Language can be a complex issue in martial arts teachers. What you say can be easily misinterpreted by students. In my earlier days, a visiting Shotokan teacher from Japan was running a weekend-long workshop. I wasn’t there, but the story always stuck with me. Part way through the day, he offered the instruction to the students to “touch toes.” It seemed an odd request, a bit out of the context of what they were doing at the time, which was a motion that had them temporarily standing upright. They knew the next move, and it had nothing to do touching your toes. They looked confused at each other, and the instructor. Sensei got a little grumpy, and shouted “Touch toes!” Okay, fine. Can’t argue with the boss. Everyone bent over and touched their toes. Much screaming from Sensei. “Touch toes! Touch toes!” …Well, shit. We must have done it wrong. Touch toes again. Everyone bends down and touches their toes. Sensei yells some more, and then demonstrates…Moving his feet together so the big toes on each foot touch. Touch your big toes together. Aha.

General and specific language use is a bit of a balancing act when teaching. You have to be precise enough to avoid confusion about your intentions, but no so precise that you confuse everyone with a lot of talk. And you can’t avoid talking. I had an Aikido Sensei who taught entire classes without a word being spoken. The whole class was silent demonstration. I loved it, but that’s because I’m a visual learner. It’s easy for me to reconstruct things in my head after seeing them. It’s killer for other students though. Some people need to hear the spoken directions to be able to recreate the actions. Some people need to be guided through the actions. Most people benefit from a blend of presentation styles.

No matter the method you use, you have one goal as a teacher…the student has to be able to construct a model in their head of what they need to do before they do it the first time. You have to have a quick tongue and know your students well to be good at this. You might come into class with the perfect metaphor in mind for a skill or tactic, explain it, and then find the entire class staring at you as if you just spoke Tlingit. Rephrase, re-demonstrate…find another way to get the skill across that works for the whole class. It always helps to be well prepared, but you need to be able to wing it from time to time.

Coded phrases can help, like using Italian or Spanish words to represent concepts or actions. It does require you to take the extra step of ensuring that everyone has the exact same understanding of those codes, though. And you also have the real risk of people putting too much weight on those code words, and instead making them “magic” words. If that happens, they will trust the word more than their own knowledge of the existing tactical situation. They can put blinders on themselves, which gives them a tendency to be passive about learning. Thinking takes over from doing, and skill development slows or stops. A good coach can nip that in the bud before it happens.

The historical manuals are full of metaphors that can be used to explain martial arts concepts. They were found to be valuable to people who had to live and die by their skills, and we should learn those lessons well. But we can’t let ourselves make magic out of them.