Martial Arts Instructor News and Articles

John Graden

John Graden

Executive Director

John Graden led the martial arts into the modern era by creating the first professional association, trade journal & instructors certification program.

This is an excerpt from the MATA Professional Instructor Certification program now available at

How to Ask Questions in Your Martial Arts Class: Name/Question or Question/Name?

Do you call out a question to your class and wait for hands to go up? Or, do you pick out a student and ask that student the question?

Both are common techniques and have their place, but each has a different strategic significance. When you call out a student to answer, the rest of the class will often relax because they think they are off the hook. For instance, “Chad, why do we pivot on a sidekick?” Some of the students will be relieved that Chad was called and not them.

However, when you ask a question to the class, “Who can tell me why we pivot on a sidekick?” Every student will be thinking of the answer. The key here is to pause after asking the question. The longer the pause, more importance is placed on the question and answer and the more time students think it through. Pause and look in the eyes of each student. Sure, the smart girl will have her hands up, but you want the entire class to know any of them could be called upon at any time.

Cold Calling

You also do not have to wait for a student to raise her hand (smart girl again) when you ask a question. This allows other students to quietly wait for the smart girl to answer. Don’t let them get away with that. Instead, make a cold call. “Chad, why do we pivot on a sidekick?” If Chad knows, he answers. If he doesn’t, it gives you an indication that you may have some work to do.

One of the goals of cold calling is to make it normal for all the students to answer questions. Another is that it speeds the pace of the class up. Rather than asking the class the question and getting the same hands raised as always, you target a student and ask them directly with a cold call.

You want to create a balance between raising hands for questions and no hands cold calling. Both have their place, but cold calling speeds the pace and engages all of the students.

Cold calling also puts all the students on alert that they be called at any time. You care about their understanding of what you teach and you want to confirm that they get it.

The key is to not embarrass the student. If the student is unsure, just say, “Chad is not quite sure, Joey, why do we pivot on sidekicks?” When/if Joey answers, go back to Chad and repeat the question, “Chad, why do we pivot on side kick?” This is a powerful and positive way to pull students into the lesson and lessons. It’s a way of you letting them know that you are always holding them accountable.

Cold calling puts you in charge of the classroom. It promotes engagement in your class. It helps students that are shy or unsure realize that they are as on track as anyone in the class. 

Students know that what you are saying may come back to them in front of their peers so it helps them they stay focused. Just resist the urge to fall back on the old sensei role and play “Gotcha! Give me 20.”

Notice Tyson’s hand is by his face, not his hip.

His chin is down instead of up.

His shoulder is up instead of pulled back.

His body is sideways to his opponent instead of squared off.

His legs are under his body not spread apart like he was riding a horse.

With this kind of form, he would fail his orange belt exam in most schools. 

How does that make any sense?

Sensei Tyson?

If Mike Tyson or a world champion kickboxer came to your school to teach your black belts. What do you think he would work on? Double punches, square blocks, and keeping your chin up?

I’m pretty sure he would emphasize head movement, how to snap your punches and a defense that does NOT include pulling your punch back to your hip.

I’m sure the students would learn advanced applications to adjust for different fighters. Notice I said advanced applications, not advanced strikes.

When you focus on application, you can apply that to almost any technique.

For instance, if the drill is about how to fight a taller fighter, the answer is more about footwork to stay on the outside until you can secure quick access. My brothers are 6′ 3″ and 6′ 4″ so I know something about fighting a taller opponent.

Drills that teach that application do not require complexity. They require simplicity.

The more complex a skill becomes, the less chance it can be used. Have you ever seen a double punch? Only in kata and here:

If you eliminated all kata and traditional skills, you could devote that time to drills and conditioning that would give your students a true advantage in sparring or self-defense.

Imagine teaching fewer skills that are easy to teach and learn than traditional skills and kata.

You could spend more time on the application of those skills rather than stepping up and down the classroom and holding blocks and punches out in the air, which leaves you wide open for a counterattack.

Rather than spending student’s time with the complexity and frustration of spending years perfecting the bad habits of pulling their hand back to their hip, keeping their chin up, aiming and holding a punch in the air, and blocking with power while stepping forward, your retention will improve. Your student quality will improve. Your curriculum consistency will improve.

This is the core of our white to black belt curriculum Empower Kickboxing.

It’s an old saying, but true. “Less is best.”

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