During skills practice, traditional martial arts etiquette dictates that a junior belt not correct a more senior belt. Is this because they know more?

Sometimes they do … actually, a lot of the time their additional years of practice will mean they see things that the junior doesn’t… but truth of the matter is that sometimes a lower belt will see something that a senior belt hasn’t, or perform a skill better than a black belt, or know how to correct a skill that is being done incorrectly. I’ve learned masses from my own students throughout the years.

So what’s the point of the etiquette? Why are we taught to be quiet when we’re just dying to share our opinions? Well, here’s a few things I’ve noticed …

1. Often the best learning comes through struggling with something

As an instructor I don’t always tell someone how to do something better, or make a skill work. Sometimes I’ll purposefully walk away when a student is struggling to allow them time to find the answer themselves. So when their opponent jumps in too early to solve the problem for them, it can be a massive learning opportunity lost. The person might also start to depend on others to ‘fix’ things for them. A problem tussled with and finally solved will hold much more learning than one where an answer is easily found. The difficult thing for any teacher though, is creating the right amount of challenge for someone. Not enough, and there’ll be no learning, but too much and it could cause demotivation, misunderstanding or even be the reason someone quits.

2. Verbal instructions aren’t always the best way to learn athletic skills

In research on skills acquisition there is evidence to show that skills learnt through lots of detailed verbal instructions are more likely to break down under pressure and less resistant to psychological stress and choking. In other words, the more detailed verbal commands you give someone the more conscious they become of their own movements – and therefore the more there is to be disrupted under pressure. When someone learns to feel and listen to a movement their performance will be more stable.

3. Giving an opinion can sometimes do more to boost one’s own ego than help the opponent

I think it’s important to question why we are giving so much advice. Does the person need to hear every point we want to make right now… or would they learn better with one bit of advice, or indeed none. Sometimes people talk for their own benefit not for the benefit of the person they’re supposedly helping. Interestingly, the more experienced someone becomes, the less you tend to hear them talking. It’s interesting to explore why we need to jump in with our opinions right now.

4. When we’re in the junior role, holding back can teach us about becoming comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.

It’s not always appropriate to follow an emotion or share an opinion. Learning that we have the choice to hold back is a form of mental training. When we are put in this position we’re forced to sit with an uncomfortable feeling. We’re forced to feel something, but then stop and give ourselves a choice of how to react. It forces us to manage our emotional reactions – learn not to be driven by our ego – and start to understand our own minds a little better.

If, after a while, you still feel something needs saying then this can always be discussed after class in an equally respectful but less formal environment.

Note: If you’re interested in this point you might like reading about the marshmallow test – a series of studies on delayed gratification at Stanford University conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

5. Immediately coming to attention when the master or black belt comes over teaches focus and attention.

The speed of our lives, the pressures of social media, emails, and competing demands in the workplace all conspire to distract us and grab our attention. Given that backdrop, developing this skill becomes even more valuable.  Realising that we can control our attention – that we don’t need to act on every thought and emotion – and that we have the ability to choose how we react, can be quite empowering. So when the instructor walks over, and we must immediately come to attention – this is a form of mental training – it’s a physical practice that creates positive mental habits. Being forced to react fast means we’re also training our attention in such a way that the skill can be accessed quickly and when we need it.

As an instructor I definitely think about the HOW and not just the WHAT of teaching. But over and above that, holding back from jumping in with your opinion is mainly about giving time to listening – listening to others, listening to the movement, and ultimately listening to yourself.

…and these messages are equally applicable to the workplace. When managing someone… how do we make the right choice about when to intervene or when to step back? As leaders we must understand how to grow our staff and how to cultivate a belief in being able to handle difficult problems and acquire new skills. So once again, what we learn on the mat has many applications ‘Beyond the dojang’.

Giving time to listening

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