A martial arts teacher’s influence is often as great as a priest over his congregation or a captain over her crew.
With a US election coming up and a state of extreme divisiveness and intolerance for the other side, this seems like a good time to write about the teacher’s influence.
Many who come to martial arts as young adults are searching for a degree of guidance or answers to other aspects of life. Fear, lack of confidence, anger, whatever the underlying reason, not only are they susceptible to suggestion, but are indeed looking for such.
I’ve found this particularly true of the traditional and ‘functional’ martial arts that emphasize combat effectiveness. Sport martial artists tend to be better adjusted on many levels, which is why I eventually gravitated to working more with that group, and why much of my YouTube channel‘s mission is to bring ideas and benefits from the former to the practice of the latter.
Like the movie, I mean no disrespect to the military by the captions above, but merely remind that unthinking rigidity to any code is problematic.
As a university student, I too was looking for more than information and fortunately, my first and subsequent teachers were of the non-cultish variety, allowing me to mature out of that phase of life. Looking back and seeing the roads I might have tread makes me doubly thankful because you see no shortage of individuals who, if their teacher’s influence did nothing to fuck them up more, certainly did little to improve them.
My biggest beef I suppose is the amplification of the fear that drove people to train in the first place. Changing a vague discomfort, insecurity, or even past trauma to specific paranoia about counting exits, quick-draw weapons, and a constant, nervous readiness for violence in an even more crippling grip of helplessness is not only bad for the individual, but outright dangerous.
It’s no surprise that these groups tend to have conservative outlooks, and while I have no problem with adult conversation about politics, I would like to discourage or warn against those who use their authority as a pulpit for indoctrination.
On the flip side, cult-like devotion to a pretender, while relatively harmless to society at large, is perhaps not the best way to develop the individual. And they don’t even have to be a pretender: they can be the real thing as far as combat-effectiveness goes, but if you have to breathe their incense and walk in their glow, buy their supplements, go to their church, hang out with their life coach, maybe it’s time to move on.
If you’re a full-time martial arts teacher, outside of general life and teaching experience, you’re probably completely unqualified to give advice outside of your art and even fitness if you have no additional background.
Rather, the authority your opinions take on don’t scale with your expertise outside your specialty.
Unfortunately, being surrounded by those who may hang on your every word or don’t voice disagreement can lead you to believe your opinions should carry more weight than they should. A danger for all teachers and parents, not just martial artists.
It’s seductive, being paid heed to, and enjoying a teacher’s influence more than wanting to add value quickly becomes habit, which let’s be honest, is one major reason we instinctively hate self-help gurus. Hell I don’t even have any students and I worry about this just because I don’t have regular exposure to those who disagree with me.
Either way, assuming this is not why you teach, whether you have very formal teacher-student rituals, or take a more “we’re all friends” tack, some appreciation of your influence both through what’s said and unsaid, body language and action, could hopefully put your students in a better place.
On the motivational front, here’s where indoctrination paradoxically comes in handy: if you were passed down a rhetoric of acceptance and humility, sometimes your reflexive parroting of the words benefit your students even if you never personally internalized the lesson. Something I also see no little of: coaches who are clearly paranoid, angry people but manage to at least espouse tolerance and non-violence. Hopefully teaching the mantra is one way they are learning it themselves.
It shows through but I try not to give anyone grief over it; it just reminds that we’re all on the same journey, and some just get through the technique faster.