INB #13: “Airplane”

airplaneHere was a little game we played at the end of each instructor’s series. After six weeks of seminars demonstrating the ins and outs of teaching martial arts, we let them “navigate” on their own – sort of.

Navigate was just what they had to accomplish but what they were navigating was a human body on loan from another instructor. This exercise designated one instructor as the “airplane” and the other as the “controller.” We would all scatter equipment, weapons, bags, bricks – what have you – over the floor of the studio. Next we would blindfold the “airplane”, have him stretch out his arms and wait to take off. At the far side of this debris would sit the controller who responsibility was to guide his charge through the detritus. Verbally, that is, as though radio communicating with someone flying blind. (We could as easily have called the exercise “mine field” but that would have been depressing.)

So the controller would talk his airplane through with, supposedly, well chosen instructions. It would take a bit of time for people to catch the technique and many an imaginary plane crashed on the way.

The point of all this? Well, there were a couple. True, the martial study is a physical study. But that should not reduce it to the level of monkey-see-monkey-do. Rather a good instructor should be able to describe all actions at least on the general level with words. There are numerous advantages to this. First, on a practical and selfish side, it means that you don’t always have to cross the room to show someone a movement. I often teach without demonstrating physically at all. It take a moment for the student to tune in to the words but it helps with concentration no end.

Secondly the more media mixed the better, as I see it. It is true that some people think they are “visual learners” or “verbal learners” and have been conditioned to think that can only learn in that mode. Yet I can’t tell you the number of times “visual” learners have commented that while practicing at home they remembered a phrase “it is like a rolling ball” or “you should feel a slight ache in the outer leg.” The more sense exposed to the overall task the fuller the experience and the more likely it will be there to catch, to taste, to feel.

Talking about movement gives you an ability to visualize and describe it at a higher level. I wrote some of the earliest English language instructor’s manuals for the Kenpo system. To this day, when dictating notes to a seminar or an advanced student, I can rattle off directions for movement finished enough to be shipped to the printers. It becomes a knack.

The verbalization of movement doesn’t exclude those ineffable twitchings and settlings which lie at the indescribable core of our practice. Altogether contrary, verbal instruction gets the students all that much faster to the point where the subtle, sensory, soft and seamless can be explored. It brings the student to the “good part” that much faster.

Of course there are also verbal traps. Too much talk can descend into a perennial Q & A session. Also abstract discussion may send theories flying about like midges. For the hyper-tense student, or the lazy one or shy learner, banter can easily replace experience and practice. Then, at the verbal level, there is that most dangerous trap of all, the ever-questioning, ever-chattering student who tries to ask so much and tailor the instruction so much that he or she eventually takes over the lesson. Learning at this point becomes contingent on his vision of his own learning process: a perfectly ripe example of the blind leading the blind.

But the ability to describe in words the actions, movements and angles involved in the martial arts is a great skill for a teacher. It is another tool which, used properly, actualizes not only understanding but exploration.


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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