It’s always a frustrating moment for a teacher when a student says “I can’t do that,” and then follows up with an excuse why. Most of the time, the next phrase starts with “because …” fill in physical or mental quirk. I try to never argue the reason, but I do argue with the “I can’t” part.

The only time I know I’m really asking the right things of my students is when they say those two words. If a student can do something, then I have nothing to show them. I’m not introducing anything new into their lives without that phrase. I am still doing a lot of valuable things. I’m improving them, refining what they have, showing them how to make best use of what they are capable of.

But that next step, the big part of training, is to increase your potential beyond your capabilities. At least, your capabilities as they currently are. For me, the correct response to “I can’t” is “Of course you can’t. If you could why would you bother taking classes from me? Now let’s figure out what we need to do to make it happen.”

It’s the fine line of teaching, the little edge between pissing a student off so much they walk away and never come back, or making them realize they rely on themselves, that they have the capability to take themselves as far as they can dream. They should learn to use the teacher as a resource for getting them past the sticky points, to help them see the other side of a problem, not as a crutch to feed them instructions. But that’s also a process that needs to be taught to a student. Nothing easy about teaching…

Can’t is a serious roadblock to learning. It’s a complete stop to the learning process. It should always be taken as an absolute. When a student says “Can’t” they mean they’ve wandered down a dead-end path. They’ve hit a wall and cannot imagine the next step. You can’t say “try harder” to that. No one fails at learning, they just get lost. Try harder just tells them that they suck, and they usually already think that. A reminder doesn’t help.

You can say “try again” if you know they are on the verge of making the breakthrough on their own. Some physical skills will just make no sense to a student, no matter what you say, until they suddenly realize they just did it…the last three times. A good teacher can judge that, if they are paying attention to the students development.

Some physical skills are going to truly be impossible for some students to do they way they have been trying to do. For those students, you have to start them over from scratch, or at least a few steps back. You need to find out what’s gone wrong in the muscle chain, and re-build a new chain from that broken point. This is common, and usually results from a student who has somehow absorbed a bad mechanic in their earlier training, and managed to overcome it’s bad effects by making subtle adjustments in further training. Eventually they will hit a wall of not being able to take the next step, and then you have to retrain them all the way back from when that bad mechanic crept in.

The mental Can’t is a bugger. It seems like laziness at first, but it’s just familiarity. I like to play rhythmic music in the background of class. It keeps everyone on the same reference tempo, allowing them to learn all about tempo and off-tempo in every movement. For that to work best, the music has to sink into the subconscious. The downside of this can be reliance on the familiar…when new music is introduced, the familiar is gone. Students will complain that they can’t fight to the new music. A problem, but also another lesson in self-reliance. The teaching environment should always have lessons of it’s own.

Breaking a student out of the mental Can’t is a little harder. It’s like cajoling someone off of the couch when they’ve been watching TV or playing games for a few hours. Momentum has locked them in place, and you have to overcome that momentum. You can try to physically drag them off the couch, or yell and scold, but they rarely works. The trick is to raise their energy level. Excite the electron to get it to jump to the next level. With students, you need to build confidence to raise energy levels. Small successes, acknowledgment at the right time, little things that build up until the student starts to question themself about why things are a roadblock. Once they have the energy to question, they have the energy to move from can’t to how. And that’s when you can start to teach.