I usually don’t openly criticize other teachers – especially those in the same art. Sure I have my own opinions, but I don’t pretend to be an expert in all things. There might be something someone is showing that I just don’t understand yet. But every once in a while, I run into something so egregiously wrong that I have to say something, even if (and especially if) it’s someone of a “higher rank” in our art. I will refrain from using his name. However if you know who this is and you’re studying underneath them – run. Go find a different teacher because you’re wasting your time and money.
Trying Out a Different Instructor
One of our students visited a fellow instructor of our art. This instructor has a background in what many consider a prestigious law enforcement agency. He is a Shihan (i.e. high ranked), and touts himself as a personal student of Soke Hatsumi. He holds a self defense class for a college where he works. One of my students happens to attend the same college, and asked me if she could train there. I always encourage our students to train with other instructors, and encouraged her to do the same. Another teacher might have something I’m missing, or might just be a better teacher overall. After all, it’s about the student’s learning and finding the best fit for them. When she came back after a few classes, I asked her what she learned.
The “Self Defense” Class
“In one class, they asked me to show the San Shin. I guess [the instructor] doesn’t do it much.”
I found that interesting. While I have confessed to neglecting the San Shin (it’s not the most exciting drill), Soke has said it is one of the most important movements to learn. Its also a great teaching tool for beginners. I still probably don’t show it enough. So I high five’d her, and asked what else she learned.
“He told me to make a fist to punch like this.”
I was floored; it was so incorrect I was shocked. I said puzzled
“Holding your hand like that when striking anything would break your knuckles.”
I naturally assumed she was mistaken.
“Are you sure he didn’t say like this?”
I made a shikanken – a fist used in our art.
“Nope. Like this. He said because it dissipates the force on impact.”
This is super wrong – like the complete opposite of correct. First, a fist is to deliver impact. If your strike dissipates when it hits, then you are imparting less force into the opponent.
Second, as I mentioned before, you’ll break your hand when you try to strike with any power. I began to worry about the quality of instruction. I asked what else he showed.
She proceeded to show a choke defense. It seemed very simple – and yet – not super practical. I played a little bit with it, seeing if there was maybe something I was missing. I then tried it against resistance. And it failed. She stopped me and said
“oh, he also said not to tuck your chin. I did it out of habit [from our classes] and he told me not to.”
Wait what?! You’re getting choked and your first reaction isn’t to protect your throat by tucking your chin? That’s literally the first thing you do in every choke defense technique in our art – in practically all arts! I asked if there was anything else, afraid of what may come next.
“You know how you sometimes show conceptual stuff from Soke? That’s mostly what he shows.”
I had heard enough. This guy has no idea what he’s doing and doesn’t know how to teach self defense.
Background into Context
I on occasion try to teach some of the concepts that Soke teaches. But I always put them into context. When we watch Soke doing something, it’s based on 60+years of drilling in Martial Arts; he is exploring the subtle nuances after a lifetime of training. I also acknowledge that much of it is over my head. So to teach that level of technique to new students that know little to nothing about martial arts, especially when they may only study for a semester, is like having someone study Stephen Hawking level physics without knowing arithmetic – it does more harm than good. And for self defense, it’s not what they need. I know what you may be saying:
“But wait! He worked at a elite law enforcement agency – probably kicking down doors. He’s super high ranked AND a personal student of Soke!”
I had some of that reaction myself. When I did a little bit of digging into the background of this instructor, I found several important things out:
- He worked behind a desk at their agency; he was not a “door kicker.”
- He was ranked very fast in our art.
While there’s nothing wrong with the above by itself, it’s not as impressive as it may sound on first blush or on paper in context of teaching self defense.
And claiming to be a personal student is pretty vague. I’d venture to say that unless you are Japanese and/or living in Japan, you’re probably not as personal with Soke as you’d like to think.
Asking around in our art, he doesn’t exactly have the most stellar reputation either. Personally, I’ve only met the instructor once while in Japan and don’t have an accurate gauge of him. He was very polite and friendly. Maybe he just doesn’t know that what he’s teaching is wrong. Maybe he does the best he can with the best intentions. While I can sympathize, in the end that matters little when you teach self defense. As Jocko Willick, a Retired Navy Seal, says
“there’s only two kinds of leadership: effective and ineffective.”
And what he’s teaching is ineffective.
Getting Your Students Killed
What his students are learning are things that put them in MORE danger – not less. If they try to punch someone attacking them, they’ll break their hand. If someone tries to choke them, they’ll assist them in applying the choke. And they’ll likely walk into their own demise with confidence from learning the wrong things. Odds are they would have been better off never taking a class. Now that doesn’t mean that there is zero value in what his students are learning. But if they can’t get something as fundamental as how to hold a fist correctly, how can you really trust what else they are teaching? If you punched once like that, you’d know better.
It’s not about Ego
Now I’m not claiming to be the ultimate authority. I’m not former military or law enforcement, although I have had the privilege of learning from some. I’m not a “personal” student of Soke, but I know who are and try to learn from them. I’m not an MMA champ or a deadly warrior. I just study our art, pay attention, acknowledge my limitations and challenge myself. Most of all I take the responsibility of teaching self defense to others seriously. And after 12+ years of training, I can at least say I and my students know how to make a fist.