Thursday, October 12, 2017

What Does the Student Need

I've been enjoying the Jiu-Jitsu Brotherhood podcast, hosted by Nic Gregoriades. Nic brings a deep philosophical approach to his jiu-jitsu, and his podcast reflects that thinking. In episode 10 he interviewed Matt Thornton, the famous coach known for his concept of "aliveness" in training.

Nic asked Matt for advice on how to be a better martial arts coach. Paraphrasing Matt, his response was the following:

When teaching, ask yourself "what does the student need from me, right now, to succeed?"

Matt's question really resonated with me. In jiu-jitsu I'm a student, but in Krav Maga I'm a student and a member of our instructor development program. I help teach kids and adult fundamentals classes, and I'm available for private instruction.

Matt added that instructors should worry less about "looking good" in front of students, or demonstrating the latest and greatest flashy technique. Instructors should concentrate on getting through to the student and connecting with them, such that the student makes progress.

Nic has also said that jiu-jitsu (or really most martial arts) are the only athletic endeavor where there is an expectation that the coach is "the best player on the team." He said:

Imagine if people expected the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers (currently Tyronn Lue) to be better than LeBron James. Does that make any sense? We do this in jiu-jitsu though.

It's probably a function of rank, given the instructor is likely the senior person in the room. I agree that it does not make sense. In some cases it is true, but only in certain applications. When I see Prof Pedro Sauer demonstrate his technique, it's clear he operates at a level beyond anyone I've seen personally. Probably Rickson Gracie is the only person I've witnessed with technique at our beyond Prof Sauer's level. However, Prof Sauer, at age 59, can't roll the way he did 20 or 30 years ago. Does this mean he needs to be replaced? Of course not!

Keeping "what does the student need" at the forefront of teaching led me down this path: the student needs the type of instructor that connects with him or her, helping the student to make progress. Some students may need a sparring partner who can push him or her physically, as is the case with competitive athletes. Even in that situation, it may be better for the instructor to coach from the sidelines as the student engages with a comparable competitive sparring partner. Others may need a more technical approach. Still others may need help in areas we haven't considered yet.

I also subscribe to the philosophy that the teacher should always try to develop students who surpass his or her capabilities. Nic called this "creating the weapons of your own destruction!" Jeremy Lesniak from Whistlekick makes a similar point. The alternative to constant improvement -- stagnation, or worse, degradation -- is unacceptable to me. We should all want our arts to improve, and that manifests through students who surpass their teachers.

How do you answer "what does the student need?" Let me know here on on Twitter!

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