© 2011 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.
One day, a friend of
mine asked me, “Which teacher should I follow?”
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
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
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."
French footballer and captain of Manchester United
as Manchester United's Player
of the Century
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
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
So what are these
assumptions we have to be careful of? Let’s review.
- 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
- This teacher has never competed before at a high level. I don’t
think he has much to teach me.
- 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.
- This teacher does not have a high rank. I don’t think he has
enough experience and consequently, probably does not have much to
Let’s now examine
the fallacies surrounding these common beliefs.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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,
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
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.
principal-candidate a better teacher than the simple schoolteacher?
principal-candidate a better administrator than the simple
schoolteacher? Not necessarily. Some simple teachers are excellent
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
You can’t assume
anything. You really do have to look carefully at each teacher, each
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.