Placebo Discipline

The ‘placebo’ in medicine is the sugar pill—the non-remedy against which a real medicine is compared. But the placebo can cure, as well: A certain number of patients will get better because they believe their pill has the power. Though they don’t realize it, their cure comes entirely from within.

Cut to a dojo in a western town, where children’s class is going on. The kids are looking weak and lazy, whining about how tired they are. They aren’t, of course, whining out loud; they wouldn’t dare. But you can see the whine in their faces and body language.

I kid with the children sometimes, and now is a good moment. “Did I ever tell you about the children I saw practicing martial arts in China?” This is all true: On a martial arts-based tour several years ago, we saw kids as young as 6 lined up on fields by the hundreds, performing intricate sets, with great intensity, in perfect unison. “Those kids practice four or five hours a day. Every day. And that’s after five or six hours of school. Maybe you guys should practice four hours a day. Can you imagine how good you’d be by now?”

There is general disbelief and shaking of heads. They can’t imagine how they’d have time to practice that much, with their busy lives.

I continue, “And you know what happens if a student gets lazy, or doesn’t feel like it, or isn’t doing their best stances?” Our tour-guides were quite matter-of-fact about this; the kids get smacked, spanked, hit with a stick. The word ‘beaten’ was used—which conjures a terrible image in the western mind, so I’ll stick with the more colorful ‘smacked.’ But one thing is certain: Not all cultures regard corporal punishment as a bad thing. And our guides believed the results spoke for themselves.

“So maybe we should do that here, guys. Maybe when you’re not trying hard, or your stances aren’t right, I should smack you with a stick.”

“No! No!” the children cry, but they are also laughing and giggling. Corporal punishment has been so far out of favor for so long in our culture, the kids just assume it is a joke. (Once in awhile I’ll see a child turn red and look scared when I suggest it, and I’ll have to wonder what goes on in their home.)

I go pick up my tambo (rattan stick) and begin tapping it menacingly against my other hand. “Alright, guys, let’s see some better effort here, and much better stances!” They giggle and smirk, but when practice starts again, with me walking around tapping my stick, they suddenly look ten times sharper. They’re showing their best effort again—better even than I expected. The threat gets results—and that’s even though they know I’m not going to follow through.

It’s “Placebo Discipline.” Now if we could just get them to do it without the sugar pill.

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12 Comments on “Placebo Discipline”

  1. redwoodojo Says:

    It works on adults, too. I once became frustrated with an advanced student who persisted in making a beginner’s error, over and over, in spite of years of corrections and “yes, sensei’s.” I happened to have my bo in my hands. So I said, “Okay, let’s do it again, and if you make that mistake again I’m going to hit you.” I gripped the weapon and got in a threatening stance as he approached the offending move. By gosh, he finally got it right!

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Richard Duede, Didi Goodman. #teaching #martialarts #kids #discipline […]

  3. Chris Baglieri Says:


    Although I agree with the phenomenon of phantom-punishment, I can only imagine the result when one of those stories gets taken out of context!

    I’m much more likely to tell stories of “when -I- was a white belt….” and regale them with tales of how -truly- mean my instructors were.

    Air Conditioning?!?! We never had air-conditioning!!

    In all seriousness, though…I have to share my reaction to the kid “once in a while” who reacts strongly to this joke.

    I -do- make it clear that I don’t consider my occasional attempts to bore them to tears punishment. And I make it clear that I -will– tell stories and “waste” time, leaving them in horse-stance longer when their stances are half-hearted.

    I also let them know that I suffer from Kia-itis, and that wimpy kiai makes me forget what number I’m on, so I start counting over… This will eventually turn from groans to goggles, and will give them plenty of -mean- instructor stories of their own!

    • redwoodojo Says:

      re: stories out of context- you mean if a kid were to tell their parents I (seriously) threatened to hit them with a stick? I suppose that could happen. I do make sure the kids are laughing, and if someone looks uncertain, I emphasize that I’m kidding, of course. Plus, my dojo is so wide open, with many parents observing at any given time… Come to think of it, I’d better make sure they’re laughing, too, huh?
      Now, I suppose some very serious traditional instructors might think it’s wrong to joke with the kids at all, on any subject…

  4. Chris Baglieri Says:

    Incidentally – The two best “placebos” that I have encountered in MA with children….

    1 – The -instant- improvement in technique the day after a promotion to a higher belt color.

    2 – The amazing improvement in any student who is up front “helping” me by counting out loud for the class, calling kata steps, or “demonstrating”.


    • redwoodojo Says:

      Yes! Those are good placebos.
      And let’s hear more from other instructors! A good, long list of placebos is invaluable, since any one of them, if used too often, will begin to lose its effect.

  5. Careful Didi, first kid wets his pants and you are in trouble! lol

  6. Tanner Critz Says:

    I find that the sigle greatest guage of how much energy a beginner (under three years) puts into their training is how much energy I put into them. Once they’re more advanced they’ll learn how to charge themselves, but if I walk into a beginner class tired and distracted, that’s usually what I get back. When I’m fired up and inspired, that’s what I get back. One day they realize that the switch is internal and how to flip it themselves and we make meditation before class about that.

    I made up a game by accident a couple months ago that has been a great drill and has to do with motivation. It was in our leadership class, and we were working on spotting which kid in the group needed the most help. I would have one of the kids go to the other side of the room and then silently give three kids a number 1,2,3. Then everyone does a kata together and the kid with the number 1 intentionally makes an obvious mistake (not bening knee in forward stance, poor reaction hand, looking around, weak fists, ect.) If the helper can spot them then the kid with the 2 starts making a mistake. So they want to get all three before the kata is over (1 step per count on the slow side). The wonderful side effect is that everyone else has to be perfect or they’ll be a false positive, and then be embarrassed when the helper singles them out. I’ve tried it with lower ranks, but then I have to make it just focused on a single detail.

    T Critz

  7. redwoodojo Says:

    Let’s sum up our “placebos” thus far:

    – phantom punishment (as Chris B. called my method)
    – a new belt or rank
    – position of responsibility (helping, leading, counting, etc)
    – a role-play that requires good performance (see Tanner’s assistant-teaching exercise)

    I’ll add:

    – an element of competition
    – “eliminations” (i.e., you have to sit down if you make a specified type of mistake)

    All these activities get kids performing at their best–they way we’d like to see them perform ALL the time, WITHOUT special conditions.

    I notice that all these, except maybe “new rank,” are variations of being put on the spot. (Being excited about having a new rank might itself be a form of feeling you’re in a spotlight–ideally, your own inner spotlight! but also the spotlight of others seeing your new rank.)

    That makes sense: The threat of the stick doesn’t work because of the stick (obviously, since they know I won’t use it); it works because they know I’m watching carefully for any excuse to pretend to hit them!

    Wouldn’t it be great if students didn’t have to feel they were on the spot in order to do their best? Of course, it’s our job to guide our students in that direction, and we all do it in every way we can. But the reality is, most kids–rather, most people–most of the time–require some form of external motivation in order to do their best.

  8. I agree, competition in the kids classes always seems to work well to step their techniques up a notch. I think this works best if the instructor is also willing to make the right call on what is a “10” and what it less than a “10”. Or call a win a win and not a tie just to safe hurt feelings for the loosing team. If the kids know that the instructor will call you out in Simon Says or call out a “2” when a stance is really a “2”, or not count your side stances in a side stance relay, then the kids seem to be much more focused on doing their best.

  9. Great post. I have to laugh because I’ve done the same thing in my dojo.

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