Competing with your Instructor

By Diana Rathborne

Martial artists develop in an infinite number of ways. Our instructors are there to inspire, motivate and give us information. After that our work begins.. There are a few students who, because of their physical and mental gifts and their life circumstance, have put in the time and have gained a high level of skill in a short period of time.  Unfortunately, some of these talented students have missed the attributes of character that every martial artist should develop: humility, respect and gratitude to name just three.  As they approach the level of their instructor, perhaps gaining instructor status themselves, they believe their instructor has nothing left to teach them.   The physical ability, time and availability to train with your instructor and the personal closeness that comes of that time can lead to these destructive ideas:  you are no longer a student of your instructor, you do not need to pay your dues and that compared to your instructor you are both a better martial artist and a better person.  I think it is arrogance, lack of respect and delusion that leads a student to the belief that their instructor is a competitor that they are on level to compete against.  Not only does this seems to limit their time in the art, it is damaging for the student, the school, and by extension, the instructor.  It seems, however, to be a phenomenon that every school owner experiences.

I have seen many people transform their lives through the lessons that training the martial arts can bring.  A student who gets started on the path of development only to detour onto this false path of comparing themselves to and competing with their instructor is wasting their talent and could be doing much, much more for themselves, their art and their fellow students. Luckily, I am not burdened with the kind of talent that would enable me to physically compete with any of my instructors, so for me, as a student, the point is moot.  As an instructor, however, I do run into it from time to time.  In my opinion, all things being equal, if a fit, athletic, younger student who’s put in some training time can’t outperform me (a short female on the wrong side of 35 years old) in a training drill there’s something wrong.  It has absolutely nothing to do with my capability or my ability to instruct, guide, motivate or add technical information to his base.

Over the years I have had the benefit of watching my instructors handle many weird situations, questions and possible challenges.  They have always done it with grace and an amazing variety of the most “appropriate” responses imaginable.  I am lucky to now have their answers in my arsenal to pull from.  The new guy walking in the door giving the instructor the once over and all but saying “I could kick your butt”,  the student who “fights” a technique in a demo, and the student who interrupts a class or seminar to say “that wouldn’t work” or “what would you do if I….” are a few examples of scenarios I’ve had the opportunity to watch.  Had those situations been mine to solve they certainly would not have been handled so well.

My primary instructor, Sifu Rick Faye of the Minnesota Kali Group in Minneapolis, has a humorous perspective on the dynamic of students competing with him. He finds the fact that some of his students have seen fit to compete with him both sad and annoying. “If they want to compete with me, they can compete with me at 7:00 on a Saturday morning when I’m mopping the weight room” he comments.  Those who enter the martial arts and end up in the role of an instructor do so to impart many of the personal qualities that martial arts brings to others: humility, respect, honesty, loyalty, dedication, kindness, etc.  These are people who have chosen their profession because of their passion for it, their belief that it can improve the lives of those involved and as a way to support their families.  They have put in an enormous amount of time and energy into their students’ development as martial artists and as decent human beings.  I don’t see where the desire or ability to kick your instructor’s butt falls into this equation. Sifu Pete Hetrick’s staple answer to a student who challenges him and says that he could kick his butt always is: “yes, but I can teach you to kick my butt faster and more efficiently.”

Each and every instructor I have learned from is excited by the accomplishments of his students.  Each one has handed us his art and, as a result, we are already starting ahead of where he started.  I believe that the number of times Guro Dan Inosanto was hit on the head by his instructors to bring us his art (without the contact) should speak for itself.  I was recently reading a book on an aspect of the Filipino martial arts and the author took the time, in the first two pages, to put down one of the greatest instructors in the Filipino martial arts. Why? Because he got his ego in a bind. Big deal. Isn’t there room for more than one authority on the art? What is your purpose for training martial arts? To be the biggest bad ass? To be a killer? Enlist–they’re hiring.  You can go see what it is to fight “for real”. In fact, now is probably a great time for that.  For the rest of us, the martial arts are a self development vehicle. For your instructor it is also his livelihood and that of his family.  The “my instructor can beat up your instructor” mind set has no place outside of kindergarten. I’m sure most boxers could beat the tar out of their trainers, but you don’t see most of them wasting their training time and mental energies on that focus.

As instructors we need to remember two things. First, that we are still students of our instructors. Second, that a student’s urge to compete with us, is completely immaterial to our own art. It is a pain in the rear end, but it is also an opportunity to try to find and utilize the most appropriate response to a challenging situation.  Etched in my mind is a class where Sifu Rick Faye told all of us that his personal martial arts ability was none of our business. That it was between him and the mirror.  At the time I was shocked by the statement. On further digestion I realized he was right. My personal capabilities have absolutely no bearing on my ability to teach others or to help others.

Each of us has to take a hard look at why we are in the martial arts and where our personal defensive abilities lie.  Look around your class and ask yourself the question “If ‘Big John’ Doe flipped a gasket and came after me, would I be able to survive it?” Gauge where you are and where you might need to be to answer ‘yes’ to that question.  Assess the areas you need to develop:  mobility, strength, speed, power, technical base, impact and functionality of your techniques, etc. Then get to work. Then put it aside. There is so much more to developing as a martial artist and to longevity in your art than looking at everyone as either a threat or a possible attacker.

To the fighters:  If your passion is training to fight and getting in the ring, ask yourself these four questions: 1. Do I still pay my dues? 2. Do I put away my wraps, pads, gear each and every time I train? 3. Do I own the equipment I train with? 4. Are the other students afraid of me? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, your instructor takes a financial loss to train you. You are not so good that you ‘deserve’ to follow different rules from the other students.  In fact, just having you in the school costs your instructor money. Appreciate that fact and change your behavior!   Martial arts competitions can offer a great experience for those who want to participate in them. Bear in mind that a martial arts competition is just that, a competition. It offers the contact piece of sparring in a more intense venue with more adrenalin. Competitions have rules, time limits, referees, judges and a specific competition arena: it is not self defense and it is not “for real”.  It also has absolutely no bearing on the ability of those who don’t wish to participate in it.  To mentally put your instructor in the ring with you as your opponent is ridiculous and disrespectful. If your instructor does get in the ring with you, depending on who you have as an instructor, the experience may not be as pleasant or as successful as you have imagined it. It probably will, however, impact you and shift your perspective significantly.

I’m certainly not saying that you don’t need to assess the functionality of the techniques you are taught. You do. As martial artists we need to look at technique and training method with a critical eye.  We are not learning chess and should have the ability to fight if need be.  I am saying that respect for your instructor’s time in the art, time teaching and time with you is essential for your growth as a student, a person and a martial artist.  I am also saying that your instructor has provided you with a place to train. This fact deserves your respect and gratitude as well. Your instructor has put in 5, 10, 20 years before you started, and just may have something to offer because of that time.

How each martial artist develops is unique. There are common threads, principles and development cycles, however.  Our  instructors have the benefit of having worked with hundreds of students in varying stages of development to use as a base to help our growth.  He/she is not competing with you. If you are competing with him/her, ask yourself — why?  What is this going to do for me as a martial artist and as a person?  We have been given a mix of arts that many people have put a great deal of time and development into. We have been given it in a comfortable, well lit gym with protective equipment and the benefit of our instructors’ insight. If you honestly feel that you have nothing to learn from your instructor, then move on.  Make the effort and take the time to be polite, respectful, courteous, kind and adult in your conversations to others about your decision to move on.

If your physical skills have surpassed your instructor’s in an area of the art, he/she will be happy for you if you are respectful and give credit where credit is due.  Once you have reached this level, unless you quit the art, you’re not done.   Enhance the art by being a part of it.  The creation of divisiveness and pettiness isn’t enhancing anyone. If you have a different approach–great, share it but don’t put down everyone else’s approach.  You may have a new twist. Or maybe you just didn’t recognize something that’s been there all along.  Either way, your instructor has guided you to where you are–be humble, respectful and do something creative rather than destructive.   From time to time it may be necessary  to either remind yourself or a fellow martial artist that in the martial arts, even if you do surpass your instructor, you are still his/her junior in the art.