When students start to adopt leadership roles in their martial arts school, they often worry about whether or not people will take them seriously, unsure of how to carry themselves in such a way as to engender respect and trust. They naturally look to their instructors’ examples to learn how to carry themselves as an instructor. For many, this is a mistake. I’m not suggesting that instructors can’t be helpful as a role model, but they shouldn’t simply look at their teaching style and the way they address students for modelling. Instead, they should be looking at the spirit behind a confident instructor’s actions.
Behind every truly confident martial arts instructor, there are a number of characteristics that define them that go beyond the mechanics of how they run a class. Below are 5 that I’ve noted in the many excellent instructors from whom I’ve had the pleasure of learning.
1. They use their authority with purpose.
Authority is a powerful thing that can be used to make a great class or to make everyone miserable. Students walk into a dojo on the understanding that they can trust their instructor, and that they’ll use their authority to benefit the class. But that’s not always what happens. We’ve all seen it before, at work, on sports teams, and in social situations. Sometimes people use authority not to help the group or to further the group’s goals, but to make themselves feel big, or to serve their own needs. Just because a martial arts instructor shouts insults and/or assigns people push-ups at the drop of a hat, and their students are willing to endure such treatment, does not mean they’re confident. But it doesn’t mean they lack confidence either. You have to look at the intention behind their actions to know this. Perhaps the instructor only shouts insults in ways that have an underlying playfulness to them that the student fully recognizes as a good-natured reminder that perhaps they’re not pushing themselves as hard as they should be. Maybe the instructor uses push-ups as a tool to keep students focused and on their toes so they make the most out of a shorter class time. There are, of course, instructors who don’t have well-meaning purposes behind their use of authority and abuse their position, which one can usually feel in their tone and body language. And while some instructors do well with a more boot camp like atmosphere, others, like me, prefer a more open, friendlier, style of instruction. I don’t think my way of doing things is better, it’s just better suited to my personality. Of course, because of the friendlier atmosphere, I sometimes have to exert my authority to keep people on task and so that the “friendliness” doesn’t get out of hand. You can read more about what I mean by this in The Disadvantages of Having a Friendly Dojo.
2. They strive for improvement.
The best martial arts instructors I’ve met are always looking to improve on what they do, how they teach, and strive to help their students improve on their own journeys in the martial arts. They do their best to find the time to train, whether it’s in their own style with their students/peers, or under instructors of other styles, which offer them the opportunity to learn new things and become more well-rounded as martial artists. This attitude isn’t necessarily limited to the martial arts either. Perhaps they do other physical activities to maintain or improve their fitness like running or resistance training. Or maybe they’re always on the look-out for ways to improve their diet so they have more energy. Sometimes, they read books related to personal development whether it’s to help themselves or to help them better inspire their students. There are a lot of ways the spirit of ‘kaizen‘, of continual improvement, can manifest itself.
3. They admit their mistakes.
No one is perfect. If someone tries to act as though they are, they aren’t truly confident. We all make mistakes. It’s how we handle ourselves when we make them that demonstrates our level of confidence. On occasion, I’ll have a brain fart on the mats and I’ll say I’m teaching one thing, then I’ll teach something different. Usually one of my senior students will approach me afterwards and humbly ask if I had meant to teach what I had taught. When I realize I’ve made a mistake, I usually call the class to order, admit I made a mistake and apologize, so I can immediately rectify it. This attitude shouldn’t be limited to teaching errors. Sometimes people say something in a way that may unintentionally make someone feel bad. If you catch yourself having done this, as an instructor, I think it’s important to approach the person afterwards to discuss it, and if necessary apologize. Sometimes the person won’t even have noticed the social slip themselves, but it’s still a good policy to have. It’s better than putting the onus on others to approach you, as many people shy away from such a socially awkward situations.
4. They are willing to tackle tough issues.
Outside their own actions, there is always the chance that tough issues will arise in your dojo that require the instructor’s attention and even intervention. Sometimes there are problem students that hurt the training environment in your class, whether it’s someone who lacks control and is causing discomfort or injury to other students, someone who says things that make other people uncomfortable, or someone who just doesn’t clean their uniform often enough. Handling these issues can present social awkwardness for the instructor and the student involved, but it’s something that has to be done for the greater good.
5. They respect their students and themselves.
At the end of the day, all of the above points relate to this one over-arching point. A truly confident martial arts instructor respects their students and themselves, and this is reflected in how they carry themselves and in everything they do. They sincerely try to do their best to treat people right and make them feel comfortable in their training environment. They try to help their students rise above their challenges, even when it means telling them something they may not want to hear because they need to hear it. They are open, sincere, and accountable to their students, willing to listen when a student has something to say when the forum for discussion is appropriate. They don’t lord themselves over their students, expecting to be put up on a pedestal. In my opinion, someone who teaches martial arts is no better than anyone they teach; they have simply been training longer. When students put their instructor up on a pedestal, it hurts their ability to learn as students come to believe that their instructor is so much better than them that they can never attain their level of mastery. In addition to respecting one’s students, a confident martial arts instructor also has self-respect. They don’t compromise on their personal values or the mission of their dojo just to avoid an awkward situation or to make a buck. They assert themselves appropriately when a person says or does something to them that is out of line.
The above list may seem daunting, but one should always leave room for growth when evaluating their instructor or themselves as an instructor. There are very few people in this world (if any depending on one’s definition of confidence) that are perfectly confident at all times. Most people are simply trying to do the best with the experience they have, but aren’t always perfect in their attempts. Confidence is what it is. The level of it you have is your own. It can grow with time and experience, but you have to be open to it. If you’re willing to acknowledge mistakes and areas for improvement, things will only get better. As for developing a teaching style, remember that while imitating one’s instructors may be an okay place to start, a new instructor eventually needs to define their own teaching style based on their own unique personality and manner. It does, however, take some confidence to recognize and address this.
To all the new instructors out there trying to find their feet, good luck with all that! I’m still working on it myself. It’s only been 18 years… 😉