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by John Graden

For two-decades, I have been speaking and writing about the “Perils of Praise.” In the early years of me blasting this warning out to the martial arts world, I was met with enthusiastic appreciation and, well, praise.

However, in the past few years, more instructors have been defending their celebration of mediocrity. What that indicates to me is that these instructors were raised as part of the “attendance trophy” generation. Praise is all they know.

Because the martial arts is unregulated, instructors do not receive any kind of standardized, universal training on teaching and motivation. This is why instructors can be bamboozled into all kinds of teaching gimmicks. Remember, “praise, correct, praise?”

To be clear, I am ANTI-REGULATION, but strongly pro-education. That’s why I created the ACMA in the 1990s and now the MATA Instructor Certification Program (Free thanks to Sports Fitness Insurance).

We need a standard language and understanding of how to teach as professionals to replace the “blind leading the blind” patterns of the past.

We continually upgrade the MATA Certification program. Last month, we added the five elements of a legal claim to self-defense. This month, our focus is on helping instructors understand the difference and effect between Praise and Encouragement.

Simply put, praise should be reserved for what has been accomplished while encouragement provides the motivation to make the accomplishment.

I remember being a guest at a belt exam and watching a child brown belt fail to break two boards with a skip side kick. After bouncing off the boards five times, the instructor gave the kid a high five and a “good job” and sent her back into the group. That is shallow, insincere, and does nothing to help the child grow from the experience.

Instead of false praise, that would have been a good time to encourage the child. For instance, “Allison, did you give it your best? What part of your foot does sidekick strike with? What part of your foot did you strike with? Go over to the bag and focus on hitting with your heel instead of the ball of your foot and then come back here and break these boards. I know you can do this and I also know you are not a quitter.”

Which do you think is going to have the longer and stronger impact on this child’s life? Empty praise or encouragement with a plan of action attached? The praise did nothing but strip any meaning or take away lesson from the moment. The child did not break the boards. He/she did not accomplish the goal, but it didn’t matter. It was still a “good job.”

In contrast, the encouragement laid out a game plan that not only addressed the mechanics of the kick, but also created an intrinsic boost in confidence while failing at the task. When the figure of authority in the moment, the instructor, said, “I know you can do this. You are not a quitter.” That’s huge! These moments can have a massive impact on a child’s subconscious. This is the kind of event a student will remember and share for the rest of his/her life. They will never tell their kids about the time they did a “good job” for failing to break boards.

What’s going through the child’s mind as he/she is bouncing off the boards without success? Embarrassment? Discouragement? Maybe even thinking of quitting because this is too hard? After the final attempt, that child is looking at you, his/her instructor. What you say at this moment is what you are paid for. This is the mark of a professional, not a weekend hobbyist.

Empty praise leaves a vacuum that the child is left to fill. In stark contrast, encouragement takes the child to the next level of his/her journey as a martial artist and in life. We’re all going to bounce off some boards in our lives. Your encouragement just helped that child learn how to regroup, reorganize, and climb back in the game. For delivering that message of encouragement and inspiration at that critical moment, I would give you a sincere, “good job!”

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