The Importance Of “Why” In Martial Arts Instruction

This week, if everything goes well, I will receive my blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I have known many students for whom this rank is a means to an end. Their attitude changes and they become more relaxed about how seriously they take their training. In some cases, I’ve even seen students quit altogether. If you view the progression through ranks as a race or a status competition, I can understand why this happens.Going through the intermediate belts and stripes between white and blue, the recognition comes fast and furious. After blue, there is intentionally more space built in to the BJJ ranking system, to allow the student to mature and carve their personal niche on a journey to purple, brown, and finally the black belt. I know this philosophy is true of other styles of martial arts as well. I view this journey as an opportunity to give back to your school, helping it grow as it helps you.One way of giving back is to compete and represent the school in tournaments. If you take home medals and trophies, you help establish the reputation of your school as somewhere that breeds quality fighters. The mindset of a competitor, however, is very selfish…I’m not using that word negatively. Their time on the mat is spending improving themselves, focusing on what they need to do to win. If their sparring partners and fellow students are making mistakes, it’s not the fighter’s job to correct them.Personally, I know I don’t have the desire to compete in a tournament. Winning and losing doesn’t matter to me enough to push myself the way others do. If I want to give back to my school, I’ll find another way, most likely as an assistant instructor. Being a blue belt is usually a requirement for helping to instruct and run classes, even for white-belt students. A blue belt signifies you have gone through enough training to understand the basics of each fundamental technique in your art, and how to learn them safely.The idea of being an instructor fits me very well. I have been a coach for my children’s sports teams for several years, plus volunteered in the past as a Scouting leader and other positions of “responsibility.” It’s part of my nature to want to help people improve, and enjoy seeing them learn new things. I firmly believe teaching a skill not only educates the pupil, but the instructor as well, because you are forced to break down steps to show what to do…and explain why you’re doing them.Being able to answer the question “Why?” is the single most important thing an instructor can do. There are reasons why each technique is effective that are not visible, or often easily felt. I can move my body to make my arm bar look like what my master instructor’s arm bar…but if I don’t know where he’s putting his weight as he slides into position, or notice that he’s pinching his knees together before leaning back to finish the move…then I can’t really do the arm bar correctly.But if I know that I’m keeping my weight in the center of their chest as I pivot, to make it as difficult as possible for my opponent to get on their side and move away from me…and if I know that by pinching my knees together, I keep their shoulder in place and restrict the movement of the arm I’m attacking…then I can make my arm bar as good as possible. And I’ll do it every single time, hopefully, because I’m thinking about why the move works, rather than just trying to mimic a series of steps.Without knowing why each step exists in a martial arts technique, a student is trying to learn how to dance without any music playing. I have seen it many times with students, especially children, who learn a move by doing “A, then B, then C, D, E and F.” They may be able to do the move flawlessly at the end of one class, but by the start of the next one, their memory (both mental and muscle) is a little rusty. And if something goes wrong in Step B, they’re stuck, unable to re-create the rest of the steps.When doing a technique in a real self-defense situation, a tournament match, or a simple sparring session, things will absolutely go wrong. The opponent will be struggling, fighting back, trying to block and counter whatever is being done. It’s not the relaxed, passive atmosphere in which the technique was originally taught. If a student knows why they’re doing what they do, they’ll be able to adjust when something doesn’t work out perfectly.If they don’t, they’ll panic at the first sign of failure. And the whole point of learning martial arts in the first place – being able to deal with a difficult situation – will be lost. So if (or optimistically, when) I get the chance to help share what I know about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with a set of students, you can bet I’ll do my best to make sure they know why they’re doing what they’re doing.