Teaching Technique: One At a Time

Several days ago I was talking with a student of the late Sensei Don Buck (sorry, I forgot his name already) and I listened to his stories of what training was like in the 80s for him, and how he views martial arts training today. This gentleman lamented the quick promotions we see so common today, and how the quality of students has declined so sharply that we no longer respect a Black Belter until we actually see his skills. It was a good conversation between two martial arts teachers, and I’d like to share some of the things I suggested as a solution to this problem. Hopefully, you will see some value in this small philosophy and can incorporate it into your own teaching style.

First, I have to emphasize that I do not agree with the 2 or 3 year Black Belt. But if you insist on promoting so quickly, there are some techniques you can use to improve the performance level of your students.

  1. Information should be taught in small, short lessons. This way, your students will have time to truly absorb what they have learned and will perfect the techniques or skills before learning more. You can still cover the same amount of material over time that you cover now; just break it up into shorter bites so that the students have only those things you covered to think about. Several days later, when you teach a few more skills, they would have had that time to develop only what you taught in the last class.
  2. During your classes, count the repetitions they execute. In the Filipino arts, teachers tend to use open practice, which allows the students to practice at their own pace. In some ways this is good, but they will usually get in fewer repetitions because of complacency, chatter, and comfort. It is much better to have them practice on your count. This will force them to keep up a faster pace, perform under at least some pressure, and the best part is that they will perform more reps. Remember, there is no guarantee that the students will practice at home, so make them practice during the class. They’ll thank you for it one day.
  3. When making corrections, adhere to this rule as well. I have seen teachers give 10, 15, 20 details about a technique when making a correction! Trust me, the student will not retain all of that information. If you must do it, give it to them in writing, and make the session more of a lecture than a review in passing. During class, you should only give them a few items to work on, and then the next time you see them you can zero in on a few more details.
  4. Also, when correcting, ask the student if they realize they are making the mistake. Often this will make the student more conscious of the habit and they will monitor themselves while practicing alone. Once they see the mistake, have that student practice for 10 – 15 minutes until the correction becomes natural. With some of my students, I have worked on one or two mistakes for a month–every time they come to class. These mistakes did not develop overnight, and you shouldn’t expect them to be fixed overnight.
  5. A good technique is to demonstrate the technique incorrectly–the same way your student is executing it– and then ask him to critique you. I do this when teaching children, and it works. I am terribly impatient with kids, and I have a habit of upsetting them when I critique with words, so this technique suits me perfectly. (Believe it or not, I learned this tip from a 20-something year old TKD teacher who worked in a commercial dojo! You can learn from anyone…)
  6. Have a set of key points for each technique, and they should be memorized. This way, your students will remember to self-police when practicing and will have a small guideline of details for each skill.

The main idea of this philosophy is to avoid overloading your students with information while they are attempting to learn. This way, they will absorb and retain more, and will be able to focus on parts of their skills, one detail at a time.

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