Martial Arts Pedagogy

My Pedagogical Approach
to Martial Arts

Just because someone has a ‘black belt’ or opens up a martial arts Academy doesn’t mean they can teach. In fact, almost no martial arts ‘instructor’ is ever given a course in how to actually teach. It makes no sense if you think about it, as almost all of an instructors time will be in, well ‘instructing’. In other words, they don’t have a pedagogy (‘Pedagogy’ is a fancy academic term for the method and practice of teaching). To make matters worse, most martial arts instructors claim that they will teach their students how to defend themselves, yet they themselves have never had to defend themselves. Now amplify that by not even having an actual, tested method to teach self-preservation skills, and that’s a serious problem.

Teaching martial skills is not simply about ‘show and copy,’ it goes beyond this, it is about allowing a student to fully embody the skills being taught. It should not be lost on a martial arts instructor, that a student may be called upon to invoke these very martial skills being taught to them, in a life and death interpersonal violent encounter.

Now, although I want to teach a student how to effectively defend themselves if they need to, and of course by default I want that student to have an ever increasing performance fight game, how I achieve this isn’t how most people would think. I am totally against hyper-competitive training environments. These environments are often anchored by over inflated ego’s (or more succinctly people with low self-esteem) — who in turn believe that dominance, posturing, and making students endure harsh smack downs is the way to level them up.

Look, I come from the school of hard knocks. I am no stranger to fighting every night to knockout. When I first began teaching I thought that’s how you were suppose to do it. Just like my opening statements above, I never had anyone to show me how to actually teach, for performance, and for student retention. Over the past two decades, and especially in the past several years, I have changed my approach to teaching dramatically. It resembles nothing like I once was, either as a teacher, and or a student. Although there is far more to it than I outline below, I hope it gives you an introduction to my approach to teaching, and how I ensure every student on my mat achieves success. I also make this a central part of all my trainers programs. I am just not going to leave to chance the most important job of a martial arts instructor: to teach.

Teaching From a Challenge
Play Perspective

If you move around the martial arts circles long enough you will hear a lot about physical technique development (i.e., a better jab, a better front kick), building more strength, or stamina — and while these may be important, they do not by themselves lead to better fight performance. What we should be talking more about is how to develop fight game performance for the actual event we are training for. This may start in simulation drills, then to various progressions in sparring, but ultimately it needs to be able to come to bear in the reality of self-preservation.

To this end, I completed my masters degree in leading innovation and change. These are two core concepts often talked about in mainstream corporate organizations. From a strategic stand point, everyone knows in these environments that to stay competitive: innovation and change are not only necessary, but are crucial to success. Just like the fight game, organizations are complex (See my piece on Understanding the Fight Game for more on this.) When you are dealing with complexity, which a fight is, you have to approach the problems you face from a very different point of view than the neatly packaged reductionist teaching methods often employed in most martial arts schools.

“Yesterdays solutions, are today's problems.”

Peter Senge - systems scientist who is a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management Tweet This

The question then, if innovation leading to positive change is equally necessary in teaching others to perform at their best in the fight game, how would one achieve this?

Here’s the thing, if you want people to be creative, and to be innovative, first you have to remove the ‘risk barriers’ that render people unable to try again. People need to know, that they can take risks, without the consequences of making a mistake being so high that they simply cannot come back and play again. 

 As such my job as martial arts teacher is to give my students the confidence to accept that risk is inherently built into the fabric of creativity and innovation. Without risk there is not enough creative tension for innovation to emerge.

In order for students to take risk however, the environment they are asked to do this in must be a place where risk is not only allowed, but the consequences or payback of taking that risk shouldn’t be so high that a person can never come back and try again (like getting knocked out). In order to facilitate risk, one requires a shift in mindset, away from hyper-competitiveness to what I call Challenge Play©.

In a competitive approach one person, or group of people have to lose in order for another to win. Sadly, this doesn’t just happen against external competition, but between students that should be working together.

In a Challenge Play environment however, students are encouraged to shift from playing within boundaries (i.e., rules of winning, or rules of this is how it’s typically done) to playing with the boundaries (i.e., finding ways to continue to play, to extend the impossible).

Bottom line in all of this the ego needs to be taken out, along with the focus on winning at all cost, or not looking bad to others, or the fear of making mistakes — and instead a sense of playfulness should be instilled (not something of course the reality based self defense crowd want to hear – it’s far easier just to beat each other up under the guise of preparing for the street).

What Emerges from the
Challenge Play Model© of Teaching?

What emerges are people who are no longer seeking to dominate with power, but rather play with their strengths. This is a profound shift in attitude, and contrary to the mental model most of us hold in the West.

“Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”

Much of the reason people fail is because they are never allowed to fail. Often as pointed out earlier the consequences of failing are perceived to be to high. In most instances however this is not the case. Almost never is a mistake on the mat life or death. If I never allow for my students to fail, then I can never explore their full potential because they are simply to afraid too.

In my experience martial arts environments that don’t allow students to fail, become the exclusive domain of the tough, the ruthless, the bullies — and we can argue that it is this outmoded way of being in the world that continues to be prevalent and a source of disappear in our modern world, organizations, and of course martial arts schools. Neanderthals were tougher than us and stronger too, but they likely never cooperated with each other, and look where it got them. Cooperation in other words is really a form of play. 

“Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.”

Playing then, can be the antidote to the imagined or perceived consequences of taking risk. Taking risk shouldn’t be about keeping score, or time, rather it should be about finding ways to generate time. It should be an experience that anyone, regardless of experience or status on the mat should be able to engage in. In this kind of martial arts environment everyone will meet someone who can play with exceptional skill and offer the necessary challenge for personal growth and learning to take place.

But here winning and losing take on a different definition and role, rather than being seen as the end of the game, they are simply seen as moments in the continuation of play itself. The ultimate objective is not for the game of training to fight to end — but rather for the play of fighting to continue. As a martial arts teacher I see this process as making ART with my students. Art then is the byproduct that I/we see when there has been successful implementation of both creativity and innovation in their martial arts expression.

The Drivers of the
Challenge Play Model©

So if you have been reading up until this point, the question is, and rightfully so, what drives the Challenge Play Model© (CPM)? I’ll be honest, most of my students don’t even realize that there is in fact a model of teaching in play. All of them take for granted that this is the way martial arts should be experienced. Until of course they go somewhere else, and realize that other martial arts instructors don’t teach the way I or any of my trainers do.

It’s important to think of the CPM as creating an experience, more than drawing upon specific step-by-step guidelines. It’s an attitude of experiencing the training environment, that requires nurturing from the top. So in other words, if I as the martial arts instructor don’t believe in the CPM approach, if I don’t exemplify the approach through my own actions on the mat — nor then will my students. Simply: environment in other words always informs behavior.

In the following few sections I will outline the core main drivers of the CPM model approach that I take when teaching any of my martial arts programs. I am not going to go into detail on how exactly that is achieved per-say. If you want to know exactly what the CPM would look like in practice, consider joining one of my trainers programs.

CPM Driver 1: Invoking Adaptability

To understand the goal of the CPM you first need to know what the end goal is? If I could summarize one overriding characteristic that I want to develop in all my students: it would be adaptability.

Adaptability could mean different things depending on context, but in my approach it means something very specific. It also applies to a specific goal that I am aiming for, inspired by one of my favorite sayings in class: It doesn’t really matter what a person thinks they know, it only really matters what they can do.

Nowhere is the more important than in the realities of self-preservation. Of course the development of adaptability starts long before a student will ever find themselves in an interpersonal violent encounter. It is therefor on the mat, in my approach to how I teach and what I teach, that will lead to the success of each student being adaptable in the heat of interpersonal violence.  When a student then is unfortunate and finds himself or herself having to deploy the martial skills they learned from me, what I most want to see is their ability to adapt in the moment. This means having the ability to adapt to the environment (i.e., My concept of All Terrain – read more here). My goal then is to ensure that my students have the ability to adapt their current skill sets to a threat they may have not encountered previously. This will require them to not only be innovative in what they do, but that innovation in turn will arise out of their creative problem solving in the moment.

CPM Driver 2: Innovative Thinking

Before a person can be adaptable, they have to be able to innovate. Innovation is a concept that is spoken about often in business circles as required to remain competitive. Innovation is overcoming what Senge noted earlier, not to use yesterday’s solutions for today’s problems. Those very same solutions are often the very things that cause more of the problems today.

Innovation requires the willingness to be a creative problem solver. Arising out of innovation is the ability to be nimble to ever changing circumstances. In other words adaptability. What does innovation mean? Simply to create a new idea to overcome an existing or future problem. Innovation allows for adaptability. No adaptability, no innovation!

CPM Driver 3/4/5: Creative Expression, Risk & Failure

Ah, Creativity! Textbooks have been written about this one concept and philosopher’s have argued over it for centuries. Creativity leads to innovation, which leads to being adaptable. At it’s heart, creativity is the use of imagination or original ideas to create something. The question then is how does one allow for the creative process to take place on the mat?

What I suggest here may seem counter to how most people view success, but for a person to be creative, you have to allow for risk. Further, built within risk is failure. Failure, especially in the West is frowned upon. Most people grow up to believe that failure of any kind should be avoided at all costs. Much of the anxiety and ego we may encounter on the mat both as a student and as someone teaching is due to this one idea of not being allowed to fail. 

In my experience this is actually the greatest challenge to teaching martial arts, to educate my students on the value of failure (it might even be my own).  As was highlighted previously, no one is going to ‘risk’ failure if the results of doing so, the price, is way to high.This means as a teacher I want to encourage my students to play. To measure their success based on their own personal performance and not others. This is always challenging. It just doesn’t come naturally to most people I teach.

But if we can agree that the ultimate goal is to coach students in such a way that they can take the skills I taught them and adapt them to any environment, in the very moment they are required, this is simply not possible if they cannot innovate and be creative. This all flows back to the experience on the mat. For my students to even begin to be open to creative problem solving, requires that they feel ‘safe’ to mess up and try again.

With each successive retry they will get better and better at solving the problems they face on the mat with creative energy, and innovative expressions. Growing out of this and as their adaptability grows, so will their confidence. The end goal, to have these characteristics show up when it matters most, in self-preservation. There is no greater goal and or achievement for a martial arts instructor than this.