Imagine the most boring class you had in high school or college. The teacher’s droning probably made you itchy to escape the intellectual prison they called a classroom.

Now imagine the best class you had in high school or college. The impact of that instructor has probably lasted well beyond your school days.

ninja classroom demotivational poster

Teaching a martial art is a rare gift and responsibility, one that has an amazing amount of freedom. In the public education system there are layers of governing boards and protocols to funnel what can be taught and how it can be transmitted. In the martial arts world, the possibilities are much more varied.

Sure, most martial art organizations have criteria for what it takes to advance in ranking…but are there guidelines for how that knowledge should be transmitted? Unlikely.

It’s possible of course to try and perfectly mimic your instructor’s style, but that’s rarely attainable (or even desirable). Personal experience, talent level, intellectual capacity, and philosophical beliefs will flavor everything you do in a unique way.

Therefore it’s wise to examine your own teaching methods and decide for yourself how you might best help your students. Consider the following three strategies for imparting a martial art:


Being a full-on dictator is bad…but sometimes dictating is good! Dictating refers to the act of instructing students in a very specific and structured manner. The teacher tells the student where to step, where to block, how to balance, what degree angle to turn, etc etc. Dictating is a powerful tool, especially in the early phases of a young martial artist’s career as he/she tries desperately to adjust to the rigors of training.

dictator and dictating

The weakness of dictation is a lack of creativity. Students are so busy trying to fit into the structure of class while avoiding technical mistakes that they rarely engage in critical thinking. Toying with technique, trial and error, and big-picture contemplation is not on the to-do checklist.

Of course, giving specific advice has been around since one caveman taught another how to sharpen a stick; there’s no question regarding the value of detail transmission. However, modern teaching has taken dictation to a high extreme, resulting in formalized classes filled with one-way information and strict regimentation. A lot of that can be attributed to military influence.

When military men first arrived in eastern countries and learned martial arts, they often integrated the material they learned with the military methods they had been molded in. They did so for purely practical reasons. The stakes were/are very high in military and law enforcement work. Following orders with precision saves lives while creating higher probability of success for an entire unit.

The west wasn’t alone in their military intentions; eastern countries like Japan and even Okinawa began teaching martial arts in larger group settings for the purpose of crafting young men into resilient, obedient soldiers. Strong dictation was a natural evolution of teaching style.


Perhaps the diametric opposite of dictating is the ‘wait and see’ approach. W&S involves demonstrating technique, kata, etc while offering no breakdown or explanation. The instructor performs and the students must watch and gather what they can. Discussion is not a big part of W&S.

W&S has been the method of choice for centuries in many of the eastern koryu arts. Due to the influence of Confucianism, eastern philosophy enforces the idea of quiet obedience and attendance when being instructed. W&S does not require the instructor to hold a student’s hand through every detail.

The strength of W&S lies in it’s focus and range of possibilities. When learning in W&S style there is no spoon feeding of information, and going on mental ‘cruise control’ is a very quick way to fall behind and eventually wash out. Furthermore, interpretation of what a student sees an instructor do can be highly varied. Since there is no specific guidance, the student is left to his/her own experience and critical thinking in order to determine how to achieve the same skill level as the instructor. W&S also has the benefit of being able to transcend language barrier.

The weakness of W&S lies in it’s roadblocks and time frame. If a student gets stuck and lacks understanding, they can find themselves in ‘learning quicksand’. Even if they do eventually struggle their way through a problem, it may have taken years longer than was needed. A few pieces of wisdom from an experienced instructor could have reframed perspective and fixed a wayward path, but with W&S there can be a lack of active course correction.

Another weakness of W&S is organizational. When an instructor allows students to interpret the art for themselves, each student will naturally come to different conclusions. When the senior instructor is not present, or has passed away, the result is chaotic and often results in massive splintering among students.


Nudging is perhaps a middle ground of the previous two methods and involves monitoring a student’s progress noninvasively, interjecting from time to time in order to enhance growth and understanding.

A nudge is not as concrete as dictation; if the instructor fixes the angle of a student’s stance, that is a dictated correction. If on the other hand he/she asks the student why the angle of a stance might be better increased or decreased, that is a nudge toward understanding.

Nudging is a powerful tool, especially when instructing higher level students. Advanced martial artists can become stagnant and bored if they only receive dictated training year after year. That is why challenging them to draw their own conclusions and guiding them to their own level of higher understanding is so essential.

The problem with nudging is twofold: difficulty and structure. Students can become impatient and annoyed with a teacher who nudges all the time because they feel a simple straight answer would be a quicker solution to their needs. Furthermore, teaching in a nudge style can be extremely tricky. It’s very easy to fall into a ‘false philosopher’ mode where the instructor simply projects student’s questions back onto them without providing any real insight. For example:

“Sensei, what does this technique mean? I can’t put it to any good use.”

“My student, what do you think it means? Once you know that, you’ll have your answer.”


This exchange sounds wise and zen-like, but it doesn’t provide any nudging.

The other difficulty is in structure. Instructors must navigate the complicated tapestry of tradition and ego. In some ways, it is an instructor’s duty to pass along a style exactly as it was handed to him/her (best done through dictation). Meanwhile, the more students look exactly like the instructor, the better pleased the instructor will be due to subtle ego (since I know what I am doing, the students should look like me!). Thus, nudging requires a careful relaxing of those rules in order to let students find their own path to higher effectiveness.

How does an instructor maintain the integrity of a tradition while helping students explore their own path? That’s the difficulty in nudging.

A Proper Mixture

I don’t believe any one of the methods above is superior to the others. In fact, I think most good instructors find a mixture of all three with plenty of other tactics mixed in. A skilled instructor will observe what each individual needs on a case-by-case, day-by-day basis. In fact, teaching strategy can change in mid-class (or even mid-sentence).

The key, I think, is to recognize the tools available as a teacher and use them to their highest effect. Knowing when to take the reigns and when to loosen them is critical in helping students achieve that rare but essential goal of self actualization. Only then can a martial art start to grow into ikigai.