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Using Sport Psychology Skills to Improve Martial Arts Training:
Teaching Self-Correction

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"...when we teach skills, our response to the student’s performance involves correcting errors or giving general praise, neither of which are conducive to teaching the student how to self-correct errors. In fact, these responses tend to create excessive dependence upon the instructor’s feedback and presence."
The following article is part of a series of articles that focus on the practical application of sport psychology skills to martial arts training. For a more in-depth look at the research upon which this article is based, please read: Performance Enhancement in the Martial Arts: A Review.

Assessing performance and correcting errors are important internal skills for the martial arts student to develop. But how does one develop this skill? To do so, the martial arts instructor needs to consciously teach skill just as he or she teaches proper execution of a side kick or using faking techniques during sparring. However, teaching the development of using internal sources of information for feedback may be something many martial arts instructors were not taught themselves. So often when we teach skills, our response to the student’s performance involves correcting errors or giving general praise, neither of which are conducive to teaching the student how to self-correct errors. In fact, these responses tend to create excessive dependence upon the instructor’s feedback and presence.

For effective learning to occur, the individual must receive feedback regarding performance. That feedback can be external from a teacher or videotape or a test, or it can be internal observations by the individual learner. Without feedback of some type the individual may not learn at all or may learn incorrect information. However, the problem that can occur with teaching is that feedback from the instructor regarding acceptable performance can make the student more dependent upon such feedback. Past research tended to focus primarily on the importance of external feedback; however, more recent research indicates that internal feedback can be even more important than external feedback when the student knows the skills but is working on consistently implementing correct performance. In addition, research has indicated that frequent feedback may increase the student’s dependence upon feedback from the instructor and that when the instructor is not present performance decreases due to the lack of reliance on the student’s internal sources of information.

How can the martial arts instructor encourage the process within the student of developing internal methods of feedback?

The first step in any type of teaching physical skills, of course, involves providing the student with a standard of correct technique and how to perform the technique. This can be given through demonstration, videotapes, written materials, or physically guiding the student through the process. Often a combination of these methods can be most effective. Once the student has learned the basic skill and is in the process of perfecting performance, the issue of teaching the student to self-correct errors becomes crucial.

The following suggestions may be useful in teaching this process:

1) If the instructor notices the student reacting to an error such as through a nonverbal grimace or a verbal statement, he/she can ask the student what the student noticed and how the error can be corrected. This forces the student to focus on the internal information that was apparent to the student and to develop a plan for solving the problem. In addition, it provides the instructor a chance to assess the student’s internal perfectionistic demands and to help the student reframe those self-statements.

2) Teaching the martial arts student to use internal sources of feedback can be accomplished by asking the student questions regarding his/her performance prior to giving the student feedback. At first, these questions need to be very specific to help the student focus on different aspects of the performance. For instance, questions could include, “Did you maintain a low stance?” or “Did your punch fully extend?” In the case of correct assessment of performance, the instructor can indicate agreement with the student’s assessment. However, if the student is unaware of certain performance errors or incorrectly identifies errors, the instructor could then explain proper performance. This method allows student to become more observant and aware of their movements and performance.

3) An extension of the above process would be to have the student evaluate their performance by using a videotape or mirror as a source of feedback. However, these methods are external sources of feedback similar to an instructor’s feedback and shouldn’t be relied upon to the exclusion of internal information sources. They can best be used as an intermediate step in teaching the student to rely more on internal cues or when the skill being assessed is more complex. Some students may be initially unaware of the internal cues and may need the assistance of the visual information.

4) By following the above procedures, the instructor is also reducing the frequency of external feedback which is replaced by greater reliance on the student’s internal information. However, the instructor still needs to provide encouragement by praising specific correct actions and successes. To do so, the instructor needs to provide specific information such as “You are increasing the speed of your punches” rather than generic “Good punch.”

Using this type of teaching method requires more work on the instructor’s part and may be more difficult to implement in a group setting. However, it pays off through greater student motivation and accurate self-assessment when the instructor is not present which in the long run improves learning skills and performance.

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