INB #05: Telling Lies

I was one of them. I admit it. There’s a certain phrase that countless that many instructors throughout the centuries have boldly declaimed; “I never hold anything back.

This intention is supposedly an antidote to those miserly teachers rationing information like liquid gold. But holding back or releasing is not such a simple proposition. Those open-hearted teachers, often very young in their experience, eventually realize that holding back can be to the student’s benefit. They’ve seen their gift of information misinterpreted, altered and even lost because the time was not right.

There are a lot of reasons for this that no amount of goodwill can re-sculpt. The course of Kung Fu training is treacherous, the path crooked, the mirages many. You’ve also got to contend with the personality, wonderfully or desperately unique, of the student. Take the time you blurt out one of the grand secrets of Kung Fu practice only to end up staring at a pair of eyes with all the glint and understanding of marbles. Mentally sidekicking yourself, you realize you have just violated The Ultimate Law. As it clearly states in the Babylonian Talmud, “NEVER tell ye punch line before ye joke.” You have just done that.

When this student has reached the right moment for this bit of information, you will have already reduced by half your efficacy through premature interjection.

(Of course, some “secrets” have to be told over and over, those that hide in plain sight. But weÕre not discussing information that, by its nature, protects you from teaching errors.)

Then you have the All-Knowing student. He or she is bright, communicative, never forgets a thing and probably had a body at least three levels below their mind on the evolutionary ladder. When they say, “I get it.” they mean it. Now you’re really in a bind because, besides being completely unable to manifest the theory, they have assimilated the concept intellectually. And, worse, they think that understanding and performance match.

I could give you many more examples. Sometimes we teachers make this mistake from the heart of generosity. But there are other reasons. The first is that we unconsciously abdicate our responsibility. After all, a teacher isn’t just someone who talks. A teacher makes decisions about curriculum. Curriculum determines the order of information. If you are not actively deciding the order of students’ learning you’re still not a true teacher. This doesn’t change even if you just replicate the order in which you were taught. You still have to decide.

The other problem’s a little trickier—though essentially simple. We don’t want to lie. Martial arts are, after all, an Art. And we were told, in high school English, that Art is about the TRUTH. Well, martial arts and teaching are both arts. Without wanting to burst anyone’s balloons, I have to tell you that art is about lying. True, it has to be the right lie. David Mamet’s incredible ear guides his wonderful, realistic dialogue. But real, honest to goodness dialogue between people is a stuttering bore. No, art is, as Picasso said, “The lie that tells the truth.”

The Last Paragraph: so we should hold back information? No. As I stated at the beginning, I was one of those who never held back and still am. It’s just a matter of timing; of postponing things until they make sense: just as I did bringing you through this argument.


Nowadays, there is a lot written about martial arts, probably more than any time in human history. But very little of this is at the instructor level dealing with the problems, goals and strategies of imparting the arts. This series, written by martial instructors, will be a frank and directed discussion of such topics. If you are a beginner and new to the martial arts, you may find some of these subjects a little distressing. And, indeed, this may be premature for you. The only thing we guarantee is a sincerehandling of informed viewpoints.

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