Strategies for Teaching Martial Arts: Attitude

I am going to offer a series of articles intended for instructors who teach children, but I think there may be something of value to those parents of children who are training in the martial arts in that I may be able to offer a way for the parent to judge the effectiveness of their child’s instructor. Also, much of what follows could be applied by the instructor when teaching adult students as well, hence the title “Strategies for Teaching Martial Arts” without the added “to children only”. Enjoy!

Instructor Attitude

Martial arts instructors are loud people when we are teaching. We have a command and control attitude, and this comes right through and as often as not completely saturates our teaching style. Martial arts are, after all, supposed to be based on military arts, and while there is a lot of information to allow us to doubt the military origin of all styles, there is a widespread attitude that we are military based arts, and that we must have the command and control in our voice and style.

I would like to submit a different possibility, an alternative to command and control: inspire and grow.

The problem I see with command and control is two-fold. One has to do with what happens in the mind of the instructor, the other has to do with what happens in the mind of the student.


There is an undeniable pattern of instructors whose ego grows with their sense of self-worth. As they gain students, they will start to do things to keep them that had never occurred to the instructor before. As their classes grow, they see that they have a following, and this means that they 1. Must have all of the answers, and 2. They (personally) must never be questioned. This is why, in my opinion, most of the directors of the martial arts governing bodies become almost completely insufferable. These ego problems are also why there are so many martial arts accrediting bodies. Once this sickness takes hold, you are no longer comfortable taking orders or doing things the way someone else says. There is a transformation from the martial arts attitude of learning and experiencing, to fixed and close-minded.


There are studies that have shown that when a person is placed in a stressful situation, parts of the brain shut down while others fire up into frenzied activity. The parts that shut down are the social and learning centers. The parts that go online are those geared to survival. No learning takes place in the survival centers.

So, the student missteps, misspeak, or misunderstands, and the instructor is there screaming in his or her face. This student, as well as several others in the room will not learn another thing in that martial arts class that day. Take this into a bigger picture – the student begins, over time, to see the instructor as a source of negativity.

Even worse, they may see the training hall as a source of negativity. What this means is that the centers of the brain that allow real learning shut down before the class even begins! These centers shut down when the student is walking into the room!

Inspire and Grow

“It is my observation that they will not remember what you say. They will not remember what you do. They will remember how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

If an instructor wants his students to learn, and not just memorize. And if he wants them to grow and not just follow orders, then a different approach is needed.

Before I continue, I need to interject – the class is not going to seem all that different to the casual observer in most cases. The instructor still must bark some commands, but believe it or not there is a reason behind this. When we teach this way, we actually embed some of these skills a tiny bit deeper. The student can be startled by a sharp command that is not violently spoken, and actually learn to handle the surprise of conflict a little better.

Tiny steps, but we take what we can get.

The difference in the approach is in the intent, mood and feel of the class. When the instructor is looking to inspire students to grow in the martial arts, there will be an easy indicator that this is no run of the mill command and control setting:

The instructor will smile.

The students will smile as well.

The scene will be of instructor and students sharing a journey through the martial arts. Less visible will be the fact that both instructor and student want to be there. When this happens, the entire feel of the room changes. When you have had a chance to see both, you will recognize the difference instantly.

A Question of Discipline

As the main idea behind this is to cover teaching mostly to children, I can almost hear the question of discipline come up. Here is my answer:

Children want and need discipline. When any learning environment lacks discipline, you will also find that it lacks learning. When any environment lacks discipline, the child does not feel safe, and when the child does not feel safe, the survival centers of the brain go online, and the social and learning centers of the brain shut down. This does not just apply to a karate class but to classes in any subject you care to name, and is the biggest reason why the schools with poor methods of addressing discipline problems also have lower test scores.

In the martial arts class where the instructor has as the main goal student growth, the discipline will be very high. Rules will be enforced across the board in a tough but fair method. All students will be held to the same behavior standards. This makes the room safe, and allows the learning and social centers of the brain to get back to work.

So please do not misunderstand the idea behind this as being a push toward the idiotic modern “get an award for doing what everyone is supposed to be doing” mentality, as  am suggesting nothing of the sort. I am simply saying that martial arts instructors can bring students to a higher level of understanding and skill if they don’t bring the students to a state of mind where their biological reactions prevent learning. And it isn’t that hard to accomplish.

Just remember what the best teacher you ever had was like. Then remember the worst. Then ask yourself which way you want to be remembered.