29 August 2010

As a Teacher I'm a Generalist

At the Jiu-Jitsu Sensei blog, the author Lori O’Connell differentiates between two types of martial artists: specialists and generalists. Specialists are people that focus on a specific segment—a particular skill—and “putting the majority of their focus on it.” Most martial sports, like WTF Taekwon-Do, Judo and western boxing as examples, are specialist styles. They specialise in a very specific skill-set, mostly kicking, mostly throwing, just punching.

Generalists, however, do not spend all their time honing a specific skill; instead they try to be Jacks-of-all-trades. Mixed Martial Artists attempt to be generalist, trying to be good stand-up and ground fighters. 

The Jiu-Jitsu Sensei’s post concludes with a question: “What types of style are you studying and why?” O’Connell is speaking of martial arts in general, but I think the same question can be asked within a particular style, like ITF Taekwon-Do.

ITF Taekwon-Do is a very diverse martial art. Let’s just look at the sports sector of ITF Taekwon-Do. As an ITF practitioner you can compete in sparring, patterns, special technique breaking, power breaking, self-defence demonstration and various team events. This is just the list of mainstream sport categories. Apart from normal sparring, Taekwon-Do sparring may also include Pro-TKD (full contact professional sparring), and some organizations also include point-sparring. Not to mention other types of sparring we might do, but not generally compete in, like ground fighting. If you so choose, you can become a professional competitor—and hence focus most of your time—in any one of these categories.

But Taekwon-Do is more than just a sport. Apart from competition, many people choose to specialize in other aspects of Taekwon-Do like fundamental movement technicians. Such technicians may become Technical Directors for their federations. Yet another group of people may use Taekwon-Do as an ascetic discipline through which they can develop their characters and grow morally and spiritually. Some do Taekwon-Do as an aesthetic discipline through which to express themselves creatively. Other people may do Taekwon-Do, not as a sport, nor an ascetic or aesthetic discipline, but merely as a method for health and fitness. Still another group of people may employ Taekwon-Do as a system for self-defence. And let us not forget that Taekwon-Do was originally developed as a system of combat employed in the military. It is clear, then, that Taekwon-Do provides many disparate goals for many different people.

As an instructor I long ago realised that I have to be a generalist if I wish to introduce my students to the whole spectrum of what Taekwon-Do has to offer. I know that there are some instructors that focus on patterns, or others that focus on sport sparring. The fruits of such focus are seen in the success of their students at tournaments in their respective categories. When a student whom wishes to excel in a certain part of the martial art finds an instructor that puts emphasis on that part, it is a wonderful chemistry. There is a danger, however, that the student may never be exposed to other parts of the martial art.

My personal philosophy is that I act as a generalist. I try and not to specialise too much in one particular part to the neglect of any other part. It is a difficult path I have chosen and I’m not sure I’m always succeeding as I do have my personal areas of interest (for instance practical self-defence) that easily gets more time than the other areas. However, my believe is that if I can introduce my students to the widest possible foundation of what Taekwon-Do entails, once they are black belt they can decide in which area they wish to specialise and maybe then they can go train with specialist instructors. I therefore do not try to push the novice students in any particular direction. My function is not to channel my own preferences through them, but rather to show them the palette of colours and allow them to paint the picture of their own choosing once they’ve acquired the foundational skills to do so.

Images from Tam's Budo Academy, San Diego Sidekicks, and Queen's Taekwon-Do. Painting by Lisa Conlan.

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