Q&A: Conditioning is the Punishment

Sorry if you’ve already answered this, but does hitting/hurting your student as training help teach them anything?

I think we did a run on this really recently. Children in Combat, Child Soldiers, Writing Training, Writing Assassins, are usually good tags for the beat downs on abusive training methods.

The basic issue: people do get hit in training, fact of life.

The kind of scenarios people who’ve never done martial arts imagine happening? Those don’t. At least, not in a way you’d learn anything from.

Now, I won’t say the sorts of evil instructors to be found in all The Karate Kid movies don’t exist. The mentality gotten out of Cobra Kai dojo, for example, is real. ‘No pain no gain’ taken to extremities is also real. However, the difference between mentality and a uncontrolled beatdowns is vast. With characters that engage in violence the mentality they manifest and their approach in how they use their skills and who they use them on is the deciding factor in “good” versus “bad”.

When it comes to training, pain in martial arts functions a lot like sticking your hand on a hot burner. The point of “ouch” is to teach you not to do that anymore. This is contact training. Everything you do is going to hurt, or at least, it will at first. This is like the pain your receive when you walk into a wall. You get thrown by your partner and forget to slap the mat? That’ll hurt. 10/10 you’ll try to remember to slap when you land next time. (Which is better than landing on your head.)

However, your muscles hurting when you do a pushup versus your instructor kicking you across the room when you did something wrong are nowhere near equivalent. Number 2 is a lot of wasted effort for the teacher. They can get ahead by combining the stuff their students don’t like to do but need to and what they want to do in a carrot and stick system.  This is pretty much how punishment in a martial arts class works, how it works on a sports team, and how it works in the military. Using the fun stuff as a carrot and conditioning as a stick, you can trick most of your students into focusing on the boring repetitions in between the two. The boring repetitions are most of what you’ll be doing when training to fight. Practice makes perfect, perfect practice makes perfect, and, as Bruce Lee said, fear the man who has practiced the same kick a thousand times instead of the one who has practiced a thousand kicks.

The big reward everyone is eager to get into (and treats as most important) in martial training is sparring. Everyone knows sparring, everyone loves sparring in concept. Everyone is eager to put together what they’ve learned in the ring and hit the other guy.

This is why sparring is a reward. Sparring is mostly superfluous, it’s the biscuit in your meal. Learning techniques, repetition, and conditioning are the main course. Conditioning is like your vegetables. Most kids don’t want to eat their vegetables.

Now, you’re always going to have to eat some vegetables and you’ll always get your biscuit. In the beginning though, punishment in training is basically your teacher putting more vegetables on your plate with the promise of maybe getting another biscuit if you eat everything.

You know what 90% of punishment is going to be in a martial arts dojo when you mess up? Pushups. Situps. Burpees. Wind Sprints. Oh, and you don’t get to have any sparring.

Trust me, sending a teenager on a lap around the track is a great means of motivating them to pay attention. This is especially true when the assistant goes with them, nagging the whole way. And hey, bonus points if you make them responsible for each other.

“Guys, Lionel missed the turn again. Y’all know what that means. To the wall and back. First one in doesn’t have to drop and give me ten. Go.”

Cue groans.

That’ll hurt, but the punishment doubles as a means of adding in extra conditioning and gets the students to work harder in order to avoid it.

Punching the bag is going to hurt if you forgot to tighten your fists and lock your wrist, if you do what teacher says then it’s gonna hurt a lot less the next time you hit it. Pairing up and kicking each other in the stomach (lightly) is going to hurt, but the point is to train the student to expel air and tighten their abdominals on the moment of contact so they won’t get bowled over by a sucker punch.

You know that moment where a character tries to punch another in an Anime and end up slamming their fist into rock hard abs? And it does nothing? That’s not just the muscles, that’s the result of training to tighten your stomach against impact. Your muscles are your body’s version of armor. That’s what the exercise is training you to do.

You’re going to get hurt in sparring (not broken limbs and bloody noses hurt) because contact hurts. You’re going to get some bruises learning to block because contact hurts. Stretching hurts, but it’ll hurt a lot more if you try to force someone into full splits (with long term detriment) versus letting them develop into it incrementally. You push a little further each day, going a little past the point where you’re comfortable but not to the point of real pain.

You’ll learn how to handle that pain naturally, just over the course of your training. Develop higher tolerance to pain as a result and learn to distinguish between real pain versus inconvenient pain.

However, forcing someone is the worst approach.

Forcing a kid, even a naturally flexible one, to do full splits will wreck them to the point they probably will never be able to do a full split. You’ll tear the muscles in their legs, and that damage is mostly permanent. A kid who can do full splits can, potentially, do really high kicks like a vertical sidekick. However, tear the muscles in their legs and you’ll limit how high they’ll ever be able to kick.

This is why you don’t abuse your students during training. There are means of motivation perfectly able to achieve better results than punching a kid in the face because they did something wrong. Why do that when you can develop their wind instead? Conditioning when your body is already tired is one way to break past the artificial limits your brain sets based on what you believe you can do. A new student will hate it, I guarantee you. They will not want to do it and the threat of wind sprints when they’re tire is enough to motivate them.

Punishment for technical screw ups in martial arts is always dual edged. The student may not see it, but there’s a secondary purpose to the training method. Conditioning is a great example.

Take the class’ least favorite thing and make that your stick. Imagine it like someone combining gym with all your classes, the worse you do in school then the more you get to run.

How motivated would you be to pass French if everyone who got a C or lower on the test had to go run up a really steep hill? Then, had to attend an extra study hour?

Welcome to martial arts and military training. Why would we physically abuse you when you’ll do it to yourself instead? Oh, and you’ll end up in better shape afterwards. Better shape means more stamina, more endurance, better wind, and the ability to fight longer. It’s a win, win. The more times you mess up, the more often you run up the hill.

If I can punish you and improve you at the same time, why wouldn’t I go with that method? It also always works, versus hitting a student which only works for a limited amount of time before you need to escalate. Also it lasts longer and will carry over into tomorrow, and they’ll still have to get right back to training without needing a week off.

Your muscles will still hurt tomorrow and you’ll still have to train. This comes with the added benefits of not only building your endurance but teaching you to dig deep for new reserves and work through exhaustion. You’re going to hate me, but you’ll be in much better shape by the end of the week and that ability to focus when completely spent may save your life.

-Michi

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