Escape the Jail Cell of Style

Escape the Jail Cell of Style

Escape the Jail Cell of Style


I recently posted this “Fighting Form” from our Empower Kickboxing program on Facebook. I designed the forms in the late 1990s to replace the traditional TKD forms I practiced and taught since 1974.

While the video didn’t quite go “viral,” it did stimulate over 100 comments and a number of “debates.”

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I loved kata. I won more trophies in kata than fighting. I was the first center judge for the WAKO World Kata Championships in Berlin in 1986-ish. I was the US Open Korean Forms Champion in 1982. Just like my instructor Walt Bone, I was a kata guy.

However, after opening and running my school for a few years, I had a few revelations that I’d like to share with you.

Traditional kata creates confusion and contradiction.

1. It makes zero sense to teach my students to pull their hand to their hip during basics and kata in the first half of the class only to yell at them to put their hands up during mitt work and sparring. 

2. It makes zero sense to make students memorize and perform a clunky series of skills in stances that are way too deep and static only to yell at them to keep their legs under them and move during mitt work and sparring.

3. Each form and skill has an Asian name that students had to remember. For instance, one brown belt form was named Kwan Gae after the 15th Empower of some Korean dynasty. What do I care?

Why was I teaching Korean history in class? If I was going to teach history it would be American history. Remember, we won the war.

I wanted forms that taught the skills of sparring and self-defense.

Today, we can see what really works in self-defense because YouTube has hundreds of thousands of security and iPhone videos of real self-defense. 

Do you know what I’ve never seen in a real self-defense video? I’ve never seen an attacker in a deep stance holding his arm out with his other hand on his hip.

Why on earth would I spend time teaching what is clearly decades old impractical theory? 

Some will argue that the deadly skills of self-defense are hidden in the kata. Maybe they are, but people do not pay tuition to learn tedious forms in the hopes that one day they might figure out how it really works or, even worse, doesn’t work.

Think about it. Of all the skills that can be taught in a martial arts class, why would you pigeon hole yourself into the limiting jail cell of a style? 

How often have you had a prospect contact you can say, “I want to learn traditional kata.” Never.

When I replaced my TKD forms with these fighting forms, the students loved it and retention skyrocketed. I replaced basic TKD blocks and lunge punches with dynamic boxing and martial arts based combinations that they could apply that night in sparring.

The reason that most of us are so emotionally attached to a style is only because that’s what the school nearest taught. If the school taught a different style, you’d be just as attached. 

Attachment to any style is limiting. It’s limiting in what you learn and what you teach. Style attachment is like a brainwashing experiment reminiscent of The Manchurian Candidate. 

In my first white belt class, my 14-year old brain was ripe for influence when my instructor Walt Bone said, “We teach Tae Kwon Do. It’s the best style because it emphasizes kicking. Your leg is a much longer and stronger weapon than your arm. An attacker has to get past our kicks and then our punches in order to get to us.”

Three years later, a dad of one of the students didn’t think karate worked so he challenged Mr. Bone. Bone put sparring gear on the guy and bowed him in. After an initial clash, the guy tackled Bone. It was not pretty. 

So much for the power of the style. Walt Bone is facing the camera in the dark grey gi. 

Grab a copy of The Dark Side of the Martial Arts at

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Martial Arts Instructors: The Difference Between Praise and Encouragement

Martial Arts Instructors: The Difference Between Praise and Encouragement

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by John Graden

For two-decades, I have been speaking and writing about the “Perils of Praise.” In the early years of me blasting this warning out to the martial arts world, I was met with enthusiastic appreciation and, well, praise.

However, in the past few years, more instructors have been defending their celebration of mediocrity. What that indicates to me is that these instructors were raised as part of the “attendance trophy” generation. Praise is all they know.

Because the martial arts is unregulated, instructors do not receive any kind of standardized, universal training on teaching and motivation. This is why instructors can be bamboozled into all kinds of teaching gimmicks. Remember, “praise, correct, praise?”

To be clear, I am ANTI-REGULATION, but strongly pro-education. That’s why I created the ACMA in the 1990s and now the MATA Instructor Certification Program (Free thanks to Sports Fitness Insurance).

We need a standard language and understanding of how to teach as professionals to replace the “blind leading the blind” patterns of the past.

We continually upgrade the MATA Certification program. Last month, we added the five elements of a legal claim to self-defense. This month, our focus is on helping instructors understand the difference and effect between Praise and Encouragement.

Simply put, praise should be reserved for what has been accomplished while encouragement provides the motivation to make the accomplishment.

I remember being a guest at a belt exam and watching a child brown belt fail to break two boards with a skip side kick. After bouncing off the boards five times, the instructor gave the kid a high five and a “good job” and sent her back into the group. That is shallow, insincere, and does nothing to help the child grow from the experience.

Instead of false praise, that would have been a good time to encourage the child. For instance, “Allison, did you give it your best? What part of your foot does sidekick strike with? What part of your foot did you strike with? Go over to the bag and focus on hitting with your heel instead of the ball of your foot and then come back here and break these boards. I know you can do this and I also know you are not a quitter.”

Which do you think is going to have the longer and stronger impact on this child’s life? Empty praise or encouragement with a plan of action attached? The praise did nothing but strip any meaning or take away lesson from the moment. The child did not break the boards. He/she did not accomplish the goal, but it didn’t matter. It was still a “good job.”

In contrast, the encouragement laid out a game plan that not only addressed the mechanics of the kick, but also created an intrinsic boost in confidence while failing at the task. When the figure of authority in the moment, the instructor, said, “I know you can do this. You are not a quitter.” That’s huge! These moments can have a massive impact on a child’s subconscious. This is the kind of event a student will remember and share for the rest of his/her life. They will never tell their kids about the time they did a “good job” for failing to break boards.

What’s going through the child’s mind as he/she is bouncing off the boards without success? Embarrassment? Discouragement? Maybe even thinking of quitting because this is too hard? After the final attempt, that child is looking at you, his/her instructor. What you say at this moment is what you are paid for. This is the mark of a professional, not a weekend hobbyist.

Empty praise leaves a vacuum that the child is left to fill. In stark contrast, encouragement takes the child to the next level of his/her journey as a martial artist and in life. We’re all going to bounce off some boards in our lives. Your encouragement just helped that child learn how to regroup, reorganize, and climb back in the game. For delivering that message of encouragement and inspiration at that critical moment, I would give you a sincere, “good job!”

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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.

The Masters on Change

Here are some quotations regarding styles from three of the most influential martial artists in history:

“The art does not make the man. The man makes the art.” – Gichin Funakoshi

“You limit a style by labeling it.” – Bruce Lee

“The style serves the student. The student doesn’t serve the style.” – Joe Lewis

Despite my roots in tae kwon do, my responsibility is to my students, not tae kwon do, kickboxing, Joe Lewis Fighting Systems, or any other source of information. My job is to create the best black belts possible in a school that authentically represents what I believe in. In large part, that responsibility is expressed through my curriculum.

When Does a System Freeze?

The history of the arts, however, is the tendency to freeze a curriculum and then resist any change or suggestion of change. I love Shotokan and know that the reason I did so well in forms division was my adaptation of the core elements of Shotokan, which is deeper balance and more powerful and crisp blocks and punches than my root system of tae kwon do.

We have the great system of Shotokan because of the work of Gichin Funakoshi. In fact, the genesis of Shotokan is in the massive change Funakoshi’s made to Okinawan karate. He radically changed the recipe book, yet for the most part the book has not changed since.

It’s also entertaining to me to see modern Jeet Kune Do teachers argue over what is real JKD. If anyone didn’t want his system to freeze, it was Bruce Lee. He was way ahead of his time in his approach to creating a practical martial art that was not confined or restricted by history.

Joe Lewis is someone who has continually updated his material. Recently we trained one-on-one for the first time in over a decade. He had me fire some of the excellent Joe Lewis Fighting Systems’ combinations on the bag in my garage. He stopped me and started to show me how to throw a straight right hand. My mouth kind of dropped, my eyes got wide, and I shook my head in disbelief. He said, “What?” I said, “That is the exact opposite of what you taught me in the 80s!” He said, “What? I’m not supposed to evolve?” It was the perfect response.

Here was a 60-year-old black belt who was in his fourth decade as a worldwide recognized pioneer and superstar, but in his mind, he is in his fourth decade of evolution. While I’m on the subject of Joe Lewis, let me also mention this. Joe is a very traditional martial artist. I am, too. We don’t express our traditions by holding on to techniques or rituals. We express them by making sure our students: execute with proper form, can defend themselves and develop the tenacity to never quit.

Finding Your Own Voice

In an advice column, a 15-year-old boy wrote, “I am 15, I have zits, my voice is still high, and no girl wants anything to do with me. What should I do?” The answer was really good. 

It’s not just you. Most 15-year-old boys are gawky and awkward and have zits. Girls your age are more interested in older boys. The question isn’t what can you do now to improve your odds with girls, because there is really very little you can do now. The real question to focus on is: what kind of 18 year-old do you want to be? What can you do over the next three years to redefine yourself and create the person you think will have more success? Can you start lifting weights? Take martial arts and get a black belt? Get really good at some activity, other than video games or web surfing, so you have something going for you? 

Many of us have experienced or observed a metamorphosis from the classic 98-pound weakling getting sand kicked in his face to a respected martial arts Master. Martial arts is truly a great way to redefine yourself. 

By embracing the martial arts to the degree you and I did, we took major steps to redefine who we are and how we fit in the world. I thank the heavens for putting me in proximity to Walt Bone and Hank Farrah so that on February 12, 1974, I could take my first karate class. 

I can’t imagine what kind of life I would have led or what kind of person I would be had my life not taken that turn. I love having a career in the martial arts, being a black belt and a teacher. Even before training, I used to read biographies of all of my sports heroes. My goal was to become an athlete or a teacher. A career in the Martial arts provided me the opportunity to do both, and I am forever grateful. My goal now is to simply leave the martial arts in a better place than where I found it. That’s a goal that motivates and rewards me daily. 

When we learn from a specific instructor, it’s natural for us to mimic somewhat his or her teaching methods, processes of control, and attitudes about teaching and the martial arts. Walt Bone taught me to teach through negative reinforcement. Never compliment a student. Always tell them what they are doing wrong. That’s what I did for years. I became such an expert at pointing out things that could be improved upon that I did the same thing outside of school until a friend said I was hypercritical. 

When Mr. Bone said it was an unwritten rule that no one should open a school within five miles, I took that as the law. When Mr. Farrah explained that the purpose of the square block is to block one attacker in front of you with a modified side block and, at the same time, block another attacker from the side with a rising block, that is exactly what I believed. 

And, that’s how I taught the square block for almost two decades, until the day I was on a StairMaster® in a gym at the Cooper Institute, watching a karate class in front of me on the basketball court. The instructor was very good, and the 10 or so green belt adults were very attentive as he taught them the square block exactly as I was taught it and as I still taught it. But as I watched, I couldn’t help but think: that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. I wondered how any of us could keep a straight face while explaining this fantasy block. 

Finding Your Own Voice is the process of questioning everything you teach, and all the systems within your school, to make sure they represent you and how you want to treat people. You want to make sure your program authentically reflects your beliefs… that it doesn’t simply regurgitate what your instructor perpetuated on you. Just as an abused boy tends to become an abusive adult, abusive teaching practices, insane rituals, faulty reasoning, and myths can be passed on generation to generation until someone breaks the cycle and “finds his voice.” 

Finding Your Own Voice simply means you work to have a deeper understanding of the system, so that you don’t keep explaining the square block as I did. You make the style serve your students, rather than the other way around. Just because your beloved martial arts instructor said it doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because some guy said it in the 1920s doesn’t mean it’s right for today. Don’t strive to become a clone of your instructor or the masters in your system. Strive to be authentic as a person who uses martial arts as a way of expressing himself or herself.