Physical Training Sept 2011
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From the Teacher's Corner 16:
Socrates on Page Three

copyright © 2011 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.

One day, a friend of mine asked me, “Which teacher should I follow?”
This friend proceeded to tell me all about the two teachers under consideration. One was a top-flight player, with all the trophies in the showcase, photos of him at major tournaments with championship medals, and framed certificates of achievement on the walls of the dojo lobby. Impressive display and impressive history of results. The other teacher was not so glamorous. His only claim to fame was a photo with the headmaster. No certificates, no trophies, no medals.

I asked my friend, “So what are their personalities like?”
I found out that the top-class player was a top performer. Very naturally skilled, a true competitor. Aggressive, dominant. Alpha-male type. Was proud of his achievements. A mover and a shaker and a social climber. Personality was nice but a dominant type. Like a god. I guess it comes with the territory. The other teacher was more unassuming, more humble, quieter. This teacher was skilled but not naturally gifted. The skill came from hard work and diligence.

I asked my friend, “So, how is their teaching?”
The top-class performer was hard on them. Very demanding. High expectations. He expected a lot from them and expected them to achieve it. If he could achieve it, they could achieve it. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to train like the best. This was a favourite expression of his. He wasn’t very patient with slow students. He was a taskmaster. The other teacher was more patient and understanding. He expected them to do their best, yes, and he also expected them to push themselves. But his teaching style was different. No screaming, no yelling, no pushing them hard. But if you didn’t pull your weight, he would give you a steely eye that let you know that you had to get to work.

I then asked my friend, “So, how is their teaching method?”
Well, the top-flight competitor gave you the technique to be worked on and you did that. No questions. Just do it. Repetition. Over and over and over again. (Nothing wrong with repetition though). Mindless. The other teacher provided more explanations, explained the rationale, why you were doing it. He also let you know how you were doing. He also did repetitions. But at least you had a road map with this teacher.

I next asked my friend, “Which teacher do you respect?”
Well, she said she admired the top-class competitor and all the hardware he had won and achieved. And she loved watching him perform. It is inspirational to think that maybe she herself could one day achieve the same thing. But she also admitted that she respected the other teacher because of his work ethic. While not naturally gifted, he did work hard and was diligent in training and teaching. He was very good at dissecting technique and made it easy for the students to learn it.

I asked, “So, how is the atmosphere in the dojo?”
She told me that in the top performer’s class, there was a sense of competition amongst the students, whereas in the other class, it was more collaborative.

I asked finally, “Which teacher do you like?”
She admitted that while she admired the top performer, she felt that the teacher that she got along with better and felt better about was the more humble teacher. She felt she could learn more from this teacher, that this teacher had more to offer.

This is a true story, believe it or not. And I think a very common one. I myself have checked out various dojos and seen pretty much the same scenario in various guises and I have seen these types of teachers before, whether in tae kwon do, karate, MMA, etc...

A teacher who was a great competitor and a teacher who is a great teacher.

A common issue in many sports too. Think of hockey. Wayne Gretzky or Pat Quinn. Wayne Gretzky was a great player, the best that played hockey, but in my opinion, not a great coach. Pat Quinn was a hard-nosed player but not brilliantly gifted like Gretzky. But his coaching resume is fantastic, enjoying many winning seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, winning the World Junior Championships, culminating with winning Olympic Gold at the Salt Lake Olympics in 2002. This guy knows how to coach and manage a team.

Great players usually are not great coaches. Great coaches were usually mediocre players but they had to work hard to be good. It didn’t come naturally to them. Consequently, they had to figure out ways to be successful in that sport, to learn the way the sport worked.

The great player had everything come naturally to them. It was easy for them. A natural gift. Of course, to be successful at high levels, you still have to work hard and be determined, like everyone else, but it helps when you don’t need to worry about developing skill. This is usually why the great players usually do not make great coaches. They didn’t have to figure out ways to be successful in that sport or to learn the way the sport worked. They were just always successful.

But coaching is a totally different ball game. It's not about you anymore but about the players you are coaching. Just because you are a good player doesn’t automatically make you a good coach.

Why do I bring up this subject?
I have seen and heard instances where parents of kids, whether it be about soccer or karate or whatever sport, get confused about who they should choose as the coach of their kid. It happens with adults just as much. Who should I study under? Where will I get the best knowledge?

Some people are impressed with the credentials. The trophies, the medals, the certificates, the ranks. Some assume that winning trophies, in other words being a great competitor, makes one a better teacher than someone who has never achieved such levels, who has never competed at a high level. They think, “What does this teacher know? He has never competed before.”

Likewise, in more traditional martial arts, some assume that the higher the rank, the better the teacher. If he is a 5th dan, he must be a good teacher, the common thinking goes. You would hope so, but it is not always the case. If he is a 6th dan, he must have something profound to teach me. Maybe yes, maybe no. Here is an interesting quote I read from the field of soccer:

"I didn't study; I live. You can't study these things; life teaches them to you. You don't find them in a book. I've read a lot of Socrates on page three of the Sun."

Eric Cantona
Former French footballer and captain of Manchester United
Voted as Manchester United's Player of the Century
Won four Premiership league titles in five years with United

What’s my point? We have to be careful about assumptions. In many ways.

As a consumer, we have to be careful not to equate accomplishments gained as a practitioner with teaching ability. Some champions cannot teach. Teaching is a separate art form in itself. Champions like to perform, to compete. That’s who they are. That’s what they do. Teaching is about being there for someone else. Making someone else perform.

As a teacher, if we are the accomplished practitioner, we have to be careful that we don’t get caught up in our own ego and start believing the hype or worse, start believing that our talent in performing and competing transfers over automatically to being able to teach it to someone else. A lot of champions do not have the patience to teach or the understanding to teach.

As for the other type of teacher, when we don’t have these lofty accomplishments and credentials behind our name, we should not lose heart or feel that we are somehow deficient. Some of the best teachers I know were never great players but were the sluggers, slugging it out in the trenches. Why do they make great coaches and teachers in some cases? Because they have been there. They have gone through the struggles, the heartaches, the challenges. They understand how difficult it is and they know how to get past it. These are valuable things to teach to beginners.

So what are these assumptions we have to be careful of? Let’s review.
  1. This teacher has won a lot of championships at a high level so this means that he must be a good teacher and have something to teach me.
  2. This teacher has never competed before at a high level. I don’t think he has much to teach me.
  3. This teacher has a high rank so this means that he must be very experienced. Having gone through so many tests, he must be a good teacher and have something to teach me.
  4. This teacher does not have a high rank. I don’t think he has enough experience and consequently, probably does not have much to teach me.

Let’s now examine the fallacies surrounding these common beliefs.
  1. As we argued above, being successful at competing and performing in tournaments does not automatically make one a good teacher. Competing and teaching are two distinctly different skills.
  2. If you are looking for hints on competing, then maybe yes this type of teacher, lacking high-level experience, can be a detriment. But as regards teaching a set curriculum, does this have a bearing?
  3. Having “something to teach me” really depends on what you are seeking. Rank does not automatically make one a deep thinker. Not everyone is a philosopher, teachers included. Some are deep thinkers, some are not. Some teachers are more taskmasters than philosophers. So this assumption that “he has a high rank, so he must be a good teacher and have something to teach me,” in this case is dangerous. It depends what you are looking for.
  4. I know a lot of excellent practitioners who do not have a high rank. Some are quite philosophical too. See below.

The interesting issue is #4, the category where the practitioner does not have high rank. Yes, there are some who have no experience and no rank. They most likely have no business teaching at all. In more cases than not, they are just starting out, learning the ropes. That’s fine. Let’s hope their intentions for teaching are genuine and focused on the students’ gain, not their own (i.e., status, fame, money, etc…).

The interesting issue is the nebulous case where you have practitioners who have loads of experience but no high rank. These are the invisible class. Many are your sempai. But before we write them off as not worthy of learning from, I know from talking with many of these types that there are various reasons why they either have not gotten high rank or purposefully, do not aspire to high rank.

In various koryu, they are like closed family societies. Only certain ones get ranked. Yes, there is politics involved too. If it is a tight family tradition and the family is active in overseeing the style, then the chances of an outsider going far up in the hierarchy and amassing power is little, because the family will control succession. The headmaster is the top of the family. If he likes you, you’re in luck. If he doesn’t, you’re out of favour. High rank may not be in your power to get because it is not an open door policy.

In other cases of koryu, some do not care for the politics. There is a lot of politics involved in ranking. It is like currying favour. Hanging out with the in-crowd of sempai. If your sempai is a favourite of the headmaster, you ride his coat-tails to get ahead. Catching the eye of the headmaster. Participating enthusiastically in all company events, going to all the company picnics. Having the right circle of friends in the organization. Saying the right things, repeating the company line. Just like office politics, no different. Some practitioners hate these social games. They just want to train. To get ranked means you need to play these games to some degree. To continue to get ranked, you need to be really good at office politics and staying abreast of what’s happening at the dojo, and outmanoeuvring your rivals. I know many who are disgusted with all the back-stabbing and one-upmanship, however subtle it is.

In other cases, higher rank carries with it the burden of having to teach and assist in teaching. Some practitioners don’t like to teach and really don’t care for teaching. Maybe they just want to compete. I know some who have no interest in teaching whatsoever so they avoid getting ranked for this very reason or at best are indifferent to the entire issue of ranking.

In many cases, high rank carries with it greater responsibilities, usually administrative duties such as organizing, managing, networking, overseeing, etc... In other words, running the business. The headmaster finally has some ranked students who can take over these chores. Some hate this aspect, especially if you are not good at it. You essentially become a bureaucrat, a “suit”. For a fighter, there is nothing worse than manning a desk.

Finally, there are some practitioners who just do not care for ranking at all. They just want to train, feel good. Simple life. No stress.

Here is a good example. I am a schoolteacher. Some schoolteachers aspire to eventually becoming a principal, while others have no such ambition. For some teachers, becoming a principal is the next step up in status, a step up in the hierarchy of their local Board of Education. They want to move onto becoming a part of the administration, to a leadership position, not just remain a lowly teacher. They want to be a mover and shaker.

But for other teachers who have no such ambitions, they see longer hours, little increase in pay, but a massive amount of responsibility (and its attendant pressure and stress) to ensure the efficient and orderly maintenance of their school. Some hate the politics at the Board’s Head Office. It is like any other corporation in this regard. The maneuvering, saying the right things, and the corporate dance. As for responsibility, if you are a principal, the entire fate of the school rests in your hands. If the school plummets, it’s your fault. Is it all worth the stress? Maybe the life of a simple schoolteacher is enough: less stress, less headaches.

Is the principal-candidate a better teacher than the simple schoolteacher? Not necessarily.
Is the principal-candidate a better administrator than the simple schoolteacher? Not necessarily. Some simple teachers are excellent administrators.

The title and status of “principal” is glitzy. But it is not an easy ride to keep that fame. Long hours, lots of politics, lots of red tape, lots of stress. The simple schoolteacher in some cases just doesn’t want the hassle or the headaches that come with that territory. Simple life equals happy life.

So what’s my point?
You can’t assume anything. You really do have to look carefully at each teacher, each mentor.

In some cases where you have great performers and competitors who are now teachers, you have to look past the credentials and the glitz. They’ve got a lot of sex appeal but really what’s there underneath? And is it useful for you? Some great performers or practitioners can also be great teachers. I’ve met a few in my time. Some others are really not good at teaching. They are better at performing. You can’t take anything for granted.

In other cases with some sempai and experienced practitioners with few credentials or titles, look past the grime and soot. Because they could be a jewel in the dirt, a diamond in the rough. Some of the most profound people I have met are the simple practitioners who have loads of experience. They just don’t have the paper or the shiny medals, and some don’t care for them. Yes, some are not good teachers. But some are great teachers. I learned under some of these and I remember their lessons and advice to me vividly. Also, one teacher may be good for you but not good for me. A teacher who I think is great, you may not think about him the same way. You never know.

As I learned in Japan, “ke-su bai ke-su”.
(“case by case”…)

Back to our quote:

"I didn't study; I live. You can't study these things; life teaches them to you. You don't find them in a book. I've read a lot of Socrates on page three of the Sun."

So with regards to assumptions about where to find budo knowledge and wisdom, it is not so black and white, but many shades of grey.

Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.

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