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Should Martial Arts Students Just Be Quiet and Do What They are Told?

Some hardware won with two of my first students in 1999. From left to right: me, Rich Coulter, tournament promoter Frank Pennington, and Chad Steinke.
There was an interesting comment online last week. An internal martial artist (I'm not sure if he is a teacher or not) said that when students begin studying, they should not ask questions. They should understand that they do not know enough to ask questions. Instead, they should do what their teacher tells them to do, over and over until they progress for a while. 

He said that ego makes us think we need to know more than our teacher is telling us, and we need to "let it go" and follow. Just follow, and all things will become clear in time.

I could not disagree more.

I first began teaching at a small fitness center in Iowa. Rich Coulter and Chad Steinke were among my first students. They were both teenagers at the time, and when they walked in, they sized me up like hired guns. It was my first week as a teacher -- October, 1997.

As I showed both of them basic techniques that I taught at the time -- corkscrew punch, sunfist punch, front snap kick, roundhouse kick, etc. -- they would ask questions. Sometimes, their questions surprised me. There were a couple of moments when I must have had a "deer in the headlights" look in my eyes.

It was not long before I realized that being a "black sash" and a teacher was a new ballgame for me. If these young guys were going to follow me, I had to know more, and suddenly, I felt the need to be perfect.

Their questions pushed me to study harder, practice more, and do research. As I did, I found gaping holes in my internal arts curriculum. I studied material by good martial artists like Mike Patterson and internal concepts from people like Mike Sigman. I added material to my curriculum. Within a few months, I started studying Chen Taiji with Jim and Angela Criscimagna. Because of my students questions, I realized that I was missing something. My students didn't realize it, but I did, and I became a better martial artist. I began incorporating the body mechanics that I learned in Chen Taiji into my Hsing-I and Bagua. 

It seems to me that there is very little difference between the "don't question authority" attitude in martial arts and in fundamentalist religions. Don't question what this holy book says - that shows arrogance and sinful pride. Don't question your teacher - that shows that you have disrespect and too much ego.

Sorry. I don't buy it. And my best teachers asked questions of their teachers. As Americans, they wanted to get under the hood and see how it worked. I was lucky they did. 

I wish I had questioned my teachers more deeply when I began studying with a couple of people who claimed to be masters but invented a lot of their backgrounds. I wish I had looked at them through more realistic and critical eyes, but instead I did not question when I should have questioned. It cost me a lot of time and money. I learned some things of value, but under false pretenses.

This "no questions asked" philosophy might work in some cultures. Don't question the father figure. Just do what he says. But that doesn't work in the United States. We have a different culture here. Explain to me why I'm doing this. What are the body mechanics for this movement and what is the application? This is the way I want to be taught, and it's the approach I take in all of my teaching materials -- videos, DVDs, ebooks, online, and in-person. 

I think good, confident teachers encourage questions. Even Chen Xiaowang will teach for an hour and then gather students around. "Questions?" he asks. "No worries." Then you can ask questions.

Of course, the idea of working hard and following your teachers instruction is a good one. It's something that you have to do as a student. And it takes a long time to learn these arts. Years of study and practice just to get to a mediocre level. But you should be able to ask questions and get clear answers, not just about the movements, techniques and principles you are studying, but also about the teacher.

If you encounter a teacher who doesn't like questions or who evades the answers, find another teacher. By the way, Rich and Chad became very good friends over the years -- much more than students. 

I was a teenager in the Sixties and early Seventies. We had a saying back then: Question Authority.

I still believe it is a very important thing to do, even in martial arts.


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Rodolfo Fernandez

Couldn't agree more Ken;

Same thing happened to me when I was teaching "Principles of Sound" at a Recording Engineering school. Most of my students came up with questions, especially with situations that they could come up in the field and want it to know how to resolve them. I even had a student, who was working as a telecommunications technician at the time, and he knew about frequencies, bandwidth, etc. Those students were a real challenge to me and made me work more on my class and the content that I had at the time.

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