Dealing with Misbehavior in the Martial Arts Class

When I was coming up the ranks, it was not unusual to witness a student being executed. This typically was a case where a student showed a bad attitude at a tournament or while visiting another school. Somehow the word got back to my instructor, Walt Bone. Mr. Bone would pair the student with a talented black belt who would beat the student into the ground. Most would quit. A few stayed on. This  article does not suggest that as a course of action.

It’s a common misconception that ignoring misbehavior by praising students who are behaving—is the best form of intervention. But ignoring misbehavior makes it more likely that the behavior will persist and expand. Like a small fire in the classroom, your goal is to address misbehavior quickly—the first time it appears—to keep it from growing.

The Six Levels of Intervention
NOTE: This are not in order, but the first two is the sweet spot to start in. However, some cases require skipping down the list.

1. Nonverbal intervention. Gesture to or eye contact with off-task students while teaching the others.

2. Positive group correction. Quick verbal reminder to the group about what students should be doing and not what they shouldn’t be doing: “We’re practicing our forms”; “Everyone is practicing their forms.” This is used just as student attention appears on the brink of wandering.

3. Anonymous individual correction. Quick verbal reminder to the group, similar to positive group correction, except that the anonymous individual correction makes it explicit that not everyone is where they need to be: “We need to focus.” “Please check yourself to make sure you’ve got your eyes on your partner.”

4. Private individual correction. When and if you have to name names (you will have to, especially when you are setting expectations for under-ranks), seek to correct privately and quietly. Walk by the off-task student. Lean down confidently to get as near to him as possible and, using a voice that preserves as much privacy as is possible, tell the student what to do quickly and calmly. Something like, “John, I’ve asked everyone to focus on forms, and I need to see you doing it too,” will usually be enough. If you need to return, it’s time to put the student on notice about consequences. Again you want to do this privately: “John, I need you to focus so you can learn. If you do not focus, you will have to do 10 burpees and say “focus” every time you come up. Do you want that? I don’t, so please show me your best so you can learn this faster.”

Keep the focus on purpose not power. You’re not exerting your authority as much as helping John to succeed.

5. Quick public correction. You will be forced at times to make corrections of individual students during public moments during class or in exams. Your goal is to limit the amount of time a student is “onstage” for something negative and focus on telling the student what to do right rather than scolding what he did wrong. This also helps remind the class of your expectations as the instructor.  Saying something like, “John, I need your eyes. Thank you, John. Much better,” is quick, confident, and more effective than a five minute speech to the class on the importance of eye contact and focus.

6. Consequences. The goal is to solve a case of noncompliance quickly and with the least disruption to the class. In the long run, it makes an instructor stronger when he or she only occasionally uses external consequences. Solving issues without external consequences reinforces the instructor’s position power and control of the class. However, if a situation cannot be addressed quickly and successfully without a consequence, the consequence must be given so that class is not interrupted.

Ideally an instructor has a scaled series of consequences from which to choose, so he can match the significance of the response to the disruption and ensure his own ability to administer it quickly, decisively, and without wavering. Minimum consequences include sitting out a drill or game to more serious consequences like being held back from testing or expulsion. Holding students back from testing doesn’t have to be an entire testing cycle. It could be just a few days or a week. The following week, as the just passed blue belts are learning something new, the held back child can’t participate. This can create more work for you to finally catch the child up, so take these measures judiciously. It much easier to manage holding a child out of  fun end-of-the-class game than a belt exam.

As professional instructors, we’re in a delicate place where the parent of a student may object to our consequences and pull the child out. Parents do not like to pay for their child to sit in the corner so make time out short. Many instructors resort to push ups or some kind of physical consequence. The danger is in making exercising a bad thing rather than something fun and healthy. However, there are some exercises like a plank or burpees that are simply not fun for even the most enthusiastic people. Burpees and planks seem like they were designed to be punishment, so use them in small doses.

The Principles of an Authoritative Instructor

Your words are the most important words in your class. Make sure you respect them and use them well.

No Competition
When you speak, every student should be able to hear you. Make it a rule that as soon as you start to speak to the entire class, everyone turns to you and listens out of respect. Then, make sure what you say earns that respect.

Wait until every student has turned to you before speaking and that you are not competing for attention. If you have to repeat something because they turned late or you started too soon, you are wasting everyone’s time.

If students continue to talk, you might start your statement, but then pause it and look at them. This takes time away from the class, but it’s also a good indirect communication that you will not talk over students. They will listen as you speak and you will not go on until you have their full attention.

Controlling the class is the mark of your authority and necessary to be a good instructor.

Concise Language
Teaching with fewer words is stronger than using more words. Using concise language shows that you are prepared and professional. It also shows that you know your purpose or goal in the lesson.

No Rescues
When you ask a question to a student or the class, make sure you know what the minimum acceptable answer is. Too often, we see instructors ask a question and then finish the answer for the student.

For instance:
Instructor: “What is integrity? Sally.”
Sally: “Ummmm. Integrity is when you so something good…”
Instructor: “Right…when you do something good whether or not someone is watching.” Good job!”

Sally didn’t answer the question, the instructor answered it for her and then told her she did a good job. That is not teaching. That’s called pulling up or rescuing the student. The message to the student is that half-answers are considered good jobs.

Teach the exact answer to the question and repeat it enough so that there is no excuse for Sally to only know half of the answer.

Square Off
When addressing a student, face that student in the same manner you expect them to give their attention to you. Square your shoulders to the student and make clear eye contact.

False Praise
Nothing will destroy your credibility with a student faster than false praise. If everything that a student does is a “Good Job” or “Awesome,” how will he know if he’s improving or not? Why would he be motivated to improve if he is getting the highest possible praise now? What’s higher than awesome?

When you praise, be specific. When your praise is believable, the follow up suggestion is as well. For instance, “Nice jab. Let’s see if you can put two together.” Or, “I like how your side kick is coming along. Be sure to recoil it as fast as you locked it out.” Or, “That kick has potential. Just roll your hip a bit more to make it more powerful.”

Avoid blanket, false praise. It will only make your job more difficult. Students, especially children, need to face adversity and have someone be honest with them. The participation trophy days have created a generation of students who have never been corrected or criticized.

Name and then Question? or Question and then Name?
When you have a question that you want answered, you have two choices. You can call out a student to answer the question such as, “Sally, what is integrity?” Or, you can state the question, and then call on Sally. For instance, “I want someone to tell me, ‘What is integrity.’”…… “Sally, what is integrity?”

There is a big difference between these choices. If you ask, “Sally, what is integrity?” the majority of the class will sit and wait for Sally to answer. They’re off the hook. Conversely, when you ask the class, “What is integrity?” they all start thinking about the question and answer. You’re engaging the entire class, not just Sally. Be sure to insert a short pause between the question and designating who is going to answer to give the class more time to think how they would answer.

Avoid Slang words
Using useless, adolescent slang words and tags weakens your authority. “Stand up and walk over here,” is a more authoritative command than, “Hey guys. Can I get you to, like, move over here? That would be awesome. ”
Slang words are popular highly informal words that are typically used by younger people in an unconscious effort to put space between them and their parent’s generation. A century ago, the use of slang was considered vulgar and unacceptable in the company of adults.
As a martial arts instructor, it’s best to eliminate any slang from your language patterns while teaching. If part of the Black Belt Attitude is excellence, that would include excellence in speaking skills and vocabulary.

Some of the more common examples of slang to avoid would include:
Like. Something either is or is not. For instance, “You need to, like, put your guard up.” Do I need to put my guard up? Is there something that is “like” a guard up that I can do? It’s vague and adolescent.
Awesome. Awesome is great word, but now it’s used in terrible context. “That punch was awesome!” No it wasn’t. Ali’s right cross was awesome. The 9 year old green belt’s is not. Why would a person practice hard if their first few attempts are already rated awesome?
Man. Few things grate a baby boomer more than a much younger person calling them “Man,” as in, “Hey man.” Replace the urge to say, “man” with “sir.”

Avoid Using Tags
When you ask a child or teen about something that requires a descriptive response, it’s not unusual for them to finish what they say with, “…and stuff.” For instance, “Today we played soccer in PE class and stuff.”

The child doesn’t quite know where to end the description so he clumps the finish together into with, “and stuff.” That is a tag. In this example, the tag is not a question.

For instructors, the tag is typically an unnecessary question at the end of a statement. For instance, “When you throw the right cross, always come back with a left hook or ridge hand. Okay?” Okay is the tag.
Tags signal a lack of confidence in what you just stated. You’re asking permission to continue. You’re asking if what you said is valid. Make your statement and carry on without the tag. You can certainly ask for questions, but be careful with your tags.
Some of the more common examples to avoid would include:
Got me?”
“Make sense?”

Tags can also precede the statement. With many instructors, the first word out of their mouth when teaching is, “Okay. We’re going to learn how to jab. Okay?” This sounds weak because the instructor starts by asking if it’s okay to teach and then asks again if what he taught is okay. That is the definition of weak teaching.

Untrained instructors, especially when they start out, will tend to over-explain. For instance, in teaching a class how to tie their belts, the instructor says, “This is your belt.” That is insulting to the class and sabotages his authority. Of course it’s a belt. That’s like saying, this is your foot.
Instead, start with, “Take your belt and wrap it around you like this…”

Limit to One Correction Per Rep
When teaching and drilling a technique, it’s the mark of the amateur to try to squeeze in a half-dozen corrections at once. For instance for skip up sidekick, “Be sure to pivot. Pull that heel up. Get your knee in tight. Don’t jump up, skip forward. Blade your foot. Hit with heel. Keep your guard up. Be sure to skip back out again. Change alignment in between kicks….”
It’s not professional or reasonable to expect a student to remember all of those points in between kicks 1 and 2. Instead, drop in 1 correction per rep. For instance, For instance for skip up sidekick, “One! Be sure to pivot.” “Two! Pull that heel up.” “Three! Get your knee in tight.” etc….”

Pacing Power
Many instructors equate teaching with formality. They sound “official” throughout the class. This kind of teaching gets boring fast. Instead, learn to match the volume of your voice and the speed of your delivery with what you are teaching.

For instance, when teaching a jab, you might speak slower with longer gaps between the sentences when you are introducing the jab. “Start moving your hand towards the target…Keep your elbow down as you lock it out. Now we’re going to snap it back home safely really fast, ready SNAP! This time, extend the jab, turn your body, and snap it back at about 50% speed. Ready….jab…jab.” As the student gets more comfortable with the skill, you increase volume and speed, “Jab! – Jab! – Jab!”

If you want them to execute with speed and power, make your commands fast and powerful. If you want them to execute at a slower pace, slow down your words, insert a pause, and reduce your volume.

Know and Use Your Tools
When teaching, you are using your eye contact, vocal qualities, body language, gestures, facial expressions, verbal and physical pacing, and the rhythm of language. As a professional, your understanding and ability to control these elements will impact your effectiveness.

There are times when you have to be 100% authoritative and a leader of men. Let’s use the belt exam and graduation as an example. With an audience of parents and family watching, you have to be highly authoritative with the students and then turn to the parents with an authoritative tone that is lighter and more conversational.

For instance, to the students you say, “You have been training here for the past 12-months. Today, your performance will show us if you’ve worked hard or if you just expect us to give you the belt for just for showing up. Let me be clear, we do not give participation brown belts. You will have to earn it.”

The instructor then addresses the parents: “As you know we take great pride in our student quality. Today, you will see your family members pushed and challenged to be their best. We’re confident your child will meet the test. We appreciate your support and attendance. Most of all, I can promise there will be no ambulances racing to our school today.”

If that last line is delivered with a smile, it relieves pressure. If you look deadly serious (not recommended), that will increase pressure. Learn how to control your delivery to maintain authority even in lighter moments like this.