The Truth about Training and Ignorance Concerning Instructors

Having practiced martial arts for a few decades and earned my daily bread for the last several years as a law enforcement officer, it would be a severe understatement to say that I have been involved in a few or more training classes, both as student and as instructor. I have been unfortunate enough to have been involved in quite a few “real world” situations in which I have had opportunity to apply and test my training. Based on my training and experience, I have a few comments regarding instructors, students, and statements I have heard or read in the last several months. One of the primary prompters of this little missive is the repetition of certain categories of silliness in regard to who or what constitutes a good instructor or good training. Here are a few observations:

What really matters, if we are talking about defending yourself and MARTIAL arts (for fighting and self-defense) training in general, is what you can do. Your ability and skills, the willingness to use them, and the judgment to determine when to use them are all that really counts. To put it succinctly and somewhat crudely, either you can kick ass or you cannot kick ass. If you can, are willing to do so, and know when is the appropriate time to do so, then you are in pretty decent shape to handle many nasty situations out on the street. If not, it does not matter how many pairs of cool “martial pajamas” and colored belts are in your collection, how many swords and tacticool knives you carry, or how many ultra-rare and expensive custom firearms you have, your gadgets, poor skill, and bravado will not save you. Dumb luck, the intervention or help of someone competent, a good pair of running shoes, or actually stumbling upon an attacker who sucks worse than you do (see luck, above) may help you survive.

  1. It does not matter where you train.

    Where you train (as in which school) does, of course, matter. However, the geographic location does not. I have heard many people say that “my instructor studied in XYZ foreign country” or “I want to go to ABC nation to study, since that is where Buttkicking-Fu started, and the guys there are the best instructors in that art.” Personally, I can care less about what nation an instructor calls home. There are many good instructors in many different nations. However, just because an art started in a particular location does not mean that the best instructors reside in that nation, or that you have to go to that nation to be good. Just because a person travels to lower Asscrackistan and gets an instructor certificate does not make him any better or worse than someone with a certificate earned in the same art but from an instructor in Tiny Town, Alabama. There are crappy instructors, martial arts training of questionable effectiveness and value, and “pay me enough money and I will sign your certificate” schools in foreign nations, just as there are in the United States. I have studied Japanese arts from a Japanese man and Filipino arts from a man of Filipino descent. I have also worked and studied with several “pasty white dudes” here in the United States who were very good in Japanese, Filipino or other “foreign” arts. I know some extremely competent instructors of Japanese and Chinese arts who are Mexican American and who have never studied in Asia. Trust me, when these guys hit or throw you, it hurts just the same as if some really competent Asian guy does it. I am not even going to get started on the various firearms guys, including Hispanic, British, and others, from whom I learned a thing or two.
  2. You are not your instructor.

    The “he studied with Mr. Ultimate Badass, head of system of the Lost Art of Finger-Death-Touch-Do” argument holds no appeal whatsoever for me. Your instructor may be famous. Your instructor may be competent. Your instructor may be famous but incompetent. Your instructor may be well known but a complete charlatan. The thing is, even if your instructor is death-on-two-legs and the shining, bright font of all martial arts knowledge, it does not transfer to you. Just because your instructor is good does not mean that you are. A good instructor will have a much higher probability of teaching you how to defend yourself and fight effectively, but you and the instructor are two different people and you may very well never be able to use the art that you train in as well as can your instructor.
  3. No one is “beyond reproach” or should be followed “without question.”

    The statement above is not about loyalty, it is about body mechanics and movement. I believe in loyalty and trust between instructor and student, but I do not expect my students to blindly follow everything I say or do and to fawn all over me, worshipping at the temple of my martial awesomeness. Recently, I read a statement about a certain “famous” instructor (at least in some circles). He was stated to have credentials that were “beyond reproach.” Well, some people do have such credentials, because of what they have done, what they can do, and the way they move. This guy was not one of those types of people. He was “beyond reproach” because he had studied in a foreign land or two, had signed certificates from a couple of instructors in said foreign lands, and one of his instructors was a very well known, respected, and capable teacher. However, when you look at the way this guy moves, his body positioning is not very good, he is a bit stiff and stilted, and it becomes pretty plain that he spent a lot of time training and memorizing techniques from various systems, but seems to lack the knowledge of why he is doing something the way he was shown, which results in him being out of position or engaging a marginal target when a much better area was available to strike. Observation of his movement indicated that he was not “above reproach” and that his fan-boys are probably not getting the kind of training that they believe they are receiving. The words “slow and sloppy” actually come to mind. As for the “I am the master and you will give me unquestioning obedience” type, well, I am a bit too old and jaded for that now. I acknowledge good skill and am fiercely loyal to my friends and teachers, but I do not worship anybody. I also look at everyone’s body positioning, use of balance disruption and body mechanics, speed and flow, and make an assessment of what they are doing, regardless of their certifications or ranks. I have seen a lot of “no name” people who were incredibly skilled and a lot of arrogant “masters” who moved badly and who probably would not survive a really violent attack from an experienced street criminal.
  4. Legendary fights and the high body counts of old masters in the past do not mean that your particular system and instructor is instant death in real life, that you are actually learning how to fight, or that the system you are studying is the best for you.

    I have nothing whatsoever against “old” systems or instructors who tell a bit about the history of the art you are learning. Learning a bit about historical use can be valuable, as some of the situations in combat today are similar to some of the situations in the past. However, there is a possibility that an instructor of an “old” system who talks a lot about the historical deadliness of the art he is teaching actually has no idea of what made the art deadly in the past, as he or she has often just learned techniques through rote memorization and has no idea as to how to apply these techniques. Many times I have seen people demonstrate a movement from a “kata” or “dance” and, when asked what the movement was actually accomplishing, have no real idea of what they were doing and lack any ability to demonstrate a realistic combative use for their movement. The bottom line is that, just as in number two, above, where you were not your instructor, you do not have the skills of legendary warriors just because you study the same art. What you are studying may be watered down, changed, or condensed, and, in any case, you and any of the legendary fighters of your system are different people.
  5. Putting “Reality,” “Military,” “Police,” “Combat,” “Commando/SWAT,” or equivalent words in foreign languages in the name of your art, or as a prefix or suffix to another, “known” martial art name, does not make your art at all more “real world,” or realistic at all, in some cases.

    “Reality,” in a martial context should refer to what can work in real world (as opposed to training hall) situations. Dressing up in camouflage fatigues and combat boots and doing combatives training is no more realistic than training in shorts and a rash guard, some fancy pajamas (a gi), or other dress, unless you happen to dress in camouflage fatigues and combat boots on a routine basis. Doing some training in what you wear on the street is a very good idea, and I do require my students to do this from time-to-time (most of our workouts are in sweat pants or gi pants and t-shirts rather than street clothes). If you are a businessman who wears a suit or a college student who wears jeans and a sweatshirt on a routine basis, bopping around in camouflage or tactical gear is often more live action role-playing (LARPing) than reality. I did the SWAT thing for a few years and am currently in charge of a law enforcement task force that targets very violent offenders. I have the gear (ballistic resistant vest, drop holster, MP-5 submachine gun, etc.) and I train with it and in it. However, I don’t wear this gear all the time, and even though I have the gear and use it in my actual work, I look at some of the stuff people wear in the martial arts, tactical, and gun magazines, and in advertisements for training, and just have to shake my head. Reality means training for your normal environment and the environments you can expect to face. If you are a member of a tactical team, then by all means practice team room clearing, carbine and submachine gun use and retention and disarm techniques, and wear tactical gear and boots. If you are not on such a team and/or do not wear such attire and carry such equipment on a regular basis, but are doing the training described above, you may be doing more cool adventure training/play than “reality” training.
  6. Real world experience is great, but it is not everything.

    The guy or gal who has “been there and done that” may have some insights into what works “for real.” However, merely because you survived an attack does not mean that you did so through superior training and ability. You may have survived because the people you fought decided it was better for them to leave the area than to finish killing you, because your opponents were absolutely terrible at fighting, through sheer chance, or other reasons. Just because you are/were a cop/soldier/commando/”street fighter”/etc., does not mean that you are a great fighter, or that you can teach fighting and self-defense even if you are a great fighter. I have known many soldiers and policemen who, though nice enough people and who had fought and survived a time or two, were not really very good at fighting. I have met very few self-proclaimed “street fighting experts” who “learned their skills on the mean streets” who were actually skilled fighters.
  7. There are quite a few instructors out there who are completely full of crap and have no idea how to fight or teach anyone how to fight.

    I divide these types of instructors into two classes. The BS artists are the guys who pad their resumes (have you noticed how many instructors were members of, or who have trained, the Uber Commando Killer Special Ops and Law Enforcement Demigod Group?), or who are going to teach you “things that will allow you to easily dominate a black belt” and “things the military, police, and government do not want you to know.” These guys call it “marketing,” but in many cases, it is just straight out lying. In general, if these guys are not members or trainers of some special group, then they have black belts in everything, a couple of such belts having been personally bestowed upon them by Jesus Christ Himself when He realized the innate awesomeness of these particular instructors. These instructors know that they are duping their students.

    The second type of instructor in this category is clueless about how bad his or her self-defense skills really are. These people are earnest and really believe that they have something to offer, and I pity them. Often, these guys were taught by a guy, who was taught by a guy, who was taught by a guy, who learned from a tournament champion, who was taught by a guy, who was taught by a guy who actually knew how to fight and who had put people out and down in the real world. What has happened is that the training has changed, has become watered down, and the people who are doing the “martial motions” have no idea what these motions really mean or how to use them.
  8. Tournament skill does not transition to real fighting.

    Actually, sparring and/or competing against a resisting opponent is a great “real life” skill set builder. However, many tournaments are point-fighting matches with kids wearing “marshmallow pads” on their hands and feet. Such things bear little to no resemblance to what I have seen and experienced in real fighting. Judo, wrestling, jujitsu competitions in their various forms, other hard contact competition to include stick and “training blade” fighting, hard contact empty hand fighting, and the like are all good. Care must be taken to also do some “no rules” type training and sparring, work a bit against multiple opponents, work with weapons, etc. so that your trained response set is not solely what is within the rules. A good “sport fighter,” boxer, mixed martial arts fighter, or the like is a skilled and dangerous fighter. If they work to plug the gaps in their systems (and everything and every system has some issues and gaps), and work on some “put the bad guy down for keeps” training, then they can become extraordinarily good. If their trained response set is solely within the dimensions of their sport fighting, and none or almost none of their training includes work against other arts and styles and against weapons, then they can have problems in the real world. For example, you do not want to face a determined attacker with a knife on the street when you have never done hard sparring against a determined opponent with a training knife.

In closing, I want to leave you with a few recommendations in regard to selecting an instructor to teach you how to defend yourself in the real world, which is the goal of MARTIAL arts. Martial ARTS are concerned more with cool looking motions, exercise and health benefits, character or “spiritual” development, and sometimes some other very exoteric benefits. This is fine, if this is what you are looking for, but do not mistake this kind of training for anything that will save your life when someone outside of your dojo, dojang or training academy decides to kill you.

There are no hard and fast rules in selecting an instructor, and if an instructor bears a resemblance to some of the examples I have posted above, this is not an automatic disqualifier. You need to look at the instructor on an individual basis. What I have found is that the absolute best instructors I have trained with have had extensive martial arts training and extensive real world experience. I generally would steer clear of any school with teenage or younger black belts. Personally, I look at how the instructor moves, but, unless you have extensive experience and have developed a good knowledge of what “the good stuff” looks like and the body mechanics behind it, this can be difficult. Another rule of thumb is that an instructor should be able to tell you why you are doing something in a class, how to do it correctly, and what your actions will have to do with incapacitating the bad guy or escaping an attack. I attempt to explain everything I teach, and I encourage questions. If I get a “what if” student (and eventually, you always do), then I answer his or her questions until it starts to become disruptive and then tell them to hold the thought until after class, when I will be happy to demonstrate and answer questions. Also, please note that, in some instances, an instructor will ask for a specific attack from a student/assistant in order to demonstrate a specific skill set. In general, though, a really good instructor should not care how an attack is launched, as he or she should be able to handle an unscripted attack. If the instructor is always saying, “grab my wrist….no, the left wrist, and use your right hand” or “give me a right hand reverse punch to the face” then there might be a problem. There should be some demonstrations like “give me an attack from your right side” where the instructor needs to illustrate a skill set and can illustrate this using a kick, punch, grab, or whatever from his attacker/student/assistant. There needs to be live sparring as well, and not just marshmallow tap-tap games. Real training is tough. You will sweat, you will get winded, and you will suffer at least some muscle soreness, bruising and other minor injuries.

Train hard and stay safe,

Tuhan Jon Holloway
January 2010

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