In a recent blog comment, I was asked to put together a recommended reading list for martial arts instructors. This list is far from extensive, but it covers a number of books I’ve read in the past year that have helped me better understand the psychology of the teaching process, which I applied to teaching martial arts. These aren’t directed specifically at martial arts instructors, but teachers in general. They are more about understanding the learning process and applying it to teaching strategies, not lists of exercises, drills and games. They have been incredibly useful to me to help me get inside my students minds, and to help them on a more personal level with their development. Without further ado, here’s the list.
Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman
This book offers a lot of value for teachers or anyone trying to learn a skill or develop creative applications of learned skills. It discusses the concept of focus on a wide variety of equally relevant levels. It breaks down the learning process into different types of focus and their importance in learning. It discusses the importance of achieving a state of flow in which we are fully absorbed in an activity that makes us feel good, which theoretically makes people more motivated to train. It explains the difference between the use of the “top-down mind”, which helps us learn specific things at the onset, as well as plan our development versus the “bottom-up mind”, which takes over once we’ve grasped the foundations of a technique, allowing us to apply it more quickly and intuitively. It even delves into discussion on cognitive empathy, which allows us to “take another person’s perspective, comprehend their mental state, and at the same time manage our own emotions while we take stock of theirs.” This is an important skill for any teacher. After all, if you can’t put yourself in your student’s shoes when they face difficulties, how can you help them?
Focus also offers different strategies for not only improving focus but helping students to “practice smart.” It postulates that it isn’t simply about putting in one’s hours, but to apply one’s attention effectively to get the most of those hours. It discusses specific teaching strategies for keeping students in the right mental state for this kind of practice, including positive reinforcement, “chunking” information, as well as the use of meditation. The practice of meditation is fairly common in traditional martial arts, however, it’s not often introduced to young children. If kids can learn to settle into a mental state in which they can focus their minds, classes go so much more smoothly and the students learn more effectively. ‘Breathing Buddies’ was a concept that came from this book that I now apply in my kids classes. Read Bring Focus & Calm to Kids Classes with this Simple Trick for more info. This book even discusses strategies for inspiring and directing focus as a leader. Though this is discussed in a more traditional business setting, it is still relevant to the martial arts instructor running a class and/or school.
The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus & Discipline in Your Life by Thomas M. Sterner
“Process, Not Product.” This is the driving theme behind this book. The learning “process” is defined through practice. This book addresses the concept of intentional, pointed practice to develop toward specific goals. Focus does this too, but this book entirely revolves on this topic, delving into it a bit more deeply, discussing topics such as the way we mentally frame our development, habit creation, developing manageable goals, removing judgment from our learning, even a few thoughts on helping children develop these skills. This book is a really enjoyable read that can give you some great ideas as to how to encourage your students to appreciate and maintain their practice over the long term.
The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown. Here’s How by Daniel Coyle
This book also discusses the benefits of pointed practice, but it also delves into ideas as to how to create drills that encourage pointed practices, as well as developing a community in which “greatness” is reinforced and accelerated. One of the best tips I got from this book was the idea of praising effort, not results, especially when it comes to teaching children. For example, when a child achieves a positive result, say “Congratulations! You must have worked very hard to learn to do that.” This positively reinforces a child putting time and effort into practice, so that they’ll continue to do so. If you praise the result, they develop an attitude that the result is what matters most, causing them to feel less like practicing after they achieve a desired result, which can then lead to boredom. As a martial arts instructor, we want to encourage ongoing development, and this advice is great for growing a positive attitude towards it. I also really liked the idea this book introduces of using drills that create “feedback loops” (something I discuss in Why Pad/Bag Work Is Important for Developing Solid Striking).
How Talk So Kids Can Learn by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
When I first started teaching children, I knew it would be different. I knew that kids are in a different place in their lives when it comes to their development, physically, mentally, emotionally and socially. I was more familiar with what to expect in terms of physical development, but the latter three factors were the ones that made me feel out of my element, especially since we were handling very young groups of kids ranging from 3 to 7. Reading this book helped me develop a way of talking to the children that broke away from the old school teaching styles that I grew up with in which teachers would simply yell or scold us when we misbehaved, which often caused students with real issues to act out even more over time. It taught me to guide the children through decision-making processes that allowed them to work through and come up with positive solutions for their own problems. When children are given the opportunity to make their own choices, based on constructive options you give them, they are more likely to carry them out willingly, and even make those choices without being prompted in future situations. It also gives guidance as to how to discuss working together with parents to help their child work through their issues.
In addition to helping guide children to develop strategies for managing their mental, social and emotional challenges, it also gives good strategies for talking to children in a way that improves their learning. I especially found the advice on giving positive and specific praise to be particularly helpful.
Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise & the Brain by John J. Ratey
This book won’t necessarily help you teach martial arts better, but it can help you coach your students in the use of exercise to help them manage psychological issues, including stress, anxiety, depression, ADHD, etc. Sometimes students drop out of their training patterns when these sorts of issues disrupt their energy. If they feel comfortable enough with you to talk about such challenges, you can refer to some of the recommendations in this book that can help them cope and recover. This, in addition with getting other forms of help, both professional and personal, can give them the support they need to make positive changes in their lives that have a lasting effect. This can translate into coming in to train at the dojo more often, but even if it doesn’t, you still have the potential to make a big difference in someone’s life, which is kind of the point of teaching for most teachers.
Now over to you. Are there any books that you found particularly helpful as a martial arts instructor? If so, please share them in the comments so we can all benefit. 🙂