Martial arts instructors know everything, even when they don’t.

I’m a big fan of the Freakonomics book and discovered the website with its podcasts a while ago. There was an episode recently that touched upon a fundamental problem in the martial arts and self-defense community:

The instructors know everything, even when they don’t.

In a way, this is only human. You’re in a position of authority and are expected to be able to answer questions. Because, you know, your students pay you to teach them so if you can’t answer every question with absolute authority then you’re not a good teacher, right?

I don’t think so.

I may be wrong but I never saw it written anywhere that a martial arts or self-defense teacher is supposed to know everything. That’s just not possible; and like Logen Ninefingers aka The Bloody Nine always says: “You have to be realistic about these things.”

I believe you do your students a disservice by giving them an answer that is either wrong or incomplete when you go out on a limb like that. What’s worse, when they eventually find out you were full of it, they might end up questioning the knowledge and information you offer that is accurate. So even in the long run, you’re better off telling the truth and admitting you don’t know. No matter how difficult it is for your ego to do so.

When I was younger, I fell prey to this very mistake but after repeatedly being wrong, I learned my lesson. Now I just say “I don’t know.” or “I’ll ask my teacher.” or “I’ll look it up.” If a student presses for an answer, at best, I’m willing to give them my opinion and then label it as such. That way they at least have a qualifier to put the information I give into proper context instead of taking it as gospel.

By the way, this applies to everything I write on this blog too: I’m an island of one, just one guy sharing a little knowledge and personal experience. I make no claims other than “This is what I think is right at this point in time.” So don’t take my word for anything other than that. I’ve been wrong about lots of things and fully expect that to happen again in the future. (Though this doesn’t seem to stop me from having an opinion, some people might say…)

The corollary to that is that I may (and probably will) change my mind somewhere down the line. Which is another aspect the authors mention in the podcast:

In academics, you start from the premise that you don’t know the answer to a question but you’re going to try and find out. That’s a far cry from the managers they’re talking about but its equally valid for martial arts instructors.

Remember the first time you learned a self-defense technique and the teacher said it always works, no matter what? That’s an example of somebody with a mindset of “I know everything.” Had he taken the time to question his own infallible knowledge, he’d have found there are loads of scenarios in which the technique either doesn’t work or has to be modified. Instead, he bypassed the whole “finding out” part and skipped straight ahead to the “answer” part, picking one he feels comfortable with and then stopped asking questions.

As the authors say, you never learn anything that way. But it’s a lot easier than studying and researching because fundamentally, the academic way has three uncomfortable consequences:

  • The answer you find is never set in stone, knowledge (and therefor skill) is never static. You should absolutely expect the answer to change; that’s how science works. Which is why you keep on experimenting and studying, so you can keep on refining and updating your knowledge. Case in point: a friend of mine is a chemist with lots of little letters in front of his name. He goes apeshit over the whole global warming trend of the last decade. Why? Because not only are the data and models used fundamentally flawed (long story there and most people don’t want to accept even the possibility of it being true) but also because about 30-40 years ago, some scientists were seriously claiming we were heading straight to an ice age and had to do everything we can to warm up the planet… Bringing it back to martial arts: Dan Inosanto once answered the question “why are there so many side kick defenses in Jeet Kune Do?” He replied that in the 1970’s, people threw side kicks all the time. Nowadays, you hardly ever see that kick anymore. So in less than 40 years, a cornerstone of the training back then has become virtually obsolete. Now take a look at your own curriculum and ask yourself the question which parts might also have suffered that fate? And what are you doing about it?
  • More than one answer possible. In theory, things are black and white. This is easy for people to understand and makes for a comfortable world view. But it’s nowhere near what happens in reality. In real life, you can have two totally opposite solutions to the same problem. E.g.: An idiot goes ballistic over a parking space and throws a haymaker. One martial artist knocks him out with a high kick, the other does so by kicking him in the balls (both true stories, by the way). Both worked but both were radically different solutions to the same problem. One isn’t more right or wrong than the other.
  • Shades of gray instead of either/or.  What works for one may not work for another but how do you define where that line is, when a technique stops working for you? Who should use that high kick and who should use that groin kick? The answer is that it depends on lots of factors that change all the time. Our high kicking martial artist might not pull off that technique if he’s injured. Or if he’s sore from training hard the day before. Or 20 years later when he’s in his late fifties and doesn’t have the same explosive kicks anymore, along with sufficient flexibility to kick high without warming up. And so on. It’s never an either or answer. Knowledge and skill changes all the time.

If you have this “I know everything” way of thinking, I don’t think you should be teaching self-defense or anything else. It’s a statement of supreme arrogance and overestimating your own capabilities if you can’t even fathom being wrong every now and then. It’s human to want this to be true, I totally agree with that. But just because you wish something to be true, doesn’t make it so.

By the way, there’s another question in the podcast that is relevant to martial arts and self-defense:

What are the authors afraid of, despite their better judgment?

The question came from a listener who started it by saying people are terrible at assessing risks. I can only say he’s all kinds of right on that front, but I don’t want to go there just now. What I do want to bring forward is this:

What are you afraid of that you absolutely have to:

  • Carry three knives and a firearm wherever you go, even in your own house.
  • Ingrain killing and maiming techniques as your standard reaction to any attack, regardless of the context.
  • Prefer to pass out when somebody slaps a good choke on you in training rather than tap. Or end up injured in an arm bar instead of tapping.
  • You fill in the blank.

Unless you live in a war zone or ghetto, unless you live a criminal lifestyle, unless you get high/drunk all the time, unless you routinely go to the wrong bars and parts of town, chances of you needing any of that are slim to none. For most people, that’s precisely the case: they don’t have a realistic need for any of that.

Bringing it back to the either/or fallacy: this doesn’t mean you are always safe and should do nothing to prepare for violence. What it means is that you just might have your priorities messed up because you’re not assessing risks correctly. Uncomfortable to admit to yourself, I know. But if you’re wiling to go to extremes to prepare yourself, you might as well prepare for the right reasons.




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  1. One of my favorite Dilbert cartoons was about an “all hands” meeting at the company were Dilbert worked. The Pointy Haired Boss was speaking and asked for questions.

    Dilbert had a question, and the TPHB said that he didn’t know the answer, but would find out and dutifully passed the question down to an underling to follow up on.

    Well, that underling passed it to another, and so on until the assignment to find the answer to the question arrived on Dilbert’s desk.

  2. In the last style I took, the head of the style would make it a point to show up to an instructor’s new class, and “reinforce the authority of the teacher”. I was going to approach things very differently. Heaven knows I vociferously argued points (religion / politics / martial arts / whatever) when I was younger that I was “sure of”, and now 20 years later have completely reversed my position. Add to that my falling under the influence of the likes of Rory Miller, and I KNOW that I know nothing about real, violent conflicts.
    But, there are some students who see this as a shortcoming. They want their instructors to “know everything”. And, I think that is one reason why teachers keep acting as that complete authority.

    • That’s a good point Jeff, how students expect to know everything. It does put pressure on the teacher but he should be honest and not accept the role they want him to play. Nothing good can come of it.

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