Thursday, August 16, 2012

Mentalism and self-deception in the martial arts

Introduction: the old "light as a feather" game

I'm sure many of you have played the "light as a feather game": one person sits on a chair and four others gather round and try to lift him or her using only their extended index fingers. Typically this is achieved with a bit of hesitancy and difficulty.

But then the four "lifters" perform some sort of "ritual": some pre-set activity (eg. placing all their hands on the sitting person's head) or just the joint "focusing of thought waves". Then the four go back to the sitting person and – voila! – he or she is lifted clean off the seat and high into the air; as if by magic!

Back in the '80s my mentalist mate Dave (one of a dwindling number who actually earned a degree in parapsychology!) and four of his friends tried it out on a Daihatsu Charade (using a full grip, naturally). Again, they lifted the car clean off the ground. As if by magic.

False assumptions

Except it's not magic. How does it work? It relies on assumptions: false assumptions we make without even realising. The false assumption in relation to the car is this: that 5 people (two at the back and 3 at the front) couldn't possibly lift a 350 kg vehicle. This in turn relies on the false assumption that an individual can't possibly lift 70 kg. Most strong young men can bench press more than that, never mind lift it with their backs and thighs using a squat/deadlift.

We all make false assumptions every day. And mostly these assumptions are without consequence, amounting to no more than how much (or little) we can fit in the boot of a car or whether to put the extra two potatoes into the pot for the family meal. However there are some who specialise in understanding and feeding false assumptions in order to manipulate others: These people are called "mentalists".

Enter the mentalist

A mentalist anticipates and feeds false assumptions for any number of purposes: perhaps innocently, as a party trick or part of a stage show; perhaps not so innocently, as a purported psychic; or perhaps completely immorally (even illegally) as part of some sort of fraud (eg. in the case of a confidence trickster).

Mentalists don't just anticipate and feed false assumptions that you ordinarily make: they also know how to induce them. This is called "suggestion". It is the most dangerous part of mentalism because it often exploits trust in people who hold positions of authority.

James Randi discusses assumptions: the core way by which mentalists will fool you

Unfortunately the martial arts world has more than its fair share of mentalists. The purpose of this article is to discuss how you can spot their tricks and not be taken in by them.

The martial mentalist

There is no shortage of martial artists who engage in mentalism. Why would they do so? Because they want to sell something and need a "market edge". An illusory "market edge" is better than none at all. So they sell you an illusion. And many people buy into it hook, line and sinker.

Obvious cases of martial mentalism abound: there are many instances where it is clear that someone is the victim of martial fakery. I have discussed such instances of such fakery in my articles "How the internal arts work: Part 1" and "Understanding the internal arts".

For some reason, the internal arts of China attract more than their fair share of mentalists. Perhaps this is because of the fact that, in their proper manifestation, they employ quite advanced, though subtle, techniques and strategies that lend themselves to myth/legend creation. It doesn't help that their function was traditionally described entirely through the language of traditional Chinese medicine. That language, though not entirely without merit as a metaphorical paradigm for discussion and observation (as I will discuss), is however not a scientifically accurate means of explaining the function of the internal arts.

But the internal arts are by no means the only martial traditions that have been appropriated by mentalists. It seems martial arts are, in general, prone to attracting them. This is true whether we're talking internal arts, kung fu, karate, aikido, kenpo, silat... every art has them. Search under "chi" or "ki" on Youtube and you'll find more examples of mentalism than you can poke a stick at. And, chances are, it'll be bad mentalism at that. I don't mean "evil" mentalism – I just mean second-rate trickery that succeeds only because it is takes advantage of the teacher/student relationship (more on that later). That it can also be "bad" in a moral/ethical sense is, I think, obvious.

When you see these "masters" demonstrating manifestly absurd "powers" you might be tempted to laugh. But these are just the most extreme cases. There are many, many levels of mentalism - and, for that matter, self-deception. Most of us are susceptible to being fooled or fooling ourselves – at least some of the time and at some level. So how do we guard against this happening? The first step is to know how and why people get "taken in" – in other words, how mentalism (including the self-inflicted kind) actually works.

How and why people get taken in

I've already noted that mentalists will use the natural human propensity for assumption. But how do mentalists know what you're going to assume – never mind lead you to making certain assumptions?

I've mentioned "suggestion" but that itself seems a bit of a vague answer. In a way, it is no more satisfactory than the dialogue of Star Wars character Obi-wan Kenobi when he says: "These aren't the droids you're looking for" and "The Force can have a strong effect on the weak-minded".

But as ludicrous as that dialogue might seem it is surprisingly close to the truth, at least in one respect: people can and often do accept unproven statements as fact. We all do. That is because we really couldn't function if we had to triple check every detail before we did something. Rather, in order to get by in our daily lives, we have to be prepared to accept "givens":

We accept a "No through road" sign is correct. We usually trust a "Danger: Keep Out" notice. We take someone's word that a particular restaurant, book or movie is "no good". We assume that the elevator will take us to our desired floor. We accept that our university lecturer actually knows something about anthropology/psychology/philosophy/literature etc. The list is endless. In other words, we couldn't live without making assumptions – hundreds or even thousands of them – every single day of our lives.

Clearly, we assume that people we trust are telling us the truth (more on that in a moment). But the bigger question is why we would make assumptions based on things said by people we hardly know. I think the answer is largely attributable to one simple factor: our (necessary) reliance on certain subconscious processes, including kinaesthetic awareness and "routine" decision-making.

Lives lived largely on autopilot

For most of our lives, we live on autopilot. By way of example, when walking up a flight of stairs we don't first consider them carefully (counting their number, ascertaining the height of each step and ensuring consistency from one to another), then calculate the amount of movement required to place a foot onto the first step in the correct position (not too close to the edge, not jammed in too far), then repeat the process for each step , and so on. We do this sort of thing automatically/unconsciously. And thankfully so. If our lives were totally governed by logical decisions (in the way, say, the movements of a Mars rover are) I'm sure we'd (a) never get much done; and (b) go mad.

This subconscious process is the same reason that you probably don't remember every detail when leaving your house – that you turned the door handle, opened the door, closed it, pulled your keys out of your pocket, selected the correct key, inserted it into the lock, turned it, etc.). The fact that you do such things on "autopilot" is the main reason we often wonder (halfway to the airport, camping ground or cinema) whether we locked the front door or left the stove or iron on, etc. [It also helps explain some obsessive/compulsive disorders such as locking and relocking the door 3 times: for some reason there has been a breakdown in the sufferer's brain of "trust" in subconscious decision-making processes, requiring multiple validation for the completion of simple tasks.]

The proper word for most "autopilot" action is kinaesthesia or proprioception: ie. awareness of our position and motion in space through muscular and other sensory input.

But there is a reason I refer to subconscious decision-making and not just kinaesthetic awareness: the latter covers simple movement and navigation, while the former covers actual decisions that we make, eg. whether to lock the door, turn off the stove, etc. In other words, we don't just walk up a flight of steps "on autopilot" – we also make routine decisions as an extension of this process. And it is precisely here that the mentalist exploits your vulnerability.

The mentalist taking over from the autopilot

In my recent article "Necessary and reasonable force" I related an encounter I had with two young, strong men who had been taunting me with derogatory remarks about my wife:
    "I said to the alpha male (with a smile): "You know, you look just like my brother-in-law! It's amazing. You guys could be brothers!" From my reaction, I could tell he assumed that I hadn't heard the nature of their comments – or at least he wasn't sure (from my perspective this uncertainty was actually a better manipulating tool; I'll discuss this sort of thing in a future article). The alpha male abruptly changed his demeanour from a sneering, antagonistic one to one of puzzlement.

    "Really? What's your brother-in-law's name?"

    And so it went. Within 5 minutes we were swapping mobile numbers and having a laugh."
Why did I say that his uncertainty was a better manipulating tool? Because in cases of uncertainty, people often default to autopilot – the subconscious decision-making of which I have spoken; they don't have time for anything other than habitual action. If you are aware of this, you can anticipate certain behaviours and manipulate the outcome. This is the method of the mentalist.

If you doubt me, consider for a moment that had the alpha male known for certain that I was lying – that I had heard his taunts but was nervously pretending he didn't exist – what do you suppose would have happened? He would have seen my gesture as a rather pathetic backdown. Emboldened he might have "upped the ante" to increase my humiliation and his own fun.

But what if he was equally certain that I hadn't heard his taunts? Surprisingly this wouldn't have augured a much better outcome...

Another personal example

I was once in town, passing group of thugs. One shouted something out, but I was only vaguely aware of him, didn't hear what he said and assumed he was talking to someone else in my vicinity. I carried on walking and the thug ran directly in front of me, blocking my path, spraying spittle in my face.
"What's the matter mate? Too up yerself to answer me?"

Only then did I realise that he had been speaking to me. And that I had inadvertently embarrassed him in front of his friends. It is important to note that his embarrassment arose not from the fact that I had (apparently) heard, but ignored, him: that would have constituted a tacit submission on my part and he would have been able to laugh it off as a sure sign of my "fear" or "weakness".

Rather, the fact that he had been ineffective in even gaining my attention was embarrassing for him – forcing him to confront me and "up the ante" so as to regain some esteem in front of his peers.

I looked suprised (as I was), smiled and apologised for being distracted ("Oh – sorry mate. It's been a long day and I'm afraid I was a million miles away!"). I asked him how his day had been - and somehow the whole "situation" evaporated into a rather "pleasant" discussion about how his brother was coming out of prison and wanted to borrow money from him (again), how his "bitch of an ex-girlfriend" wouldn't let him see his kid, etc. I nodded, tut-tutted and said goodbye as his mobile rang (a call from his brother, no less).

Back to the alpha male "brother-in-law lookalike"

In the same vein it might not have been particularly helpful for the "alpha male" in my other altercation to have known (with certainty) that I had not heard him at all. For one thing, I can see how this would have embarrassed him in front of his friend ("Ha, ha, he can't even hear you mate!").

No, my best chance lay in momentary confusion. Not sure which way to jump, and faced with my unsettling, banal (rather odd) opening statement and confident smile, he defaulted to subconscious, pre-set behaviour – the kind he might employ when introduced to a person at a party, for example.

Once down that road, there was no going back: to convert a perfectly ordinary and friendly conversation back into a taunting/hostile situation would not only have been pointless – it would also have been embarrassing for him and required too much effort. In other words, his line of least resistance became a pleasant conversation – not an antagonistic one.

"You want fries with that"

From the above you can see that mentalism can be used for "good" as a well as "evil" – and that it isn't all that far removed from the Obi-wan cliché.

In this regard, you can indeed say or do something in a way that makes another person repeat it.

Just as one small example, the next time you speak to someone, especially someone who is younger than you are or in relation to whom you enjoy a higher "social status", watch their body language: When you cross your arms, run your hand through your hair or lean on something, do they follow suit a moment later? This mimicry is not very different from the stormtrooper's response to Obi-wan: "These aren't the droids we're looking for." Yes, the Star Wars scenario is far-fetched, but the principle is the same. Indeed, the main difference between these scenarios is that you probably aren't taking advantage of the subconscious mimicry the way Obi-wan was. But there are plenty of people who do, for any number of reasons (sometimes conscious and sometimes not).

In respect of the above, I think that episode of the television series "Doogie Howser MD" got it right when it noted that employees in fast-food chains like McDonalds are not taught to ask their customers: "Do you want fries with that?" Rather, they are told to make a statement:
    "Want fries with that."
Most people staring at the menu board, wondering exactly what to get, are likely to resort to autopilot and mumble: "Yes". They will default to subconscious decision-making, influenced by the "answer" already provided by the employee's statement.

Back to the dojo

It goes without saying that the capacity to manipulate others through mentalism increases in direct proportion to the level of trust and authority bestowed upon the mentalist. Few relationships bestow more trust and authority than a student/teacher one – particularly if the student has specifically chosen the teacher/guide (as occurs in martial arts study, a college course or religious instruction/guidance).

When we choose to study with these people we are accepting them as experts. And once we accept someone as an expert, we are a very likely to do two things:
  1. place trust and confidence in them (a necessary part of the student/teacher relationship); and
  2. suspend critical thinking - in other words, "go on autopilot" (what I have called "subconscious decision-making") where we accept statements uncritically ("These aren't the droids we're looking for").
No small wonder then that the teacher/student relationship imparts so much responsibility on the teacher – and why abuses of this responsibility are viewed as particularly reprehensible: students are naturally vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation. Note the TED talk below, particularly at around 3:37, which describes how critical thinking shuts off once an accepted expert begins to speak:

Back to trickery: common abuses of the martial teacher/student relationship

Not every martial teacher who employs mentalism does it in such an obvious and nefarious way as to produce the sort of nonsense shown in the "Wondrous world of chi power" or one of its many likenesses on the internet. Not every martial mentalist has either the inclination or ability to convince his or her students to jump about madly as if operated on invisible strings – all at the casual wave of a hand and without any sort of contact.

Rather, most martial mentalists rely on manipulations that are far, far more subtle, easier and quicker to employ and more effective on a larger target audience.

I think it is also worth noting that some of the offending instructors might not be consciously aware of what they are doing: they might be perpetuating what their instructors showed them, and so on.


However the fact that an individual instructor isn't consciously aware of his or her part in exercising mentalism doesn't lessen the fact that mentalism is taking place: people are being manipulated to believe in something illusory – whether the instructor knows it, should know it but chooses not to look too closely, or is him/herself a victim of mentalism/self-deception. Whichever way it goes, the manipulation of people is being perpetuated.

Who "set the ball rolling" in such cases? Was there an original mentalist who was knowingly fooling his/her students? Perhaps.

Or perhaps it was an instructor who fooled him/herself through uncritically accepting something because he/she wished it to be true: a kind of "self-hypnosis".

Imagine, for example, if that stormtrooper had said (without prompting from Obi-wan and despite the obvious match with a "Wanted" poster) "These aren't the droids we're looking for." Why might he have said this? Maybe because he wanted to knock off early and couldn't be stuffed filling out all the Imperial paperwork relating to the captured droids. It is fairly easy to convince yourself not to look too deeply into something – if that deeper looking might cause you a whole lot of bother.

"Inherited mentalism"

Whatever the origin, you can see "inherited mentalism" in many martial schools today. And I think it is most common in schools where highly ritualised, traditional drills are employed. It is the highly circumscribed "role playing" by both attacker and defender in these drills that allows the perpetuation of the illusion.

Nowhere is "inherited mentalism" more apparent than in dojos where those drills comprise tests of "chi/ki". I propose to deal with these in a separate article.

Other examples are not nearly so obviously "unscientific". Rather, ritual merely obscures limitations of drills (that might otherwise have valid uses) – and then false assumptions are made about the transferability of the skills taught in the drill to less compliant circumstances.

In particular, the rigid restraints on the so-called "attack" obscure those assumptions. For example the attack might be strictly limited to:
  1. wrist grabs (which have their uses) – where the grip is held long after the most dim-witted attacker would have let go; or
  2. punching from a single step (which has its uses) – followed by an interminable pause while the defender executes a innumerable, unanswered strikes in succession (what I have previously described as an "attack string" and which might, or might not, comprise the sort of "overkill" that would be illegal if you ever actually carried it out); or
  3. attacks that are launched very slowly and without any commitment (which have use when exploring a technique, especially for the first time) - but which are always answered by defences executed with blistering speed and ferocity (this is a syndrome I call "Attack of the Zombies"); or
  4. punches/strikes/kicks that are totally out of range (which have no use) - where the attacker (misses by up to half a metre in some cases).
"Inherited mentalism" ensures that these sorts of drills are practised, sometimes for generations, without critical evaluation of their obvious limitations.

"Inherited mentalism" is also evident in schools where the attacker is coached carefully and specifically to effect a completely disproportionate (or even inappropriate) response to the defence (ie. flipping him/herself head over heels when a simple fall is all that is warranted, jumping back and high into the air the moment a slight push is felt, falling to the floor from even the slightest tug, etc.).

Mentalism by artificial selection

A mentalist will, as I have foreshadowed, exploit these false assumptions, actively building a culture that perpetuates illusion. Moreover he/she will take active measures to ensure that any potential for critical analysis is side-stepped. The best way to do this is to avoid sceptical students and focus on only the most trusting, diligent and impressionable ones.

As I will discuss in my article on chi/ki tests, this happens whenever the mentalist chooses a student for a demonstration: only one who is susceptible to suggestion will be chosen. This maximises the impression that the mentalist is "invincible".

But student selection goes much further than such demonstrations: the mentalist will often take active measures to ensure that a "contrary" person doesn't even make it through the front door – or, at the very least, won't stay around for long. Sometimes this is done through a "interview" process for each student and a compulsory "background check". Ostensibly this is all in aid of ensuring that only people of the "right character" train at the school.

Funny: in all my 26 years of teaching, and of all the approximately 1 000 people I've taught, I've never once felt the need to have this sort of vetting process. And I can proudly say that almost without exception I have been honoured to have decent, considered, thinking people as students. The few "bad apples" either watched for a couple of minutes and left, or didn't hang around for longer than a few classes. A very small number of "bad apples" hung around for longer. But then again, it took me that long to work out what their true nature was; "interviews" and "background checks" would have been of no assistance in this regard at all.

It's not supernatural – it's just natural!

A student vetting process might well have the potential for selecting the most trusting, suggestible students; but it also has the potential to limit class sizes. Mentalists want the classes as big as possible. So in order to be able to "cast the net wider", they employ one major strategy, namely the refrain: "It's not supernatural: it's just natural!" This allows them to co-opt otherwise sceptical people into accepting an illusion. "Crazy talk" has the potential to turn away a large portion of the public. If you couch the "crazy talk" in terms that appear to be scientific (but are, in fact, not), you might just increase your pool of students.

Now it is true that some instructors are genuine when they utter the phrase "It's not supernatural, it's just natural!" They are trying to say: "I don't know how this works, but I think of it in terms of this metaphor..." In this vein, I know many instructors who use "chi/ki" as a kind of "umbrella term" for a number of different metaphors (intention, focus, breathing, etc.). This can offer an internally consistent paradigm for discussion and observation, if nothing else. While I have nothing against this sort of analysis, I personally don't find it useful. I'd rather try to understand and explain exactly what is happening – and if I cannot, say "I don't know."

I discuss a common "chi/ki" demonstration and do my best to explain it in mechanistic, rather than mystical/supernatural terms, eg. "centre of gravity" and "dead weight" etc.

Unfortunately, when other instructors utter that phrase they are really talking about "magick by another name". Their interpretation of "supernatural" is just "stuff I don't actually believe." The stuff they do believe (or say they believe) without reason is conveniently lumped with scientific fact.

But the problem then arises: how can one best disguise this "magick" as "science"?

"Arcane knowledge"

Mentalists have found that the best way to legitimise "magick" is by appealing to a "lost science or art" – knowledge that comes from ancient times and his handed down only to a select few.

Most commonly, this arcane knowledge takes the form of pressure point striking – what is known in Cantonese as "dim mak" or in Japanese as "kyusho".

Now I think it is self-evident that there is truth in pressure points. Quite obviously there are going to be some points on your body where you are more vulnerable than others. Sometimes these points are not immediately obvious. That someone in the Orient would have noted vulnerable points is hardly surprising. People needed to know this sort of thing far more "in the olden times" – ie. before the invention of firearms.

So, given a shred of truth, the mentalist can ride its coat-tails all the way towards legitimising his/her "magick". Good mentalists know that every effective lie has an element of truth. But the truth shouldn't get in the way either.

Just one example

Back in the late '80s people were becoming aware of Brazilian jiujitsu and its potency in unarmed combat. Almost as quickly as people were setting up BJJ schools, an industry of "antidotes to BJJ" was mushrooming. Understandably, traditional "stand up fighters" didn't want to think that all their skills were made "redundant" and that they had to "start again".

Back in those (pre-internet) days, magazines were the primary way in which people could become aware of prevailing trends and who was teaching what. One well-known taijiquan instructor (who is now deceased) was particularly vocal, and many of his articles and videos dealt with the subject of "dim mak" (often as an antidote to grapplers). A lot of what he said generally seemed to make sense. Other, more specific stuff (eg. the dim mak) didn't. But on the whole, he seemed like a fascinating, charismatic fellow. So when the opportunity arose to attend one of his seminars in Perth, my brother and I looked at each other and said: "Why not?"

During the seminar we did some fairly interesting stuff. I've previously written that some insights gained from him have stayed with me to the present day. But other stuff was clearly mentalism or self-deception. The most obvious example was his assertion that if you touched certain pressure points in a sequence, your opponent would be weakened. He wasn't talking about punching your opponent in the solar plexus, then punching him in the throat, then kicking him in the groin! He was talking about 3 light taps – one on the forehead, one on the shoulder and one on the hip.

He pulled out a student to demonstrate and I noted immediately that he had chosen an acolyte – one who was already under his "spell". First, the instructor demonstrated the strength of the person by pushing against him; the student resisted the push quite successfully. Then the instructor performed the 3 taps – and voila! – the student was pushed easily, all the way across the floor.

Needless to say, he declined my brother's and my offer to be demonstrated upon in this way.

Imagine my surprise when I saw the exact same "exercise" being performed in a Youtube video – but by a person practising a totally unrelated martial art and in the present day. It is particularly amusing because, while almost everyone at the seminar makes the "technique" work, the two people in the foreground can't. They are left shrugging their shoulders with "wtf" expressions. In the background you can hear the instructor proclaiming that the sequence of taps will make it "impossible for him to solidify..." Doubtless he would say that they "weren't doing it right."

As with that seminar back in '89, I can't say what the motives/thought processes of the instructor are. I am certainly not saying that he is knowingly engaging in mentalism.

What I can say, with reasonable certainty, is this: the "technique" doesn't work. It is just a variant on the "light as a feather game" I discussed at the start of this article, masquerading as "real world fighting". It neither requires nor employs any skill. It isn't (martial) science. It appears to "work" only because of:
  1. a false assumption that the first push was actually the same strength as the second); and
  2. a suggestion to both parties that the second push will be easier.
Some people have built their entire art on such "sequential point striking", asserting it as either arcane knowledge passed down from the ancients, or cutting edge modern science. However I am not aware that there is any science backing up any of these claims. And any demonstrations of these claims by their proponents are hopelessly contaminated by mentalism/self-deception.

Why they do it

So far my discussion of mentalism/self-deception in martial arts instruction has centred largely on peddling supernatural "powers" of the "chi/ki" kind. More often than not, it occurs in a far more subtle way, simply to disguise a shortfall or decline in, or otherwise exaggerate the level of, the mentalist instructor's skill.

In this context, a supernatural element might be implied but never stated, masquerading as incredible hand speed, uncanny timing (hinting at, but never going so far as to say, precognition), pinpoint accuracy and, most relevantly, secret, arcane knowledge of the kind I've just noted but perhaps with more credibility (eg. striking pressure points as opposed to merely tapping them).

These tricks allow a martial arts instructor who has aged and can no longer (or perhaps, could never) cut it on the floor/mat to maintain (or attain) some gravitas. All he or she has to do is imply that these "mere physical" skills pale in comparison with the sophisticated, secret knowledge of the master; that the latter is the highest level of skill, achievable only after years and years of study; a skill that makes all others redundant; that it is a vastly superior "technology".

"Show me" – keeping it real

Not long after I trained with the previously-mentioned taiji instructor, I had the good fortune to train with John Will, one of Australia's BJJ pioneers. During the seminar he told us how he'd gone out to dinner with some senior martial arts teachers, one of whom opined that "if you strike this point with considerable force what will normally happen is [...]." He said it as if he regularly struck people on that point and accordingly had a good database of information upon which to draw. Of course, that is nonsense – the polar opposite of BJJ where you do have an idea of what normally happens if you do x or y.

By way of further contrast with the above "dim mak" seminars, last year I had the pleasure of training with John's good friend Richard Norton who doesn't have to rely on trickery to impress anyone. Not only can he do so on the basis of his superb physical conditioning, but he can also do so with his practical and scientific knowledge. As his friend Benny "The Jet" Urquidez likes to say when talking to someone who is full of theory: "Show me. Don't tell me, show me!" Richard does show you. And it isn't illusory.

Nor should age or illness detract from a teacher's contribution. I don't expect my teacher to get into the ring to "show me" something. He shows me as best he can. It makes sense and doesn't require any suspension of disbelief. I am not being manipulated to assume false variables or otherwise accept his word uncritically; what he teaches is logical and verifiable. It doesn't depend on tricks that make him look impressive or "invincible".

Trust: an essential feature of the teacher/student relationship

It is on this basis that I hope I can be of use to my students. Even though my health does not always allow hard training, I hope I can still make sense and be of relevance as a teacher. I hope I can still "show them" things (within reason). And for those things that I can no longer show, I hope that they will trust me. Why should they? Because trust is an essential part of the teacher/student relationship.

If you went to a college/university course and doubted every single thing your lecturer said, you wouldn't get very far. Remember my discussion at the outset; we live in a world where we have to use subconscious decision-making processes. It doesn't mean that we always suspend our critical thinking – it just means that we can't always be critical of everything. That would be excessively time-consuming and exhausting.

So a student must trust his or her chosen teacher. Not completely and not in everything – but enough to call that person "teacher". If the student doesn't trust the teacher sufficiently, then it is time for the student to find another teacher. And it is time for the teacher to find another student.

What this underscores is that the pressure on a martial arts teacher to avoid mentalism is at a premium. The trust bestowed by a student is essential, and hence it is to be honoured and respected. It is to be treated with utmost care and protection. It is never to be abused.


Having started my own school in conjunction with a competitive sibling has, I think, been of invaluable assistance to us both. We've kept each other as "real" as possible. You can't pull a fast one on your brother. If you tried, he'd immediately pull you aside and say: "What the hell was that? Don't ever embarrass us with that crap again!"

Even now, I'll call my brother or he'll call me after every class and we'll do a "post-mortem": We will discuss whether enough time was spent on x or y technique, whether we did enough conditioning, whether a particular student had sufficient preparation for his/her grading and so forth. Invariably we'll discuss technical details. If a technique wasn't working in class we will discuss why. This sort of process has, over the years, been invaluable to our development – and I'm fairly sure, to that of our students. We've had to evolve many of our practices and techniques and that is only natural and correct.

It is important to note that I'm not suggesting that this makes us "good" teachers. It just makes us teachers. It's what a teacher should do. A teacher shouldn't accept anything uncritically - because your students, at least to some extent, must. They have to trust you. In that situation, you can't be providing information to your students that you know, or ought to know, is false or flawed.

If you are a martial arts teacher and you feel I have slighted some of your own practices/theories in this article, then I hope that, at the very least, what I have written has given you pause to reflect critically on those practices/theories.

If you refuse to engage in any critical analysis because "that's just the way we do it," then be aware that you run the risk of perpetuating falsehoods – or at the very least, inaccuracies.

And if you are knowingly abusing your position as a teacher to manipulate your students, then shame on you.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic