to the best of your abilities? And do you do what they ask you to do? Do you practice what you have been taught?

The teacher can only do so much. I have had students chastise me for their lack of progress, when I haven’t seen them in weeks or months, and they haven’t done anything I have told them to do. In times like that I like to quote the great Jim Rohn,

The journey of martial arts is a difficult one, and it should be. I remember all of the people that were in my classes, and how many fell away for various reasons. When I was feeling like I was stuck, and I was feeling like giving up on my black belt ambitions, I remember my teacher giving me some sage advice that I still repeat to others and very often to myself,

“You can quit and you will never get it, or you can continue and eventually you will get it.”

It left no wiggle room. To be successful: persevere. I think it was an amazing life lesson. A martial arts student is lucky if they find a good teacher, which is why it is unfortunate that they are often taken for granted. A good martial arts teacher is hard to find. When you find one, honor them by being a good student. A teacher is ultimately judged by their students’ success. I think all of my teachers did pretty well.

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