In almost all schools, martial arts-related or otherwise, we use repetition to teach our pupils the values and skills we’re trying to convey. While there are many methods available for effective teaching, for centuries the use of repetition has been the cornerstone of learning in our society. As martial arts instructors, many of us blindly follow this method of teaching as the basis for our classes, but rarely do we actually assess the reasons for using it or the outcomes it creates.
One of the fundamentals of martial arts is being able to recognise a scenario and quickly determine a course of action. Whether attacking an open target, defending an incoming attack, applying a lock on a free limb or moving to utilise the environment, a martial artist is constantly evaluating his or her situation and making decisions based on those evaluations. The role of a martial arts instructor is to provide our students with the necessary knowledge to be able to make the right decision in these situations, which we do through assessing our students and providing them with the answers to their scenario. It’s through repetition that the student is able to train their mind to recognise what will and what won’t work in addition to learning the advantages and dangers of each given option. More importantly, by doing the exercise over and over, the student will learn to instinctively choose the correct course of action, and have the necessary motor skills to take it, without having to consciously think about it, thus decreasing the reaction time and increasing survival chances. This is known as Hick’s Law.
Mentally, there’s a great advantage to using repetition as a teaching tool. Just as importantly, the physical benefits for students are of great value. By correcting the physical structure of our students’ movements over and over, we are able to train the proprioceptors of the student. This is commonly known as developing ‘muscle memory’. Essentially, this process allows the student to feel comfortable in a position or scenario in which they would not normally feel physically comfortable. For example, parents often encourage their babies to continue with their attempts to walk for the first time. By doing this, the baby learns to feel where its body parts are and over time is able to coordinate them enough to take their first steps. Through this same repetition of movement, students can gain the same awareness of movement, which will ultimately lead them to a great accuracy and control of movement, and therefore greater effectiveness.
While the advantages of teaching with repetition are vast and varied, there are also some very real disadvantages. By using repetition to teach, we are essentially ‘pre-programming’ our students. That is, we are encouraging our students to apply a given decision to a given scenario and we’re causing these reactions to become instinctive. While this can be an excellent tool in that it enables the student to react quickly, it can also work against them by reducing mental and physical freedom. If the scenario is slightly different or there is a slight change in some way, the student may react in a manner that’s not going to best support them. Of course, there are also some scenarios that will cause the student to freeze or lock up, simply because the scenario is not quite what they’ve practised time and time again.
In martial arts, while repetition is definitely the mother of skill, it is also the father of attrition. Martial arts has always been, and will be for a long time to come, a form of recreation, study or whatever you want to call it with a high rate of dropout among participants. Students will come and go at a much faster rate than is the case with most other sports and many believe that repetition is the main culprit. Due to the high degree of skill required for martial arts, we use repetition for the mental and physical development. Unfortunately, many of us are at the same time habitually boring our students. While learning in itself can be a stimulant, excessive repetition can dissipate students’ attention. If this goes unaddressed, students can lose interest and ultimately quit.
Yet while it’s important to realise that in order to maintain a high level of skill in the school, repetition may be inevitable, by also realising the damaging effects it can have on morale and interest levels, a martial arts instructor can better prepare themselves for its adverse effects. When teaching classes, instructors should try to minimise repetition where it’s not necessary. Quite often, instructors will do something over and over because they feel that it’s an area in which more work is needed. However, by breaking the class up into sections, the instructor can avoid the repetition being noticed or felt. For example, if your students need work on fundamentals, it might be an idea to do some of it at the beginning of the class and some at the end while concentrating on something else in the middle. This can split up the work and therefore reduce the length of repetitive practise — the overall time is the same, but it’s stopped before boredom sets in, then returned to later.
Another way to combat the effects of repetition is by hiding the repetition. While it is not quite as easy to do as it is to say, and it does take some planning, we can get students to perform a required action but disguise the fact that they are doing so. If for instance your students need work on the basic arm-bar or the reverse punch, you can hide that by making it part of a larger combination. While the practice of the skill is not quite as concentrated, the students are still learning the technique but in context, and in a way that stimulates their senses and forces them to pay attention to make it work in application.
An alternative is to hide a particular skill in a game. This works particularly well with children. A game of ‘slaps’ is a fun but effective way to teach students the principle of attack recognition, reaction and speed. Another way you can break it up is by working on dealing with one specific act of violence with different responses for the evening or working through how one particular response can work against many acts of violence. You can also break your class into themes. For example, your theme may be kata, but you can break it up into fundamental movements, applying it in response to various attacks and solo performance.
Once again, by breaking up the repetition, perhaps with the skill-related game in between exercises on the skill, we can further beat the side affects of repetition.
Like all that we do in martial arts, there must be a balance. Repetition is a great learning tool, but we must understand it does have side effects. By recognising these, we can manage them and increase retention in our schools without having to compromise the standard of skill.
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Andrew Raynor New Hampshire