Embracing Failure: The Value of Struggle When Learning Martial Arts

A recent Time article called Why Floundering is Good I read suggests that trying to figure out something on your own produces better results than having guidance from the beginning. The article is written in the context of intellectual learning, but I do think there are some takeaways for people learning or teaching martial arts or other physical skills, even if some adjustments need to be made for practicality and safety.

Obviously you don’t want to let students practise martial arts techniques in a way that is unsafe to themselves or their partners. They may learn from the injury, but at the cost of their well-being and the ability to train, which is not a worthwhile trade-off. Once certain foundations are laid, however, and students are able to do the techniques safely, it’s a good idea to give them “puzzles” to work out once in a while so they better understand the when to use what they’ve learned effectively. 

Rather than having students always practise techniques in the same choreographed way all the time, it’s good to introduce random elements or live training methods that allow them to see the underlying structure and relevance of what they’ve learned, even if they’re not necessarily good enough to apply them in “free-flowing” mode as discussed in my blog post earlier this week. It’s okay if students fail to use the principles you’ve taught effectively. This then gives the instructor the opportunity to ask the student what they thought went wrong and let them work out how to fix it for next time. It truly is amazing what failure does to spike a person’s learning.

One way I do this is when introducing the Yawara as a self-defense tool. Sometimes, I’ll just introduce the Yawara as a concept, an improvised weapon that can be used to enhance self-defense capabilities (usually we just use a small hand-sized stick in class). I’ll give the students the weapon and tell them to attack each other and see what ways they can use it to help them defend themselves. I’ll then bring everyone back and do a little show-and-tell by way of a Jiu-jitsu circle. We’ll then discuss what worked well and what not-so-well, having students do more of the talking.

The martial arts are traditionally very strict and orderly due to its historical roots in the military. Students are discouraged from discussing techniques or asking questions, which I believe can be detrimental to learning in some ways. Western teaching concepts, like the one discussed in the Time article, have done a lot for improving the transfer of information in the martial arts world and I think that teachers should try to give their students every advantage by learning and applying them.

Does your martial arts school encourage this kind of free learning? Please share your experiences in the comments. :)

Comments (2)

2 thoughts on “Embracing Failure: The Value of Struggle When Learning Martial Arts

  1. The other way this was done very successfully by Sensei O’C was multiple attackers. Things that looked great in a movie (or in my own imagination-like diving between two foes) failed miserably in “real” life. Fantastic teaching technique, especially the discussion afterwards!

  2. Great blog!

    An intelligent and intuitive approach to teaching martial arts is always grown from a balance of factors. The student must learn in their own way and in their own time, but they must be given the opportunities to work with the material and the experience of the dojo as the instructor can best present it. In the west, the experience of the dojo often involves questions, thought experiments (rendered physically and conversationally) and a feeling of some freedom with one’s discourse. The students must eventually recognize and trust that their concerns, in one form or another, will find answers in their personal interactions with the curriculum and the instruction. But, though two may learn the same art at the same time, Jane’s jujitsu will be Jane’s, and Tom’s will be Tom’s. Unique unto themselves in many important respects.

    I think that allowing the student the freedom to explore a relationship with their art is very important. Rendering strong guidance without hand-holding allows the student to discover themselves in their chosen art, rather than just losing themselves to a series of tasks with some unseen goal.

    Recognizing the student’s intellectual independence within their experience is paramount. But sensei, as the word is translated, is one who came before. If the sensei is wise, he or she will not simply say “do this, and this is how” but rather say “here is what we’re doing. Let’s find out what that means.”

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