Instruction Style, Martial Method

Tony Annesi

Not just the art but the method of instruction produces the style of the student.


"Ichí! Ni! San! Yamae! Ichí! Ni! San! Mawatte! Ichí! Ni! San!" Stop! Turn! But do not twitch! Repeat, repeat, repeat! There has never been a more tried and true method of drilling instant reaction than obeying a command. It produces, in most cases, disciplined students with honed reflexes.

Close your eyes and think of yourself surrounded by four assailants. When you open them again, fight off the assailants all at once but in slow motion as if in a movie. Special drills put students in different circumstances to broaden the type of reactions they can have and to develop skills within them.

Consider the use of the latissimus dorsi muscles. They lock your arm into the mass of your body, so it is important to flex these muscles by dropping your shoulders when punching. Analyses of movements make students better able to correct themselves and better able to teach others.

Even within a specific style of a specific art, there can be as many methods of instruction as there are schools. Three general methods seem to summarize them however:

  1. the traditional method (usually based on repetition) is the most prevalent;
  2. the creative method (which invents new exercises to perfect a skill or teach a principle); and
  3. the intellectual method (based on verbal explanation and rational understanding).

Some instructors just inherit their method as if it were part of the style itself. Others seek out or stumble upon different methods which more efficiently help them reach their goals. In order to consciously choose a method of teaching, instructors must state their goals, at least to themselves. They must have a picture of what they want to accomplish, the ideal student. Depending on the makeup of this ideal, each instructor may favor one of the three methods over the others.

When I first began studying judo, no one questioned the method of teaching. The method and the art were considered synonymous. The art was "ancient" Japanese (we were not aware that it was less than 100 years old at that time), so the method must be similarly Japanese and ancient. Long periods of exercises and falling were followed by a longer period of uchikomi (simulated throws or "fit-ins") or occasionally sute-geiko (exchange-throwing practice). Then, as if we were not exhausted enough, randori (free style). For fifteen or twenty minutes somewhere in the practice, Sensei would show and we would practice a new throw or new approach to an old throw, but 90% of our work was sweat and repetition. We were in terrific shape, muscularly and aerobically, but everybody seemed to use the same three or four throws. The method of teaching had all by ordained it.

My first traditional ju-jutsu class had little to do with sweat but a lot to do with patience. We knelt down facing each other and practiced a basic wrist release for 20 to 30 minutes. No one explained why; no one taught how. Then we stood up and sensei taught a new move by demonstrating it four times (two right-side and two left-side) with his uke. We tried to imitate. No one was to talk. Sensei never taught anything verbally. If we were doing it completely wrong, he would step in and demonstrate again with one of us, usually once. This went on for another 30 to 40 minutes. With only some falling practice added for spice, that was the entire workout. There was a method but little actual teaching.

Initially my karate teacher ran a class that was as traditional as the ju-jutsu class had been: no talking, no excess motion like scratching or adjusting one’s uniform. This was a military discipline meant to challenge the student’s will power. Where ju-jutsu forced us to analyze how a technique worked (or, frustrated, give up on analysis altogether, hoping to subconsciously absorb the technique), karate dared us to discipline ourselves using techniques as the instruments of self-discipline. We gained power by repetition, form by imitation; this was a combination of the judo and ju-jutsu approaches. There was little explanation, however, and few interesting drills. Then my teacher changed somewhat and added a little of both. I did not know if this was because we were no longer beginners or because sensei was getting soft. But when Sensei’s cousin Elliot was graded to shodan (first degree black belt), I found out that our school was not to be lost to traditions of militarism, repetition, and imitation for long. Elliot was the drill-sergeant, while sensei was the teacher. Elliot had us repeat exactly the things which he himself had to repeat as a novice. Sensei had us try things which he had not been allowed to try as a novice. Sensei created; Elliot repeated.

When I earned my shodan, sensei asked me to teach a few classes as well. I was no drill-sergeant, so I left that to Elliot. I did not think it was my place to invent new exercises, so I left that to sensei. What I did was to explain and analyze. I brought an intellectual approach to the lessons which the students appreciated since previously they had been using their muscles, their emotional strengths, but not their thinking machines. Our dojo represented all three major teaching methods in three separate teachers. Elliot challenged us physically and drilled proper technique into us; sensei made it possible for us to use that technique in new and different ways; and I explained movements technically and gave a purpose to each new drill. One method complemented the others.

There are many approaches to teaching a style, and none of the above methods by itself is wrong or right. One method may be perfect to attain one concept of "the ideal student", but it is difficult if not impossible to integrate all the methods and each type of ideal into a program intended to produce the complete martial artist, an holistic ideal. However, I think the attempt is worth the effort. Too often teachers who claim their students will become completely-integrated-artists-possessing-all-talents use only one method to attain this goal. Few teachers want to admit that they have a limited ideal; fighting ability, for instance, but not character; tournament ability, but not self-control; self-defense ability, but not artistry.

It is a mixed method which I tried to bring to my own dojo. I not only combined methods but also emphases. In judo, I taught competitive technique as well as classical ones. In aiki-ju-jutsu, I taught hard, fast, slow, soft, strikes, locks, throws, takedowns, etc. And in karate, I emphasized kata sometimes, sparring other times, personally developed techniques at other times. I even taught aiki-principles as applied to the "harder" karate. I acknowledged to my students my debt to the more single-minded instructors for what they had contributed to my knowledge of instruction. I knew that each specialty helped me better understand an aspect of my wider view of the arts.

I also studied the history of all the arts, especially my own Japanese arts, to discover which traditions were relative to contemporary training and which were outmoded. If I were to judge other methods of teaching, if I were to alter my own, I wanted to do so with a logical argument. Since so many approaches were consciously traditional or anti-traditional, it was the root of the traditions which I wished to understand. The following segment is what I discovered about the instructional history of my own arts.


The ryu was a martial tradition perpetrated by a bloodline inheritance (sei) or by a non-genetically related one (dai). The establishment of ryu was always attributed to divine guidance, which gave its founder a sudden insight during his years of arduous practice. Thus ryu are naturally given to mysticism and to making their students learn through insight and hard practice, rather than through rational teaching. I term this the ìzen method.

Spiritual aspects of old bu-jutsu (warrior skills) became emphasized in classical budo (martial way). "One strike, one life" was the essence of classical budo. It means that spiritually the warrior must wield his weapon, make his strike as if his life not just depended on it, but was to be sacrificed with it. Thus kyudo (archery) places the emphasis on how the bow is to be drawn, not on whether the arrow hits the target. Kata in karate, judo, and kendo emphasize exact form, not immediate effectiveness. JKA (Japan Karate Association) karate looks for one-punch kill, not combat give-and-take. This style is totally Japanese in its spiritual aspect even though it descends from an Okinawan lineage which was much more practical in its view of fighting. Thus certain karate kamae (postures) become purposeless combatively in an effort to visually represent the spirit of the warrior. Classical budo's main emphasis is spiritual

The method of teaching this spiritual state, and thus enlightenment, is the zen method: intuition through imitation. Supposedly, imitation is "body-learning" rather than "mind-learning" and thus lasts longer. Certainly, some things we learn rationally pass right through us; but, things we learn physically, like bike riding, are never forgotten. However, what is lacking in the imitation learning style are those things which are needed for a combatively effective fighting art:

  1. the zen method is slow;
  2. it requires the trainee to constantly re-learn techniques which were falsely imitated initially;
  3. although it greatly heightens the powers of observation, it reduces the powers of analysis; the practitioner is given to perfecting his/her own form but cannot analyze what is wrong with someone else’s even though he/she may in fact recognize the flaw;
  4. the practical purposes of all forms are lost gradually and, if retained, cannot be modified to take into account a different opponent, nor can they be changed to make them more effective.

In short, the zen method dispenses with idea of principles (since they are rational) and of effectiveness (since this goal is non-spiritual).

But there are also advantages to the zen method of training. Zen teaching attempts to overcome the ego (for this read "egotism") by having its disciple become self-centered, thus ignoring comparisons with others. Too much reliance on combative method produces the "competitive mind" which is a positive thing to have in combat, but can be self-destructive since it leaves the trainee in a constant state of frustration; he must always have someone to better. The ego-controlled trainee always has himself to better; so that, although he may get frustrated also, he will not become destructive or belligerent. His goal is not to beat somebody else but to master himself.

A lack of combative balance is the outstanding characteristic of all budo entities. Combative balance is established and maintained by attaining expertise in a wise range of weapons and familiarity with other martial systems. But the effects of peace in the Edo period eventually eroded this sense of practical realism (Donn Draeger, Classical Budo, Weatherhill Publishing, 1973).

It is ironic that the same styles of martial arts which claim to be combatively superior are those styles which do not recognize or become proficient at other martial systems. A second irony is that those systems which do try to integrate other martial teachings may claim to be superior because of this, but they neglect to recognize many non-physical advantages of more conservative systems.

Great modern exponents like Jigoro KANO (1860-1938) and Gichin FUNAKOSHI (1868-1957) believed in a well-balanced system of training with respect for all types of techniques, but their followers either never completely understood their intentions (despite their writing on the subject) or completely ignored them. Thus Kanoís judo became known as a totally defensive art and later as a non-self-defense sport. Funakoshi’s Shotokan karate became known as only a kick-punch art without grappling or throws and later as a very regimented sport-form. Both Kano and Funakoshi wanted spiritual development (their prime goal) and self defense ability. Ironically, what judo and Japanese karate are known for today is not primarily either of these qualities even though the techniques which comprise them can easily be taught as self-defense and the founders’ moral principles can easily be taken as guidelines to character development.

In old, classical bu-jutsu, the prime goal was combat effectiveness; although, because of the Japanese character, discipline and morals were considered important in training as secondary characteristics of the warrior. In later budo, combat-training was considered unnecessary. The emphasis switched to morals, with discipline an aesthetic form considered additional attributes for which a student should strive.

This misunderstandings which have produced today's inherited methods of teaching have also blinded the adherents to the fact that they are not necessarily ancient ways of teaching. The present generation of practitioners often believes that what it practices has been handed down to it relatively unchanged form classical periods. This is simply untrue.

Today, many styles of martial arts are trying to recapture the aesthetics of old budo and the combat effectiveness of old bu-jutsu. The goal is an honorable one, but too often this is done without an attempt to also change the "traditional" method of teaching.

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