Five teaching methods for the martial arts instructor

This essay will examine five methodologies of teaching techniques and principles for the martial arts instructor. The five methods we will discuss are:

2.  4 ACES

This picture shows the “Learning Pyramid.” This template was developed for school teachers to help students remember information. (1)

There is a hierarchy of retention that moves from Hearing alone (as during a lecture), to Seeing alone (as in reading a textbook), to Hearing plus Seeing (as in watching a documentary), to Kinesthetic alone (touch or movement); to the highest memory retention rates which combine audio, visual and kinesthetic at the same time (AVK for short).

Tuhon Gaje used to have us practice a new technique using this AVK method as a mnemonic device. When we were learning basic strikes he would often have us say the numbers of the strikes out loud, while either looking in a mirror, or facing a training partner doing the same technique. If you think of human memory storage as being divided into three storage rooms, with three doors marked “audio,” “visual” and “kinesthetic;” then what we were doing by practicing all three together was tying a rope between the three doors. Open one door and you would also open the other two. As we practiced a 1 cut, we would see our partner doing the same cut and hear ourselves say “One”, while our nervous system was developing muscle memory for that movement.

When we later looked at our written notes and saw a 1 written there, or heard ourselves say “one”, either of these things would open the door for muscle memory and we would remember how to do a 1 cut. Much later, Tuhon Gaje would use this same technique to help ingrain advanced techniques into our muscle memory (more on this in the stress training section).

AVK is a common way to learn FMA basics, (especially when doing symmetrical drills). Care should be taken not to let beginners stay too long in this “Training Wheels” phase though, because real fighting is rarely symmetrical. (2)

When to move to the next stage is going to depend on who you are teaching. A recreational martial arts class can afford to aim for a 99% perfection rate before moving on to the next stage of training, while a law enforcement or military class, whose personnel may use what they have learned soon after leaving class, might need to move at a faster pace.

However, even in LEO and Military classes, there are different levels in training to consider.
Experienced trainers for these two groups will understand that different levels of personnel have different training needs, such as:
1.  Teaching the fundamentals to new people at a police academy or military bootcamp: where high repetitions may be required to ingrain muscle memory and get the right automatic response while under stress.
2.  At requalification courses for experienced mainline personnel, where it is common to introduce new material on a limited basis due to time constraints set by those far above your pay grade. Here the trainer’s goal is often simply to make their people aware of new concepts and threats (and sneak in a bit of practice of the new stuff for the troops “under the radar” of admins when they can).
3. Teaching cutting edge material in depth to highly motivated individuals on a tactical team.

(Done, Do, Watch, Teach)

Guro Dan Inosanto tells an interesting story about one of his FMA teachers John Lacoste.
According to Lacoste, the optimum number of students for a martial arts teacher to have is three. He said this was because there were four ways to learn a martial arts technique and that all four ways were needed to understand it completely. The four ways are:

1.  To have a technique done to you.
2.  To do a technique to another person.
3.  To watch a technique being done.
4.  To teach a technique to others.

I have tried to enter this 4 Aces concept into my teaching during the last several years. (3)
Previously, my standard procedure for many years was to have people practice drills in two man teams; allowing them to work with their regular training partner, as a quick way to learn a new technique or drill. The way I teach lately is to move into a three man team as soon as they get a basic understanding of the technique.

Three Man Teams to teach 4 Aces: We used the Three Man Team drill in Europe a few years ago during classes in the Abcedario de Mano. Instead of having the students learn all 12 sets of 12 strikes (144 techniques), I gave them just the first set (12 strikes of forward slap). Once they could do these 12 strikes well, I then gave them the principles of how to choose which strike to use in a given situation.

Here’s how I set this drill up. The students divide into groups of three, with one “good guy” against two “bad guys.” I tell the bad guys that they are the coaches during the drill. They should move only as fast as the good guy can do the technique correctly. If the the good guy is not doing the technique correctly, then it is their job to slow down until he gets it right. We start with each bad guy doing the same attack, so the good guy can work the same technique against different opponents from different positions.
Let’s look at a boxing left jab as the attack. Against a single attacker, the “safer” angle to move is to your right, slipping outside his guard. But wait. What if bad guy number 2 is to your right? Then moving to the the left may be the safer choice. In the Abcedario de Mano you can choose between four angles in your response to most attacks: moving above or below the attack and moving to your right or left.

During 3 man team drills you get to do all four aspects of the 4 aces:
1.  When you are the feeder of an attack, you are having the technique done on you.
2.  When you are the “good guy” you are practicing the technique on another person.
3.  When you are a bad guy, but not involved in an exchange at that moment, you can watch it being done and get an understanding of the overall picture.
4.  When you are the feeder it is also your job to judge if the good guy is doing the technique properly and it’s your job to slow down until the good guy gets it right. Therefore, the feeder is acting as a teacher during this part of the drill.

(“The Decision Tree”)

In both the AVK and 4 Aces types of training, the student is facing an opponent or opponents relatively equal to him. During the 3 superheroes drill, we will work on how to choose what to do against opponents who are either stronger or faster than you, or have weapons with these attributes.The foundation of this drill is something I call a “decision tree” (basically a flow chart for non-engineers).

There are three categories of techniques I commonly use for decision tree drills among advanced Pekiti-Tirsia students: Seguidas, Contradas and Recontras. For a comic book shorthand version of these techniques consider them as Batman, The Flash and Superman.

Seguidas techniques are designed to be used when your opponent and/or his weapon is equal to you and your weapon. Therefore, you must use more efficient techniques and better strategy to win. If you can’t beat him with more speed or power, you have to outsmart him, you have to be Batman.

In Contradas, your opponent is larger or stronger than you or your weapon. However, you and/or your weapon are faster and more maneuverable; so you use multiple, fast strikes (usually from middle range), while leaving yourself an escape route if things don’t go your way. If your opponent is stronger than you, you should fight like The Flash.

In Recontras, your opponent is faster than you or your weapon or he has better endurance, but you or your weapon are larger, heavier or hit harder. Therefore, you should use decisive, committed attacks that nullify the opponent’s speed advantage. Recontras are the “Superman” of Pekiti techniques.

The next factor in this drill is footwork. What are you trying to accomplish with your footwork? On a single opponent, the goal of footwork may be simply to avoid an attack or get around his guard. But on multiple opponent’s, it may be different. At the first sign of danger, you should be asking yourself “What is the escape route. Where is the nearest cover, the closest improvised weapon?”

When I teach this drill, I start with the three man team format, but give each  person a different training weapon. That’s the three different superheroes. Next I designate a specific part of the room as their goal to get to. A heavy bag works nicely as a goal point, but if that is not available, I will often put a piece of tape on the floor several steps away from the back wall of the school. This creates a “deceleration zone” so the student can run past this mark and not crash into the wall.  For more on this drill see note 4.

(“The thought provoking process”)

I had a student who was  a former Green Beret tell me that basic training is much more impressive to watch than some Special Forces training. Instead of many guys doing something loud and fast all together, he often had to sit around a diagram drawn in the dirt by an instructor. And instead of a drill sergeant barking orders on the only right way to do something, there was an officer quietly asking his small group to give him several different ways to solve a problem. This teaching via questions method is often called the Socratic method, after the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates.

Grand Tuhon Gaje’s grandfather would often teach young Leo using this method.

It began like this:

“Grandpa, what is this thing?” asked young Leo, holding up an object (for example, a knife).
“I don’t recall the name of that thing, Leo.” replied Conrado. “What does it do?”
“Well, you can cut rope with it” said Leo.
“Hmmm, I’m still not sure of the name. Go ask your grandmother.”
And Leo would go find his grandmother.
“Grandma, what is this?
“I don’t recall the name of that thing, Leo.” replied his grandmother. “What does it do?”

And so young Leo would go from one relative to another, asking the same question and being asked to list all the things that the object could do.
This would go on through his older relatives until they saw that he had struggled enough for his age and they would give him the name. But the lesson would not end there.

“Oh you smart boy. I remember the name now. That is called a ‘knife.’ Now go back through all the people you asked for help and tell them that it is called a knife and all the things a knife can do.”

And young Leo would proudly go back through all his relatives and tell them all he had learned about this object and how it worked.

Tuhon Gaje explained to us the reasoning behind this teaching method.

Instead of giving the name when first asked, his grandfather would make him analyze the problem. As he made his way through his relatives asking for the name, he would have to repeat all the information he had learned along the way and try to come up with a new piece of information for each new person he asked.

This whole process was an exercise in logical reasoning, using repetition at each stage: first up and and then back down the chain of relatives as a mnemonic device to help remember each new bit of info. By the time he had gotten to the last relative, that name had become the holy grail for that day and Leo really wanted that name and therefore, once he had it, he would never forget it.

This method is comprised of:

Analysis: “What else does it do?’
Perseverance: “Go ask 4th Aunt. Go ask 1st cousin. Go ask 7th cousin.”
Praise and Reward: “Oh you smart boy. I remember now. It’s a knife!”
Repetition: “Now go tell all the people who helped you with the name you learned and repeat what it does.”

I remember Tuhon Gaje used this teaching method with us when we started training in Seguidas in 1980. He gave us the first set of 12 combination attacks during one six hour session one Saturday afternoon. Then for the next six months, he refused to review it with us, saying “You guys figure it out among yourselves.”

So we struggled with it for the next six months, working out among ourselves what the correct version of the technique must be. Mind you, he gave us only the form, with little to no explanation of the applications. We had to work these out by ourselves, based on the material we had learned previously in the system. After six months he relented and had us show him what we worked out for the applications. We didn’t get all of it right, but we came pretty close and definitely had a better understanding and far better appreciation of Seguidas than if he had given it to us “on a silver platter.”

You can read the full essay on this subject via the link in note 5.

(“What goes in while under stress today, will come out when under stress tomorrow.”)

One of the main goals of training through drills is to reduce stress while practicing something new. You have heard the sayings, “What you practice is what will come out under stress.” and “You can’t learn to swim on dry land.” The principle here is that you must make your training as realistic as possible for it to work in real life.

While I agree with this general concept, you have to execute it wisely. The flip side of these sayings is that stress during training will ingrain whatever you are doing (good or bad) into your subconscious mind.

When the US military wants soldiers to perform an emergency action under the stress of combat, they have their people practice that action at the end of a long hard period of several days, when they are tired, hungry and sleep deprived. Multiple repetitions of simple actions when in that level of stress bury the desired actions deep into the subconscious mind.

Here’s the important part: The military usually does this type of training at the end of a course, after much time and many repetitions have been spent practicing the individual subcomponents of the action under a much lower level of stress.

The example I was given of this teaching technique was from a student who was a Vietnam veteran. The specific action taught was, when ambushed, to charge towards the enemy firing on full auto, while screaming your head off. Any other action would likely get you killed, as the enemy had a blocking force behind you and has mined the areas on either side of you. So the training was to march down a road and, when the simulated ambush began, you looked to the team leader to identify the direction of fire, then charge towards it, firing and screaming as you went. Three simple steps: Drop down when you first hear the ambush, ID source of ambush, Charge towards source of ambush with maximum violence.

Tuhon Gaje sometimes used a similar teaching technique for his advanced guys when I was training with him.
Three or four days into a five day camp, after getting up before dawn and doing your warm up with the sunrise, after Leo and Eddie would tag team you with Pekiti and Silat to exhaustion and then getting to bed at midnight: Leo would “kidnap” one or two of the senior guys at 2am for special training. He would take us out into the woods and have us do just one combination over and over again as fast as we could, calling out the names of the strikes or cuts over and over again for a set period of time. Once you started to fade and your technique got sloppy, the training would end and you stumbled back to bed. You woke up the next morning, not completely sure if that weird training was real or a dream, but you never forgot the technique and would probably do it even half knocked out and unable to remember anything else.

I’m not able to do that kind of training at my seminars these days, but here is my current version of it. At the last ten minutes of the last day of a seminar, I will ask the group to pick their favorite technique that I taught that weekend. I then have them do this attack combo, advancing across the room and counting out loud the parts of the combination. (When I did this drill in my 20’s, Leo had me do the 1st attack of Espada y Daga set 1, so I was calling out Jab-Vertical-2-1, which was only what the espada was doing. The daga moves not being said for brevity’s sake).

So this drill is a combination of AVK learning and the military stress training.
Audio: You can hear yourself saying the techniques out load.
Visual: If you have nether a partner nor a mirror for this drill, then you watch your weapons move across the background of your environment.
Kinesthetic: You perform the actions of the combo.
Stress training: You do this simple combo for repetitions at the very end of your training program, when you are at your most tired.

The shouting serves two purposes in this drill.
1.  To make you feel more aggressive.
2. Most importantly, to help you remember to breath. You would be surprised how common it is for people to hold their breath while under the stress of a fight.

Also, when working with a group at a seminar, this drill works best with things like Seguidas or Espada y Daga attacks, as you need a combination that you can do in the air. (If you have enough heavy bags for everyone, then doing the combo on a bag will work well too).

I wasn’t given a set number of reps when I was trained in this drill. I think so I could not predict when it would end. Instead Leo had me stop when my reps started to degrade.

I usually just go five or ten minutes when teaching this drill at a seminar, which is a good idea with the wide variety of ages and physical conditions we usually have in most groups.

Remember, what goes in while under stress today, will come out when under stress tomorrow. So stop when the repetitions start to loose speed, power and precision. I tell people they should cruse at about 80% capacity. Once that falls by a noticeable amount, stop. (For more on this concept see my power hitting blog post in note 6).

You will find an excellent video from two PTTA instructors that address several of these subjects in note 7.

Train Hard, but Train Smart,
Tuhon Bill McGrath

For info on upcoming classes, seminars and camps, visit:

1. The Learning Pyramid Edgar Dales Cone of Experience updated for the 21st Century






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