Wednesday, December 29, 2010

How not to get in the way as an instructor

At the California Judo, Inc. clinic, I saw one of my old instructors today, Roy Moore, Jr. A really, really great guy. After practice, I was talking to one of our talented, dedicated young players who admitted that while trying to work out at other clubs regularly for extra practices sounds good in theory, it often doesn't work out. The athlete was too polite to elaborate but nodded when I said knowingly,
"You mean, it's a waste of your time to go there?"

We had a discussion about this I'd like to share with you, and explain why Roy Moore was such an awesome guy.

What happens with many young athletes who make a national team is they start to go to other clubs to train because their own club only practices two or three times a week. You can't be a successful international athlete training twice a week. So, our talented player branches out and at each local club, which is not designed for international players (none of them are), there is a head instructor and usually some assistants. The head instructor runs practice and he (it's almost always a "he") has a certain plan. Something like ,
We do warm-ups, then I teach a technique, then we practice it, I correct it, there's 15 minutes of standing randori, 5 minutes of matwork and then we go home.
Except for not having enough matwork, that's probably a fine general plan for juniors, beginners and recreational players. For our Olympic potential player, it doesn't fit, what he or she probably needs is drills, standing randori and matwork. Our genuinely friendly head instructor is happy to have Mr. or Ms. Talent visit but isn't going to change HIS plan for a visitor. As a best case scenario, the visitor gets in maybe 20 minutes of useful practice. As a worst case, and too common scenario, one of the black belt assistants who is feeling unimportant since he or she is not the head instructor and doesn't have anything to do spends an hour or more instructing our talented player on how to do left morote seoi nage, because that is our not-so-humble assistant's favorite technique, never mind the fact that the visitor is 6'1" at sixteen years of age, and right-handed to boot. Our player has now wasted the entire practice, including the randori and matwork part because the assistant instructor insisted on teaching "Just one more thing."

If you have not had these frustrating experiences, you are either not a talented young player in America or you are extremely lucky. If the latter, I suggest you buy lottery tickets and also go to church, light a candle and thank God for your good fortune. If you see yourself in the description above as an instructor, even a little, feel shame and resolve to change.  As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, it's not too late, although, unlike AA, they don't have meetings for it.

What did Roy Moore do? I lived in San Diego and my judo club was in Los Angeles. Twice a week, I trained at the Naval Training Center Judo Club where Roy was the head instructor. On rare occasions (I'd say less than 10% of the time I was there) he would show me some move, usually matwork and usually after a hard workout. Most of the time he said, 
"What do you want to work on?"

If I said, as I usually did, that I needed to do drills and randori, he'd tell me to go right ahead. There was a good bit of space at the NTC, so I could grab a person - Valerie Hays (now Perrault) , Mark Hayes, Joe Ciokon, Jerry Hays and Chuck Neuendorf were often around - and ask them to do throws on the crash pad with me, or matwork drills. Valerie was only 15, Mark was a teenager, too and Joe, Jerry and Chuck - well, they were pretty old. Like, at least 40. None of them were training for world level competition at the time, and the older guys had jobs they had to be at the next day where they were expected not to be too bruised and sore to concentrate. So, I would do 50 repetitions of a move with Jerry, then another 50 with Joe, then 50 with Mark, and so on. Someone - Roy himself, or Chuck, might be teaching a move to the sailors who were in the beginning class and I would go to a corner of the mat and do round after round of matwork with one person after another.  Sometimes we were lucky and a young black belt would be at the NTC for some training. Then, Roy would have me fight with him. If the new guy had a particularly good move, Roy would have him show it and I would try it out.

What made Roy a truly EXCEPTIONAL instructor is that when I walked in to visit he didn't think about what HE had planned or what HE could teach me or how HE could later tell people he was coaching someone on the world team. He thought about what I needed to do. More than that, he didn't assume he knew, he actually asked ME and assumed that just maybe I might know what I needed and have a reason for having come to their club to visit. So, even though I was a member of Tenri and trained there every Friday and on the weekends, I was a "visitor" at the NTC twice a week for years. All of the members of the NTC helped me, from Roy to the white belts who sometimes ended up being willing partners on the end of yet another 50 repetitions of that tomoe nage armbar.

Roy never tried to get in the way of that time for drills and fighting, standing and on the mat, which was what I really needed, just so he could feel like he was such a great instructor.

The irony of it is that even 27 years later, when I see him, I still think,
"What a great guy and what a great instructor."

As for those many, many, other head instructors and not-so-humble assistants over the years? Yeah, I still see them around, too, and I still think the same thing about them,
"Means well, but what a pain in the ass."


Lex said...

This is such a great post.

I think this doesn't just apply to the international level competitor, but to someone like me who's trying to break through from winning 1-2 matches in a black belt division of E-level tournaments to having a chance at the podium there.

The amount of drilling, throwing, randori, and high intensity training required is often far above what most of the recreational players in the club are interested in. The sensei then gradually adjusts the pace of the practices down.

Why can't we have huge judo centers in every major American city where there is a hard training session every day, twice a day with 10-20 national level competitors on the mat? I'm moving to Paris ;-)

Dr. AnnMaria said...

Lex, I agree with you. I think players who are trying to move past that recreational level often have problems finding instructors who are willing to make ANY accommodations for them. Often the barrier is ego but just as often probably, it is that the instructor hasn't thought about it because he/she is a "recreational instructor" and thus doesn't spend all that much time thinking about how to teach well for everyone.

As for having a center where all the black belts get together - we have that at the West Coast Judo Training Center on the weekends in L.A.

Often, when people attempt programs like that they find that there aren't that many black belts who attend. People say they want to win internationally (or even nationally) because it sounds like a good thing to say but they don't want it bad enough to go out of their comfort zone to do it.