How My Career as a Martial Arts Instructor Prepared Me for the Field of Education

When life presents big change, it’s often greeted with reflective moments where you begin to connect dots that you didn’t at first see, to help you make sense of — and appreciate — points of influence that propelled you along that pathway.

A recent big change that brings me to one of these moments is joining 2Rev’s team, which happened just a few short months ago! This shift is making me think back to my first major career change: from a martial arts instructor to teaching French to high schoolers. 

Now as I am deep in a project with my colleagues at 2Rev to develop competency-based and personalized courses for educators, I am experiencing a constellation of connection from my years in martial arts that I had not seen before and I want to share it with you today.

A photo of the author's black belt certificate.

A photo of the author's black belt certificate.

Before martial arts became my first career, I was a devout practitioner of many years and that passion was ignited when I went off to college. New friendships introduced me to the world of martial arts. Growing up I spent more time rehearsing classical music than I did engaging in physical activity so this new world was immediately fascinating and equally intimidating. Initially I would simply drop my friends off for class and leave. Over time, I found myself sitting in the back of the dojo, waiting for class to end, mesmerized by the dynamics of the classes and partially distracted by my calculus homework on my lap. Imagine trying to grapple with finding limits of functions to the sound of bodies being flipped and tripped onto mats? Over time, the invitations from Sensei Poliquin to try out a class became increasingly more enticing than calculus. After my initial class, I was hooked. Now, as I work in a new space of education, it is bringing me back to some of the lessons I learned again and again as I practiced and then taught martial arts.

First, the practice of martial arts is rooted in a clear commitment to the development of both technical and physical skills, and mental and emotional dispositions. Martial arts is practiced for a range of reasons depending on the learner, from spiritual or physical yearning, to self-defense, combat or a different pursuit of strength. It calls on you to be deeply connected to your emotions, and be able to read and respond to a situation well. In situations of physical threat, in which martial arts can be used, it’s essential to be connected to the energy of the assailant -- and from there, the mind can naturally and responsively make decisions and physical movements. This type of framework helped me understand that isolated skills, like learning how to take someone down with a certain leg kick, was insufficient. I had to be deeply conscious of all the elements of the art.

Second, it cemented in my mind that a learner’s agency is a central ingredient to a system that allows for personalized pathways and deep transfer of learning. As I was called to build mastery of the mental manifestations and physical movements of martial arts, I was equally empowered to make meaning in a way that spoke only to me. While the majority of our training time focused on taijutsu (unarmed combat), we were exposed to techniques in various other self-defense strategies including concealment, staffs, projectile weapons and blades, to name a few. Exposure to focused training presented the opportunity for each of us to naturally migrate to personal preferences. My personal preference was the kusari-fundo (chain and weight weapon). This was the weapon that I chose to practice during any free mat time I had and it became the weapon I chose to display when I tested for my black belt. My training presented time and space for me to develop skills and abilities that were important to me. As my skill with the kusari-fundo developed, I would replace my training tool with daily, more commonly available items (like belts and purses), challenging myself to adapt as the transfer of my previously learned skills and techniques required a refinement. The ability to select and refine my art, and make it my own, helped me to understand that we all need time and space to make learning personal.     

Martial arts also taught me about mastery and performance assessment. During every training session, students were constantly being assessed and coached. Successfully executed demonstrations would provide evidence of mastery, and over time, that growing body of evidence would flag when a student was ready to test for the next belt. Decisions of readiness to test were always based on a performance, not on age or time. Demonstrations in the dojo for green belt, red belt, brown belt and even black belt, all helped me to understand that learning is the fundamental indicator of readiness to test, not time or age.    

The biggest lesson of all that came from my career in martial arts is  how critical it is to have a coach.  In order to learn new skills in martial arts, it’s important to practice them…a lot -- until you’re able to respond fluidly. The repetitive practice of skills demands focus. With each repetition, the sensei is there coaching, providing targeted suggestions and calling out safety concerns and areas of vulnerability. After successive sessions, the coaching becomes internal. You hear it inside your head and you repeat it over and over. As you engage your core body to move, you focus attention on aspiring to replicate a process, each time shifting and responding to each distinct outcome. My sensei had a completely different perspective than I had; he was able to see things wildly differently than me. My sensei’s targeted coaching helped me to understand that I could successfully master a new skill…eventually, and as importantly, that time didn’t matter. He pushed me beyond what I would have been capable of on my own.

The biggest gift that my first career bestowed to me was the coaching of a former blue belt student, Tom Major, the very point of influence that pointed me into my first classroom. I’ll share that story in my next blog!