What “Leaving Neverland” Can Teach Martial Arts Instructors

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As I concluded watching the five (5) hours of Documentary footage and commentary known as HBO’s Leaving Neverland I was filled with a variety of emotions.   I understand that there are many emotional reactions generated by the film and it’s topic, the relationship of Pop Sensation Michael Jackson with two young boys in the 1990’s and beyond.  Most of the post film commentary I have read or seen involves the attempt by the two deeply polarized, diametrically opposed camps to draw a conclusion as to whether the Pop singer did, or did not, sexually assault the two boys featured in the film.  That question can only be answered by the parties involved; for the rest of us it is mere speculation.  However, for me, there is a profound lesson in the film and its contents and it has little to do with your ultimate conclusion about these two boys.   That lesson is in the standard of behavior, and moral accountability, we must hold ourselves to as to as martial arts instructors of our society’s most vulnerable sector, our children.

While there are many opportunities for people to dispute the contents or conclusions of the film, what appears incontrovertible is that we would never be having the discussion, at all, if the adult people involved adhered to a standard of behavior that did two things:

1.   Always place the interests and well-being of the children first, 

2.   Were clear about the roles that they played in relationship to children under their care, and the potential impact of their behavior on the children.

While these seem intuitive, whether you view Michael Jackson as a villain or a victim, there is no equivocation that none of this controversy would exist if he, and the parents and guardians of the children adhered to standards outlined by me in this article.   Similarly, if every Martial Arts instructor of children were conscious of these two standards of behavior they would insure a healthy and impactful relationship with their students.

As instructors we are role models and leaders and molders of young minds and futures.  It is incumbent upon us to hold ourselves to the highest standard of behavior and to lead by example at all times.  We must understand that even the appearance of impropriety is, in itself, a fundamentally problematic occurrence.

As instructors we are not “friends” to our young students.  What do I mean?   Do I mean that you can’t be sympathetic and empathetic figures in your students’ lives?  Do I mean you can’t be a fun and playful figure whose company your students enjoy?  No, certainly not.   What I mean is that you must always engage in appropriate behavior that makes clear that you and the student are not on parity in age or behavior.   While you can emphasize the inherent equality of your humanity, you must clearly be the caregiver.  You must be the leader and party that establishes high ideals and helps them to achieve greatness now and throughout their lives.

This Maginot Line of behavior is hard for some to understand.  We are important figures in the lives of our students.  We spend a lot of time with them and they, naturally, look to us for approval, love, and guidance.  That is a lot of responsibility.  When handled respectfully, and with adherence to the standards I have outlined, you stand the greatest chance to make a world of difference in the path of a student, especially a wayward student.  When handled dismissively, disrespectfully, or with disregard for these standards we stand the chance to have enormously damaging consequences to the lives and emotional health of our students.    This is scary stuff!!

Here are a few pointers on tangible behavior that will put you in the category of the former and not the latter:

1.    Never speak to your students about inappropriate things.  They should not be involved in the personal or romantic lives of their instructor.   While it is helpful to have humanizing conversations with your students, such as, “When I was your age my master used to make us do 100 side kicks in a row,” it is not appropriate to say, “Last night I took this girl to the movies and we…..”  We can be personal and human without crossing a line of appropriateness.  Similarly, be aware of who is around you if you engage in these types of conversations among adult people or other instructors.  Having the conversation in front of your children can be as equally damaging as speaking to them directly about the topic.

2.  Be aware of your use of technology around your students.  Are you listening to, or watching a program, video, or listening to music that is inappropriate for them and sends a signal to them that it is acceptable for them.  Children see everything, and then emulate the behavior of their role models, including their martial arts instructors.  You must exercise restraint, self-control, and good judgment at all times in the presence of your students.  It is not your place to determine whether a child can handle, or may have previously been exposed to, adult content.  Always err on the side of caution in these matters.

3.  Do not make your children responsible for adult emotions, feelings, and problems.  In other words, in the same vein as #1, it is not acceptable to emotionally unburden yourself by sharing your serious emotional problems with your students.  You should not make them responsible for you emotional well-being, or happiness.  You should not make them feel an unhealthy sense of longing for you, in your absence.  You should not burden them with the keeping of any secret, or any other topic that may makes them feel emotionally conflicted.  These emotional tools of manipulation send a confusing message to them and can emotionally cause stress on them and cause anxiety for them that is unnecessary.  Remember, you are there to serve them, not the other way around.

4.  Always engage in appropriate touching.   Physical contact is a healthy part of the human experience.  Martial Arts training involves a variety of types of touching from sparring to partner sit ups.  These are all appropriate.  Similarly, physical signs of encouragement such as high fives, touches on the shoulder, and an appropriate hug to calm an injured body, or mind, can be very meaningful; however, contact should never be unwelcome or inappropriate.  Certain parts of the body are never to be touched in any way.   As a simple rule, if you are unsure if your contact with a child is appropriate, then refrain from it.   

5.   Speak appropriately.   Similar to the area of touching, we should always use appropriate words of encouragement or critique with our students.   Refrain from overtly personal comments, positive or negative.   Never use vulgarity.  Be careful when talking about a student’s physical appearance.  While it is fine to say, “nice haircut,” we can all recognize it is not appropriate to speak in ways that cross lines of personal decorum.  Similarly, it is harmful to attack a child’s physical appearance such as their weight.  Speak to them respectfully and with appropriate boundaries. Speak to them as you would want someone to speak to your child.

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Image courtesy of pal2iyawit at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

6.   Finally, for those that have opportunities to travel and coach martial arts students you must always avoid, not only impropriety, but even the appearance of impropriety.   That means being cognizant to insure that travel and sleeping arrangements create a healthy, safe, and non-confusing environment for your students.  Articulate and respect healthy boundaries and modes of behaviors in these scenarios, outside of the Dojang, or school, because these are the environments where, for students, the lines between your role as teacher and friend, can become the most confused.  Therefore, it is your responsibility to exercise greater caution to make certain no confusing messages or behavior are perpetuated.  Do not walk around in your undergarments in the presence of the students.   Do not share a bed with the students.  Respect their bathroom privacy and behave modestly because there are consequences to your behavior.  Caution, respect, and good judgment are more important than sidekicks and Gaemjungs in this regards. 

I caution instructor-coaches traveling with their competitors that these students will be seeking your approval and feel a sense of responsibility to you in a defeat that may be more important to them than their own feelings about the loss.   It is incumbent upon the instructor to deal appropriately in this critical, emotional time for their student.

When we act inappropriately to our students, even if that behavior is not criminal or immoral, it is a form of a betrayal of trust.  Instructors are imbued with a special responsibility for the care of children, the most special and vulnerable members of our society.  When an instructor engages in appropriate and inspiring behavior they have the ability to make a life changing and meaningful impact on the success and happiness of a child throughout their lives.  These relationships will help them model their relationships as they age and inspire them to love appropriately and to motivate effectively.  Betrayal of a standard of behavior by an instructor can cause confusion, emotional scarring, and depression.  

The lessons of Leaving Neverland transcend the relationship of a Pop Star to his fans.  When we map out clear and unconditional standards of behavior for ourselves as Instructors and adults we mitigate the chances of confusion for our children and we have the potential to be sources of great influence on our students.   Your role is greater than that of the teacher of kicking and punching; if you aren’t prepared to be a protector and advocate of children then step aside.

-Marc Zirogiannis, 3rd Dan and Editor-in-Chief

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