Three Things You Should Be Saying to Your Martial Arts Students

When you’re standing in front of your students you have an opportunity to not only convey martial arts technique but also to positively shape thinking. The psychology with which we approach learning and practice is incredibly influential over our success at that practice and our energy to keep at it long term. Here are some things you should be saying to your training group on a regular basis, whether you’re a teacher or simply a leader among your peers.

“There’s no such thing as talent.”

Talent is a seductive and destructive idea to one’s practice of martial arts. It feeds the part of us that believes we should be good at things right away, or just give up. It leads to unfair comparison between yourself and other students in the class, and it can kill motivation overall.

Countless studies have shown that talent, i.e. one’s genetic ability and qualities, has little influence over success in complex skills (such as swordplay) and that putting in hours of practice is the most significant influencing factor.

As a leader, it’s essential that you keep directing the minds of your group toward growth through practice and away from the belief that talent has anything to do with success. In this way, you can help your students combat their own negative self-talk and keep putting in the needed energy to truly get results.

Further reading: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.

“If you’re not failing, you’re not really practicing. So make sure you’re failing.”

Time spent practicing is not the only factor of training that dictates long-term success in martial arts. The quality of practice is essential. If you’re not failing in your solo drills, partner drills, and sparring, you’re not challenging yourself enough. Teach your students to increase the difficulty of their training. Constantly encourage your students to fail and push toward the edges of their ability. It is essential as leaders that we wipe out the stigma of failure.

Further reading: Bounce by Matthew Syed.

“Praise yourself for facing challenges, not for getting results.”

Failure avoidance, and thus challenge avoidance, begins with our beliefs about both the world (for example a belief that talent is what matters and not practice) and our self-image. Dr. Carol Dweck, in the studies that lead up to her book Mindset, showed that you could negatively impact the IQ of a child simply by praising them for being smart. Children who had been praised for being smart, when encountering failure, retreated to easier practice and avoided new challenges. They did not want to shatter the established image of being “smart”. Children who were praised for hard work and their willingness to face challenges were more eager to seek greater challenges and more likely to excel beyond their smartness-praised peers.

Be savvy about how you praise your martial arts students and encourage your students to apply the wisdom of this research in their own self-praise. It is greater to face a big challenge and grow than it is to face a small challenge and succeed.

Further reading: Mindset by Carol Dweck.

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