Being a great martial artist or a great fighter doesn’t make you a great teacher or a great coach, and vice-versa. The ability to demonstrate flawless skills in a fight is different from the ability to communicate those skills to another. Some martial artists have one ability, some have the other. A very few have both.
I’m at the point in my life where I’m well aware I’m never going to be a great fighter. I’m still holding onto the goal of becoming a really good coach/instructor. I prepare lesson plans for every class I teach. I pay attention to how other instructors teach to see what seems to work and what doesn’t. I’m constantly trying to figure out better ways to explain movements and principles, to arrange a curriculum so one lesson supports the next, to inspire students, to understand what each student needs and to communicate that information to them.
Maybe one day this effort will pay off and I will become that mythical perfect guru who knows exactly what every student needs at each moment in their development and exactly how to communicate it so that they can reach their full potential just by following my instructions. Probably not, though. I used the term “mythical” for a reason. Anyone who tells you they always know exactly what is best for each student is either self-deluded or running a cult. No one is perfect for everyone. Even if I get to be a really, really good martial arts instructor, there will always be some students who would learn better from someone else. The best I can hope for is to be as helpful as possible for as many of my students as possible.
In a perfect world, we would all have instructors and coaches who are really skilled at the art of teaching and coaching. Furthermore, we’d find the coach or instructor who really spoke our personal language so that we’d understand exactly what they were trying to communicate.
In the real world, most of us aren’t so lucky. Some instructors have never made an effort to learn the art of teaching. Some teach exactly the way they were taught, even if that system of pedagogy is less than effective. Some teach in a way that would work well for themselves and can’t adjust for a student who learns differently. Some are naturally talented at movement and can’t teach the fine details of how they move because they aren’t consciously aware of those details. Some aren’t verbally or socially skilled. Some are not very fluent in the language that their students speak. Some are spread too thin and don’t have the time or energy to pay full attention to each student. Some just don’t care about being good teachers. Some teach at a school with a bunch of other instructors, each of whom teaches a little differently.
If you want to get the most out of your training, then you have to be actively engaged in the learning process rather than waiting for your instructor to spoon-feed you everything. Is your instructor skilled in his art but unable or unwilling to explain things in a way that makes sense to you? Steal his art! Watch him move and see if you can figure out the subtle details that make his movements different from those of someone less skilled. See if you can absorb and imitate the overall flavor of his movement. See if you can figure out the reason why he sometimes does a technique one way and sometimes another. Read or listen to discussions of the art by other senior practitioners and see if you can glean insights into how and why your instructor does what he does.
If you have multiple instructors and each teaches the same technique differently, that is a wonderful learning opportunity. Try to figure out the common principles that underlie all the variations. Try to figure out the reason for the differences. Is one variation better suited for a certain individuals body type? Is another better suited for a certain style of movement? Are there certain trade-offs that would dictate using one or another in a certain situation? By the same token, sometimes it can be useful to look at how an equivalent situation or technique might be handled in a different martial art. If you can understand why things would be done differently in that other art, you are a step closer to understanding why it is done a particular way in your own art.
If your instructor is open to answering questions, then use that opportunity to learn. That doesn’t mean interrupting class with a continuous series of “what-ifs.” Figure out the time and place and type of question that get you the most useful results. I find that concrete questions about specific problems you are having tend to be most useful. “I’ve been trying that side-mount escape you showed last week, but every time I go for it in sparring my opponent does this and shuts me down. What should I do in that situation?”
Be a scientist. Experiment with everything you learn and find out what works for you. Keep an open mind and be willing to reconsider your conclusions as you gain more experience. Take as much as you can from your instructor, but understand that no matter how good he is, he is not infallible. The best martial artists tend to be those who know how to teach themselves.