How We Teach as Martial Artists

Ugh requirements!  I guess this is a good thing though.  You’ll get a lot more content from us for sure (now you’re guaranteed at least 5 posts a week!).   I think I was pretty consistent before and was posting close to once a week anyway so this shouldn’t be too bad.  Usually I’m the type of person though who does much better when I take the initiative myself, so we’ll see if I keep up with it now that I’m being told to do it!  I guess I’d better though…or suffer what we Hagsaeng Naebu have affectionately termed The Pearson Wrath!

So let’s see…training insights this week…well, here’s one: Master Pearson recently sent me a link to this awesome video he posted on You Tube.  I would post the private link here although I’m not sure he would appreciate that very much…I would never do that sir – and now I’m self-reprimanding for the fact that thought even crossed my mind 🙂    The video was old school – from 1988 – he was a much younger martial artist then although I can honestly tell you that he looks nearly the same now  (it’s rather impressive).  In the video, this younger version of Master Pearson is learning one-on-one (or I guess really two on one- but the other dude just stands there) with Master Gallano, an amazing martial arts instructor from the Philippines (his art is Kali), who at least three out of the four of us Hagsaeng Naebu have had the tremendous pleasure of meeting and training with to a small  extent (I actually had the “privilege” of spending a bit more time with him when I drove him from his home in Toronto to Rochester for an event – oy it was crazy!  More on that some other time!)

Master Gallano and Master Pearson

Anyway, in the video, Master Gallano is “educating” our dear instructor in the art of knife defense – by which I mean basically beating the snot out of him as he demonstrates various techniques.  I found it fascinating to watch for several reasons.  For one thing, I always knew that much of the knife defense that we practice extra-curricularly came from Kali but only by watching this video could I actually see the evidence of that.  It was really neat to see how these techniques evolved (in some cases they became simplified, in others; flashier) as they were transmitted from teacher to student, from generation to generation.   The second reason that this video sort of blew my mind is in the way Master Gallano teaches.  He rarely speaks, relying solely on these somewhat violent demonstrations.  Not once does he break anything down, explain the steps, or even show it in slow motion or multiple parts.  He simply executes one technique after another, in really rapid succession.  Then the video cuts to Master Pearson and his training partner practicing with each other, and there they are executing with precision (to my eyes, Master Pearson, in his humility befitting a great martial artist would probably disagree), though with less speed for sure, the very same techniques that they were “taught” (aka shown) just once a few moments before.  It’s really kind of ridiculous!  How many of us can imagine practicing that way.  How many of you who are reading can picture being shown a front kick once and then just doing it (ok well maybe front kick is a bad example of this phenomenon but you get my point).

Master Gallano and Master Pearson

On the one hand, I am so glad that this is not how my instructor teaches and I am also glad that it is not how he has taught me to teach.  Had I been brought up with this type of instruction, I don’t think I ever would have learned anything and I fear I would have sadly quit this path when I was a little kid simply out of frustration.  As it was my training as a child was often frustrating (probably didn’t help that I wasn’t the best behaved student and I often spent the class doing push ups in the corner, or elbows and toes in the corner, or pogo in the corner, or sitting in the corner, you get the idea).  Actually I can remember numerous times (particularly the closer I got to black belt) when my parents dropped me off at the school crying because there was some technique I couldn’t do well enough and I was soooo panicked to go to class.  Another time, I distinctly remember crying (I really didn’t cry that often – I promise) my way though a  private lesson that Master Pearson made me take with  Mister Smith – by far the scariest instructor I ever had –  on spin hook kick (an absolutely terrifying experience to a 10 year old who already lacked confidence).  At any rate, I can only imagine how much worse these moments could have been if I hadn’t had meticulous instructors like Master Pearson and Mister Smith who taught more slowly and gently, breaking things down into their various parts.

Master Gallano and Master Pearson

On the other hand, as I watch the video,  I question the methods of teaching that I have worked hard to develop over the years.  As educators we know that there is a value in what has been called differentiation in learning, essentially the idea that each person learns differently (the notion of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning is one example of this), and as teachers we should cater to each person’s learning style to a certain extent.   However,  I wonder if there is not also a value in the likely unconscious, unintentionally harsh teaching style that Master Gallano employs.  Have we, by catering to our students’ particular needs, created lazy, high maintenance  students (or become lazy, high maintenance students ourselves) ? At least in the martial arts, I’m not talking about regular school here.  When Master Gallano taught, Master Pearson had no choice but to pay attention, close attention, or risk missing the technique in its entirety.  With his vast knowledge, I would guess that it was fairly likely that there are some techniques that Master Gallano would simply never repeat and with the prospect of only seeing it this one time I imagine each of his students felt pressure to really imprint it on his or her brain for all eternity.  This type of teaching forces students to become, to an extent, responsible for their own learning – for the memory of each technique, each tradition that is passed down.  This side effect of responsible students associated with this teaching style, one could argue is  also  enhanced by the fact that if a student wanted to see a technique again, he had to advocate for himself and ask his instructor for a repeat performance.   So I’m not saying this is how we should teach, or even that this is how I’m going to start to teach, but I am curious about it, and I do see the value in it.

The third thing which made this video really exciting is that I noticed Master Gallano didn’t just teach knife defense.  Rather, particular to the often violent nature of kali, he also taught how to attack.  In essence, he was teaching Master Pearson knife fighting more generally.  Now I don’t know what it says about me, but I was thrilled by this!  Like the pressure points we were finally taught as martial arts techniques (instead of just for healing purposes) at this year’s retreat, here was another example of something that had been left out of my training thus far.    Now I have something new to harass Master Pearson about, I guess.  I would imagine that Master Pearson’s (or any sane instructor’s) hesitancy in teaching such skills would be well placed here.  How terrible would it be if this type of knowledge was used to actually harm people, but at the same time, how much the more would my knife defense improve if I knew what was happening in the mind of the attacker or what to do should I successfully disarm him.

So there are my insights for the week.  Thank you Master Pearson for sharing this video with me and for giving me some things to think about.

Requirement fulfilled!



  1. Nice post Master Shaffer! Lots of things for me to think about, relating to teaching (and practicing-) and I wanted to point out that both our posts talk about paying attention, and we were writing them at the same time. Awesome!

  2. Master Shaffer,
    I am so glad you posted this because a lot of times I am told to watch higher color belts perform their form and I am often confused why. Now I understand the importance of it. I have a hard time believing that you cried so much…even now reading your blog I hear your laugh between the lines. The more I learn about old school training the more grateful towards the patience and compassion my instructors have shown me. Enlightened and inspired as always. Thanks for the blog posted!!!

    1. Haha I wasn’t really much of a crier – I’m pretty tough! Although those were two times where it actually happened! Surprisingly, as a kid, there was often a correlation between my tears and taekwondo – I can’t think of anything else that I really poured myself into at a young age the way I did with martial arts. My entire sense of self was really wrapped up in it. I would get verrrrry frustrated if I couldn’t “get” something immediately. I just so desperately wanted to be good at it and I felt a lot of pressure to please my instructors who, even as a kid, I realized how much of themselves they gave to their students and how dedicated they were towards my (our) development.

      I hear what you’re saying about our teachers’ patience and compassion. I too am really grateful – perhaps more so because like I said, I was not always (and I’m still not always) worthy of it. I was a really bad kid (and I still have what I guess we could call “challenging moments?”) and I’m really lucky that Master Pearson and numerous other people didn’t give up on me. But it’s funny, every time I think he’s being harsh in the way he’s teaching us or too demanding about something, I think abut the stories he’s told us or that I’ve seen or read about the way things used to be and I’m instantly humbled. It’s good to hear those stories and to see these kinds of videos. It certainly gives us some perspective!

  3. I think that students who take responsibility for their own learning are more real students than those who don’t. As an instructor, I can tell a huge difference between the students who take even just a bit of time to practice at home compared to those who don’t. The ones that practice at home and read up on martial arts during their own times grow and develop much faster and more fully than those other students who just sort of drift along from class to class. Obviously, this is something that can’t be forced, and certainly most youth students will probably fall into the drifting category because they’re being forced to go to classes by their parents or they simply don’t know any other way to be.

    When I was a youth student, I was a drifter myself because it never occurred to me that I had could take matters into my own hands; not until I was a first gup and realized that the only way I could make it to blackbelt was by putting in my own time and diving into the manuals myself to supplement classes and other training. Classes were much more informative to me while I was working on Taekwondo at home too. I had to become a real student in order to get my blackbelt, and that helped me understand why practitioners of Taekwondo in old-school-Korea weren’t even considered “students” until they had reached the level of 1st Dan.

    I wish that I had made the jump sooner. I now see students like Rose who even as an orange belt puts in a lot of her own time into her practice, and it really shows in her techniques. Because she takes responsibility for her own learning, she will be a way better color belt than most of the other students, and she’s lining herself up to be one heck of a blackbelt.


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