‘If you are afraid to fail, you are afraid to succeed.’
Students have more to gain than just learning how to do things *right*. I’m going to lay out the argument that learning *how to be good at being wrong* is not only valuable, but may be more valuable than other skills you learn.
5 Good Things That are Usually Taught
- rote learning (do techniques a certain way to get correct movement patterns)
- explaining principles (assure the student’s conscious mind so they know *why* it works)
- repetition (do it so many times that your subconscious mind is taking direct action)
- disguised repetition (apply the principles behind the technique flexibly)
- teach someone else (mastery only occurs when you can successfully guide others)
Depending on the martial art, it make takes years or decades to learn everything an art or a master has to offer in this way. While learning martial arts is good in so many ways, there’s another aspect that we don’t talk about as much, teaching students to be successful at being wrong, screwing up and making mistakes.
The Greatest Thing that ISN’T Taught:
HOW to learn from mistakes
Students need to learn that they can make mistakes and still succeed. It’s a life skill as much as a martial arts skill. There’s a technique component, but it starts with accepting that you will never execute technique perfectly. As a culture, we have a fear of being wrong. We feel that making mistakes is a shameful thing to be hidden. Our cultural programming is that if only we did everything right, we would have the perfect job, the perfect spouse, the perfect kids, the perfect friends and everyone would be happy and agreeable all the time. It’s a utopian view that never works.
5 Ways to Turn Mistakes into Awesomeness
Errors and mistakes in work or any other life-sphere are hidden and suppressed like dirty secrets. In martial arts, this translates into the thought “if only I did everything right, nobody could touch me.” Before you can improve, you have to accept the fundamental nature of fights.
1. Accept Mistakes as Fundamental Reality
A real world fight is usually *by definition* a mistake of some kind. A failure to avoid the place, the time, the people. A failure to communicate. To paraphrase top-gun pilots:
“Use your superior awareness skills to avoid needing your superior fighting skills.”
While students do develop confidence as their skills progress, their confidence is bounded by a fear of wrongness. Let me give an example. An instructor teaches a student a new technique, maybe a defense and counter for an uppercut. Even the simplest technique has many details. We simplify at first. Often the student will stop at any mistake, feel like a dummy and keep redoing it until they feel they have done all the steps correctly. Just when the student feels unbeatable because they have overcome all the mistakes, a wise instructor will reveal many other ways the attacker could respond, move, or counter, resulting in more for the student to learn. Now there are dozens of details for the student to perfect before they once again feel they have overcome all errors and feel perfect again. I suggest this pattern puts the student in the position of being too timid “It’s no good, I’m still doing some of it wrong” or over-confident “I can’t lose because I don’t make any mistakes”.
2. Move Beyond Perfectionism
Perfectionism doesn’t work because it always vacillates between under and over-confidence. As martial artists, nothing we ever do is perfect. Like everything in life, combat involves other people doing unpredictable things and reacting to what we do in unpredictable ways. There are tells we can learn to read and there are ways to get a read on how someone is reacting, but without being a ‘psychic defender‘, you really don’t know. Yes, we should learn all the great things that are taught (see above) to prepare us, but training is really building conscious and subconscious patterns that will respond to the live dynamic of “what is”. Being wrong is our natural state. If you actually had perfect information, you would avoid all fights or easily win if you felt the need to start something.
3. Focus Confidence on the Broad Strokes
Let’s go back to the uppercut example above. The essence of the defense should be: a) avoid getting harmed (by blocking, moving, trapping, etc) and b) stop any further attacks (which may involve traps, joint locks, knocking them out, etc.). If you do a) and b) with conviction, everything will be fine. If your sense of confidence is tied to the big picture, you are liberated to note mistakes without getting attached to them, without hesitating on minor errors. Perfectionism leads to hesitation if any detail might be wrong. Hesitation leads to more mistakes because you are coming from a place of uncertain action, not fluidity. Then a student tries to fix imaginary problems or throws out the whole technique because, apparently ‘it doesn’t work’. When you continue to take confident action, the only openings or mistakes will be real, not imaginary. If you tie your confidence to the broad strokes, you won’t stop on small errors. Therefore, students who learn the broad stroke of a technique need encouragement that what they are doing is mostly right with various big or small errors.
4. Turn Errors into Your Greatest Strengths
If you get great at learning from mistakes, you will attain mastery quicker and feel much better about yourself as you do so. It still means striving to improve, but it’s *a way of improving* that feels better and is more efficient. Whether master or beginner, nothing involving other people is ever perfect. If we take confident action and *pay attention* to the results, we will observe and respond to errors quicker than the perfectionist mindset of a) ‘I can’t win because I’m not perfect yet’ or b) ‘I must win because I have perfect technique’. If I throw a punch, I may have the intent that it will hit my opponent’s jaw, cause damage, point their head straight up and dislodge their balance. Intent is all fine and well, but if you’re attached to ‘I did x right, so I will get result y’, you’re going to feel confused and react slowly when it turns out you aimed a little off or they dodged. Take action with intent, but assume nothing as far as results. If you’re great at being wrong, it’s more like ‘I’m going to do what my skills and training tell me to do, but I’m going to continually adjust to what actually happens to make it work out’.
5. Embrace Errors to Stop Hesitation
If you have to think you’re perfect to take action, you’re either constantly hesitating or deluded. When you embrace imperfection as the natural state, you liberate yourself to note errors even when you are being successful, noting observations such as: “I defended, trapped and countered successfully, but I felt a gap in the middle where maybe their other arm could have hit me and it felt a little loose at the end.” These non-stressful observations leads to quicker improvement, but it doesn’t occur when students hesitate. In accepting that errors will occur, you can take confident action and be mentally prepared to react and *correct it* until you get the outcome you want.
There are schools of thought on how to best correct whatever happens in the thick of it. I teach Wing Chun contact sensitivity (chi sao) so that my students can feel the response to what they do instead of just seeing it. What we feel transmits to our brain and transforms into positive action 10x quicker than what we see. Can I feel that my punch made solid contact? Can I feel the attacker feint left, duck to tackle, or retreat? Can I feel them strongly resist or has the fight gone out of them? The key point isn’t how you do it, it is that you look for and respond to the actual results instead of being surprised that your ‘perfect’ technique didn’t produce perfect results. Help ourselves (and our students) discern big problems versus little problems. If the big stuff is right, gradually fix the small stuff in time. Conversely, if the big stuff is still wrong, don’t fuss over little details yet.
Turn Wrongness into Rightness
I’m not encouraging mistakes. I am saying that the correct attitude towards finding, understanding and working on errors is the most important factor in genuine confident improvement. Being eager to improve is great, but it isn’t perfectionism. Perfectionism blocks mastery because it’s an attitude that only perfect action is acceptable whereas the live dynamic of other people makes that impossible. and this is not possible . A little perfectionism can lead someone to train hard, but ultimately, perfectionism blocks mastery because it blinds the student. ‘If you’re afraid to fail, you are afraid to succeed.’ When students start, an instructor doesn’t know if they will last 20 years, 20 days or 20 seconds. If a student feels from day one that it’s ok to make errors as they are learning and getting better, they will feel happier and more confident at every step of their progress. We’re not giving them an out to not bother improving. We’re allowing them to see that progress is a matter of making smaller and fewer errors, but never zero errors. From day one, they will start doing some things right and have a few things to correct and it will always be that way. In my instruction, I find that my students improve much faster when they understand that doing more right than wrong and having excellent error recovery are part of every level of achievement.
For some out of the box thinking on the benefits of accepting mistakes, check out the video below: