What Martial Arts Has (Re)Taught Me About Learning Things

The in-person, extended, and feedback-intensive methods reflected in what I’ve learned from my martial arts experiences are often the right approach to use both in selecting learning methods for ourselves or providing learning experiences for others.

I’m a Learning and Development (L&D) professional who has had the good fortune to have been in roles that have exposed me to a wide range of the best learning approaches and methods, including the self-directed, condensed, and highly personalized approaches being heavily used in today’s world of rapid and continual change. I’ve also been a student of the martial arts for a good portion of my adult life. That experience has taught—I should say re-taught—me the value of what are sometimes referred to as “traditional” approaches that are in some quarters considered outdated, but I believe are as relevant and as needed as ever. Here are a few of those lessons:

  • Persistence is key. Woody Allen commonly is credited for having said “80 percent of success is showing up.” My experience in studying Hapkido has borne that out. Given the Hapkido ranking system, I had the honor of being promoted seven times to reach my current level. After each test, there was a ceremony for those of us who passed the exam, which included removing your former belt and putting on the new one in the presence of the class. The Master then would say a few kind words about each of us. When he got to me, he said pretty much the same thing each time: “Today we’re here to honor Chuck for his promotion to (new rank). Chuck has once again taught us the value of persistence and effort.” Which I took to mean, “Chuck doesn’t learn so fast, but he keeps coming back.” That experience taught me that learning new skills, especially complex ones, requires as much persistence and continuous practice as it does talent.
  • Tough love still works. I had the honor of studying Muay Thai with a retired fighter from Thailand (who, by the way, is now 78 and still trains with the precision and intensity of practitioners one-third his age). During our sessions over a period of five years, there would be in his feedback equal measures of lament when he cried out things such as, “I need that!” when I continually failed to perform a technique and celebration when he would exclaim, “Yes!” and “More of that!” when I succeeded. This, I will disclose, is the same Master I caught more than one time standing behind me with his head in his hands as I practiced. My work with him taught me that even with today’s play-to-your-strengths developmental focus, the right balance of leveraging strengths and addressing weaknesses in both how learning is constructed and the type of feedback given is still an important and often necessary factor.
  • It’s business and personal. I love gangster movies. A common disclaimer used by characters in those movies to justify hideous acts is a reassurance that “it’s business, not personal.” However, my experience in my current study of Aikido has taught me that, when it comes to learning things, it’s a personal experience unique to each individual as much as it is a common experience by large groups of people, as much corporate training is organized. During practice, my Master (who, by the way, I am convinced is an impossible perfectionist) often asks me, “What were you thinking when you did that?” when pointing out errors in my technique. He knows that how each of his students learns is unique to their personal experiences and thought process, even though we’re all studying the same technique. My answers to that question vary from those of my fellow students and have given me insights into the challenges I face in mastering those techniques that other students don’t.

Martial arts are admittedly a highly complex skill different from many of the abilities required by jobs. Those more straight-forward abilities (e.g., work procedures, industry knowledge) are well served by self-directed, condensed, and highly personalized methods. However, when it comes to complex skills—problem solving, judgment, relationship development, interacting with emerging technologies—the in-person, extended, and feedback-intensive methods reflected in what I’ve learned from my martial arts experiences will continue to be useful, and often the right approach to use, whether selecting methods for ourselves or providing learning experiences for others. We’re well advised to keep this full range of methods in our tool kits and pick them wisely to meet differing learning needs.

Chuck Kovach is principal of Chuck Kovach’s Collaborate for Results LLC.


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