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What Martial Arts Teaches Us About Mentorship

Martial Arts & Mentorship

by Melanie Gibson

January was National Mentoring Month, but the spirit and benefits of mentorship can be celebrated year-round. In my professional life I specialize in leadership development, but my best and most humbling lessons about mentorship have come from practicing martial arts. These lessons can be easily practiced regardless of whether you step foot into a dojo or not. 

Expertise can come from anyone, regardless of age.

You’re never too old to learn, and you’re never too young to teach. The best taekwondo teacher I’ve ever had was in his early twenties when I met him. His rank put him in a position of authority, but authority doesn’t guarantee people will follow and learn. In addition to being a very skilled and technical taekwondo practitioner, his pragmatism, drive, and dedication to helping his students made him a strong leader. 

He’s the best “boss” I’ve ever had because he started preparing me for the leadership expectations of a black belt long before I achieved that rank. If you are a young person with unique knowledge and experiences, don’t be afraid to share them with others.

Practice empathy and listen to individual needs.

Some martial arts training looks like what we see in television or movies: an instructor yells commands at the front of the room while rows of people move in unison. Very often, though, martial arts instructors provide one-on-one coaching. Each student, like a mentee, is at a different performance level, and each one has unique learning needs. 

As an instructor or a mentor, you can’t rely on a cookie cutter response or recommendation to everyone you influence. Listen to each individual, practice empathy, and meet them where they are. They will have a much better learning experience, and you as a mentor will be able to fine-tune your emotional intelligence skills.

Be respectful of everyone.

Respect in martial arts and in mentorship should be a two-way street. Martial arts students are taught to respect their instructors and people in senior ranks. In turn, a good instructor shows respect to everyone, regardless of rank, and expects their students to treat each other respectfully. This builds camaraderie and community, plus common human decency shouldn’t disappear on the mat (even when fighting is involved).

A successful mentor, regardless of their authority, is respectful toward their mentee’s opinions, questions, and goals. This builds trust and shows that the mentor has the other person’s best interests at heart rather than treating the relationship as a power trip.

Mentorship, martial arts

Tailor your feedback to the individual.

Martial arts might be one of the few places where it’s acceptable to say, “That’s wrong! Do it again!” I always tried to be very tactful when I gave my taekwondo students feedback, and I also didn’t shy away if they were doing something incorrectly or unsafely. My goal was to help them practice and improve what they were taught.

Along with being empathetic to each individual, a good mentor needs to carefully select the feedback they give. Some people are overwhelmed by a lot of information, so you may need to pare it down to a few essential tips that they can manage in a short period of time. Some people respond better to directives (“do this, don’t do that”) while others may benefit from coaching and being asked for feedback on their own performance.

Value the relationship and your mutual growth.

One of the most endearing moments of the wildly popular Cobra Kai series on Netflix happens in a quiet, understated scene. On episode three of season two (“Fire and Ice”), karate sensei Johnny Lawrence (played by William Zabka) and his student Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña) are eating burgers in a small diner. Johnny is reflecting on the pain of failing as a father to his son Robby. 

With surprising tenderness and a hint of tears, Johnny tells Miguel, in spite of that pain, one of the best things of his life has been teaching him. He promises to always support him and have his best interests at heart.

Teaching students brought me out of my shell and helped me share what I love with other people. There are students I had that I still think about and talk about years later. They may forget me as they grow older, but they will always have a special place in my heart for the role they helped me play. As Johnny grew with his students, so did I. 

Being a mentor and mentorship can change people’s lives, including your own. 

Melanie Gibson is a second degree black belt in taekwondo and the author of the upcoming book, Kicking and Screaming: A Memoir of Madness and Martial Arts (April 2021, She Writes Press).

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