INB #12: The Rules of Correction

WU "martial"

WU “martial”

I’m going to offer some opinions of how to correct students and how to correctly teach them. These are culled from over thirty years experience. But we should get it right at the outset that I don’t think this is the ONLY way to do things. In fact… I have a friend who is a fine martial artist. He is also the living embodiment of the opposite of one of my main principles: reinforce then correct. You can’t raise a hand without Jake saying, “No. That’s not it.” People spend a long time learning to kick with hardly getting to throw a kick. He stand’s over 6′ 5″ and looks down with a kind of compassionate exasperation as they will lift a hand and he’ll shake his head before it’s moved three inches. Then a shadow blocks the sun while he reaches his big arm out and gently touches the culprit limb. Jake’s principle? Don’t let them even get going if they are going to do it wrong. And, for those who are dedicated, Jake can be a great teacher. He gets results from those who stay the course, he really does. As you might guess that is not the way I teach. But it definitely is a way to teach. But this is my contribution so here are a few points that you might consider. Some of these may seem obvious but I guarantee at least a few will seem counter intuitive.

1. Reinforce, then correct. Otherwise known as the “Yes… but” theory. To some this is more a marketing ploy than teaching. But I still believe what I was taught early on about instruction. It was put to me like this, “The first word we REALLY recognize is NO! because, for the sake of our mother’s sanity, we HAD to memorize that. No, don’t go in the street. No! put that down. When people hear ‘no’ they freeze.” The other truth is that there isn’t much information in NO. In Science it’s different because we isolate variables. But, from in the inside of a student’s body there are too many variables to know which one is the NO. The old teachers did it exactly the opposite. They were wrong. They were also right, as we will discuss. But the basic ploy here is to tell the student, first and foremost, what he or she is going RIGHT! “Yes, good foot formation with that kick.” And then, correct, “But you need to raise the knee higher.” That way the student will be inclined to repeat the correct actions and yet refine the mistakes.

2. Never lie: On the other hand, do not give away the whole story – at least not all at once. You will just lose them. This has a correlate that happens to be the SECOND thing I always tell my instructors. DO NOT TEACH THE STUDENT AT THE SAME LEVEL YOU ARE WORKING.

I realize all the temptations. You are incredibly generous and it would save so much of their time and effort if they could only skip to this level. Agreed. This is so exciting that it will super-charge their performance. Agreed. This is the newest, bestest, ultimate way to do some move. Agreed. But on the other side it probably requires the kind of experiences you had to go through to arrive at the same conclusions you now see. You can’t pull a shrub to grow faster into a tree and you can’t force evolution. Pace and patience.

3. Teach ingenuity. In Chinese this is termed “Jiao.” Strategy, cleverness, ingenuity. It only takes one more second to say things like, “Of course you have to vary this to fit the situation.” Or “What if your opponent were coming from another angle?” Get them thinking and involved. What I said was teach them ingenuity. Don’t let them just guess. The small change here, the alteration there: try to lead them to their own creativity but don’t just let any dribble stand for poetry. The answer has to be somewhere near the ball park. The more flexible the student’s mind the easier learning will become and that leads us directly to…

4. Don’t believe them. That’s for their own good. Some of the things not to believe are… “I’m a such and such learner.” So many people come into the studio with bad educational experiences. In their efforts to understand why these experiences had been so bad, everyone latches onto “explanations” about their limitations. “I’m a visual learner. I’m an oral learner. I learn by tracing things only with my tongue.” Bunk. Plain and simple. That doesn’t mean people don’t have propensities but learning a martial art is mostly about learning how to learn. Yes, I know, the Cargo Cult of science says some people are right-brained, left-brained, haptic, attention disordered, hyper active, and – yawn – on and on. The irony is that people accept this gross categorization where they would chaff and rebel at every other form of stereotyping. Each and every one of us has had some brick wall of learning were we stopped, we backed up, we bumped our noses against our limitations. That’s fine. But that doesn’t mean those limitations are in born and absolutely irrevocable. How silly. Based on what science? The pathetic psychometrics of understaffed probabilistically insignificant studies in grade schools? The difference is that the student if, God forfend, ever needs to use their skills they don’t get to pick which method to learn valuable information. One of the skills of the warrior is to absorb information regardless of the method of presentation. The job of the teacher is to dissolve the self limitation of the personality. Other good examples of times for scepticism are: They know why they are studying martial arts. (No, they don’t but how could they without being professionals to begin. The point is that exploration is fun and they will, inevitably, change their reasons for studying.) They only want to learn this or that. (Fine, the amount of negotiation is up to you. But, let me caution you, too many concessions early on and you will never be the teacher – only the valet.) They can or can’t do this or that. (Let’s see. Again, self limitation is the opponent more than anything else.)

5. Use everything. Kung Fu is a multi-media art. It is opera. It is a Broadway show. You want the student to step off at an angle. Tell him. Show him. Move him. Make a scrapping sound with your shoe. If taste and smell were available I’d use that. He should feel the weight of his legs. Sense the closeness of the outstretched fist. Control his actions internally with his mind while being present in his own body as a safecracker listening to tumblers in the dark. Kung Fu is theater and education and ritual. Involvement leads to awareness. Eventually to passion.

6. Twist things. Tolstoy’s advice to aspiring writers is also good for martial teachers. There are many ways to get a point across but some of the easiest are not in the direction of the instruction. For instance, having students do their movement backwards is often a great way to “groove” it into the system. And what about mistakes? Some times the best approach is to have the student repeat the mistake, but on purpose. Extinguishing mistaken behavior takes a little strategy from the teacher’s standpoint but it is always worth it since both teacher and student learn and – in the act of learning – they both are involved in the discovery of Kung Fu. Teaching is a trust. At present, in a world of “on line gurus”, misinformation, and many people who know all about price but not worth, the act of teaching someone – of giving them your time and effort – is completely undervalued. But this problem has always existed. Those who love to teach don’t count the cost or the profit. They count the transformation in the student as the test and reward of effort.

Nowadays, there is a lot written about martial arts; probably more than at 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. Indeed, this may be premature for you. The only thing we guarantee is a sincere handling of informed viewpoints.

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