Questions, Questions…

Years ago my wife (who was my senior student then as now, but not my wife or even girlfriend at the time) and I had a dojo at St. Mary’s Medical School in Paddington in London.  We had a lot of fun teaching there, and acquired some life-long students who became established members of our martial arts family.  Understandably, it was a pretty lively class, given where the dojo was based, and the level of intelligence and education shared by its constituents, but notwithstanding those factors, some elements of human nature almost never vary, although as instructors we probably did get questioned there – more closely and more often – than in any of our other classes.

Unusually, we welcome this in our students, and tend to learn a great deal about our students by the quality, nature and frequency of their questions.  Two of the more interesting questions I’ve been asked – partly because they are rare in the asking – were posited by two of our St. Mary’s students, Enver and Ilan, very early on in their training.  These are respectively, “Is it okay to ask questions?” – nice indicator of good manners, and an intelligent ‘sounding out’ of where your instructor sits on the spectrum of tolerance/discipline/intelligence – and, “What are the best questions to ask?” – a definite indicator of intelligence in the student asking.

To the former I could only honestly reply, “Yes – I drove all of my teachers insane, in and out of martial arts, with my constant questioning; though I won’t always promise to answer you straight away.”  That qualifier is pretty important for a number of reasons; for one thing, if you allow the students to question you too freely and frequently, it can break the momentum and rhythm of the class.  Secondly, as I’m inclined to go off at a tangent in any kind of conversation at the best of times (though I’d argue I always find my way back), there’s a very real chance you will miss out on whatever ‘pearl of wisdom’ I had originally intended to share.  Sometimes it simply is the wrong time to answer the question, in that the answer, however well expressed, will remain inaccessible to the student before they have acquired a certain type of amount of experience that creates the context for the reply.  Lastly, as I believe in answering any sincerely put question to the best of my ability, we’d never get anything done, and the lazier ones amongst the sharper students soon suss this out and will be inclined to exploit it.

To the latter and more interesting query, I found myself having to encapsulate the key elements of an effective questioning strategy for martial arts (and perhaps many other fields of) study.  Essentially, it comes down to this: there are no stupid questions – if you had to ask it, I’ve failed to express it, at least in any way that you found accessible already, which is after all, my job; and more importantly, there are useful and non-useful questions.

Useful Questions

So, what constitutes a useful question in learning a martial art?  Well, any of the following would qualify when applied to any given technical area of combative science:

  • What strategy/tactic/technique should I use?
  • Where should I use it?
  • When do I use it?
  • How do I apply it?
  • Against Whom will it work (best/effectively/at all)?
  • Why does it work here (and not there)?
  • And the negative version of each of the above

What do I mean by a useful answer?  Well, quite simply one that it’s possible to give a tangible, meaningful, coherent answer to, that you can imagine yourself applying.  In real martial art, utility is the key to what constitutes a useful question and answer.

Interestingly, the question that students ask the most is probably the least helpful of all, to the point that when I am emphasising to learners that they may ask questions freely, this one is barred, and it is quite simply, “What if…?”

Now, this may seem strange, as to the uninitiated it probably sounds like a pretty useful question – and indeed, it may well be, but only if asked of a teacher that is fairly limited in their repertoire, either through inexperience or because the art they teach is structured around a strictly limited number of defensive and counter-offensive options.

The problem comes when, as is the case in our art, we have both a huge arsenal of possible responses to almost any tactical situation, and we are very consciously trying to teach at the level of principle.  Imagine the following scenario: you are working with a partner on a simple attack/defence sequence, and I come along to coach you/help you refine your execution of the response.  Your partner then asks me, “But what if I did….?” (Fill in the blanks with any option you like)  My options are:

  • to show an alternative response, for which neither may yet have the skill developed to find usable anyway, but even if you do, it’s just one alternative, and
  • your partner will almost always now ask, “OK, so what if I did…instead?” We’re now on a treadmill we’re not getting off anytime soon, and meantime the structure and sequence of the training progressed you had been embarked on has just been de-railed.

The worst aspect of the ‘What if?’ scenario is this: as a martial artist who doesn’t pretend to be the ‘world’s greatest fighter’, but who is competent, and who has very consciously trained to be effective in a wide variety of circumstances, there is only really one truly honest answer to the question.  That answer will either be meaningless to the student asking, or tend to shock and appal, as it can’t help but sound very aggressive, even though that is not its intention.  The answer is this, “I’ve no idea; try it, and let’s see, and though I’ll do my best not to injure you, I can’t guarantee your safety.”

See what I mean?  That sounds like I’ve taken the question as a challenge and I’m rising angrily to the bait, doesn’t it?  But, I’m really not; I’m simply pointing out what is not obvious to the less experienced person, which is, if I am any good (i.e. my training for all these years has been properly focussed and effective), I can’t give a simple stock answer to your question.  I won’t know what I am going to do until you offer me the stimulus – how can I?  No two people will offer ‘the same attack’ in quite the same way, they will vary: speed; tempo; timing; angle; degree of tension; amount of force; extent to which they telegraph the move, etc.  I’ll handle even a ‘simple jab’ differently from one guy who’s my height, compared to one who is relatively taller or shorter, let alone if he is significantly more muscular or younger – the point of more adaptable training is to understand the technical parameters of what constitutes a ‘good’ technique and then factor in all the variables.

Bet you never thought asking a simple question could be so fraught with pitfalls – did you?

©John Mellon M.A., and The Martial Arts University, 2011.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to John Mellon M.A. and The Martial Arts University with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

About themartialartsuniversity

In daily training in the martial arts for the last 53 years; teaching almost daily for 43 years. Hold teaching ranks in 27 martial arts, Master ranked in 4 arts, Headmaster of 3 systems, the Founder of 2 arts, and the co-Founder of 2 others. Has been the official Technical Advisor to Profs. Wally and Leon Jay of Small Circle Ju-jitsu since the 1990's. Assistant Headmaster of Small Circle Ju-jitsu and the co-founder and joint Headmaster of Small Circle Concepts with Prof. Leon Jay. Has three Bachelor degrees and a Masters Degree in History. Experienced writer - published or featured in all of the UK martial arts magazines and in Inside Kung Fu in US, as well as: Esquire; She; Elle; Woman's Journal; Health and Fitness; Zest; Marie Claire and The Independent (UK national daily newspaper). Has been featured on BBC and ITV news programmes as expert on weapons defence and usage in relation to law enforcement issues. Former CPO (Bodyguard), and still active as a Bodyguard trainer.
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