Book Review: Instructor Revolution by Kelly Muir

We have a new expression in my household: “WWIRD” (“What would Instructor Revolution do?”). It’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but also reflects our genuine appreciation for the no-nonsense attitudes expressed by Kelly Muir in her book. Here’s how it might come up: I’ll be doing some reading, or pondering various ways we might streamline or improve operations at the dojo. We are a two-dojo family, my husband having operated a school for 30-plus years, and I for the past 20, so it’s natural to look for ways to keep things fresh and think about whether we’re doing the best we can do. And I’ll notice that a lot of people in the “industry” are doing this or that at their schools—often something we’ve rejected doing in the past—so I’ll ask, is there something in it worth adapting or putting to use? To which my husband will reply, WWIRD? And half the time I’ll laugh, realizing I just recently read—and agreed with—Kelly Muir’s take on a similar subject; enough said. It’s like having a hard-nosed conscience.

Instructor Revolution sets out to be provocative, but it’s hard to be provoked by an author with whom I share so many opinions. I was struck by how many of my own pet peeves she expresses throughout the book—and some of them are things I wasn’t sure anyone else cared about: for example, those ridiculous dances football players do when they score or make a play (Muir: “Isn’t that their job? I can’t imagine doing a victory dance every time I did something that was expected of me at work.”); the motivation and depth of knowledge that’s lost when students use video in place of live instruction (“…with the ease of learning kata online, the regard for it is beginning to wane.”); and the pressure on instructors to fatten their curricula with non-martial-arts content, social activism, and more, when we could be focusing on the value inherent in the training itself (“When a child only has a limited amount of time [to] dedicate to their training, I would prefer they spend it on their training.” Yes.).

 Then there are the larger issues, like the “self-esteem myth,” as she calls it: the idea that a child gains self-esteem through constant praise rather than genuine achievement—a subject that has come up often on this blog (here’s one example). And the trend among instructors and school owners to try to boost retention of young students via rewards and gimmicks, generally making things fun and easy, when the real value of martial arts training (through a traditionalist’s eye) comes from the fact that it’s challenging and demanding. And I certainly agree that children are capable of meeting very high demands.

In fact I agree with so much in the book, it’s hard for me to find it revolutionary. A great many of us in martial arts have been quietly teaching on these principles for decades; there’s nothing new about them. Even among colleagues who have adopted “industry” practices on the business side of the dojo, and adapted some popular material and drills into their children’s programs, many have maintained their basic, traditional principles throughout. To us, the title of the book seems overblown. Instructor Revolution: a superior method of teaching children martial arts. That’s pure marketing copy. The first time I saw it, I thought, “If they have to say it’s superior, it probably isn’t.” (Of course, now that I’ve realized how close it is to my own thinking, I have to admit it is superior!) But Muir is a once-and-again figure within the “industry,” and it’s really within that context that she positions herself as revolutionary. In addition, her years in the business world as a corporate trainer have given her a certain gift for abbreviations and jargon. An IR™ instructor at TKCC can be expected to utilize CLM, layering, sealing, door-to-the-floor, and more (all, by the way, perfectly sensible concepts when they’re laid out). Reference to ‘IR instructors’ and that little ‘tm’ make it clear she’s packaging this as a system suitable for sale or franchise—just like the systems and products she’s revolting against. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

It’s a good book, well worth buying even if you don’t care about “industry” bandwagons. Its greatest value is for instructors who are looking to create a new children’s program, or who want to evaluate and fine-tune their current one. Muir provides a step-by-step program development guide that can help anyone evaluate and strengthen what they’re doing. It is style-neutral, and doesn’t at all depend on your agreeing with everything she says about working with kids. It’s quite thorough and thought-provoking, asking instructors to consider the “what, when and why” of their curriculum in a way martial artists who have inherited or adopted a traditional system too often don’t ask.

As for her old-fashioned, disciplinarian, “no rewards” approach to kids, it’s worthwhile considering the case she makes, even if you are of a kinder, gentler nature. Either you will take some good ideas from it, or arrive at ideas of your own through opposition. While I personally tend to favor her views, I also believe—or rather, know—there is more than one kind of good instructor. A great deal has to do with personality and personal style. I have some “Mr. Nice Guy” colleagues who manage to raise excellent young martial artists. Strong principles and professional competence, holding the kids to high standards whatever your approach—those are the real keys. And if you’re not sure where you stand, it might be time to ask, “WWIRD?”

Find the book on Amazon here.
Or visit Kelly Muir’s blog here.

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