The martial arts teacher’s mistake

Here’s a story of how as a martial arts teacher, you invariably make a specific mistake. Rewind to last week…

I hadn’t been able to make it to my teacher’s Tai Chi Chuan class for a while. Work always got in the way, along with a bunch of other stuff. So it had been a while since we last saw each other. I was looking forward to it as my teacher is a pretty cool guy and his classes are always fun.

First thing he has me do is some form work to help out a beginning student: I stand in front of the student, facing a mirror and do the form. This way, he only has to either watch me directly or look in the mirror and he can copy my movements. We went over the form a couple times and then moved on to some self defense applications, after which we took a short break.

During that break, my teacher walks up to me and says there are “a few little differences” in my form (Translation: he’s too kind to say it but I’m messing things up.) He shows me some examples of how I accentuate specific things in my form and then contrasts them with how I should be doing them. After which he explains it’s typical for when you teach the form to beginners too much.

I’m about ready to slap my head, walk over to the wall and bang my skull against it while repeatedly yelling “Doh!”

The martial arts teacher's mistake

What I felt like doing...

Here’s the thing: I know this. It’s a typical mistake every martial arts teacher makes sooner or later:

You teach the basic way to do the form to beginners so often, you slowly lose some of the details that need to be in there when you do more “advanced” (I don’t like that word as it’s elitist but I don’t have a better alternative) versions of that form. To a degree, you can’t avoid this. If the “advanced” version has 47 points you need to pay attention to before you do it right, that’s way too much information for a beginner. So you show him the rough outline of the move first and add detail and complexity/nuances as he gets more skilled.

A good teacher finds different ways of explaining that same basic version to all kinds of people. Some people learn better a specific way but others need a different approach. So you have to adapt and tweak things until they get it. And then you give them more and more information when they can handle it.

Over the years, I’ve developed my own blueprint for that process. For a large part, it’s inspired by my teacher (and also his teacher) but I’ve obviously added my own take on things. When I teach, I follow this blueprint and guide a student form one step to the next. The problem is that very few students train long enough to complete the blueprint (Not sure if that’s even possible but the analogy is useful, so I’ll stick with it). This means that as a teacher, you rarely get to explain those finer detail points. And if you’re not careful, you’ll forget them…

This wasn’t entirely the mistake I made, but it’s close. I’ve been teaching so much lately, I started emphasizing specific parts of techniques, the parts where most students have problems. As a result, I did my form correctly, but not good enough for the level of detail I’m supposed to have after 15 years. When my teacher mentioned it, I knew right away he was totally right. So as of the next day, I started training on this and worked on getting my form up to a higher standard.  I had a blast…

I’d forgotten how much fun it was to do the form as well as I possibly can without taking into account the level of my students, without having to avoid nuances and detail work I know they aren’t ready for. Just training hard and thinking of nothing else but my own progress. Good times.

I’ve made this martial arts teacher’s mistake before, it’s not the first time. Even though I do my best to avoid it, apparently it just doesn’t work that way.  So every now and then, you’ll hear me say “Doh!” before I go off and train some more.




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  1. What a great post!! So true. You hit on so many of the points that have, at one time or the other been on my mind. And the conversation could go off in so many directions from there.

    One of the really nice things about the form is the repetition of Styles. If you know a variety of “correct” ways of doing something, you can do it more than one way within the same form practice: likewise doing the right and left versions allows you to do it one way in one version and the other way in the other version.

    It is so amazing to study the forms of your teacher (as well as other Masters of the same lineage) and notice all the variations. It never interested me to get into the arguments over whose is more “right.” Though it’s a great mental exercise to think about what and why – and conversations with folks who are a level where they can have the conversation are of great value. From the beginning I have always been more interested in the similarities of the Forms of my teacher, his contemporaries and other Masters than their differences: to be more accurate, it’s an exercise in figuring out how the apparent differences aren’t really differences at all, they just look like it to the unappreciative eye.

    Equally interesting to me, largely because I am isolated from my teacher and don’t have ready access, is what the practice of the Forms can teach themselves, through the feel, the contemplation in light of the words from the Classics, and through variations in speed, rhythm, shape, size, where you step, size of step, etc. For me the discoveries have been fascinating and thrilling, especially when, through the study of some other discipline (e.g., RKC Kettlebells-Pavel), I learn more and more about my tai chi. The same process takes place in the Nei Gong practice and it is always interesting to receive corrections and discover how far I have drifted – or what has been forgotten or misunderstood (when I thought I understood soooo well:-)

    An example is the knee rule. You hear it. You get an idea of what you think it means in terms of, say, the Front Stance of the Hand Form, and you notice what you notice. Then, in my case, years later you discover that in the Hand Form there are a million places where the knee rule comes into play that you weren’t aware of before. I had to go through the entire Form looking for it and making adjustments. An inch here and an inch there – the resulting increase in stability and decrease in knee stress has been huge.

    I could go on, but there is no need…. Thanks for the great post!

    • I’ve experienced the same things Dennis. At a seminar, Dan walked over and corrected “Snake creeps down” as I was doing it in a too basic version. He said “your form is dead.” and explained why. Gave me work for a whole year to implement the consequences. :-)

  2. “Gave me work for a whole year to implement the consequences.”

    See, now that’s what I’m talking about. I just wrote a post on my blog about how Beginning Tai Chi Style relates to safe bending and lifting. It definitely felt like too long of a post to hold anyones attention, yet I knew that there was ton of stuff that I left out.

    On a kinda related note it has been a source of great learning to have trained right up to the point of tearing old scar tissue and then having to back up and climb the rehab ladder again, this time able to go right past the point that produced the tear previously. I say that not to illustrate “dead form” issues but to highlight that focusing of something for a year is not really hard to do at all. It took at least that to recover from my last shoulder injury – now as far as I can tell my shoulder is better than ever (maybe not that good mind you but…) even though my collar bone floats in a sea of scar tissue at each end.

    The process of “first seek to expand, then seek to be compact” as I applied it to my Forms is another good example. Because of range of motion issues it takes time to find the limit of expansion – I also made the mistake of overdoing this and ended up over extending my Front Stance a bit (another lesson). After going back and looking at the photos from the older books and the photos from Dan’s newest book I was able to get a sense of the limit and found almost everything was affected by that small correction.

    Again, thanks.

    • As my body ages and my sins of the past come back to me in the form of chronic injuries, my training’s changed a lot. I still try to get the intensity as high as possible but spend a lot more time getting my periodization cycles right. As I no longer compete, I can now choose to take it down a notch when my body asks for it. Slowing down like this has helped my form a lot. I’m not getting in my own way as much anymore. :-)
      “Expand-compress” is the gift that keeps on giving. I just keep on finding different nuances to it. Not saying I’m getting it right but that it’s a fascinating part of the art.

  3. Awesome article.

  4. So right re: the nuances. There are many contexts for, say, expand-compact and most will appreciate the martial applications aspects, but I find that as I study the next Classic and review the ones I have already studied, I keep finding new ways to apply and understand the possible meanings: they hit me as my mind makes all sorts of connections based on a variety of seemingly unrelated inputs. (And it becomes evermore apparent just how amazing the translation effort is – and how important.)

    It’s clear that the writers of the Classics were writing to a limited audience and they seem to often be as interested in confounding and confusing as they were clarifying and communicating. Still, and I am not saying that I’m getting it right either, there is a lot to be learned in every line.

    It reminds me of a Japanese guy I once saw showing a bunch of us how to sharpen blades (he runs a shop in Seattle that sells Japanese saws). He kept saying, “What was it that you perceived.”

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