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The Science of “Not-Teaching”

I stood at the edge of the training area with one of the brown belt Trainers. She and I were watching a group of new students as they practiced punching into padded targets.

“Look good, don’t they? Bodies moving with the arm extension. Hitting the targets well. Getting good results. Having fun.”

She nodded silently in agreement.

I pointed at one of the white belt students, a middle aged contractor who built luxury homes in our city. “You know, he could get more impact and penetration if he would just allow his shoulder to release a little bit more. Then he could push through a little more just at the end of his punch. All he needs is a little more shoulder joint articulation.”

She nodded dutifully and moved to step into the training area, assuming I wanted her to share the instruction even though it was not her class to coach.

I said quickly, “But don’t dare mention it to him.”

She looked curious and confused. Her face asked an unspoken “Huh?”

“That student wouldn’t be able to do that little shoulder extension even if we pointed it out to him. He does not have the depth of experience to make it work yet. But it’s OK. He is having fun. He’s doing much better than before. If he really hit someone with that punch, he would certainly create an effect. I’d say that for an average person training for two months, he is doing great. I’d give him a good B+. By next month, he could be an A technician in terms of what I want a three-month student to be able to do.”

I smiled and asked her to throw some shoulder extension punches. She threw a few self-conscious shadow-boxing hits. The moves looked good.

“By the way, that little shoulder extension should be taught at somewhere after a year of training for most people. By then, they are ready for some tips about how to get more out of an old friend like our basic cross-body punch. But if we tell him too soon, he will not be able to do it, and will spend too much time, attention, and effort trying to get it to work. It will actually get in the way of what is working for him now. What I want right now is for him to have the experience of building his confidence and enthusiasm for To-Shin Do by getting good results from the punch. We allow his subconscious mind to enjoy realizing two things. First, he can do this stuff. Second, this stuff works!”

Just to be ornery, I pointed out another white belt student. “Hey! What about that one? Seems like he almost has that little shoulder extension in there already. What does that tell you?”

She hesitated. “Maybe he already has some experience?”

“Good observation. Or maybe he is more astute, or has more innate capability. Keep your eye on him. He could progress faster than average. Give him a little extra coaching, but don’t alter the truth for all students.”

She looked at me again and asked, “Why one year? Couldn’t they pick it up sooner than a year if they tried real hard?”

“Well, yes they could, but there are more important things to work on first. At yellow belt, we will introduce him to timing and distancing with carefully controlled limited-choice sparring in a toe-to-toe nose-to-nose confrontation simulation. By blue belt, we will add footwork and angling to allow him to be harder to reach. That will really take a lot of attention on his part. So we have a choice. Given only so much attention to all these new things, which thing is most important at this moment? I’d say that a ten to fifteen-percent gain in punching power is important, but not as important as gaining experience in thinking on his feet in terms of positioning so as to be hard to hit and yet ready to come back with a fight-stopping counter hit.

“His eighty-percent punch is good enough for now. Let’s let him get a little further with his decision-making skills under pressure. When those skills get to about seventy to eighty percent, and he starts to get a little cocky, and he will get a little cocky about then, we will show him that little shoulder extension trick. He will be ready to learn something new about that old punch then. He will be amazed at how that little difference will allow him to do so much more. And he will be impressed that you as his coach know so much about how to get the best out of him. By the way, that is the third piece of subconscious programming that you need to help him gain. He has to know that his teachers and coaches care about him and have the knowledge and ability to bring out the best in him.”

She looked sideways at me, perhaps noting silently that my instructors had probably played the same trick on her back in her blue belt days.

“So, as tempting as it is to jump in right now and show him that little shoulder trick, it is in his best interest to let him cruise a bit at seventy to eighty percent efficiency. As much as you want to teach it, don’t. If the student can’t handle it or make it work, then it would not really be teaching, would it? It would be you…”

“Showing off.”

“Yes. And as a teacher, who do you want to have the best time around here?”

“The student?”

“Absolutely. Don’t you feel so much more alive yourself when the students are having a great experience in your class? When the student wins, we win.”

One Response to The Science of “Not-Teaching”

  1. Trimelda July 17, 2014 at 3:55 pm #

    Interesting and insightful. I have taught martial arts now for 41 years. The idea, which I got from my long ago seminar with Teacher Hayes, is to help empower people at whatever level they happen to be at the time, The core of that empowerment is going with the student where he or she is-not as I would have them to be. It is very wise not to jump in and correct every little thing before its time. The student is guided but not forced to become the icon of the teacher.

    Very smart.

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