I believe that through martial arts and positivity, we can make the world a better place. As a martial art instructor you make a huge impact in the lives of your students. These options will positively impact your teaching or training.
1. Listen with your heart
To really understand your students, try listening with your heart. You can hear their words and you can hear their breath and their yells. But, can you hear who they are and what they want they want to accomplish? Can you hear the kind of thoughts they have about bravery, fear, accomplishment, or hope?
Students of all ages practice martial arts for different reasons. When you understand the reasons, when you really listen to what their practice is saying about them, you can help them excel and reach their personal success and goals.
Not all students want a black belt. Instead, they desire to defend themselves. They may not want a practical application of martial arts as much as they want personal empowerment. Each has a reason uniquely their own and their reasons deserve to be heard.
One way to listen with your heart, is to provide your students with a new student survey which asks what they desire to learn in class. This does not mean that you will skip any criteria pertinent to your program, but simply that you understand their motives and their participation.
What if a student says he is bullied? What if he is shy? What if he was pushed into taking the class because of his parents? What is a woman feels inadequate? What if she is afraid of everything? What if a guy does not know how to fight? What if he has been abused along the way? Some want to try something new, overcome an obstacle, or learn because it has always looked interesting. Isn’t it worth listening to their reasons?
To understand what your students want from their training is listening with your heart. Do not change your teaching style, your instruction, or your way of doing things. Just know that the students learning from you believe that some kind of magic can happen from their training.
And, it can.
2. The Greatest Change
The greatest change that can take place in a martial art class is often to the student who has little coordination, confidence, or stamina. This is the awkward, shy student who keeps to himself, has no self-confidence, and stares at his feet all the time.
While you may initially believe that this student is not suited for martial arts, or is the most challenging to teach, the opposite is generally true. Often, they become the best students because they want nothing more than to change.
That is, after all, why they are there. The very reason they join martial arts is to become the version of themselves that they have always wanted to be. They are tired of being ridiculed and bullied, tired of suffering at the hands of others, and tired of not liking who they see when the look in the mirror.
They were brave enough to come to class. Do not let them down. Your most difficult job is to make sure they are not overlooked and that they do not fall through the cracks.
Take note of those who need training the most. They are vulnerable and they are easy targets outside the martial art school. Within the walls of the school, you can help them learn what they need to know. With help they will find inner strength and a personal conviction to self-betterment.
Being an instructor has many rewards when it comes to your students. Those who need it the most need you the most. They are the ones in whom you will always see the greatest change.
3. Practice What You Preach
It is one thing to motivate your students through clear martial art instructions and commands, and quite another to motivate them by practicing alongside them on the training floor. If you want to be a great instructor, practice what you preach. Step out in front of the class and warm up with them. Stretch with them and work the drills and techniques with them.
Show them that the instructor is always the student.
The rewards are not surprising. You will stay in shape. How many times have you seen martial art instructors who have lost their stamina and shape over the years? Teaching takes a lot of time and a lot of preparation, for some. It is easy to get caught up in the role of instructor and all the other demands that come with it.
But, we are not lecturers, we are doers. We are fighters against our own demons. We are champions of our own causes. We have broken through our own barriers.
Show the human side of martial arts. When you train with your students, you remind them that everyone has vulnerabilities, even wise instructors. You are not infallible, so on occasion, you may lose your balance or your timing, or forget the next move in a series or pattern. You know what? That is perfectly fine, because no one can be perfect all of the time. What a great lesson.
You will also cultivate sincere and lasting relationships with your students. They will look up to you as someone who never gives up. They will see that effort, determination, and perseverance actually mean something. In a world where it is so easy to give up, be negative, or fall prey to unhappiness, you will be the reminder that hard work and effort still mean something.
You are the guide, often from the beginning to the end of their martial art journey, but certainly you are the mentor in every single class. So, practice what you preach, and be a part of the class. Be the reminder that everyone is capable of achieving at any age, and at any stage of life.
4. Real Communication
This is really just a common courtesy, but based on experiences that I have had, I have come to realize that face to face communication is a thing of the past. The younger generation may not even know what it feels like to look someone in the eye and clearly explain a situation or ask a question.
While I do use and encourage social media, e-mail, and texting as a form of communication with my students, I find there is nothing better than talking to them and addressing their concerns in person.
After classes, give students, families, or parents a few minutes of available time for questions, comments, or concerns. Many times in our martial art program at the YMCA we had to leave the room immediately after class for other classes to come in. If anyone asked a question, it was difficult to answer right there and then, so we often invited them outside in the hallway after class.
Many students (or if they are children, their parents), have questions about training, skills, or need reassurance that they are on the right path to their next level. Address their concerns openly and honestly, and try not to push their questions off to another time.
If you do not have the time to talk after class, make arrangements to meet them at another time in the near future. The best way to remedy any issues, explain something more clearly, or commend a student on a great job is when the issues, questions, or great training arise.
Be available to encourage your students when they need it, even if you have to do it in the hallway or at a later scheduled time. Help them keep real communication alive because in social media, an e-mail, or text, you can answer their questions, but you cannot see their emotion, and often martial art concerns or worries are wrapped emotions.
5. Positive Reinforcement
Many instructors use push-ups as a punishment for being late to class. Or, students are sent off to the corner to do calisthenics for not keeping up in class. While it is very important that students arrive on time, or that they be responsible for their training, I see these as negative examples of the positive benefits of fitness.
Here is my explanation. If you use fitness exercises as a punishment, how will students view fitness overall? They will see it as a punishment. This is opposite of how I want them to view fitness. I want more people in the world to exercise and enjoy it.
Will people pursue the great benefits of exercise outside the dojo if they have been conditioned to think of it as punishment, especially if the exercise is difficult or tedious? Will they ever make a concerted effort to fine tune their push ups, or push their cardio levels, if they equate them with a negative experience rather than positive one?
I love cross-training. Variety is the key for me. Along with martial arts, I enjoy Zumba, weights, and just a fast paced walk. I like to practice kicks, and I like to hike. In between I do jumping jacks, sit ups, push ups, and squats. I do not always love doing these exercises, but I love the results. I equate exercise to results, not punishment.
I have always enjoyed the fact that martial art students are generally there because they want to be. Students have the opportunity to discover who they are. They become stronger on the inside and the outside as they learn. As instructors, we have the unique opportunity to encourage and uplift them while they learn. This positive approach is much more effective than a punishing one, in my opinion.
For every negative, there is a positive. If you must correct a technique, allow it to be a positive learning experience and not a bashing.
So, what if you do need to address a behavioral concern, an issue, or a chronic late arrival to class? I typically make children wait until they can enter class without interruption, or sit for a few minutes alone to consider their behavior. It is typically very effective because they do not like being separated from their friends, or sitting by themselves when everyone else is happily practicing.
If you have an adult, teen, or even a child who use excessive force or full contact fighting when it is not prescribed, the warning is much more serious. If they obviously have too much aggressive behavior, anger, or are in danger of hurting themselves or others, the punishment of physical exercise means nothing anyway, and they should be removed from the program.
I know that you are an incredible instructor and a great practitioner, too. Still, there are always ways that all of us can improve in every category of training and teaching. Many of the suggestions in this blog post were discoveries that I made through trial and error.
I always see better results when I engage in a positive and encouraging way with students. I find this approach more beneficial for the student in the long run, than any other. My positive approach to teaching is to always build others up and give them opportunities to grow, excel, and achieve. For every new student, make your expectations clear and reiterate that they are responsible for their own words and actions.
Thank you for all you do as instructors. Through martial arts and positivity, we can make the world a better place.