General Instructor Resources Musings

Sweating the Details, AKA Why Your Instructor is So Picky

Anyone who’s said, “Don’t sweat the details,” has probably never met any martial arts instructors.

martial arts instructors
Sensei checks a student’s posture in class.

Perfectionist martial arts instructors are common, especially in karate styles. (Don’t we know it!) They seem to love watching you sweat as you try again and again to get each little thing right. All at the same time.

If you’ve ever thought, “WHY are the details so important?” or “Does it really matter if I do it this way or that way?” then this article is for you.

The reasons for your instructor’s attention to detail fall into 3 major categories.

1. Potential for Injury: A good instructor takes responsibility for preventing injury. The two types of injury are acute and repetitive stress injury (RSI). 

  • Acute injuries are injuries that occur on a single instance. For example, if you punch with your wrist bent, you can do a lot of damage, even in a single hit. Kicking with incorrect parts of the foot and not holding fingers correctly in open hand/finger strikes can also lead to acute injuries.
  • RSIs are more subtle, and only occur after long periods of time. RSIs usually happen because of bad pressure on the joints or tendons that result from doing movements with the body incorrectly aligned. One of the best examples of this is front stance. If your front and back feet form a 90′ angle in front stance, when you move, you’ll put unnecessary & damaging pressure on the inside of the knee. After you’ve been doing this for a long period of time (years), you’ll end up with chronic knee pain and unpleasantness.

So, when your instructor yells at you for the nth time about some little thing, you’d be well advised to fix it, dear Henry. It literally might make a difference for your future health.

2. Efficiency: Your instructor might also be interested in helping you maximize your power. Different techniques have different physics behind them, depending on their intention and the muscles used. A little bad habit that you don‘t even notice might work against your power.

  • Example 1: Hips while front kicking should be as square as possible in order to maximize power. A lot of students let their hips and supporting leg turn to a 45′ angle as they kick. This decreases the bodyweight and momentum behind the kick by directing it away from the kicking leg. Kicking like this may be a good idea for tournaments, because it allows for easier blocking, but it definitely doesn’t have the full power it could if the hips were kept square.
  • Example 2: Circular motion of the elbow when high blocking. Now, at our school, we say that there is no such thing as a block at brown and black belt level. Everything can be used as a strike, and a lot of chambering motions have joint twisting & grab-releasing application. See George Dillman books for details. Anyway, high block can also be a forearm strike, directed into the chin or right below the nose. If you allow your elbow to circle, you’re wasting energy and diverting your power. Correct high block motion should make your elbow look like its sliding up a flag pole: straight up & down.
  • Example 3: Using your center and the way you press your feet in the floor will change how much power you generate. Martial arts instructors may give odd instructions, like “Lower your consciousness,” to try to elicit such movement.

Think of these types of corrections as a way to “power up,” increase efficiency, and maximize your power.

3. Aesthetics and Application: Some things are done certain ways for aesthetic reasons, which usually is how the application of a particular move is hidden from plain sight. Alternatively, the application might require that you do something a certain way during basics. Your instructor may not know the application, or you may not be ready to learn it, but if she/he is harping on you about something, there’s probably a reason for it.

A good one.

So, the next time your instructor gives you some weird, detailed, picky, particular correction, remember:

There’s probably a good reason for it, grasshopper.

If you think of a reason I’ve left out, feel free to share it in the comments! Thanks!

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