Martial Arts Teacher or Martial Arts Coach?

In the martial arts there are different titles given to people who train others in martial arts.  While in the end the title may not matter too much, I think it is interesting to consider the underlying implications of these titles.  In particular, today we are going to look at the difference between a martial arts ‘teacher’ and a martial arts ‘coach’.

Generally older more traditional styles of martial arts use the title of ‘teacher’ or a title with similar meaning while more recent modern styles of martial arts tend to use the title ‘coach’.  So what do we mean by these two different titles?  To teach implies to deliver new information, whereas to coach does not necessarily imply delivery of new information, but rather assistance with improving usage of information which is already known.

Complex vs Simple, Old vs New

When we look at the titles in this way, it makes sense that old traditional styles would use the title ‘teacher’ because these styles often are very complex with myriads of techniques and principles for a student to learn.  They often include training for many different types of situation which may include unarmed combat, weapons, multiple opponents as well as single opponents, and possibly even practices for the health and wellbeing of the mind and body.  There is a lot to be ‘taught’ in these styles.

Newer styles on the other hand are often much simpler, for example boxing has only four punches (jab, cross, hook and upper cut), this combined with some footwork, body movement and clinching is essentially all there is to ‘learn’ in the art.  Often a modern art is primarily focused on training for only one type of situation, usually a sporting competition.  Because of this restricted focus of application the emphasis of training usually very quickly moves to refinement of the techniques and subtle tactics of application.  The title ‘coach’ is very appropriate, as after a few classes your trainer is unlikely to be teaching you much that is ‘new’ but will spend a lot of time helping you to improve your usage of the few techniques you have been taught.

The teacher/student or athlete/coach relationship

I think the titles we use also have a subtle effect on the nature of the relationship between the person being trained and their trainer.  In a teacher student relationship there is an implication that the teacher knows more and is therefore in a superior position.  The student is reliant on the teacher for knowledge and must trust that whatever the teacher teaches is correct.  There is great respect between student and teacher.

Athlete coach relationships are a bit different.  There are still the elements of trust, but not always the implication of the coach having a superior position.  Rather than the student looking to the teacher for new knowledge, the athlete looks to the coach for inspiration, motivation and for feedback specifically about how they are doing and how they can improve.  This relationship is often more equal and together the athlete and coach will discuss and plan ways to help the athlete improve and become the best they can be, perhaps even to become better than the coach ever was.

So how does all of this apply to Long White Cloud Kung Fu?

Well as you know, kung fu is a very complex art.  We incorporate multiple methods of striking and kicking, joint locking and throwing.  We use many different weapons and we learn to defend against single and multiple attackers both unarmed and armed.  In addition to this at higher levels we learn to use the energy within our bodies to stay healthy and strong and also to make us more effective in combat.  There is a LOT to learn.  So to begin with the title of ‘teacher’ is appropriate while the student is going through their early stages of learning.

Evolving relationships

Over time though, this makes less and less sense.  With dedicated practice the student will come to a point of having a good understanding of all of this information, and while they may yet have more to learn, they may also start to have their own valid insights into their kung fu practice which may go beyond the knowledge of their teacher.

One of the classic problems that occurred historically in traditional martial arts was when the student began to surpass the teacher.   At this point the teacher would sometimes begin to become jealous of the student and would often begin to hold back information so that the teacher could maintain their position of superiority.  This could lead to several possible outcomes:

  1. The student’s learning stagnated for many years while they remained subservient to their teacher.  In a fairy tale ending, just before the teacher died he or she passed on the remaining knowledge to one of their students so that they finally knew all the ‘secrets’.
  2. The student became dissatisfied and left their teacher to go and find someone who would teach them what their teacher would not.  This often led to rifts and rivalries between different groups of martial artists.
  3. The teacher never got around to teaching anyone their ‘secrets’ before they died, and the knowledge was lost.

None of these are great outcomes.  All of these situations presuppose a finite supply of knowledge to be learned, when in reality knowledge is limitless.  There is far more yet to be discovered than has ever been learned up until now. I think a far healthier outcome (and yes sometimes this happened as well) was when the student and teacher both recognized the changing nature of their relationship and embraced it in a healthy way.

Once the student has gained their basic knowledge the relationship needs to start to move away from being student/teacher and towards a relationship more like that between an athlete and coach or maybe mentor.  In this way both embrace their emerging equality and the potential for new learning and development.  This is part of what keeps a martial art alive and healthy.

My title

For quite some time I have referred to myself as a kung fu teacher, and in many situations this will still be appropriate.  But now as my students continue to progress in their knowledge and skill I look forward to my relationship with them beginning to change and evolve.  I look forward to helping them gain their own insights into the martial arts and to helping them develop their skills to levels which exceed my own. I look forward to my role becoming more about inspiration, motivation and refinement and less about delivering new material.  I look forward to more of my students starting to call me their kung fu coach, or mentor and less of them calling me ‘teacher’.

Together there are exciting horizons for us to explore and discoveries to be made.

Long White Cloud Kung Fu Teacher, Coach and Mentor,

John Munro


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