Any good instructor’s process is always under scrutiny. The instructor looks at the students and wonders, “Why aren’t they doing what I asked?” or “Is that really what I showed them?”
Self-doubt is a valuable tool in martial arts both as a student and as an instructor. As a student, when the instructor makes a correction or provides feedback, there should always be the assumption that you are the one doing it wrong. If that’s the baseline assumption, then if it’s not true, you have reminded yourself of something you are doing correctly, and if true, then you have found an area to fix.
As an instructor, this can be somewhat more difficult. The reality is that there will always be a gap between what you teach and what somebody else learns. It could be physiological differences, miscommunication, or varying learning styles that cause this discrepancy to exist.
Age and injury account for a number of physical limitations that may prevent students from doing exactly what the instructor does, but there are also a number of other biological factors that affect how an individual performs a particular technique.
Flexibility, or lack thereof, has a vast effect on how the body moves. Stances and kicks are obvious areas where flexibility provides a greater range and may limit a student from copying exactly how an instructor executes a movement. Grappling is another area where strategy or technique selection can be largely determined by flexibility. For example, Eddie Bravo’s 10th Planet system is designed with the assumption of a certain range of motion, and someone without that capacity may struggle to emulate those exact sequences.
However, I have also noticed that double-jointed students often have difficulty limiting their flexibility by contracting muscular groups effectively at the right times. Even a simple straight punch, executed by someone with a lot of flexibility, sometimes gives the appearance and feeling of being floppy when joints hyperextend without suitable muscular contraction to support the energy transfer.
Stature is another contributing factor. Bigger, more muscular people may rely on their size and strength advantage when working with a smaller partner, leading to neglect of correct footwork, positioning, or body mechanics because they can “get away with” doing the technique incorrectly—until they encounter a training partner their own size. Conversely, smaller students may have to supplement their techniques with extra kicks, knees, or groin slaps to help bring larger partners down to their own level. Otherwise, they may struggle to achieve the intended outcome because they simply can’t reach the targets designed in the training exercise.
As the word suggests, this occurs when one or both parties involved are not on the same page in regards to what is being asked. Any martial arts instructor who teaches kids knows that lack of listening or focus has a vast impact on this process, but it is certainly not limited to children.
Adults, especially advanced ones, tend to experience miscommunication because they believe that they already know the message being delivered. Again, the correct default for a student should be to assume they know nothing and are doing it all wrong, but naturally after several years of training, the ego may want us to assume otherwise.
Of course, it takes two to tango. Instructors sometimes give vague or contradictory pieces of information about how a technique or strategy should be applied. Another source of miscommunication that can be blamed solely on the instructor is talking over the students’ heads. At times there may be too much technical jargon that learners will not be familiar with, in which case the verbal instruction may not transfer any useful information to the group. Instructors always need to remember who their audience is to ensure that the right level of detail is being provided at the right time in the learning process.
To limit miscommunication, creating an environment where it is safe to ask questions is vital. If a student asks for clarification and gets an abrupt, rude response, that will be the end of the process. Unfortunately an instructor’s ego is also involved in this process, often leading to the conclusion: “Well, I explained it clearly . . . What’s wrong with these students for not getting it right?” Just like the student, the instructor’s baseline assumption should be the opposite. If the students aren’t getting it, the onus should first be on the instructor to try again to deliver the lesson clearly and effectively.
Of course, there has been a lot of research into kinesthetic, auditory, and visual learning. The established reality is that, while we may rely more heavily on one rather than the other, each is a spectrum, and depending on what we are learning, we use each to varying degrees. In martial arts, we virtually always rely on them all: we listen and watch as the instructor presents the material, then we practice it physically.
Learning style also affects how an instructor delivers lessons in terms of how much context to give. Some learners are “big picture” oriented—they won’t understand the piece of a puzzle unless they know what the entire scope of the puzzle is. However, others are happy just to take one piece and practice it, and worry about the next step in the process when they get there. While one learner might be confused by being asked to deliver a technique without knowing what came before and what will come after it, another will be bored by the teacher’s long, unnecessary rant about the history and functionality of a certain sequence that they haven’t had the chance to practice yet.
Body language is a key to understanding a student’s learning style. An auditory learner stands closely to the instructor and leans in to hang on every word; a visual learner re-positions to get the best angle to see what’s happening; a kinesthetic learner mimics the instructor as the movement is being demonstrated. Global learners may walk back to their partner shaking their heads or linger longer than others, hoping for more explanation. Analytic learners may look restless when the big picture is explained and will be the first one back to their partners.
In any group of students, there will typically be a standard distribution of students who will learn faster than average with less practice, those who will achieve proportionally to the amount of effort they expend, and those who are ultimately destined for failure despite their best efforts. The instructor’s role dictates catering to those in the second category. If students are struggling to perform the technique as being explained and demonstrated, the instructor should first look at the potential of his or her own failure before moving to the conclusion (although sometimes correct) that the student is the one responsible for missing the mark.