In my early days of martial arts training I ran into quite a few teachers who were so full of themselves that students asking questions was almost unheard of.
At first I thought that this was normal. I thought that maybe things would change after I’d paid my dues for 10 or 20 years…
And then I started training in JKD under Makoto Kabayama. It’s now been more than two decades since I last saw him, but I will always remember how he impressed the hell out of me the first time we met.
Makoto told me: “Ask any question you want. If I know the answer I’ll tell you. And if I don’t know the answer then we’ll find out together.”
His invitation to ask questions, and implication that he didn’t know everything, was an amazingly refreshing attitude to me. I respected him so much for those open-minded, humble and honest words.
Even today there are still instructors who hate answering questions. They’ll blow you off, give smart-ass answers, or just ignore you.
In the present day and age this is is regressive.
So long as it’s asked at the right time and in the right context a good instructor should be willing to help you with just about any question. Honestly, I’d pack up and leave if I found out I was training with someone who wasn’t open to appropriate questions.
But the flipside – being shown too much – can also impede your progress. I see this fairly frequently. For example, a white belt might ask “how do I escape the mount? Or “how do I finish the triangle choke?” What that student needs are some simple fundamental techniques that’ll work for just about everybody.
But sometimes the instructor might show a super-advanced black belt level technique that the beginner in question is never going to be able to pull of in a million, billion years. Occasionally this is ego on the part of the instructor: he wants to show off to the students. And sometimes it might be concern that the other students in class could get bored unless he shows them new stuff. (The irony is that even advanced students usually appreciate a review of the fundamentals, because they might pick up new little details they missed earlier.)
Now I want to make it clear that training with someone who shows too much information is way better than training with someone who doesn’t want to give out any information.
But still, you might learn faster if you could (gently) engineer a situation where you get the information you NEED to know, as opposed to the information that’s nice to know. So what can you do if you train with someone so advanced that they’re always giving you too much information, or variations so advanced that you can’t possibly pull them off? Here are four magic phrases that often get the session back on track:
- What is the EASIEST way to get out of this position, or
- What are the THREE BASIC attacks from here, or
- What is the HIGHEST PERCENTAGE move from this position, or
- What is your BREAD AND BUTTER escape to this attack?
I use these four magic phrases ALL THE TIME (and I’m a BJJ black belt who appreciates both the basics AND the fancy stuff).
Suppose you’re working with somebody who is a wizard in the open guard. When he sweeps someone, his arms, legs and other bodyparts are flying in so many directions that it’s hard to understand the movement and even harder to duplicate it yourself… You might ask “what are the three BASIC sweeps from your favorite open guard position?” There are limits to what you can do, of course, but do your part to keep things focussed.
If you think that you need to understand the basics, then ask about the basics. If you’re missing fundamentals, then ask about the fundamentals. Keep on finding different ways to ask the same questions until you have what you need. One high percentage move you can use right away is worth 100 cool variations that’ll take 10 years to be able to use. And it’s always pretty cool to come away from a Q&A session with a couple of things you’ll be able to use in your own game, right away!