The lie of learning more from mistakes than successes (a taekwon-do article told through motivational cards)

In the world of martial arts, staying motivated is the challenge within every other challenge. Becoming really good at anything can take a long time. One popular yardstick is ten thousand hours of practise in order to become really good at something (this book makes an extremely good case of really long term practise being more important than any natural talent). Naturally, to focus on a single set of skills for so long requires motivation, especially an activity like Taekwon-do where you might get punched or kicked, or fall over, or lose to every good fighter in the room in a row or be asked to do so many squats and sit ups that your stomach feels weak. Therefore, staying motivated becomes the real battle and martial artists tend to flock around ways to stay motivated.

Some motivational mottos are very good:


Or it’s sibling:

But sometimes the idea of staying motivated whatever happens can get twisted into something that isn’t very constructive:

If you’ve been in the martial arts for more than five seconds you’ve probably heard those sentiments before. You have to make mistakes in order to learn. You have to fall down in order to get up. We can only learn through pain.

There may be some truth to those statements as far as learning life lessons. If you leave your wallet unattended and it gets stolen, you probably learn how to keep a better eye on it. Maybe failing in relationships and work life and just generally in a philosophical sense does help you to learn. You learn what foods you don’t like by eating them.

I completely agree that when you are talking about conscious decisions between clearly identified choice options, then the statements hold true.

However, where we go wrong is when we wrongly apply this logic to skill development.

Yes, martial arts can give you confidence. Yes, martial arts can teach you things about yourself. Maybe Funikoshi  and Kano were right when they talked about martial arts benefits outside of the physical skills themselves.

Maybe Bruce Lee was right when…..

Oh yeah…..

Anyway, whether you train for martial skills or sport skills or self improvement or a million other goals, 90% of your time should be focused on skill development. You can be as strong and fit and brave as you like but in a structured martial arts environment, skill is the only thing that lasts and the only thing that wins. There is a place for strength, toughness, speed or even height but they all stand behind skill. The quicker man lands his kick slower than the man who is more skilled. The stronger man lands his kick weaker than the man is more skilled. Skill is what separates martial arts from just being fit.

So is a mistake really the best teacher? Is pain the best way to learn?

When you make some mistakes, you can learn from them. If you enter a competition without being at the best fitness you can be at, you can learn not to do that again. When you spar with someone that nobody from your group knows and they come on strong and start trying to hurt you rather than to challenge each other, you can learn not to do that again. When you find a teacher who teaches you something well, you can spend more time with that teacher and learn better in the future.

Making mistakes when making choices allows you to change your decisions for future choices.

So, Capybara, what’s your point? What’s your problem?

The trouble is that most of martial arts is not to do with choices, it’s to do with the use and honing of skills. When an opening in my opponent’s guard appears, it’s not a careful or measured choice whether to strike or not, you just either strike or do not strike on instinct. By that, I mean your ability to spot openings (and distinguish them from your opponent drawing you into a trap) is a learnt skill and your success or failure is to do with how well you have developed that skill, not any kind of choice. When your head kick unbalances you and your opponent throws you to the ground, you cannot choose not to fall. Your learnt balancing skill and learnt kicking skill will either allow or prevent this situation. There is no choice to be made. Therefore….

Making mistakes is not an efficient way to learn new skills.

Don’t get me wrong. It is impossible to learn skills without making mistakes but you don’t learn half as much from your mistakes as you do from your successes. The aim is to get success, remember how to create that success and use that to achieve better successes in the future. You naturally fail from time to time and have to not let that get you down but the successes are what you seek, not the failures.

Don’t believe me?

Tough. Science suggests that I am right.

“The researchers found that after monkeys did something correctly, there were prolonged neural signals, which continued to fire until the next action, therefore affecting subsequent neural response. But after a wrong action there was less neural activity and no improvement in further attempts.”

It’s easy to understand when you think about it. Look at these diagrams below.


Simple, right? If something worked, all of the elements were right. This doesn’t mean that it will work every time but in that situation, none of the elements were faulty. It doesn’t mean that the technique was perfect but it worked. In training, you can try to make it work better next time when there is no success/failure criteria (solo or pad work rather than sparring for example) and you at least have a successful bedrock to build on. What won’t happen (as some seem to think) is that you spontaneously improve your techniques during sparring, during gradings, during demonstrations and other competitive or test environments.

Let’s see why:


Even if I pick the right thing to change about what I am doing I have no practise and may not do it properly or enough or may sacrifice another part of my technique. Most likely I make the wrong choice.

It’s obvious when you think about it. If I could tell what was wrong with what I am trying to do, I would not need an instructor. I would just learn technique from my mistakes. But I don’t. When I fail, I don’t know why I failed. Many beginners will throw looped punches and get beaten with straight ones? How do they react? They try to throw the looped punches faster or in combination. You can critique yourself at a distance perhaps by reading, by watching videos of yourself but realistically you do not have the skill to make yourself better whilst fighting. Like sport fighters say, the real battle is in the training camp. The techniques that they did not master beforehand will not appear under pressure. When a coach corners a fighter to success or when you have a realisation in sparring or testing, this may seem like a new discovery but all it is transference of skills in the untested environment to the competitive environment.

Ok, so you have me. What’s your point?

Failure is  a necessary part of learning but at some point,some instructors have flipped the situation to demand that failure is the actual method for teaching. They put students in situations where the students cannot succeed. It is good sometimes just for the experience to go in with the advanced students and see exactly how big the gap between you is. However, you cannot expect to learn very much.

If you are an instructor of a competitive gym which treads the line in terms of sparring contact and your plan for new students is to throw them in with all comers and let them figure things out for themselves, don’t be surprised if they don’t come along very fast. This is lazy teaching. The expectation is that yes, they will probably get beaten up by the more immature, self centred members but that this is somehow necessary or that this is a good way to give them a grounding in the basics. This is lazy thinking.

So many times have I seen students who are scared to do anything in sparring. They are scared to attack because they have nothing that reliably works and they are constantly being punished for it. They have come to know what their role is. Their role is to take the blows, not to give them out. If they try, they only make it worse for themselves. Even in quite friendly clubs, I have seen this pattern, even once sparring with a guy who threw no attacks in over a minute, not through a careful style but simply because he was scared to try. Likewise, I have been to places where students do not even utter one word to each other because they did not come to make friends, only to find people to practise beating on. This is what we are looking at – a system which is designed to make the strong stronger and the weak weaker.

How backward that this is seen as an education, that instructors think that people come to them in order to have to work things out for themselves, thinking that when the sparring starts, their role is over and go to sit down. Some instructors will actively use failure to try to teach in a way that doesn’t work at all. They will catch a student with a technique, throw the technique and catch them again and keep doing so, hoping that the student will figure out the defence. Why not teach them the defence? Why not show it to them?

What is the antidote to a system that teaches beginners to be fearful?

You need to teach them to be fearless.

Think of a boxing trainer with his prospect. If you are a ‘traditionalist’, you might think my argument sounds ‘soft’ but there is nothing soft in boxing.

Only a foolhardy trainer would throw their student to the wolves. Instead, sparring only follows teaching of not only a high level of technique but making sure that the student actually knows how to use those techniques to score. Sparring partners are picked for their suitability. The prospect is built up so that when they are ready for the next challenge, their confidence is built up, not torn down and rebuilt. Taekwon-do has it’s own challenges (and respect code) and I do not suggest to use exactly the same methods, but the theory is sound, especially when you want to have someone who at least has the indomitable mindset needed to be confident in protecting themselves in their lives as well.

Take this example from a boxer’s point of view.

Another way of putting it is a kid trying to learn to ride a bike. You can give them stabilisers (aka training wheels), take them away and hold the back of the bike when they peddle and let go when they have momentum and balance so they can remember the feeling of what it is like to ride the bike and try to do it themselves next time. Too many instructors hand the kid the bike and then start shouting. Don’t do that and get these results.

To sum up, you don’t learn technique from pain and you don’t learn technique from mistakes half as well as you learn from successes so don’t expect your students to be any different. Show them what they need to know and give them the challenges they are ready for with maybe a few supervised toe dips in the deep end. Build them up, don’t smash them down. Don’t be lazy. Don’t expect them to teach themselves and then trot out trite motivational statements about pain and mistakes.

You make mistakes but you don’t set out to make them. Why force your students to?

Until then, I’ll avoid quotes about the virtue of constant failure.


One thought on “The lie of learning more from mistakes than successes (a taekwon-do article told through motivational cards)

  1. Pingback: Two Kinds of Schools – What does a “good instructor” look like? | havepunchlineneedjoke

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