The timing for this post I know is odd, (being that today is Nai Khanom Tom day) a day in which Kru (teachers) of Muay Thai are honoured for their contributions to people and to sport. In light of all the congratulations I’ve received throughout the day and the week, (which I am grateful and appreciative for) I’d like to make this post coming from the other side of the spectrum– The times I have failed a student. Keep in mind, I’m doing so not in the name of empathy, pity, or self admonishment, but rather to illustrate a basic truth:
Behind every single success, is a hundred failures.
I’m here to say, that as many students and followers I have, exists a population that does not wish to learn from me and/or regrets following me. This is a truth I am absolutely confident in sharing and bear no ill will. Simply because those individuals are absolutely justified in doing so.
Fitness Gyms vs. Martial Art Academies.
Here is a basic fact of gym membership: For every 10 people you increase, you lose 2-3 people. We call that the rate of attrition. Growth, is not totally linear and incline. For every incline, there is a decline. Failing gyms, decrease more than they increase; while succeeding gyms increase, more than they decrease. Increase and decrease are inseparable, simply put.
In big box gyms, this trend of attrition is typically attributed to many attributes: Amenities, Pricing Structure, Customer Service, Location, etc etc.
In my industry, that trend of attrition is largely based on the instructor him/herself. Because the training and instruction is individually driven, the instructor ‘holds many balloons’.
Unlike a big box gym, where the client is rarely in the presence of the owner, their relationship to training is not tied any one individual. But in Martial Art, it is absolutely related and in many cases dependant on the quality of your leader.
‘Holding the Balloons’
The quantity of one’s fellowship is largely influence by the quality of one’s leadership. Coaching, begins with connecting. The instructor/leader has to have the ability to connect with all his students in one way or another. Which places a burden on that leaders character: It has to be both deep, and wide. First of all it must be deep simply because the longer a student stays with you, the deeper you must dig to both challenge and develop someone. Secondly, it must be wide because the greater number of people follows you, the more flexible your ability to connect. One must connect with a mother, as easily as with a fighter, a high school student or aging father. Leaders do not have a choice as to who follows them. They just show up, and you must connect. Or fail.
So, the size of the leaders character has to be with wide and deep, so as to be able to carry everyones balloons–the direction of a balloon is to rise, but a balloon on it’s own can only go so high, and it’s ascension is largely influenced by the ascension of their leader, who holds these balloons.
‘When the balloons drop’
Balloons will fall. Not everyone will follow you, revere you, or love you. You will suck, and you will fail to connect with certain people. Thats the reality of the world. For every major success, are a series of prior failures. Instructors are people too, Martial Artists are lifelong students–which means the width and depth of our characters are perpetual ‘works in progress’: Our width, and depth has it’s limits. Which means, at times students will come in with characters and personalities that require a method of connection that is not within an instructors present radius. Those moments, are when the instructors character is stretched outside it’s norm. By force, for the sake of the students benefit the instructor will literally bend their personality to develop a connection with that student, but sometimes, the requirement is too far out of bounds for that change to occur. Some students, are out of reach; and some instructors cannot adopt quickly enough before the situation deteriorates.
I crossed paths with a student once, who was full of enthusiasm and energy. His energy peaked and dropped frequently, so though he was energetic, it was volatile. Some days he was enthused and curious, other days he was lethargic and disinterested. Some days he seemed to value the importance of fundamentals, but for the most part was too focused on ‘highlight’ conducive techniques. It was literally like coaching an 8 yr old basketball player more concerned with emulating Lebron James moves instead of basketball basics.
Attitude was a huge issue. His work ethic for training was atrocious. He would only train moves he saw the pros do, and rarely confined his practice to mastering the basics (which rendered the professional technique he attempted to do null and void because of the lack of basic understanding).
Usually, this situation is an easy remedy, which typically requires some hands on teaching and explanation, but this time it didn’t work. The more he claimed to understand and agree with me, the more my words and attempts would just exit the other ear.
And as my usual teaching bag of strategy began to empty, frustration and annoyance took it’s place. My relationship with this student began to deteriorate and what was once mutual respect, became mutual disdain. I truly loathed this student, and I’m sure he felt the same with me.
So, before things got nasty and ugly, I terminated his membership. I conceded that I was not the instructor for him (it was clear his heart was somewhere else) and there was truly no way for me to connect with this kid.
“When you point a finger at someone, you have three pointing back at you”
It may sound at this point that I did the right thing in letting him go (which I would tend to agree), but it wouldn’t explain the title of this post, now would it? This post isn’t about blaming him, it’s about blaming me. It’s about knowing what I did wrong, in my half of the equation. Every relationship is a some of two equal parts. Each part, has to bring their portions equally and fairly for the sake of the groups success.
I shouldn’t have corrected him publicly.
I should have held more pads for him.
I should have educated him more closely than I did others, because thats what he needed.
I should have included him, not excluded him out of annoyance.
I should have been more nurturing.
I should have been more patient.
I shouldn’t have been punitive.
Though I don’t blame myself, I have to blame myself, if that makes any sense. I don’t blame myself, because given my level of awareness, I made the best possible decisions and reactions I could make at the time. Now that the situation has disintegrated and I can reflect on it, I am more aware of my mistakes, than I was before. Now that I know, I won’t replicate.
Conversely, blaming myself becomes a great tool to search for my mistakes–because mistakes were made on both sides. The fallout was not one sided. It is never one sided. To blame on the other side is to lie to one’s self and not the full truth. So self blame is sometimes healthy when it brings to light one’s mistakes. So I have to blame myself. I have to, concede to my own failures. I should have lead. In that situation, it is up to the leader to bring ones the student to a healthy state, no matter what state they arrive in. I couldn’t improve his state and my failure lies there.
Teaching, and leading is not an easy thing. It’s stretches your character in ways and dimensions that you are not always ready or willing to do, but it has to be done. To reach more people, one has to be flexible enough to reach many people. And on the way there are growing pains, and incompatibility with certain personalities and we as teachers have to be aware of that.
Shout out to all the people builders. Peace