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
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...