Recently, I’ve been hearing a lot about trainers’ discontent with people who they believe should not be teaching the muay thai art, or training others to compete in the ring. There have been discussions on social media from well-known trainers who have stated their arguments about the subject, so I’d like to clarify any confusion on the subject. From my perspective, there is nothing wrong with someone who wants to give you advice on how to throw a technique or show you “how to do it better”. Whether it comes from someone who is of status – a world champion, for example – or another student who only has learned for about six months, it doesn’t really matter because they are simply helping you. However, I don’t think it’s right that someone with limited knowledge in this field feels that they can teach complex techniques and strategy concepts when they’re not qualified to do so. In my opinion, they are overstepping their boundaries.
Let’s first talk about what teaching means and what instructors and trainers do. If you are learning muay thai as a martial art or self-defense, then you need an instructor to teach you. If you are doing muay thai for fitness or for sport with a goal to eventually compete, then you will also need a trainer or a coach. A trainer (and coach) is someone who primarily conducts training regimens with their athletes and fighters.
“Anyone can be a teacher, but not everyone can be an Instructor.”
By definition, a teacher is someone who helps others to learn something. So, by that meaning, anyone can be a teacher as long as they are teaching someone something new. In fact, I would have to say the best teachers I have right now are my 10- and 8-year-old boys because they teach me a lot about myself. An instructor is someone who takes teaching seriously. It is their profession whose occupation is to impart knowledge and skill-sets to another. A really good instructor recognizes that some students have an individual perceptual learning style while others are simply (what I call) ‘surface learners’. In other words, every person is different to some degree in how they process information so they must be taught accordingly. The same can be said about trainers and coaches. A trainer conducts drills, but coaches also give students wisdom from their personal experiences and years of involvement in that discipline, in order for their pupil to become his or her best. So what qualifies an instructor?
“…So you’ve had an amateur fight or two, well, you’ve just come out of high school! …Oh, you’ve learned from a muay thai school with thai trainers and got certified, great, you just graduated from community college! ”
I don’t recall who told me this about ten years ago, but it has always stuck with me. If you let this idea sink in a little, you can say that there is some truth to it. And if you take it a step further, there are those who after attaining their Bachelor’s degree, go out into the field while continuing their education to obtain their Masters degree; so learning continues for another ten years. In this paradigm, one could interpret ‘the field’ and ‘Masters degree’ to professional fights and attaining championship titles. Am I saying that fighters make good teachers? No, not all. Although they know first-hand what techniques and strategies work and don’t work because they have tested them in the ring, that doesn’t necessarily translate into being a good instructor. Fighting and teaching are two totally different animals! And through my lenses, I’ve seen some really good fighters turn out to be bad instructors.
I’m sure one can argue in great length what qualifies an instructor but I’m not here to argue or debate what those criterias are. So, I will give you what I believe to be the three most important qualities of being a really great instructor:
1) Real world experience. I believe that anyone who has dedicated at least a quarter of their lives to that field has an expertise. Having a good portion of those years with an extensive scope of teaching experience, one potentially can make a really great instructor. If you are also training students to compete, I believe it’s important that one should have some ring experience as well. The more battle tested you are, the higher the knowledge you have. Having been ‘certified as an instructor’ is commendable, but real-world experience cannot be attained (or bought) in a 3-month course. It is personal wisdom and insight that can’t ever be taken away from you.
2) A good communicator. If you are able to convey the how to’s and the why’s to a broad spectrum of student types, and personalize it so that the individual truly understands what your explaining, then you’re a really great instructor. Being able to do this means you have connected with them and that is a very powerful tool!
3) Having pure intentions. A great instructor recognizes that it is about the best interest of the student (or fighter). Having pure intentions means that you are devoid of your own personal agendas, ego and pride. The true nature of teaching is to enable students and fighters to fully maximize their understanding, their talents and their skills.
“ Those good in technique, regardless of the art they pursue, are not necessarily able to teach the true meaning of the art….they may appear to understand, and as result permit their own self-importance to convince them that they are bearers of the truth, professing to be masters.”
Miyamoto Musashi wrote this in his iconic work ‘The Book Of 5 Rings’. Historically, he was the greatest warrior Japan has ever known. To expand on what Musashi said, my interpretation of that excerpt is this: If you have only had a few years in the art, you have a limited knowledge base. If you have a temperamental nature because you lack patience, are sensitive, or are an emotional person, you shouldn’t be teaching. If you’re approach to teaching or training is of the mindset that “It’s my way or the highway” because you command respect, you shouldn’t be teaching. Not only are you doing a disservice, but you could potentially be putting him or her in a situation risking their physical and mental safety.
If you are someone who believes that muay thai is a passion of yours, no one is going to stop you if your desire is to teach it. There are many levels of teaching so teach what you know. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t impose your teachings to others as if that is the only truth. Don’t talk badly about other instructors and trainers. The ideal instructor will have the three qualities mentioned above: real world experience, good communication, and pure intentions. But having pure intentions is the most important quality of those you can possess. My first muay thai coach had a few kickboxing matches under his belt but did not compete professionally. After a few years being under his tutelage, he told me that he’s taught me everything he knew. He passed me on to a Thai master who he felt would teach and train me at the highest level. It was an act of selflessness. I respect him for doing that because he had pure intentions for me to grow and become my best self. As another example, I work with a well-known MMA trainer who I think is one of the most knowledgeable persons out there. He has never stepped in the ring or cage. What makes him one of the best MMA coaches in the industry is that he seeks out experts in the various disciplines and brings them on board as part of the training staff because he wants his fighters to have the best elite level training. Instructors and coaches are mentors who know they must inspire. They are leaders who understand that it is a privilege to be in this position.
“ A teacher is never a giver of truth, he is a guide, a pointer to the truth that each student must find for himself.” – Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee was one of the greatest teachers that ever lived in the 20th century. The original quote is actually expressed in more detail and it has been restated in a simpler form to have more of a profound statement. It basically means that “the best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see” (Alexandra Trenfor). At its fundamental level, muay thai is simply punching, kicking, kneeing and elbowing one another. If looked at this way, it would be easy to say that anyone can be an instructor teaching this art or train anyone in this sport. In my world view, yes, anyone can teach. But, being an instructor or a coach is not everyone’s calling because there are great responsibilities that come with being a teacher.