When I observe the individual training portion of each class, I’m often struck by both the self-discipline students show while working on their own and by the obvious camaraderie on view when they organize into partners or small groups. Focused solo training and constructive group training are both useful skills to cultivate, and it’s satisfying to see how well our students train when given a block of unstructured time.
Over my years of teaching, I’ve often noticed students giving one another feedback during these small-group sessions. I have some ambivalence about this because it’s a perfect example of a way in which an area of strength for our school can also be fine-tuned to better fit the spirit of traditional martial arts training.
Generosity of Spirit in Noncompetitive Training
Since the word “traditional” and “authentic” are so widely used among martial arts practitioners that they’ve become meaningless, and it’s problematic to use the word “classical” in a martial arts lineage that can only be convincingly dated back to 1945, I use the phrase “noncompetitive and technically rigorous” to describe our style to people who don’t know us.
The word “noncompetitive” distinguishes our school from others that structure their curriculum and training methods around tournament competition. Many old-school martial artists understand the distinction immediately and recognize why it’s important to us. It’s also an important subtext of the Second, Third, and Fourth Tenets of Ji Do Kwan—all of which describe how to constructively train together as friendly comrades in a discipline that has the potential to be dangerous and hostile. Finally, it was an important spiritual value of Choi Bong Young, the Korean master who is the start of our lineage in the United States.
When I see students working together—offering each other tips and other feedback, or even sharing/speculating/philosophizing about why some aspect of training is the way it is—I feel gratified that this cooperative, noncompetitive spirit is alive and well in our school. It shows that all of us are really living according to the three middle Ji Do Kwan Tenets:
- Respect the Elder
- Protect the Younger
- Friendship among Peers
This generous spirit is wonderful and has been present in every Ji Do Kwan school I’ve been a part of. It’s no less true today in our martial arts schools in Florence, Northampton, and Chester.
Cooperative group learning has become universal in universities and many other educational domains, so why is it problematic in martial arts training?
There are two reasons why group feedback must be considered carefully in the context of a martial arts school:
- insufficient depth of knowledge leads to improper understanding
- teaching is a privilege that flows from the authority of the instructor
The Double-Edged Nature of Group Work
In a traditional martial arts school, the head instructor teaches each student new concepts when they’re ready to learn. There are many criteria that contribute to this state of readiness, including: consistent class attendance, competence in previous techniques, improvement in techniques that are still works in progress, enthusiasm and focus in training, good relations with other students in the school, leadership by example, overall fitness and conditioning, and a student’s status compared to others of the same rank, to name just a few. The decision to offer the gift of information—in a new technique, form, combination, or other insight—is the result of a complicated mental algorithm that is only really understood by an instructor with both deep martial arts experience and “a finger on the pulse” of the school as a whole.
When a school is too large for a single instructor to spend enough time with each worthy student, the head instructor usually asks other trusted practitioners to work with individuals or groups as necessary. These instructors almost always hold Dan ranks, i.e. they are black belts. Occasionally, in certain contexts, an advanced Gup-level student (a brown belt or, rarely, a green belt) may be asked to lead a drill or show basics to beginners.
This traditional system ensures that the head instructor authorizes the appropriate transfer of knowledge for each of the students training on the floor—that they’ve earned the knowledge they’re about to receive and are well equipped to handle it. Its hierarchical nature, martial in origin, places clear responsibility for every student’s day-by-day training within the hands of the head instructor, who has a vision for the overall trajectory of each student’s development.
Training in small groups, where any of the participants are free to offer “constructive criticism” about any other member, has the potential to undermine the centuries-old structure described above.
However well-intentioned, no intermediate-level student is really prepared to teach a technique to someone else. They simply don’t have the depth of understanding, which can only come from years of experience, to accurately transmit the nuances of complicated technical motions. Since martial arts practice concerns physically challenging and potentially dangerous techniques, the consequences of improper understanding can be significant: the likelihood of injury is high—to the teacher, to the learner, or both. These injuries may take the obvious form of unintended contact due to inadequately understood techniques, or it may take the form of failing joints and connective tissues years later, for example, as a student develops muscle memory for a motion that’s not biomechanically sound.
Respecting the Elder
The Second Tenet of Ji Do Kwan is “Respect the Elder” and one of its obvious meanings addresses this point: only an authorized instructor should decide who gets to teach other students. This principle supersedes the otherwise appealing idea that it’s nice to share information with one’s fellow students and helpful to tell them things they may not grasp for themselves.
When a group of students trains together and each offers ideas about what others can do better, it puts each of those students in the role of teacher—a role that most have not yet earned. As such, it fails to “Respect the Elder” which includes acknowledging the leadership of those who have worked for years or decades to earn rank and authority within the school.
Although this may seem odd in the Western world, where it’s considered bold, resourceful, admirable to challenge a professor or manager—assuming one’s insights are useful and correct—this is not considered appropriate in the context of most martial arts schools. As the world becomes internationalized, this may be changing somewhat, but throughout East Asia, teachers are immensely respected, and it would be considered reckless, arrogant, and totally inappropriate to assume the privileges of a teacher without earning them through a respected and universally understood process.
Our Tae Kwon Do school is in the United States, but when we enter our dojang, we set aside many typically Western conventions within this special space, adopting instead a set of cultural norms that derive from a melange of Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, and practical martial ideals. This is what gives the East Asian martial arts a framework that, despite many subtle or broad variations in traditions, makes the training hall feel familiar whether a student trains in Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu, Karate, Aikido, and so forth. More than just physical training, most martial arts ask us to follow these unusual cultural conventions in order to cultivate a new and complementary Way of living. The strict hierarchies of teaching, which follow logically from the concept of respect for elders, are in place for good reasons—some of which will be covered in later blog posts. For now, let’s just assume that we accept and appreciate these customs by agreeing to train in a martial art.
So What Should I Do?
As an instructor in a school with many generous and friendly students, the last thing I want to do is shut down the good spirit that’s always on view among those who train with us. Here are some guidelines to show what’s generally appropriate and what’s well-intentioned but not quite right:
IF YOU’RE A BLACK BELT
If you’re fortunate enough to have teaching responsibilities as head of one of our locations, or for a weekly class at the home dojang, you’re in charge of the class you teach. Check in regularly with the head instructor of the school to make sure you’re not racing ahead with individuals’ development, but have some latitude to show students new things, especially green belts and below. During the individual study portion of a class where a higher-ranking instructor is in charge, feel free to approach Gup-level students to lead drills, review skills they already know, or teach them something new if warranted.
IF YOU’RE A BROWN BELT
Students at the brown belt level, especially First Gups who are working toward their Il Dan test, have significant Tae Kwon Do experience and useful knowledge for beginning and intermediate students. If asked by the ranking instructor, you can teach or drill lower-ranking students in whatever capacity the black belt requests. That said, you shouldn’t seek out opportunities to teach others. If you notice another student doing something dangerous, stop them and suggest that they ask a black belt about a better way to train (see the Third Tenet). If a beginning student is standing around and not training in a productive way, you might ask if they’re okay. If they’re not, tell them to notify the head instructor; if so, you might gently but firmly suggest that they get back to work. Short of interrupting dangerous or disruptive activities, you should wait for a black belt to provide instructions before teaching or leading a group drill.
IF YOUR RANK IS GREEN BELT OR LOWER
Although an instructor may, on special occasions, ask for help from an intermediate-level student, you’ll probably rarely be asked to teach or lead drills at this level. Even if you think you’re a promising student who’s doing everything right for your level (and if the instructor agrees), your knowledge is not deep enough to be useful in most applications. Like a smart, ambitious high school or college students, you may think you know more than you actually do, and you may have just enough knowledge to be dangerous. Follow a black belt’s request if you’re asked to do something, of course, but don’t try to lead group or partner training on your own.
IF YOU’RE WORKING AS A PARTNER AMONG EQUALS
At any level, it’s okay to ask a partner to work with you for many types of drills and technical practice, and you shouldn’t let the above scare you away from this type of useful training. If you train this way, make sure that nobody takes the lead or feels “in charge.” You’re working with one another, not teaching. In this situation, it’s usually not useful to say “I noticed you’re doing _____ and should be doing _____ instead” or “Don’t lean back/extend your arm so much/target so high/etc.” Talking should be kept to a minimum, so you’re focused on executing technique and not on socializing or showing how much you [think you] know and understand. If working in a group of mixed ranks, the senior student can provide guidance to make the activity flow smoothly but should exercise self-restraint to avoid sliding into the role of teacher.
IF A JUNIOR STUDENT ASKS YOU A QUESTION
Martial arts instructors often move quickly from one student to another when supervising individual practice. It’s often helpful for newer students to ask seniors, who aren’t of sufficient rank to have teaching authority, to answer straightforward questions. Senior students should answer questions when they can easily do so to keep the junior student constructively engaged, but they should avoid long, complicated, or esoteric explanations. As a general rule, if an answer would take more than 30 seconds, or if it involves a judgment call, it’s better to refer that student to a senior instructor. If you’re unsure of the answer and curious to hear the instructor’s reply, you can invite the junior student to come with you when you ask. Questions that are subtle or multifaceted, or that you know will take a long time to explain for some other reason, should wait until after class so you can both focus on training during class time. A good guideline when you do decide to offer technical advice: try showing instead of teaching. For example, say: “I do it this way” instead of “You should be doing this.”
IF YOU’RE A JUNIOR STUDENT AND WANT TO OFFER ADVICE TO A SENIOR
Don’t do this. It would be considered grossly inappropriate for a junior student to “correct” a senior under any circumstances, for reasons that are probably obvious by now. It’s less obvious, but just as true, that junior students should even avoid complimenting senior students. It may seem polite and gracious to tell an instructor “That was a great class,” or “Your sparring was awesome today” or “Whoa, great spinning crescent kick!” Again, a traditional Korean master would be offended by this kind of praise. Who, after all, is a student with two years of training to pass judgment—even if it’s favorable—on an instructor with many years of experience? If a student feels qualified to tell instructors that they did a good job, the assumption is they’re also able to tell them what needs work. . . not true in virtually any traditional dojang.
Why All This Matters
Like so many of the rules and traditions of East Asian martial arts training, there are many reasons for this strict methodology: keeping everyone safe, keeping workouts efficient and avoiding wasted time, acknowledging real knowledge and rewarding achievement, encouraging patience and humility, and showing everyone in the dojang how to thrive through respectful cooperation.
If you’re a beginning student, open your mind and spirit to instruction. Ask for clarification during class and Big Picture questions after class. If you’re an intermediate student or beyond, ask yourself: if I spent less time talking and more time practicing, how would this affect my own progress? Be generous with your knowledge, but be aware of these conventions of teaching as a way of understanding your own limits and protecting your limited training time.