Criticism ≠ Teaching

The last post was laying the groundwork for this one. I thought starting with the universally acknowledged evils of micromanagement would make this post more palatable. Instead, Danny Martin gave a very capable defense of an unpopular and nearly indefensible position. Truly well done.

Jumping into this anyway, because it is important.

Criticism is a shitty teaching paradigm. Telling people they are doing things wrong, even telling them what they are doing wrong is literally worse than useless: Useless teaching would leave students unimproved. Criticism actually makes the students worse.

This will probably be a hard sell. When I came up through the (primarily Japanese) traditional martial arts, stern criticism was the standard teaching method. I’ve even had an instructor say, “Only perfect is good enough.” And I was cautioned not to praise students because it would make them lazy. In the law enforcement world, right after I was promoted a senior sergeant told me, “Do you know why you’ll never be a good sergeant? Because you don’t understand that everyone is lazy and dishonest and our job is to catch them and punish them.” Her crews were consistently poor performers because they spent more time watching their backs around her than doing the job.

But it’s only a hard sell because we are all so used to it. When something is shitty, being the norm doesn’t make it less shitty. We know criticism is poor teaching methodology.

Why is it bad? Let me count the ways.

  1. It’s all brakes, no engine. Criticism stops behavior. If that behavior isn’t replaced with a better alternative, improvement can only happen by luck.
  2. Criticism almost always works off the wrong metric. The instructor judges a strike (for instance) by whether it looked right. In striking, looks don’t matter for shit, it’s a kinesthetic skill.
  3. Criticism, especially of the wrong metric, is usually arbitrary. The coach may be looking at foot placement one minutes and hand position the next, may focus on a minor problem in stance and miss the big problem (something that would result in injury) in the hands.
  4. The instructor’s reaction becomes the student’s metric. Not whether the technique worked, not how much energy was delivered, but whether they got yelled at or not. Getting better, when you are measuring improvement by the wrong metric, is nearly impossible.
  5. When the student is anticipating the instructor’s reactions, the student is thinking. Cognitive processing is too slow to use effectively in a hand-to-hand conflict and thinking about irrelevant things is worse. Excessive criticism makes your students slow.
  6. When the students are driven to avoid criticism, it pushes them from a gains maximization to a loss minimization strategy. In other words, they are no longer trying to win, they are trying not to lose, and that is usually a very weak, passive and reactionary strategy when the shit hits the fan.
  7. And to compound point six, the game they are trying not to lose isn’t even the right game. They are worried about what sensei will say, not working to put the bad guy down.
  8. At the extreme end of this, when everything is criticized, the only strategy left to the students is to do as little as possible, to become as passive as possible. The condition is called, in psychology, “Learned Helplessness.” Constant criticism creates passive people, which is another word for victims.

And we know the answer to this. From behavioral psychology or modern teaching theory or MBWA (Management by Walking Around.)

  1. Reward even small improvements. It doesn’t have to be anything big, just a “Good job” or a nod. Just as people decrease behaviors that are criticized (punished) they increase behaviors that are rewarded. Rewarding small improvements creates a vector toward further improvement.
  2. Tell the students what to do. Avoid telling them what not to do. “Avoid telling them what not to do” is only seven words but because of the double negations ‘avoid’ and ‘not’ it is tons less clear than “Tell the students what to do.” Positive statements are clearer than negative statements.
  3. Don’t criticize bad techniques, replace them. Instead of telling someone her stance is wrong, show her where her feet should be and explain why.*
  4. Use the right metric. If you are teaching strikes properly, it will show on the heavy bag.
  5. Let nature judge. A lot of the wrong ways to do things hurt. That’s why they are the wrong ways. Improper hand positioning hurts your wrist when you punch the heavy bag. A canvas bag will teach you when your punching angles are off. All the wrong ways to do a break fall hurt. If you use the right metrics, you almost never have to criticize because the world takes care of that for you.
One of the most annoying training scars I see are students that are so used to being constantly criticized that they criticize themselves. They handle a scenario brilliantly or snap into a counter-assault technique against multiple simultaneous attacks, and you can see it in their eyes, sometimes even their lips move: They are chewing themselves out for some tiny detail that didn’t even effect the outcome. They are so used to being criticized that they have a tiny sensei in their heads telling them they did it wrong. No matter what ‘it’ is. No matter whether it was wrong or not.
That’s bullshit, and if you have that little voice in your head, kill it.
*Quick note on explaining. I find it very useful to explain the underlying physiology or physics that make something work. If the principles are true, they apply everywhere and if the student understands the principles, he or she can adapt them under stress. That said, the principles work. They have visible effects. If you have to explain that something worked when it clearly didn’t, you’re wrong. You aren’t explaining, you’re attempting to brainwash.

Leave a Reply