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How Do You Accept Coaching from Your Martial Arts Teacher?

I spent over two decades in the news business. I started on the high school paper and then worked on my college newspaper before going into broadcasting professionally for 22 years.

When I got into my first real news job, I realized quickly how little I was told in school about how it really was -- how to see national news stories and tie them into the local impact -- how to write in an interesting way to the audience -- how to select stories based on your audience and the most important thing of all -- what does it mean to your audience?

As a young reporter, radio and TV anchor, and producer, I was rarely given any advice or input from my supervisors. I had to learn everything the hard way, and it took years for me to develop into a decent TV journalist. Since I had no mentor, I studied the best people I could see. I listened to Walter Cronkite's delivery, I studied the production techniques of cutting-edge shows (at the time) like "48 Hours." And when I worked in local newsrooms that had some talented people, I studied the way they wrote and produced the news.

I decided to become a news director -- in charge of the newsroom -- 20 years ago next month, in Sioux City, Iowa. A small newsroom where young kids out of college came to begin their careers. They were usually pretty rough and green, and I decided to help shave years off of their development by being a mentor, giving them feedback on delivery, camera presence, writing, and the use of video and sound to tell a story.

Some employees were hungry for the advice, and they improved rapidly. Many went on to bigger markets and more money -- markets such as Minneapolis, Phoenix, Boston and New York. Some went to networks -- CNN, ESPN, NBC News.

But some didn't want to hear my advice. Their egos or neurosis (TV attracts a lot of that) wouldn't let them hear anything that implied they could improve. One day, I was coaching a sportscaster whose boring stories took the same tone and approach every time. I was showing him how he could make the stories more personal by focusing on an interesting player or coach to tell the story around, rather than just reporting "The Rocks say they need to play their game this Friday, and then having a sound bite from the coach saying 'We need to play our game this Friday.'" 

So this sportscaster looked at me and said, "You don't like me, do you, Ken?" I was stunned. I said, "Well of course I like you. You're a great guy. What I'm trying to do is show you how to be more creative and interesting in your reporting."

"No," he shook his head. "You don't like me."

He lost his job a few months later, and to this day works in a low-paying position in a small newsroom.

When I began teaching kung-fu, I decided to become the same type of mentor that I needed in my own martial arts studies. Two of the best teachers I had were Jim and Angela Criscimagna. Their classes were fun but painful, and they gave specific advice -- humbling advice that let me know just how much I had to work on. And I accepted it and worked on it. In fact, I still do.

In my classes, I get picky over body mechanics. These are skills that take many years to develop, even though some students mistakenly believe they can do it in two or three years. When someone has worked on a form for a year or two and you show them where they need to improve, you can sometimes see it in their face -- they don't like it. Others take the advice to heart, with humility, and work their butts off.

I've been in many classes over the years where the teachers don't ever give specific, picky advice to individual students, and I can see a lack of quality in the students' movements. It's frustrating to me, because I know that just a few insightful critiques would put the student on a better path. There are some teachers who go to ridiculous extremes, like spending most of their time moving the student's hand two centimeters, making it appear that if your hand isn't specifically in one spot, you aren't doing it right. Others get into more productive details like structure and mechanics--why you're doing this move and how the power is generated.

If you're a student, you should expect your teacher to be a mentor -- tough on quality. You should go to classes and come out feeling as if you learned something, but humbled by the amount you still have to learn. And you should take criticism as something to make you into a better martial artist, not as something personal. That's the road to mediocrity.

Even my teachers go to their masters and after a good lesson, they walk out feeling humbled and sometimes they feel like beginners. But that's a good thing, because these arts take a lifetime to master, and those who understand this simple fact, accept coaching advice and work hard, find themselves on the road less travelled -- the road to excellence.


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Sean C. Ledig

I think there are times when we all think we are too good to accept correction or additional instruction. The difference is whether we face up to that, empty our cups and be willing to try what someone else has to offer.

Before I met you, I had more than 20 years of taijiquan, mostly in Yang style. It was not pleasant having you tell me that the silk reeling I learned from Norm Burland was no good.

As I constantly tell people, you showed me how much I don't know about taiji. I have a shitload of bad habits to correct.

But by working on those habits, I am seeing a lot of improvement, not only in my taiji, but in the other arts I practice as well.

As I told you recently, your silk reeling DVD had a big effect on Don. He's definitely interested in incorporating it into his training.

Knowing about Don's accomplishments as a martial artist and in the service, I think it says a lot about what you have to offer, Ken.

Sean C. Ledig

Two other stories about people who think they're too good to learn from someone else.

When I was a teenager, I had a foam kicking shield. Everyone who saw it in my home gym picked it up and asked me to kick them. I earned black belts in two Korean systems before I was 18, so I knew how to kick.

Trouble was, almost no one wanted to learn the proper way to hold that thing so they wouldn't get hurt. They always said my directions were too difficult. As a result, I knocked the wind out of a lot of people. In one case, busted my girlfriend's lip because she thought she was too good to follow instructions on how to hold that thing.

Note to readers: My girlfriend was the women's TKD champion for the state of Connecticut and a gold medalist in TKD in the Junior Olympics. She was no weakling nor a novice. But because she thought her way of holding the shield was better than mine (though she'd never used one before) my foot slid up the shield and hit her in the mouth.

Another time, I knocked out a student at a TKD school I visited while he held a kicking shield. If he had followed my directions and the directions of his regular instructor, he would not have been hurt. But it was a standard case of someone thinking he knew it all and not listening to those who've tried to share the benefit of their experience.

Just goes to show, when it comes to martial arts, what you don't know can hurt you an awful lot.

Ken Gullette

Thanks for the kind words, Sean. And thanks for not kicking me. :)

I met a guy recently with a tai chi background, and like most people, he let me know that he considered his teacher pretty good.

He's a very nice guy, and I could tell from his movements that his teacher didn't teach him very much of quality. By the second time we worked together, he said, "I'm beginning to realize how shallow the instruction I received was."

It takes a big person to realize that and to actually admit it. It takes someone who has the clarity of mind and the humility to understand when the investment they've made--in time, money, and belief in their teacher--was not the right path.

There are thousands of Americans who have received very low quality tai chi and internal instruction, but because their teachers tell them they know a lot, and act as if they know a lot, the students believe them. And some of them spend decades studying low quality internal arts.

I still have a LOT to learn, and when I'm in anyone's martial arts class, I empty my cup. Every time I perform the most basic tai chi form or silk-reeling exercise, I understand that I am still far from learning everything I need to know about that movement.

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