Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Superficial Sensei? Don't judge a book by it's cover...

When we look for a Sensei or a teacher, we search for certain traits, personality, knowledge and characteristics.  Often times we can only get a glimpse watching or taking a trial class.  One of the best ways to judge a teacher is to observe the students, on and off the mats.  Are they friendly, welcoming, serious about their training with a sense of humour or are they arrogant, unfriendly, or aloof?  This tends to be reflective of the teacher.

But what does a good teacher actually look like?  If you had to pick based largely on physical appearance, who would you choose?  And how much are you influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by how a Sensei looks? 

At first glance (pun intended), you’ll likely want to respond that a person’s appearance has nothing to do with your selection criteria.  After all, we’re all striving for perfection of character in our studies, right?

Truth be told, we all have our biases.  This isn’t always a bad thing.  It’s part of the human condition.  Some are based on a survival instinct.  Many we have ingrained at a subconscious level.  Some of these unconscious biases are incongruous with our conscious positions or beliefs.  Our society and the media have programmed us to respond to certain physical characteristics. 

So what does this have to do with selecting a martial arts teacher?  Who do we naturally gravitate towards?

As I mentioned, our unconscious, or subconscious biases, are often at odds with our consciously held beliefs.

No?  Pop quiz:

 1.    Male, 40’s, muscular and lean, military or MMA background
     2.  Female, 40’s, short and a tiny bit plump, works as a mid level manager in a      
          large company

You’ve now got a picture in your head.

So, who’s the better pick to teach self defense?  We could all answer that it doesn’t matter as long as they had the knowledge, skills and abilities but without an extended period of time observing or being taught, we have a tendency to assign value to factors that may or may not be accurate.

If you picked number 1, are you now defending your position because of his background?  That’s fine, but if I hadn’t mentioned the military or MMA background, would your initial pick have changed from the fit male to the shorter, 'softer' female?  This isn’t an attack or criticism, simply something to think about.

Even if we’re able to logically and consciously dispense with gender and physical traits, could we still be influenced unconsciously?

The curious thing is that we often respect or seek out martial arts teachers that are, well, bad asses.  Impressive physical specimens, who look tough, even a little intimidating.  The type of guy (or gal) that looks like they could kick our butts.

There’s nothing really wrong with that.  We want to learn from people that we figure could easily ‘take us' in a fight.  You don’t seek out someone to teach you that you believe you could easily beat in a physical altercation.  You want to learn to be tough from someone who is tough, tougher than you.  You want to learn to be just as tough, tougher.

But what does that really mean?  Are we potentially ruling out people who may have more to offer than we initially think?

Who, as a teacher is really more impressive?  And what do we hope to learn?  If our true goal is to learn to deal with real violence and to survive if attacked, who should we look to?  Should we pick the big, strong, amazingly fit person, of the more average one?

When weighing our options, we need to make sure we balance all the factors.  What’s actually more impressive, someone more physically fit that you are doing a technique on you effectively, or someone less imposing doing the same?

In styles such as Jiu Jitsu, you use your opponent’s energy and force against them.  It is an effective martial art for learning how to defeat a bigger, more powerful attacker.  Sometimes referred to as the “gentle art” – ha!

How, then, you answer the question of who’s more impressive?

The vast majority of time, the smaller, less powerful individual will have a higher level of skill in their technique.  They won’t have the luxury of being able to ‘power through’ a poor application of technique to compensate.  They will often be superior in the way they teach as they had to learn it properly right from the start.  There are no cutting corners; you have to learn to do it right or you’re in trouble.

Back to the pop quiz.

Obviously, there was not nearly enough information to make a proper assessment, and gender was thrown in as a means for a little introspection, but the fact remains -  It may be better to seek out someone of lesser physical stature who has learned his or her art to such a level that they can effectively defend themselves and teach others, as opposed to a genetically gifted athlete.  

Those that have had to work harder for their accomplishments are often better teachers and more skilled than the ‘naturals’.

Appearances can be deceiving.

Picture Morihei Ueshiba, especially later in his life.  You could argue he didn’t look very intimidating physically.  Imagine you passed on training with him due to his somewhat diminutive status as compared to many other ‘tough guys’.

It may be better to seek out someone who can effectively defend themselves when they’re at their worst, as opposed to someone at their best and at their peak. 

A short, heavy, injured person who can take defend themselves may have more to teach you than an elite athlete in their prime that can do 10 minute rounds without breaking a sweat.  

Obviously, physical fitness is an important component of martial arts training, and it can only make things easier for you.  For pure quality of technique and teaching effectiveness, however, it may not be the only pre-requisite.

Keep an open mind.  

An important lesson in the martial arts.  And in life...


  1. Much depends on the goal(s) you're training for. If you train for competition you want someone who's had success in the ring so therefore one who is ruthless in fighting. If you train for self-defense a background in security, police or military is a plus. For classical martial arts/foreign culture/spirituality it doesn't matter what background they're from.

    As to physical appearance: I'd avoid an overtly aggressive demeanor as it could imply a bad training atmosphere or higher chances for injury due to lack of attention for safety concerns. A teacher doesn't need to look like a bodybuilder or a highly trained athlete but I draw the line at a beerbelly and not being in shape. People who are fat should not be teaching martial arts: yes it could be due to a medical condition but for the greater part it's lack of willpower and someone who doesn't have the discipline to stay in shape themselves shouldn't pretend to be able to teach others about discipline. Besides: if you train hard and often (as you should if you are or want to be a teacher) you'll have no excess body fat or lack of stamina so it stands to reason that someone who is fat probably doesn't train very hard or only infrequently.

    It's my experience that teachers who are really good and who can fight usually are very friendly, open and easy going people since they don't feel like they have anything to prove (they don't have to worry about whether or not they can use violence effectively) and learned the lesson of being in harmony with themselves and the world. Martial arts teachers should be able to impart more than the purely physical, in my view this shouldn't be done by lecturing but by example. There's truth in the statement that the quality of the teacher can be measured by the behavior of his/her students.

  2. Linus,

    Great points. Many people don't know, at first anyway, why they are training. It is so important to know what you want to get out of training to make it meaningful and useful.

    I tend to agree with your comments about physical appearance, to a degree. I'm conflicted in the sense that I know a couple Sensei who are quite out of shape and are as deadly as they come. They still teach from time to time, but are mainly retired. In fairness, they were once in good shape, so perhaps that speaks to your point. A slob doesn't look good in front of a class, but some have knowledge and skill that shouldn't be overlooked.

    And I agree, most teachers with a high degree of skill are very humble and approachable.

    Thanks for the comment.