Should Martial Arts Students Supplement Training With YouTube?

I have a question for all the martial artists out there who began training prior to the advent of the internet.

If I told you back in 1986 that 30 years in the future, a device would exist that allows you to watch technique demonstrations from martial arts masters the world over, like a Karate demo from Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, a Judo technique from Gene LeBell, or an eight-minute Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu demonstration from Rickson and Royler Gracie, would you be interested in using it?

This device also provides access to millions of other free videos including tournament matches from any decade where film was available, interviews and class recordings with martial arts instructors everywhere, and countless legitimate street fight videos that allow you to study real world application of techniques as well as the actual tendencies of street attackers. Would you still be interested?

Of course you would. And luckily, you lived to see that future where YouTube is a real and integral aspect of martial arts education in the 21st century.

But would your 1986 self also be shocked to discover that the benefits of using this device as a learning tool are not universally regarded? That not only are old school practitioners (such as yourself, respectfully) leery of YouTube, but that this is even a debatable issue among people who grew up with it?

“That’s nice, keyboard warrior. Now what if I told you back in 1986, while you were still taking candy from strangers and fucking up the Tiger Claw demo I tried giving you at your friend’s Karate birthday party, that 30 years in the future, there’d be a device that allowed any idiot to upload a really bad technique video that would completely mess with the rigid fundamentals I try imparting on new students?”

Good point, I hear you! Bad information is…not good. But let’s look at this from outside the martial arts perspective.

Would a college professor instruct their students not to pursue reading material outside the class, so as not to interfere with the purity of their lesson?

On the contrary, in academia it is accepted that students who don’t follow-up subject material by accessing resources outside the classroom, will not become proficient in that subject as quickly as those who do. Plainly said: if you want to be good or knowledgeable at something you study, you need to take an interest in it outside of the classroom by making use of the best available resources.

The fact that a misguided student of history could waste his time reading A. Ralph Emerson’s conspiratorial alt-history junk as opposed to Will Durant or Bernard Bailyn, does not negate the teaching power of the public library. Martial arts is no different. Information portals do not come with a hard-checked quality filter. As instructor, it’s your job to help students discern helpful from harmful material.

“That’s true, but only if we’re talking about experienced students. People who just joined should not be watching YouTube instructionals before they even have the basics!”

That statements seems like a rational middle ground that all sides can agree on, but I think it’s just as wrongheaded as denying the benefits of outside information altogether.

Let’s start by admitting a basic truth about YouTube instruction: it is not a substitute for structured learning. The less experienced the student, the more that statement holds true. The same is even the case with liberal arts education – a well-formed reading list is not a proper substitute for classroom learning, though many would argue it is.

That’s not to say a formally uneducated person cannot attain a higher level of knowledge through reading than some formally educated people, but it is not optimal. Structured classroom learning is critical to gaining an advanced knowledge of any subject, with rare exceptions. That goes double for martial arts, where there exists a wide gap between theory and practice. You must practice, and if you want to be good then you must practice at a school.

As instructors, we are not concerned with people of no experience who choose to watch videos instead of walking though our school’s door.

So let’s acknowledge another basic truth, this time about ourselves: martial arts instructors, typically, have a rooted fear that students, new or experienced, will abandon our teaching for outside information, for better or worse, whether in the form of watching demos that clash with our own lesson plans, or outright leaving for a rival school.

Take any martial art, whether Judo, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Kung Fu, or Kempo. Switching schools is politically non-kosher. Training at other schools, also non-kosher, though this is slowly changing. There is also a leeriness among many school owners about bringing in guest instructors. Some schools don’t even host guest seminars! Insecurity has been part of the martial arts fabric as much as white pajamas and colored belts. That old insecurity has simply bled down and colored our bias towards YouTube learning.

We’re all guilty to one extent or another. Instructors want to be the fountainhead of information for those who represent us. We want to be in control of our respective classrooms.

That fear should be allayed by a third basic truth: martial arts instructors are the single biggest influence on their students’ learning. We control the lesson plan, we answer questions, we structure the learning environment.

Instructors have the power guide students. When a new student approaches you after the first week of lessons and enthusiastically shows you an instructional YouTube video they watched the night prior, you are in position to provide the final word.

But when you respond to this scenario by telling students, “Stay off of YouTube, there’s a lot of junk out there,” you are ceding the power to guide them to those very alternative sources you wish to shield them from. That student will never again feel comfortable enough to ask you about a video, and yet they in all probability will continue to watch martial arts on YouTube.

I don’t know about you, but I would rather know what my students are accessing and have the ability to provide my own feedback and guide them to the best possible sources of information, in supplementation to what I am already providing them.

You can tell a young person not to drink, or you can tell them to drink responsibly.

You can advise a teen to remain abstinent, or you can teach them about safe sex.

This is the same principle. As a long time assistant instructor of Judo, there were many instances when students enthusiastically came to me about what they watch on YouTube. I was always careful not to kill off their enthusiasm by responding negatively. That would be doing myself, the school, and the art of Judo a disservice. We all grow and thrive based on student enthusiasm.

My response, instead, is to say, “That’s great. Here are some other videos that I highly recommend…” and begin to guide that student towards viewing habits that I know, from experience, will help keep them on the right track in their early learning process.

Teaching footwork that month? Why wouldn’t I want a student watching videos of footwork drills they can do at home?

Teaching O Goshi? Why would I be opposed to that student accessing a video where, for whatever reason, that video instructor’s breakdown provided extra clarity on what I already taught them?

People learn in different ways. I could give an explanation of a throw that completely clicks with one student, but misses the mark with another. If that other student goes on a searching binge and finds demo that explains the throw in a different way, I’m 100% OK with that.

I’m also fine with students searching ahead and watching techniques I haven’t yet shown them. At the very least, it provides them with a frame of reference for the lessons to come, which could make it easier for them to follow along with my own instruction.

At the very worst, if a student accesses bad information that confuses them, at least I know that, by being open in discussing outside material with them, there is a great chance that they will come to me with their confusions/questions and I can correct the issue. That’s fine: that’s what they’re paying me for.

But the fear that somehow, students are going to confuse themselves en mass on techniques because they’ll be accessing bad YouTube instructionals is unfounded, in my opinion. People don’t desire to confuse themselves. If watching videos is that confusing for them in relation to what I have already showed them, they are more likely to stop watching than to continue and say, “Wait, I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO!”

“Not true! Students today, they’re fucking spoiled brats who want everything now. Not like back in ’86…when people universally had more patience and greater trust in their instructor.”

Look, if we can agree that practitioners of all levels in every martial art are, on average, better skilled now than at any time in the past (and there is considerable evidence that this is true), and at the very least if we accept that they are no less skilled, then the dissolution of the classroom structure due to confusion wrought by YouTube is more of a perceived threat than an actual one.

Clearly, students are doing just fine. Coming from the perspective of someone who began training in Judo in 1999, became assistant instructor in 2003, and on the other end of the spectrum is currently a student in the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, my opinion is that student questions/concerns/development issues are no different than they’ve ever been.

YouTube has not made instructors’ jobs harder, but is on the contrary a valuable learning tool.

When my younger cousin made the decision to become a student in my no-gi Judo program, he immediately began linking me to his favorite Judo matches and techniques that he found surfing YouTube. My response wasn’t to become worried or tell him, “Dude, stay off of YouTube.”

No, I love the art and the sport of Judo. I love gi and no-gi Judo. I love talking about all things Judo. Why wouldn’t I encourage him to research Judo on his own and talk to me about what he finds? At the end of the day, he still comes to learn in my classroom, in my program. I can shape his influences, direct him towards the best material available on the web, and maybe even be surprised at some valuable resources he digs up that I wasn’t aware of.

This is what it means to be a “white belt for life.” Be open to but discerning of all new information, and encourage others to do the same.

Toshihiko Koga’s instructional “A New Wind” changed my approach to Judo in a significant way, and it happened as a result of researching Judo techniques late one night as a brown belt. For this to have occurred prior to the internet, I would had to have traveled to Japan, learned the language, met Sensei Koga himself, trained with him, and videotaped the sessions so I could go back and re-watch what I practiced.

Some of you might believe that high level martial arts instruction should in fact only be reserved for those willing to make the sacrifice required to have that experience.

You can firmly put me in the opposite camp. Martial arts training and information should be as widely accessible as possible. Not everyone can afford to train under every master, jet-set to other countries at will, and ask direct questions. Of course you should have these experiences as much as possible. I attend seminars whenever I can, and have had the pleasure of training under some phenomenal Judo and BJJ instructors, both at school and in seminars. There is no substitute for that direct learning experience.

But we are also fortunate to be alive during a time when we can sign onto YouTube and access training videos from an unlimited number of world renowned masters and other fantastic teachers who I would not have otherwise discovered.

In fact, most instructors I’ve come across have, at one time or another, put out an instructional video either direct to DVD or uploaded onto social media. I have yet to hear an instructor advise someone else’s student not to access their own video.

I do not advise handing out rank over the internet or anything even remotely similar. But I will continue to support any martial artist, of any rank or level, letting their curiosity and enthusiasm guide them through a YouTube search. They will be more likely to show up to the next class, more likely to communicate with their instructor about the art they practice, and more likely to become hooked on martial arts for the long term.

Think what you want of YouTube learning, but your students are going to do it at some point, and as their instructor you have two options: take the journey with them where you can act as their tour guide, or discourage them and pretend they won’t travel alone.

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