Dr Tammy McCracken - We Can’t Change What We Won’t Talk About
In the martial & combat arts industry there is a dark corner in the back of a closet full of skeletons that many of us know of but don’t want to talk about. If someone starts talking about “it”, tones are hushed, compatriots throw sideways glances checking for eavesdropping interlopers and someone will inevitably change the subject.
Dramatic bit of prose? Yup. It isn’t wholly hyperbole though; and we need to talk about “it” out loud. IT being the propensity for the instructor/student relationship to leave the mat and evolve into either an emotional affair, a physical affair or both.
As of this writing I know of four relationships in which an instructor dated a student and the experience ended with happy people. Marriage or committed relationship, children, happy people across the board and a training centre that continued to thrive in the aftermath.
I know of substantially more than four instructor-student affairs ending very badly.
As a school owner, I have a simple rule for instructors: the students are not your dating pool. Because I know the four relationships that ended happily, I know a good outcome is possible, but in comparison to the very bad endings, I don’t like the odds. While I am not interested in being anyone’s dating police, I am interested in protecting the physical and emotional integrity of the training centre. The bad outcomes are a bit like a bomb detonating; there’s a lot of fallout and a lot of collateral damage.
There are a variety of starting points where the relationship might shift from instructor/student and a variety of evolutions going forward. I know of a gym that lost so many students because of an in-house affair, it ended up closing. Another situation caused open accusations from students to instructors during class, and a different situation where a student earned a rank when they shouldn’t have and everyone knew why and the students left the school.
Then there’s the situation where the student was initially underage but the relationship was nurtured slowly over time until they were both consenting adults. Only one was married to another instructor in the school already. The consequences impacted upon every aspect of the then married couple’s lives.
The list goes on and is not a short one. Almost everyone I meet who has trained for any length of time, has a story of someone they know (or their own story) that has had their training interrupted or terminated because of a distorted emotional and physical relationship in the student-instructor paradigm. There are at least four contributing elements contributing to an instructor/student affair’s evolution. The reasons aren’t mysterious and really, none of us should be surprised.
Reason One: Training touches emotional, monkey brain places that are rarely activated inside the context of close, deeply physical personal contact. In our current society, the only other socially acceptable activity for this is on the dance floor at the club, which also frequently ends up in sexual activity because, biologically it’s supposed to. There’s a reason the majority of people who take to the dance floor are young and/or single, it’s the human form of the animal kingdom’s mating dance. In training, the level of personal contact and give-take behaviour carries a strong parallel to the dance floor. To the social monkey brain, training feels like a mating ritual.
Reason Two: Training can tap at the windows of the primal survival stress response (SSR). What we often reference as the lizard brain, can lift a sleepy eyelid into subtle activation. If the student feels the tremors of adrenaline activity, it is likely they may not understand the experience for what it is. Since most people have not had a personal experience of having their survival stress response fully engaged.
Why would survival stress response activation be a contributing factor to a potential sexually charged interaction? Remember F/F/F stands for flight, fight or freeze. In the old school definition of the three Fs, there’s actually a fourth F: flight, fight, freeze or fuck. Survived a dangerous situation? then you had better pass on those genes while you still can.
Okay, let’s take this back to the training centre. We have many minor adrenaline activity episodes occurring in the context of Reason One. The potential for a strong drive to procreate gets reinforced by the survival stress response activation and well; you’re all adults.
Reason Three: This one is simple. Attention. How many adults get a weekly experience of someone who pays close personal attention to a developing skill set? Close enough to offer subtle corrections and positive reinforcement? How many people in your life are standing on your personal sidelines cheering your small accomplishments?
The little momentary successes during class. A punch improves, the footwork smooths out, a difficult technique finally clicks and the instructor smiles and nods. Maybe, there’s even verbal recognition and a reinforcing touch on the shoulder. These little momentary, well earned accolades can feed a hungry place inside human desire for recognition or support. Add to it, the hunger is fed by a “badass” authority figure and role model.
The instructor gets a perk out of this interaction as well. The student beams back, clearly happy to have earned an accolade and the instructor’s own status is reinforced.
Please note that I don’t think that this is bad or wrong; these ingredients for this to incidentally include more than praise, support and encouragement. It isn’t as if the student runs home gushing about how the instructor is madly in love with them over a couple of “good job” moments. It is a gradual and semi conscious increase in expectation between one or both parties in the dance over time. This can evolve into something less healthy particularly if no one is paying attention to the possibility.
Reason Four: This is my last one at the moment and by no means the last one worth discussing. Being an instructor in martial arts is the one profession in which you can guarantee others will bow to you. There are overt and subconscious expressions of power, strength and authority in this role. Power that can be easily abused or power that can attract unhealthy enmeshment by a student who doesn’t want to discover their own power; opting instead for borrowing the instructor’s power by association. Whether we have an instructor with a weakened sense of self or a student looking to gain power by sleeping with the instructor, the power differential is real and can be exploited.
These four reasons can be in play subconsciously and without conscious awareness. Whether conscious or not, the dynamic will play out until light dawns on the unraveling integrity of all parties involved and the ripples reach out through the students possibly destroying the dojo altogether. Whilst no one relishes the idea of sweeping up the dust from a failed enterprise, perhaps the more critical failing is the unspoken lesson: “in this place where you are invited to learn strength and power, strength and power will be misused”.
There is enough of that across our cultures and post-modern societies. Most people who become professional instructors do not enter the profession to abuse their authority or seduce their students, but it happens. The results can create trips to the therapist’s office when the mat might otherwise have been therapy enough. So lastly, speaking about this reality in our profession is one of the necessary steps to changing it. So there you have it, in print, out in the open and for you to do with what you will.