Being Positive is Not About Being “Nice”

“Any eight-year-old can point out someone else’s mistakes.”

That’s a quote from my 1991 article, “Learning from Children: Five Easy Lessons for Teachers,” in the book Martial Arts Teachers on Teaching. And, as anyone who works with kids knows, they do it frequently, often calling other kids on mistakes they don’t realize they are also making themselves.

I went on to say, no offense to eight-year-olds, but that can’t be what good teaching is all about. I stressed that it takes more skill to discern what students are doing right, than what they are doing wrong. Mistakes are obvious; pointing out mistakes is shallow teaching.

A similar subject recently came up in my parallel life as a writer-slash-poet. I was discussing with some writer friends an approach used by a successful local workshop leader we know. When writers in his groups comment on each other’s work, he requires them to begin with those things they liked, before launching into weaknesses and negatives. Many assume our friendly workshop leader uses this approach in order to be nice – to make people feel good, so they’ll be more likely to keep coming to the workshops.

I disagree, and I link it back to what I said about those eight-year-olds, twenty-some years ago. Requiring a reader to say something positive is a way of ensuring the critic has taken more than a superficial look at the work, before going for the negative critique. Criticism (the negative kind) is all too easy – and all too satisfying for some people, given the human trait of feeling superior when putting something down. By requiring the positives, our workshop-leader friend is raising the quality of instruction, by requiring would-be instructors to examine the work more carefully before speaking.

And, yes, it is more pleasant for the writer to hear some good things before the bad. This may make them more receptive to criticism, but more importantly, the criticism that comes through this process will often be deeper, more honest, and more useful.

Now let’s get back to the topic of teaching martial arts. There are those who confuse positive instruction with being nice – catering to students feelings, lavishing praise while avoiding critique, never saying anything that might (supposedly) harm their self-esteem. This is a mistake.

Positive instruction is not about being nice. It’s very pragmatic. It works, for one thing: Thanks to years of research in coaching and human behavior, it’s well understood now that the mind more easily processes, and the body more easily acts upon, instructions framed in positive (“do this”) rather than negative (“don’t do that”) terms.

And it helps you be a better instructor. What, after all, is your job as instructor? It’s not to correct mistakes day after day (though admittedly, you will spend some time doing that). It’s to guide students on a path from where they are now, to where they could be at their best. The ability to see what they are doing right is essential to both those things: seeing where they are now, and understanding where they could be. You’ll use that knowledge to build upon and to mold. It’s essential, then, that you take the time to see it – and express it.

Being nice is something altogether different. It’s about demeanor, personality, maybe personal style. Martial arts instructors come in all varieties, and I must say some of the most successful, effective instructors I know – experts in positive instruction – are the most hard-nosed, demanding, no-nonsense personalities on the mat. And they are beloved, not because they are warm-fuzzy-nice, but because there’s no question they care deeply about their students’ progress. On the flip side, although I won’t make a blanket statement, some of the warm-fuzzy-nice guy instructors I’ve seen have also been some of the least effective. The students are smiling and having fun; they leave the mat happy, and eager to come back; but on the other hand, they don’t learn much of what I’d call martial arts.

Where do you fall on the scale, fellow instructors? Warm-fuzzy? Tough meanie? – And how do you integrate positive instruction into your style?

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4 Comments on “Being Positive is Not About Being “Nice””

  1. nwukshukokai Says:

    Having studied under senseis who fall at various points of the spectrum I think I have an appreciation of the value of both hard and soft approaches. Thinking back to a bit of coaching I was doing with some fellow brown belts at the weekend I know I mixed positives in with the ‘need to work ons’ though perhaps I could have achieved a more even balance.

    Thank you for a really enjoyable post.

  2. Azgoju Says:

    I am new to your blog and I must say thanks for all the great articles. I’ve found many to be educational. As a martial artist of 23 years I am always looking to better my teaching. I started out as the militant tough instructor not knowing any better. I had put out some excellent students, but also lost many that could have become excellent given the chance. Guess that’s why hindsight is 20/20. Since then, I’ve learned much in regards to instruction and encouragement. We now have a leadership program in which we teach our juniors how to be instructors. Within the class we offer a simple acronym and method that someone much smarter than me came up with with regards to correction. P-C-P: Prasie, Correct, Praise.

    As you said, pointing out something incorrect is easy. The challenge is in the correct action. This forces everyone to be attentive and aware of the student they are working with, first begin any critique with a praise, then point out an area for improvement, and end with an encouraging work or praise. I have found this keeps students motivated, encourages improvement, and doesn’t obliterate their ego.

    I don’t think I’ll ever be warm-fuzzy, but I’ve definitely warmed up over time.

    • redwoodojo Says:

      Thanks for visiting, Azgoju, and for sharing your excellent insight. Let us know what other topics you’d like to see discussed. Hoping to get some lively discussions going in the new year.


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