Did you know you can use your space bar to scroll down on websites? Go ahead, try it now (unless you’re on mobile).
Pretty slick huh? Little tips and tricks like that have become known as ‘hacks’ due to our computer friendly society. Hacks are a great way to improve your productivity and efficiency in virtually any endeavor. That includes teaching martial arts.
One thing I’ve realized over the years is that good instructors know how to manage themselves as much as their students. Avoiding emotional and psychological tangles frees up the class to focus on the material at hand. The following three mental hacks are great ways for you to improve both the quality and consistency of your teaching.
1. Remove Your Patience Trigger
Imagine a thermometer. As heat rises so does the red mercury goo inside the glass piping. Now imagine things getting so hot that the goo bursts out of the top (I don’t know if this actually happens, but you see it in cartoons all the time). A patience trigger is like that, where we experience a certain level of annoyance or frustration and it results in an external reaction. Road rage, for example, is a very common patience trigger. A slight inconvenience on the road can cause people to launch into fits of rage.
The big realization here is that with a little forethought you can understand where your own patience trigger is in most common situations, learn to feel it coming, and take active mental steps to avoid allowing that trigger to activate.
The bigger realization is that when instructing martial arts you can eliminate that trigger if you have the wherewithal to try.
I remember many times parents approaching me and apologizing for their child’s behavior in class. In most of those scenarios the child was definitely being disruptive. I had to take special time and attention to wrangle them back in. The funny part is that the parents expected me to have the same patience trigger for their child as they themselves had (which is to say, very low tolerance). However, as a martial arts instructor I (and you) live up to a different standard while in the dojo. It is our job to maintain balance, poise, and focus. The rest of the class will feed on that energy one way or another. Therefore, even as your temperature rises, there can be no trigger moment where you lose your cool.
This one is hard to execute all the time and is something we need to remind ourselves regularly especially when there is a particularly abrasive annoyance. We should not confuse this for allowing ourselves to be pushed around. The Sensei does not tolerate annoyance and bullying but neither do they sink to those levels.
Identify the behavior you are most likely to encounter in the dojo that will trigger you. Learn to feel it coming and consciously disarm it.
2. Utilize Your “Prime Time” Self
This one is all about being a professional. It’s odd, but since the Sensei is autonomous in their own dojo they lack accountability. Good managers and CEOs know that going to work means delivering top performance. The company is relying on them and they are expected to set the tone for the rest of the work place. On the other hand, many Sensei fall into the trap of believing their dojo is their own personal playground, workshop, or therapy couch.
Your “Prime Time Self” is essentially a way of bringing your best game to the dojo time after time. When you enter the dojo door you should imagine yourself putting away external problems, worries, and grievances. You should then adopt the persona of your best self – the teacher you WANT to be. This does not mean putting on airs and pretending like you’re Confucius. Instead it means behaving in a way that is worthy of your title as Sensei – thoughtful, level-headed, and focused. The attention of the class should be on progress and the art itself, not the mood of the Sensei.
3. Avoid Buddy Syndrome
This particular hack tends to apply more to Western instructors than Eastern. In Eastern culture the role of instructor has a built-in aloofness that can be downright distant at times. Western culture, on the other hand, prefers more of a coach mindset where the authority figure becomes a mix of friend and confidant as well as guide. The role of Sensei can be found somewhere in between, but it’s easy to get off track.
If a Sensei has an innate need to be liked and approved-of they may find themselves looking to be friends with students as well as an instructor. This can lead to buddy syndrome, which often results in complications. A Sensei’s treatment of students needs to range from encouraging to challenging and will often switch at a moment’s notice. If a student’s behavior begins to go awry, or their focus wains, the Sensei needs to get them back on track. This treatment can be more stern and demanding than a ‘friend’ would be able to do, so when those roles begin to mix a certain amount of relationship drama is sure to ensue.
Having a friendly, comfortable relationship with students is one of the great pleasures of being a Sensei…but avoiding buddy syndrome is important to maintain at all times.
Conclusion – First Know Thyself!
When people think about teaching a martial art they tend to focus on technical content and managing the personalities of the students. Those are both important, but if you don’t check yourself first you’ll find more trouble than you expected and be less prepared to deal with it. Use these hacks the next time you take the floor and remember – you are setting the tone. What you see in the students is a reflection of yourself!
Very few people are immune to the sneaky problem of negative self talk. It’s easy to miss since it can start off small and inconsequential but eventually cascade into a full on mental road block. Let’s take a look at what self talk is, how it can become problematic, and how to avoid negative compounding.
First, a definition. Self talk, as the name suggests, is when you communicate with yourself inside your mind. It can manifest literally when you are talking out loud to yourself (I do that, don’t you?) but for the most part acts as an interior monologue as you go about your day. Self talk is critical for problem solving, decision making, and thought organization.
Interestingly, the way we allow that inner voice to manifest can have serious impacts throughout our day and can affect how we view martial arts training. As such, self talk can result in motivation and enthusiasm or grinding annoyance and hesitation.
Example: A Simple Matter of Wording
I’ve been teaching karate and kobudo for a number of years. Occasionally I forget what day it is and say to myself “ohh shoot, that’s right – I have to teach to today”. Seems harmless enough right? Actually it’s not; it is the subtle first stage of negative self talk. You see, I say “I HAVE to teach”, meaning that I do not have a choice in the matter. It is a disruption from my normal pattern. When I HAVE to teach it is a burden beyond my control. Whenever I catch myself doing this I immediately say to myself “no, I GET to teach today.” Believe it or not this diligence has made a world of difference at times.
The way we use language, even within ourselves, can have a serious impact on our outlook and motivation. We can choose to alter that conversation so as to avoid negative spiraling. Here’s another look at it:
Example: Perceived Obstacles
Winter is starting to hit many areas of the world and things are getting cold and icy. Human nature suggests that staying out of that weather is the smart thing to do for survival; therefore, the brain will start programming reasons to avoid the cold well before you realize what is happening. You might start to feel a tickle in your throat, an ache in your back, or worries about your car on the ice. Your brain will talk to you and nag you unless you choose to change the conversation.
Instead of a series of insurmountable hurdles you can choose to see challenges, knowing that if you overcome them you will be happier and more successful at the end of the day.
Here’s a tip: for hard days when you know your motivation is going to wain build in a reward mechanism post-class. My Thursdays used to contain 4-5 hours of training and on those days I would get a hoagie and tea afterwards. No training, no hoagie. Simple but effective.
You Guide the Conversation
If none of this seems relevant to you consider yourself lucky. A few fortunate people always see the dojo as a haven and retreat there without a moment’s hesitation. Most of us though have bouts of laziness, doubt, and distraction (especially as months of training turn into years which turn into decades). These moments of mental weakness can quickly become burdens unless you steer the conversation early enough. That being said, there’s a fine line between indulging in negative self talk and ignoring serious signs from your body. If you are downright sick or injured it can be detrimental to your health to force yourself into training. Longevity and health are as much a part of training as kicking and punching. Learn to notice when your body is serious and when it’s just whining.
In tennis there is a concept known as “forced errors and unforced errors”. A forced error is when one player demonstrates superior technique and strategy, pushing the opponent into a situation where they cannot respond effectively. Essentially, any time you see a player outright win a point, he is forcing the other player to be out of position or to hit a sub-optimal shot.
An unforced error, on the other hand, is when a player makes a mistake through no direct influence of their opponent. If you see someone serve into the net, or hit a ball wide, those are unforced errors.
That being said, I’d like to share a story about how I came to understand this concept and how it can apply to your martial arts training.
Story Time – The Trashman
In high school I was a tennis player, although not a very good one. I enjoyed playing, but martial arts got most of my time and attention. As such, I generally played down in the Junior Varsity leagues, scrumming around and having a fun time. Something weird happened my senior year though – I managed to place as the #2 seed on our starting team.
I was getting a little better year by year, but not to the point where I was actually good. My senior year “rank boost” happened because I figured something out – tennis players are neurotic. Much like golf, tennis is a very individualized sport where players spend a lot of time in their own head. As a result, the biggest opponent on the court is often “oneself”.
With that in mind, I developed a strategy whereupon my only real goal was to get the ball back over the net. I wasn’t trying to hit down-the-line winners or blitz serves at 80mph. I hit sloppy, medium paced shots that managed to make it back to my opponent time after time. My instructor affectionately nicknamed me “the trashman”, since I was routinely putting up garbage.
Something that frustrates tennis players is when they KNOW they are better than their opponent, yet aren’t getting ahead. As their self talk spins further and further out of control, they begin committing unforced errors as they lose patience and try to press too hard. Before they know it they are losing to an inferior opponent…which is generally when the cursing and racquet breaking begins.
I was never good at tennis, but I did come to understand the psychology of forced errors vs unforced errors.
Forced and Unforced: Your Opponent
It’s quite possible you don’t care about tennis, nor have any desire to get better at playing it. That’s ok! These concepts apply just as well to the martial arts.
When thinking of sparring and fighting, we generally conceptualize methods in which we will force our opponent into suboptimal situations. For example, if we punch them in the face we can then kick them in the groin and throw them to the ground. Straight forward and effective. However, forcing errors can go a little deeper than that.
If you think about distancing and body positioning during a combative engagement, the opponent MUST use the information you provide to make an informed decision about what he/she will do next. If you are close, they cannot use high kicks. If you are far away, they cannot grapple (unless they close the distance). As a result, you can use the knowledge of the situation to force your opponent into moving in particular ways. For example, if you are standing at a distance with your hands dropped low, what is the likelihood that the opponent will attempt a high, long ranged technique? Furthermore, he/she knows that a high technique is the obvious choice, so they will likely attempt a feint high in order to open up a low technique, which is their real intention.
You can never know exactly what the opponent will do, but you can refine their options which will make them more predictable, reducing the needed response options on your part and increasing the chance of your own effectiveness (the end goal of any combative engagement).
As for unforced errors…
An opponent’s unforced error may seem obvious at first – bad technique or decisions that leave huge openings. This is indeed part of unforced error capitalization. But we can go a step further. In tennis I used a calm persistence to disrupt the psychology of the opponent. Do we not have that same opportunity in fighting? Of course, conflict never lasts as long as a tennis match, but we can utilize the idea of gaining a psychological advantage (and implanting suggestion) even before a single strike is thrown as well as during the engagement itself.
Forced and Unforced: You!
If you’ve ever sparred you know what it’s like to get pushed around the dojo floor from time to time. You also know the frustrating repercussions of trying something stupid that is immediately shut down and punished. If you want to learn more about forced and unforced errors, take an honest look at your losses. Take it one step further and ask the individuals who beat you what they saw and how they were able to exploit it.
Let’s step out of the combative ring for a moment though. Unforced errors play more of a role in training than most people realize. Think of all the solo activity that goes along with martial arts training – kata, demonstrations, testing, etc etc. During all of those events it’s just you, the open floor space, and maybe some watchful eyes. There is nothing standing between you and success…which can be a debilitating problem for many individuals.
Unforced errors (aka wrinkles in personal psychology) appear all the time in martial arts training and can be so smothering that they cause many individuals to quit altogether. Anxiety during a testing, cold sweat as people watch you…these are purely internal matters and can only be rectified by one person (you).
I have found that identifying and placing a name on this kind of anxiety helps to overcome it. If you feel an overwhelming sense of dread or tension during solo performances, just remember that nothing can stop you except for you. Don’t “throw away the match” by riding the psychological tailspin of unforced errors. Recognize it, put it away, and do what it is you’ve trained to do!