5 Principles of Martial Arts Teaching

This article is excerpted from Sang H. Kim's classic book Teaching Martial Arts: The Way of the Master. 

1. Planning

The foremost element in teaching is careful planning. Plan the objectives for each class and delegate the amount of practice time you will allow for each. For effectiveness and safety, carefully consider the type and number of exercises and skills you will teach in every class. Set goals for each class. Students can perform better and learn more quickly when they have goals to work toward. In setting your classroom goals, it is best to identify each individual’s strengths and weaknesses whenever possible. This insures smooth progress and avoids unnecessary frustration. For the greatest motivational value, goals must be specific and reasonably difficult to accomplish. (For a more detailed discussion of planning, see Chapter 5)

2. Motivation

It will make your job easier and more successful when you have students who are motivated to learn. The desire to change and acquire new skills is necessary for a student to continue studying martial arts for a long period of time. The single best way to motivate others is to be a highly motivated person yourself. (For a more detailed discussion of motivation, see CH. 3)

3. Recognition of Individuality

Every individual has a different way of perceiving and understanding the world around him. Since you are teaching a group of individuals you must consider every person individually and as a part of the whole. Every individual learns at his own pace and to the best of his ability. Inherent to being a good instructor is the aptitude for teaching the class as a unified whole while giving each individual the specific instruction he needs to improve.

You must master the ability to balance the need for individuality with the need for conformity. While there are many things that all students perform uniformly, an overemphasis on conformity can stifle a student’s natural talent. Because we are all unique persons with unique physical and mental characteristics, we each have special talents and weaknesses. By accurately recognizing these strengths and weaknesses, we can maximize our potential. We are both confined and compelled by our uniqueness.

Yet, within the martial arts there is a special tradition and heritage that have been handed down to us. It is our duty to preserve the character of our art and to pass it on to our students. Therefore, we require that students practice certain skills in a specifically designated way, without digression. A good example of this is the practice of forms. Every white belt in a particular style practices the same form in the same way that every white belt before him practiced it. This is a way of preserving the tradition of our art. Of course some people kick higher or punch faster than others, but this does not mean that to showcase the kickers we demand that everyone kick high or to accommodate the punchers, we substitute punches for kicks. This would be time consuming and detrimental to the martial arts as a whole. To teach effectively we must set the standards for students as well as encourage their individuality.

4. Practice

Regardless of their individual needs and differences, all students need the opportunity to practice what they have learned. Repetition is the best method of practice to perfect a skill. Supervise your students’ practice sessions whenever possible. This will prevent them from practicing flawed techniques that could lead to bad habits or injuries. When a student reaches the advanced level, practice becomes even more important because of the broad scope and difficulty of techniques being learned. Many advanced students tend to stop practicing basic techniques. Remind them to continue to keep their foundation strong. Every good instructor recognizes that fundamental skills are prerequisite to success in the martial arts.

In addition to regularly scheduled classes and supervised practice sessions, many students may need specific guidelines for their personal practice sessions. For tournament competitors, for example, two or three classes per week are not enough. At least five or six periods per week must be spent in a well planned and consistent practice program. If a competitor practices three times a week in the school, he should practice two or three times by himself. His additional practice sessions might include things not fully covered in class such as interval training, stamina work, short and long distance running, speed training, weight training, etc.

A practice program should be planned with diversity. The program must include training for power, speed, endurance, strength, flexibility, and reflexes. It is best to train one day concentrating on physical intensity and next day with emphasis on mental skills such as accuracy, reflexes or strategy.

When a beginner must practice alone, let him practice with emphasis on slow, correctly performed techniques. He should not have anxiety over mastering techniques overnight or with great speed. More beginners get injured when they practice alone than when they practice in class. The reasons for this are improper warm-up, incorrect execution of movements, and overanxiety.

The best way to prevent injuries and setbacks is to practice under a qualified instructor’s supervision. With an instructor’s guidance, students can maximize their power and speed so that they can break through their present limitations and move on to the next level of skills. If a student experiences a plateau in his training help him overcome it by reassuring him that it is a normal step on the path of learning. You also can provide him with alternative practice methods such as meditation, traditional conditioning exercises or reading materials that may give him insight into his situation.

Practicing is the road to mastery. There are many paths to take. Some are uphill, some are downhill, and some are long flat stretches of smooth sailing. As an instructor you have to be able to visualize the entire path for every one of your students. When a student is progressing well, let him go along by himself. When he is struggling uphill, gently push him higher. When he is rushing downhill, give him your hands to slow his ride.

Be creative in motivating your students to continue practicing. If you make them consistent in their practice, they will reach the destination they dreamed of on the first day of class. (For a more detailed discussion of practice, see Chapter 3)

5. Performance Assessment

Performance Assessment is a data collection process that is used to comprehensively check a student’s progress and correct errors in his performance. It is an essential technique that should be used daily by all instructors. Performance Assessment has four progressive steps: (1) Appraisal and Analysis, (2) Feedback, (3) Reinforcement and (4) Follow-up. Once you begin using this process to check your students’ performance, you will find that the four steps follow each other naturally and that you use them constantly in your teaching.

The first step in Performance Assessment is Appraisal and Analysis. This is actually two separate but related steps. Appraisal takes place when you watch an individual student’s performance and determine his current skill level. In doing this, note his general condition and improvements made since his last Performance Assessment. If a student is performing a specific movement incorrectly or that he generally has a bad habit, analyze exactly where the difficulty lies. Accurate analysis is very important because if you incorrectly diagnose the problem, the student will continue to perform poorly.

Step two is Feedback. Feedback simply means telling the student how he is progressing. In learning a new skill, a student cannot accurately judge if he is executing it properly. Guide him toward the correct movement through verbal and physical reminders. Correct a mistake as soon as it occurs to prevent it from becoming habitual. If the error does become a habit it can still be corrected through consistent feedback. Using negative feedback for incorrect actions and positive feedback for correct actions will considerably accelerate student learning.
Feedback must be followed by Reinforcement. For some students, the enjoyment of performing well can be enough reinforcement to make them continue to improve. But even highly motivated students occasionally need some kind of external reinforcement. Reinforcement is similar to feedback, in the sense that there are two types of reinforcement you can employ - negative and positive. Positive reinforcement includes individual praise or, less frequently, a material reward for desired behavior.

Negative reinforcement means ignoring or discouraging undesirable behavior. In extreme situations, especially when the safety of other students is at risk, punishment may be required. Only use negative reinforcement or punishment only when a person fails to respond to positive techniques. Unlike positive guidance, negative reinforcement discourages the student’s undesirable behavior, but it fails to provide him with an alternative behavior.

The final step of Performance Assessment is Follow-up. Check each student’s progress regularly with particular attention to his or her previous difficulties. Follow-up is used to ensure that the student can and is performing in the way that he was taught. It also prevents the student from slipping back into bad habits that could result in a loss of effectiveness in his training.

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