Strategies for Teaching Martial Arts: Student Praise

As we return to the subject of teaching martial arts, I want to address the subject of praising the student’s progress. There are many opinions on the topic, and mine may just be one more thrown in the mix, but working with more kids on a daily basis, and teaching more classes in a day than some instructors teach in a week, I feel that I do have the experience to offer my opinion.

Praise is a ‘Must’

Whether you feel comfortable doing it or not, whether you think it is a sign of weakness or not, even if you never experienced it at all in your own journey through the martial arts, praise is a ‘must’ if you intend to be a high quality instructor. It is very easy to catch the students “doing it wrong”, any experienced martial artist can do that, so there is no challenge there. And if there is no challenge, there is no growth for the instructor, and probably not much for the student.

When a student gets it right, especially if they are a student who has struggled with whatever it is you are working on, it is appropriate and necessary to call attention to the act of getting it right.

Genuine Praise

When you praise the work of a student, it must be both spontaneous and genuine. When you call out thinks like, “Jose is rockin’ that side kick!” when all the while both you and Jose know that his side kick is very poor, you are not only bringing doubt into Jose’s mind about your authenticity, but you are further setting a false standard about what is and is not a proper side kick, which will lead to more students in the class getting it wrong.

This is not the feel good karate school idea of praise, I am talking about genuine, almost parental feeling of wanting so bad to see this person get it right, that when they finally DO get it right, you cannot help but call attention to it.

Of course, this is only going to be possible for the instructor who truly cares about the progress of his or her students, and I am just assuming that if you are reading this, you fall squarely into that category. If not, stick with me, and we will get you there!

The ‘Compliment Sandwich’

When a student needs to be corrected, you can still use praise to frame things in a positive light, and thus avoid becoming a source of negativity in the mind of the student.

When working with children, it is a good idea to praise something that they are doing correctly before you go into corrections. This can be difficult, and at times may seem impossible, but the kid is in the class, and they are going through the motions if nothing else, and therein lies something to praise before telling them they are doing something wrong.

There is an example that I use often this is a true story. I was teaching a beginner class once, when a student just would not or could not understand the concept or command of Bend your knees!

So I walked right up to him and said, “Jimmy, your feel are in exactly the right place to do a back stance, but what I need you to do now is to bend your knees a bit more. More. More. More. Right there! Everyone look! THAT is what your stance is supposed to look like! Awesome stance Jimmy!”

This is pejoratively referred to as the “compliment sandwich”, and  don’t mind the label as in essence the term is a valid description. Compliment – Correct – Praise. It is okay to use with children because of the hyper-sensitivity kids have about anyone noticing that they are not doing something right.

With adults, the tactic is typically seen as a gimmick, and in general, I recommend against its use in adult classes for this reason. One may still have the very insecure adult student who needs liberal doses of praise, and this tactic can still be used with that very small group of adults.

So, there is my take on student praise, I hope that some of you find it useful!