This is going to be a short article today, with some thoughts about the role of rewards and punishments during martial arts training. Films and TV series often show some kind of punishments in the dojo or training hall, and yet, this is rarely the best way to get any good results.
It may not be ground breaking for many people – but with recent increases in public interest in martial arts following media releases such as the Cobra Kai series, where the issue of teaching and training martial arts is not always portrayed very well, I think it’s worth setting out some thoughts so that newcomers might be able to read about them.
I have been training martial arts since 1998, and in that time, I have been part of several different clubs doing a variety of different martial arts. If we are willing to broaden the scope of these ideas to include other sports, then that will probably add a few more years of experience, and attendance at even more clubs.
In all of this time, I don’t think I have ever responded particularly well when instructors have issued punishments to one person or to a whole group. The best results that instructors have managed to help me achieve in the training hall have all been brought about by appropriately supportive coaching, by giving me something to strive for, and by allowing mistakes to happen as part of the learning experience.
As an instructor myself, I can’t think of any single moment in time when I truly helped a student develop by issuing some kind of punishment. However, when I think back over the hundreds (maybe, by this stage, thousands?) of students I have taught over the years, almost every single person has managed to achieve something when given a goal, an appropriately supportive environment, some useful guidance, and the opportunity to try things without mistakes being punished.
As an instructor watching other instructors run clubs and lessons, I see that the best instructors who achieve the best results with their students are those who offer goals, guidance, and support; in other words, those who prioritise the carrot over the stick, those who give rewards for success rather than punishments for mistakes. Set against that, I have watched instructors mete out punishments to their students, and have seen the students respond with frustration or shame, maybe refusing to participate, maybe then dropping out because the club culture was punitive and not supportive.
I must say that I have had the experience of working with some individuals who seemed to learn better when pushed harder and given “tougher love” by an instructor or coach. However, these people have been few and far between, and they have tended to be quite experienced and well-adjusted individuals who have come to a knowledge of themselves and how they like to train and learn, and who could request this sort of handling. It would be a mistake to ignore that people like this do exist; it would also be a mistake to assume that it is common.
In my current club, Liverpool HEMA, I want the culture to be supportive and friendly. I want my students to be able to turn up and train, to achieve whatever personal goals they have set for themselves, to be able to play and make the inevitable mistakes that are part and parcel of learning any complicated form of physicality. I want my students to be motivated to come and train, to be happy while training, and to think back on sessions fondly. The carrot is much more effective than the stick in my club.
That being said, it would be a mistake to think that this means that all training should be soft, that instructors shouldn’t set clear rules and boundaries. Someone who is being disruptive needs to be handled appropriately, and someone who is being a genuine problem or danger to other students should be asked to leave. Allowing people to make mistakes while training is no excuse for bad behaviour or putting other people at risk.
It can be tough to take people to task for their problematic behaviour, and it might be tough to kick someone out of the club. It becomes easier if you have a process to follow, some kind of structure to guide yourself through difficult interactions like this. A code of conduct that is actually useful will be more than a bunch of aspirational statements; it will provide a structure to help an instructor have these difficult conversations with individuals who are being problematic, whether accidentally or wilfully.
To wrap this up, I wonder what experiences you have had with reward and punishments in martial arts training over the years? How does your club utilise the carrot to help people achieve results, and how do you structure your use of the stick to safeguard your members and make it easier for instructors and admins to have the difficult conversations?
If you run a club and these ideas are new to you, then you might consider engaging me for a bit of private coaching to help you firm up your ideas about how to run the club effectively and how to make policies that are actually useful.
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.