Attending the 50th Anniversary Celebrations in Greece this year gave me incredible memories and learning observations that have advanced my martial arts mindset and will enhance my performance as a practitioner, in time. Arguably, the learning I obtained is largely credited to the various practitioners who used their time to teach me. Most didn’t have to, but wanted to. What’s more: most were Masters – and their skills are truly world-class. Whilst I acquired good knowledge to advance my own performance, I also indirectly learnt another important area of martial arts: how martial arts Masters teach. In this article, I explore the key teaching observations in more detail.

Before I begin, it’s important to explain that I term anyone who conducts teaching responsibilities as an instructor. This therefore not only includes club owners, but also those who’ve been asked to assist during a session. In my view, if you’re teaching in any capacity, you should consider yourself an instructor for that period of time you teach. Also, if you’re relatively new to teaching, I recommend that you first read my article “Finding yourself as an instructor”. This will assist you with building the foundations of a reputation as an instructor.

Now that’s said, below are my top 4 teaching observations about how Martial Arts Masters teach:

1. Show the picture

I first learnt this from the Soo Bahk Do Grandmaster, H.C. Hwang, when I attended a Summer Camp in Spain in 2017. The same message was reinforced at the 50th Anniversary event in Greece. In essence:

Explain to practitioners what you’d like them to do, and then demonstrate how to do it by giving them a clear visual picture.

Going into more detail, I’d say the clear visual picture involves two things as background work for the instructor: 1. Understand without a doubt what the demonstration should look like; and, 2. Rep it out.

In Greece, the Masters had a dedicated training slot lasting a few hours with the Grandmaster. The purpose of this was to prepare and practise the techniques that were taught the following day to everyone. Considering that these practitioners are some of the most experienced people in the martial art, it’s safe to say that showing the picture always requires preparation and practise.

2. Check for understanding

Always check for understanding and check how you approach this too. A public: ‘does everyone understand?’ quite frankly would dissuade most replying back with anything other than a ‘yes’ in tandem…even if ‘no’ would have been a more honest response. The thing is, most people feel uncomfortable to voice being the only one who didn’t understand.

I’ve seen world-class instructors (and the best school teachers) frame questions for understanding differently. For example, ‘can you raise your hand if you understand?’ is often a better question to present opportunities to identify those who do not fully grasp what you’re teaching. Of course, still some will raise their hand thinking that’s what’s expected. However, I’ve noticed in general that people tend to be more truthful when the question is framed this way. Other approaches include: asking if anyone has any questions; asking for a show of hands if people want the demonstration repeated; and asking if there’s any specific point to go over whilst doing it. Also, circulating around the room and asking individuals personally for understanding works well.

3. Give feedback to everyone, and make it timely

Giving feedback to all practitioners is a great way to captivate, inspire, and motivate them to train harder. In fact, I consider inspiration and motivation as the fuel that drives better performance. Every practitioner is there to learn, and so every practitioner deserves a bit of your time and feedback.

The best feedback is that which is given at the precise moment of relevance. It is helpful because either the practitioner can realise what they need to work on, or know what they have done well. That’s critical:

Feedback is both improvements and praise.

During my training in Greece, timely feedback helped me realise certain habits that needed correcting, and also gave me an understanding of what others thought I was doing well. A few times it actually took me by surprise that Masters were watching me, as I hadn’t noticed. Having someone give you feedback without seeking it is also a great motivational boost – and as an instructor, it’s your job to teach and motivate others to better their performance.

4. Active reflection

Many times I observed Masters make active reflections to their teaching approach and explanations when teaching others. The reality is that people learn at different speeds, have different preferred learning styles, and come with different experiences. The best instructors (and teachers in general) look for alternative paths to deliver the learning point if the first approach isn’t effective. In other words, they constantly reflect on how they communicate and teach as it’s happening, to look for more effective ways to deliver content.

Self-reflection and observations do wonders to advance your self-development as an instructor and practitioner. Take some time to reflect how many of the above from how martial arts Masters teach you truly adopt, along with areas that can be improved. Although I’m mostly a practitioner at present, I have over 3.5 years of martial arts teaching experience and over 2 years of teaching in other areas. My experience has taught me that the skill of teaching is always a work-in-progress. What matters most is the commitment to reflect on your teaching often.

If you have some other teaching observation tips you’d like to share, drop a message!

Sabrina Mistry

As a qualified Personal Trainer and 2nd Dan traditional martial artist, Sabrina combines both to deliver workout programmes, martial arts instruction and fitness classes that are designed with the longer-term health of the body in mind. Get connected on Instagram and Facebook: @beyondthedojang

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