As a keen observer, judge and critic of the martial arts I’m often, if not mainly disappointed by what I see of hoe they are practised and taught. I almost used the word study there but I corrected myself because in the main, martial arts are not studied. They are instead copied and repeated, there is no study, no experimentation no testing or proving; just acceptance and repetition of that acceptance.
Why is this? The answer to that is ‘I’m not sure’ but I think it is because of the nature and motivation of the type of people who take up the martial arts. Many people take up the martial arts because they are afraid, lack confidence and self-esteem and most, in my opinion, never lose this. They are enrolled by an instructor who seems tough and knowledgeable and they put their trust in him, that he knows what they need to learn to overcome their deficiencies. But where did the instructor come from and what was his reasons for enrolling in the martial arts? Did he do so for the same reasons as his students? And if he did, has he overcome those deficiencies or is he simply hiding them behind a faced of ‘toughness’?
What happens next is that the student mainly believes in the instructor and what might be his ‘facade’ of toughness and because they never doubt what he teaches, they never think to adapt what he teaches or question its efficacy. There is a point where this should be the case as in Socrates’ 3 A’s of learning: accept, apply and adapt.
Initially when we learn we know nothing (presumably) and the best way of learning new knowledge is to simply put your trust in the teacher and do what he says based on the premise that he knows what he is doing and has taught many others in the same way that he is teaching you. This is the accept stage of learning.
This acceptance works for a while and enables us to build some basic skills and proficiencies but after a while we must apply what we have learned in our own practice, away from the instructor to improve our proficiency through repetition, in order to understand the skills we have been taught. This is the apply, stage of learning.
Next is the adapt stage where we begin to question and challenge what we have been taught. Most instructors hate this stage because they see the end of the relationship with their student who seems to be challenging his ‘rightness’. His attitude changes and the student’s attitude changes and the student quits believing his instructor didn’t know what he was talking about.
For most students I can agree with their reasons for quitting, though I suspect they do so without reasoning why. Instead they just ‘feel’ that they have gone as far as they can with this guy and that it’s time to move on.
This quitting might lessen if the instructor himself created the environment where it is accepted that he doesn’t know everything and that he too is still learning, but because the terms ‘master’ and ‘black belt’ are bandied about so much in the martial arts it suggests that these people have the maximum amount of learning possible and are therefore the font of all wisdom. But this dynamic allows no room for growth. Imagine if Einstein had accepted what he had been taught and never questioned it. We would not have what we have today with satellites, Iphones, laptops and all the other devices which make our lives so much easier than they were in the past.
Our teachers should embrace our questions rather than fear them. The fact that we question, test and challenge what we are taught is not to prove them wrong but to take what they have given us to the next level of understanding. We all stand on the shoulders of our previous generations and that doesn’t mean they didn’t know enough. It means that we couldn’t know what we know without they gave us what they knew.
However, as I have iterated earlier, the martial arts often preclude this deeper study, harking back to earlier ‘masters’ who knew everything and who every generation afterwards tries to understand what they taught, instead of standing on their shoulders to understand better even, than they did.
What then is the answer to this often repeated scenario? The answer is simple; accept what you are given, apply it through thousands of repetitions and gradually adapt it through questions, tests and challenges such as:
- Would this work against a really fast opponent?
- Would this work against a really strong opponent?
- What strategies are at work here?
- How can I do this better?
And many other similar questions. The key is to develop an incessant curiosity about what you do and know with a view to doing it better which means more efficiently. Don’t accept anything that you are taught without first testing and questioning it and if your instructor doesn’t like your questions and if they challenge or threaten his ego, then it is time to find a new instructor. However, if your instructor says ‘good question; let’s have a look at that in more detail’ then you may be in a place where you can truly develop.
Your instructor’s doesn’t know everything, he can’t possibly and you must accept it just as much as he does if you are to grow as a martial artist.