3 Ways to improve your martial arts coaching are:
Shorter cues (a few words to achieve a desired technique improvement)
Only use positive reinforcement (if the desired improvement occurs)
Use more kinaesthetic coaching (moving their limbs/body for them)
1 – Shorter cues
One of the biggest mistakes when coaching martial arts is to talk too much. Your goal as a coach is to first demonstrate the technique, and then to get the student to execute it to the best level they can in the most efficient time possible. This does not mean you need to rush – they will first need a short time to explore the technique with their partner away from you. However you have limited energy resources when taking a class and you need to direct the majority of your energy into making your students better.
Identify the main issue in the technique you want to improve, but don’t aim for perfection – this is known as the ‘enemy of good’ (Voltaire) and can hinder their progression. After your student performs a technique, try saying one of the following things:
[Cue] – e.g. “chest back” (if they are leaning forward too much)
“Again” – e.g. you need to see what they’re doing more clearly, or the technique is improving on its own
[Nothing] – same as number 2, but conserves your energy and gives the student some aural space
“Good!” – they corrected the detail you were trying to fix (see positive reinforcement below)
Try to make your cues positive rather than negative. Meaning if you have a choice between “don’t lean forward”, and “keep the chest back” (both aiming for the same technique improvement), always use “keep the chest back”. This relates to the positive reinforcement point below and avoids the student hearing your cue as a criticism, instead of simply a cue for improvement. Also never be afraid to break the exercise down into a simpler exercise if a student is struggling. Sometimes it only needs to be trained for a few minutes before the student is better equipped to train the main exercise.
2 – only use positive reinforcement
There is significant study on the training of animals that suggests that negative reinforcement is not an effective way to coach new skills e.g. shouting at an animal if they do something wrong. In humans where the trainee has just done something incorrectly, examples of negative reinforcement from a coach are phrases such as “No!”, “Wrong!” or “That was ok but x is still bad”. Often this style of coaching comes about because the coach is trying to assert their authority on their students. The better coaches are confident without being egotistical and students will ultimately respect you because they see themselves progressing, much more so than if you seek to frequently put them down. Further to that martial arts coaches should have the confidence to spar safely with their students without worrying about the students ‘winning’ against them. In fact this is a good opportunity to praise your students providing they maintain their respect towards you.
Some people see positive reinforcement as mollycoddling i.e. not wanting to hurt people’s feelings. However I merely view it as the most effective way to drive progress in my students. I use the phrase “Good!”, straight after a student has corrected an aspect of their technique, usually in response to a cue. Be sure to save the next positive reinforcement for the next level of improvement. For example if the student always hears “Good!” for a certain level of execution, then they will not be motivated to make the movement even better.
3 – Use more kinaesthetic coaching
There is a system of teaching called VARK which covers the different ways people learn:
Visual – learning by watching you demonstrate
Aural – learning by listening to the information you say
Reading – learning by reading the information you write down and give them
Kinaesthetic – learning by feeling the movements you guide them through
Many martial arts coaches are either very good at demonstrating or talking, however they often lack the confidence to coach using their hands. Often this is the only way a student will learn to properly execute a particular technique, as you are giving them not only the coordination of the move but also the quality of the movement (i.e. soft as opposed to tense). In regards to the quality of a move often the best way to get them to release tension is also to ask them to ‘think’ the arm soft, and not worry if it feels weak to them. In general it’s very hard for someone to directly lessen the amount of tension they use to perform a technique. Instead it is better that they indirectly affect their movements by ‘thinking’ softer in the arms (see here).
Move their arms in the manner in which you want them to move, relative to their individual range of motion. Make sure to tell them that although you are doing the movement for them in this moment, the brain still learns kinaesthetically from the experience. Combine the moving their arms with words, so that they know why you are moving them into a certain position. Moving students’ arms silently is often confusing as it seems random and without any context. For example if you are showing them how to keep their elbow in during a defensive move, make sure to get them to experience its effect where you are the attacker, so that they see why it the elbow being ‘in’ is important. Be mindful of maintaining your professionalism when you make physical contact with a student. If you mistakenly make inappropriate contact, students will understand that it is a mistake if your intention is professional. However if you are unprofessional in the way you intend to move someone physically it can come across as creepy and potentially invasive. Finally this style of teaching is only possible where there is a lower ratio of instructors to students. The ideal ratio is around 1 instructor : 6 students, so if you are running large classes make sure to have enough well-trained instructors working with you to suitably satisfy this ratio.