The Power of One-on-One Coaching

Last week I was lucky. I made it the lunch-time, adults-only Taekwondo class at my school , but I was the only one who did — other than the instructor. That meant I got an hour of totally customized, private training.  I had a few private sessions over the past couple of years and they’re always special.

When I have a true one-on-one lesson, I don’t have to follow the “class planner” and work on what everyone else is doing. The instructor knows me. He sees me every week, and he knows what I’m good at and what I’m not. At one private session I had 6 months ago, we spent almost the entire time on my side-kick. My side-kick was kind of broken, but I didn’t even know it.  However, with 45 minutes of dedicated attention and a number of drills to focus on it the instructor fixed months of bad habits I’d developed.

At last week’s private lesson, we spent 15 minutes working on the form I’ll need to show at my next grading. The instructor showed me things to focus on that we’d never get to in a class full of kids — which describes most of the classes at my school.

I’ve recently been enjoying the HBO series Game of Thrones.  It’s a fun swords and sorcery piece with great charters. My favorite character is Arya, a 9 year-old noble-born girl who is something of a tomboy. After it becomes clear his family is in danger, her father agrees to let Arya learn to handle a sword.  The clip below from the third episode shows Arya’s first lesson. It’s a great example of the power of one-on-one coaching. Watch how engaged she is. He is totally focused on her and she senses that. If you’re a martial arts teacher, when was the last time you had a session like this with one of your students?


I’m Calling Out Steven Seagal!

Steven Seagal is one of the few action movie stars who is actually as bad-ass off-screen as the characters he plays on-screen. He has legit martial arts credentials, like a 7th degree black belt in Aikido, and more recently spends his time working as an actual member of the SWAT team for an Arizona police department. His early movies, like Above the Law, are a some of the best Hollywood-produced martial arts flicks ever.  Back when I started to study Aikido, many years ago, he was one of my inspirations. In fact, I can say he has been one of my heros.

On a recent trip, I picked up a copy of Fight! magazine and was pretty excited to see it had an interview with Seagal.  While the interview was well done, and Steven had many interesting things to say, there was one part of the interview that really set me off.  Recently, he’s been credited with training some UFC mixed-martial arts (MMA) fighters to use some old-fashion karate techniques to deal devastating knock out blows.  In discussing this he gets into his philosophy on talent.  Here’s what he has to say:

“Certainly, there is a technique that you’re learning and the master you’re learning from, but also there’s a certain sort of natual gift that you are given from God, which has to do with real genetics and what you’re born with.  It’s something that no one can really be given. God gives you that. You’re parents give you that.  In other words, Bill Gates is very good at compuaters, and I am practucally computer illiterate. I don’t have the natural gift to understand those things, but if you look at the Hall-of-Famers, if you look at all the different fighters that have become great, great masters and very successful, those are people who have had  special aptitude, probably since birth and have taken what they specially good at and made themselves better. Those people may not be good at other things and that’s the same way I am — I’ve been learning the fighting arts since I was a child. I’m good at a few things in life and pretty terrible at most of the other ones.”

Now, to me this is just all wrong. Steven Seagal didn’t get good at martial arts because God or genetics gave him a gift. That just smacks of Luke Skywalker syndrome to me.  In reality, he got so good at martial arts because, in his own words, he has been “learning the fighting arts since I was a child.” He got good because he practiced intensely for years!  Now, I’m not a world class martial artist like Seagal, but there are things at which I am world class. In fact, Seagal brings up Bill Gates and computers as an example in this quote. I am a world class computer technologist, and I can say that without hesitation.  However, I didn’t learn about computers from God. I learned about programming from my dad, starting when I was 7 years old, and subsequently spent thousands of hours programming computers. I got good at it because I practiced — just like Bill Gates!

I fundamentally believe that people achieve greatness through hard work, practice and determination, not supernatural gifts. And, I believe this is just as true in martial arts as it is in computers, music or any other discipline. I believe this enough that I go out and train every day so that some day I will be a great martial artist. You can be too!  Feel free to take advice from Mr. Seagal on how to preform the Crane kick to knock out a UFC fighter, but don’t listen to him about whether you can succeed as a martial artist. I know that I can do it, and so can you!

What Makes Us Love Kung Fu Panda?

Tonight, I took my two daughters to see Kung Fu Panda 2.  It got a collective Three Thumbs Up from us.  While I was watching the movie, and realizing how much we were all enjoying it, I started thinking about why it was so good.  It turns out it has many qualities make a great martial arts movie — cartoon or not.

First off, it’s worth noting that the movie is visually stunning. There’s no other way to put it.  Now, add to that the fact that this movie has the best use of 3D I’ve seen to date. The 3D effects are powerful, without being overbearing. Things fit right it.

However, any movie can look great, that doesn’t mean it’s a great martial arts movie. Here are some things I think make Kung Fu Panda 2 fit that bill. First off, it does execute faithfully on a story arc that delivers a Hero’s Journey.  While the first movie delivered on the classic tail of the farm-boy transforming to the powerful warrior (yeah, just like Luke Skywalker!) this one is more of an inner journey where Po needs to find himself and learn where he comes from.

Next, the movie is really about family. All too often, the hero in a cheap martial arts movie comes from nowhere.  In the first movie, we loved Po’s “father” the goose and that helped to ground Po for us. In this movie we learn much more about Po’s family and history. Putting it all in context makes the movie more grand. Great martial arts movies deliver this link for the hero into his larger family. Sometimes its only in the form of a vendetta to avenge a quickly dispatched fallen family member — which this plot line could easily have fallen into.  However, we got a lot more here and it felt satisfying.

Lastly, the fight scenes are awesome. They’re well choreographed, exciting and credible. I don’t say they are realistic, but they feel credible in their context.  They suck you right in and make you want to get into the action. And isn’t that what we go to a martial arts movie for?

What did you think?  Did you like Kung Fu Panda 2?  Will you go see Kung Fu Panda 3?

Top 5 Movie Martial Arts Masters

Every good martial arts movie has a great martial arts master to help the hero along on their journey to greatness.  Here are a few of my favorites.  All of these are fun characters, but I think we can also learn something about how to teach the martial arts from each of them.  Here is my take on each one of these Movie Martial Arts Masters.

Name: Mr. Miyagi

Movie: Karate Kid (1984)
Home: Southern California (by way of Okinawa)
Art: Karate

Wise Quote:

Daniel: Hey – you ever get into fights when you were a kid?
Miyagi: Huh – plenty.
Daniel: Yeah, but it wasn’t like the problem I have, right?
Miyagi: Why? Fighting fighting. Same same.
Daniel: Yeah, but you knew karate.
Miyagi: Someone always know more.
Daniel: You mean there were times when you were scared to fight?
Miyagi: Always scare. Miyagi hate fighting.
Daniel: Yeah, but you like karate.
Miyagi: So?
Daniel: So, karate’s fighting. You train to fight.
Miyagi: That what you think?
Daniel: [pondering] No.
Miyagi: Then why train?
Daniel: [thinks] So I won’t have to fight.
Miyagi: [laughs] Miyagi have hope for you.

What we can learn:

Mr. Miyagi teaches from a place of pure love.  He loves Daniel and he loves Karate.  Teaching Karate isn’t a job for him.  It’s part of him and it is something he must do.  Belts, uniforms and tournaments are not the center of his teaching.  He is helping Daniel grow in the same way he shapes his bonsai trees.

Name: Mr. Han

Movie: Karate Kid (2010)
Home: Beijing, China
Art: Kung Fu

Wise Quote:

  • Your focus needs more focus!

What we can learn:

Mr. Han shares much in common with Mr. Miyagi.  Hey, they’re basically the same character!  But, there’s one very special thing about him that I was attracted to.  Mr. Han has a unique challenge when compared to any of the other masters in this entry.  He’s teaching a child — Dre is only 11.  All the others are teaching a teenager or a young man.  Having done a lot of martial arts with children (including my own daughters) I know how different that is.  Mr. Han’s relentless calls to focus address the hardest part of teaching smaller children.  I’ve used his “Your focus needs more focus!” quote when working with my own six year old daughter.  It’s always a challenge, but it’s rewarding to see when they start to learn it.

Name: Yoda

Movie: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Home: Degobah
Art: The Way of the Force

Wise Quotes:

  • Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not.
  • No. Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.

What we can learn:

I’ve previously made clear my issues with Luke Skywalker as a role model for a martial arts student.  However, I have fewer issues with Yoda as a role model for a martial arts master.  Once Yoda decides to take on Luke as a student, he pours all his energy into breaking Luke’s preconceptions about himself and the universe.  More important than teaching technique, Yoda is trying to build Luke’s character.  There’s no job more important for a true martial arts teacher.

Name: Morpheus

Movie: The Matrix (1999)
Home: Zion
Art: Virtual Kung Fu

Wise Quote:

  • Neo, sooner or later you’re going to realize just as I did that there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.

What we can learn:

Does Morpheus actually know any martial arts outside of the Matrix in the Real World?  That’s actually pretty unclear to me.  And, Neo learns all his Jujitsu and Kung Fu from a “Training Program.”  This means Morpheus is a pretty unique martial arts master.  In his first sparring session with Neo he notes that “your problem is not your technique.”  He doesn’t need to teach Neo any Kung Fu, he needs to free Neo’s mind.  Morpheus needs to break down Neo’s preconceptions about his own limitations.  He needs Neo to BELIEVE he can do it — which is a challenge any martial arts teacher knows.

Name: Oogway and Shifu

Movie: Kung Fu Panda (2008)
Home: The Valley of Peace
Art: Kung Fu


Sample Wisdom:

Oogway: My friend, the panda will never fulfill his destiny, nor you yours until you let go of the illusion of control.
Shifu: Illusion?
Oogway: Yes.
[points at peach tree]
Oogway: Look at this tree, Shifu. I cannot make it blossom when it suits me nor make it bear fruit before its time.
Shifu: But there are things we *can* control: I can control when the fruit will fall, I can control where to plant the seed.  That is no illusion, Master!
Oogway: Ah, yes. But no matter what you do, that seed will grow to be a peach tree. You may wish for an apple or an orange, but you will get a peach.
Shifu: But a peach cannot defeat Tai Lung!
Oogway: Maybe it can, if you are willing to guide, to nurture it, to believe in it.
Shifu: But how? How? I need your help, master.
Oogway: No, you just need to believe. Promise me, Shifu, promise me you will believe.

What We Can Learn:

OK, I’m counting these two as a single master for my top 5 list. In my view, both Oogway and Shifu are incomplete martial arts teachers, but together they’re great.  Shifu is too rash.  He’s focused on technique, achievement and recognition.  However, Oogway is also flawed.  While he is powerful, he’s so introspective that I can’t imagine him teaching technique.  Flawed as they both are, together they make a great team.  One focused on the outward and one on the inner self.  In the best schools I’ve trained in, there has been more than one instructor who inspired me and taught me different things.  Teaching as a team can be powerful.

So, there’s my list of the Top 5 Movie Martial Arts Masters.  What do you think?  Do you have other thoughts on these guys?  Who did I leave off the list?  Leave me a comment and let me know!