When we are training martial arts, or any other challenging endeavour such as a sport or a musical instrument or some form of DIY or craft skill, we experience both success and failure. What is a healthy way of understanding these experiences?
Sometimes we have more successes and those practice sessions make us feel like we are doing well. Sometimes we have more failure and it can make us feel like we can’t do anything correctly, which is not much fun and can also lead to people thinking things like “I can’t do this” and possibly even dropping away from the activity.
I have a way of thinking about this that uses a simple grading system that most of us are quite familiar with already. And I find that it helps put our results into context so that we can interpret more accurately and constructively what we managed to do in any given repetition or exercise.
A very simple system for grading results is to give your performance a score out of 10, with 10 being perfect and 1 being terrible. We tend to be quite familiar with this way of grading or reviewing things.
But how can we make it consistent without being unduly harsh or lenient with ourselves? And what does 7/10 really mean, how can you and your training partners or instructors or students be on the same page about it?
Although this might conjure up some rough memories from school or university, we tend to have a good sense that an A result is excellent even though it doesn’t necessarily mean scoring 100%. Similarly, we have the sense that a B result is still pretty good, and that C (and maybe even D) still counts as a pass, although maybe not a very good pass. Similarly, an E might be just a near miss, whereas an F is the only result that is catastrophically bad.
Some people going through school or university might have a more problematic relationship with perfection and might dismiss anything other than an A as a failure according to their own personal standards – but it is still worth remembering that by the objective grading criteria of any given course or exam, a C or a D is still a pass and the B or A is really just a higher quality of pass.
Putting them together
If we imagine that 5/10 is the threshold for a D and counts as a pass, then we might imagine that 6/10 is a C, 7/10 is a B, and 8/10 is an A. The full 10/10 might even be an A+. This isn’t so far from how coursework and exams are graded in schools and universities, so it’s not a hard conceptual leap for most people to make.
So when you perform an exercise or a technique during training or sparring, how is this useful?
Well, let’s imagine that while sparring you perform a technique in response to a stimulus given by your opponent. It doesn’t land perfectly, and you also feel a slight touch from your opponent on your own arm as you do it. You think “damn, that’s a double hit, I failed.” But did you really fail?
If you hit the target that you intended, that’s pretty good. If it landed almost correctly, then that’s still not bad. If you found the right distance and the right moment to do it, and had nearly the right footwork to make it work, it starts to sound like a lot of things were going well and falling into place for you. So it didn’t land perfectly, and something went wrong so that you got hit on the way in, but otherwise the technique was done the way it should be done, while under stress, at exactly the right moment.
Maybe that’s worth a B. That’s still a good pass. What could you do to turn it into an A grade? You could work on landing it slightly better, OR you could work on landing it with greater security such that you don’t get hit at the same time. Either improvement is still an improvement to your technique and training ability.
What if you could achieve both improvements? That might be what makes it a full 10/10 technique worthy of the A+. But there’s no harm or shame at all in performing your techniques at a solid B level, then gradually improving them to an A level, before finally achieving that A+.
Sometimes people are far too harsh on themselves in training and will throw the baby out with the bathwater. “Oh, I can never land this technique properly, I’m just going to stop trying.” “Oh, I always get a double hit when I try this technique, I must not be very good at it.” And suchlike.
Sure, it is good to acknowledge that an action or performance has deficiencies. That’s part of the diagnostic process that we go through to work out what is going wrong and therefore how to improve it. But can we make a more honest assessment of the performance, taking into account what else is going well? And can we use this process to understand what is the next thing that we need to work on so that this technique (or our techniques in general) can improve?
I have been using this method for giving feedback to my students over the last year or so. I am finding that it is a helpful way of communicating what is going well and what needs improvement within any given attempt at doing something. It seems to help divert people from feelings of repeated failure while attempting something difficult, and it also helps to remind people that they haven’t mastered a technique yet just because they manage to land touches with it.
It is also helpful for me to ensure that I am setting an appropriate level of difficulty in the exercises I give. If my student is achieving a 10/10 A+ grade all the time, then I am making things too easy for them and there isn’t enough challenge to make the training entirely beneficial. Similarly, if my student isn’t ever achieving better than a 6/10 C grade, then I am probably making things too difficult and asking them to calculate for too many variables at once at this stage of their training.
I am typically quite happy if my student is working hard and achieving success 7 or 8 times out of 10 during an exercise. That means that I am pitching my exercises well according to their current skill and ability, it is reinforcing what the student is able to do already, and it is giving them room and direction for further improvement.
And finally, for instructors to be able to evaluate ourselves, it can sometimes be quite lonely at the top. If you are the most skilful and experienced person in your group, then how do you find out what you need to learn or work on next? A method like this can help you assess what you are doing by scoring the different elements of your technique. Why doesn’t your attempt work perfectly?
Acknowledge what is going well, acknowledge what is bringing your score down, and acknowledge that you do not need to be perfect because perfection is something that very few people achieve – and I certainly don’t think my performance is perfect most of the time. And by going through this process, you will be able to reaffirm for yourself what you are already doing well and you will be able to see what you need to work on yourself for further improvement.
Is there any particular technique, exercise, or concept that comes to mind immediately, for which you think this method might help you improve?
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.