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Coaching Versus Instruction
Notes on Teaching Perspectives
© 2012 James LaFond
Spying on Myself
I recently tuned into an online blade forum on which I was being discussed. I found it enlightening, with the knife enthusiasts evenly split on the value of my knife book. Then, one of the more even-handed commentators asked if ‘LaFond teaches in Baltimore’.
That was when they lost me, as the statement convinced me that they had either not read my book or had misread it. They were also discussing what an improbably lethal urban badass I was. Now, I have stated repeatedly that I am not a badass. I’m an urban survival geek. Calling me an apex urban survivor, or implying that I am passing myself off as one, is like saying the beer-bellied guy with the headset on the NFL sidelines leads—or is purported to lead—the league in sacks.
The teaching statement got me thinking about my odd relationship with martial arts people. So that I might have a place to train in bad weather, I have worked as a coach for roughly ten martial arts programs. The students and teachers have called me everything from sifu, master, coach to simply mister. I prefer mister and coach; know the definition of sifu, and find it troubling; and have ‘mastered’ the following pursuits: reading; walking; mass transit use; and cowgirl submissive intercourse. That’s it. So if you have a reading list to plow through, a long hike scheduled, a bus to catch, or you’re the frustrated soccer mom in the second row at the dojo, you can call me master. Other than that, it’s a case of mislabeling.
Now this line of thought, along with my various in-print rejections of martial arts labels, and of the habit of well-meaning people to use those labels to define my efforts in the pursuit of combat arts, has got me thinking. Many people in martial arts schools see what I do and tell me what a skillful practitioner of the Filipino arts I am. I always correct them: state that I do not practice Filipino arts, and am rejected by the Filipino martial arts community that I cross-train with. In fact, it happened again last night, when students were examining my stick-fighting gear. I described the sport as nothing more than ‘two guys beating each other with sticks’. Then the head instructor told them that it was a Filipino art. I remained polite. However, when the students asked me about all of the Filipino stick-fighters out there, I had to inform them that I had fought 624 bouts without crossing sticks with one, and was beginning to believe they were extinct.
The Black Sash
I do own a black sash; a Chinese tasseled version of a black belt, given me by Sifu-Goru Arturo Gabriel some ten years ago. It hangs in the dojo dressing room. I do not use the instructors’ dressing room. I will only wear this belt when Gabriel insists, or when I am fighting someone loyal to one of the local Filipino Gorus that he is at odds with—hopefully before I am too old. Gabe is Puerto Rican. He is a better escrima instructor than most of the Filipinos I have trained under. He has his own style, ‘Two hands Cutting’, a double-knife/double-stick style he has hybridized. He gave me his black sash in that style, not because I can teach it, but so that I could represent him as a fighter. This is what the Filipinos do; they get a big American and have him fight for them. I am careful to state that this black sash is an honorary one, a fighting sash, not one indicative of curricula mastery, or even competence.
I have spent most of my time in helping boxers and stick-fighters prepare as a trainer; engaged in what I call training. This is a specific attempt to assist a fighter in coaching himself, or a means by which I assist a coach in preparing a ‘managed’ fighter. In dojo terms this makes me like an assistant instructor that just works on applications. As a boxing coach I’m a fundamentals specialist, primarily helping to correct guard problems, improve footwork, and vary punching techniques for specific applications. As a weaponry coach I am primarily a range maintenance specialist.
In my mind, and as a reflection of my boxing roots, I see the trainer as the coach’s assistant. Just like a baseball coach has a pitching coach, and a football coach has a defensive, offensive and special teams coordinator, a combat arts coach is made more effective when he has a specialist on tap. This has generally made me more effective as an adjunct to MMA and JKD programs, than traditional ones, who have a harder time slotting me.
I do work as a coach, when no one else is there to accept the offer. I do not consider myself a very good coach in boxing or weaponry. The coach has total responsibility for rounding out a fighter’s development and has a management and match-making function. I am still fighting with weapons, which makes me un-suitable as a coach [head trainer] in that field, as I am still selfishly pursuing my own goals. As far as being a boxing coach goes, I am a novice, only having cornered for 8 fighters to date. Frank Gilbert does that in a month, and has been doing that for 40 years. How in hell could I honestly recommend myself over Frank?
A coach, above all, needs to have the ability to counsel, inspire and lead. I’m pretty much limited to counseling by my personality. Inspiration requires that salesman gift that I so crucially lack. I couldn’t sell cheerleaders in prison.
To me an instructor has the knowledge and ability to demonstrate and teach an entire curriculum. I think this label is most accurately applied to eclectic systems like JKD. The instructor should have a critical mindset and a better than average grasp of biomechanics. Many fighters are too subjective and selfish and naturally gifted to become good instructors. Instruction is primarily a technical pursuit. I find myself to be mediocre as a weaponry instructor. Boxing is too limited by the brutality and self-discipline required of the sport and the need for self-training fighters, for the label of instructor to really fit there.
To me a combat arts teacher purveys an art. This goes beyond curricular knowledge and gets into the realm of belief, ethics and tradition, including cultural matters. A teacher does not just train fighters, coach for a sport, or instruct in technical matters. To me a teacher promotes an art, a way. Just like a coach manages trainers and assistant coaches, a teacher, I think, should be able to manage a staff of instructors. I like working under the four teachers that have asked me to assist them over the course of the last year. I do not, however, see me ever stepping up to fill their shoes.
I do not have the psychological makeup to ever be a teacher. Furthermore, I am not involved in an art. Boxing and stick-fighting are sports, and my pursuit of the weapon arts is really an irreverent cannibalistic undertaking.
A teacher I am not.
The One Punch KO
modern combat
The Brutal Salsa
the greatest lie ever sold
buzz bunny
blue eyed daughter of zeus
alex konstantaras     Aug 11, 2014

Dear Sir, allow me to differ.In fighting edge(page 72chapter starting out) you point out (and quite rightly so),the things to ask a potential instructor.If a student would ask you these questions,you would nail down each one of them(except maybe number5-6).In question number 11,which i also believe shows interest,love and dedication for the subject,you can't merely point out books,YOU HAVE ALREADY WRITTEN SOME OF THE BEST that i have ever read (and i have read most of them).Mr La Fond,you can research,analyze,rationalize and then put into words and practical advice things that most martial arts teachers and instructors have'nt even think of.In the computer age that we are living the easiest part of any self-defence student,is to find about the mechanics of any given technique or about the curriculum of any given system.But who will teach us the meat of the subject (predatory behavior,how the aggressors think,how they behave,how the victms feel etcetera)? Only the few that have the intellect the passion the experience and the selflessness to educate oters about these matters.Mr La Fond i am not trying to blow your own horn, i am just stating the facts.Any person who can call you coach,sifu,trainer or whatever is indeed very lucky.
    Aug 11, 2014

That is very kind of you Alex.

Excuse me though, if I might quibble over the instructional terminology.

I don't instruct as this presupposes mastery of a curriculum and I abhor curriculum-based activities.

I don't teach because this implies filling a void, inculcation of tradition and an authority position in a hierarchy.

I have no problem with the terms coach, trainer or tutor, as I see myself assisting persons in self-cultivation.

I will not, however, quibble with your appreciation of my massive intellect. You know Alex, I thought I kept losing cell phone connections because my phone is 10 years old. Then I realized I only dropped calls when I turned so that my prodigious cranium and its superconductive contents came between my communications device and the cell tower.
alex konstantaras     Aug 12, 2014

Allright,now my appreciation grew even bigger...
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