Mind Your Language.

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Isn’t it interesting how we use language in martial arts?

Within a teaching/training environment instructors will use all kinds of examples, metaphors etc. to communicate their ideas. Over the years you develop a whole arsenal of teaching ploys aimed at getting things across to your students.

For a martial art as an ‘art of war’ it is surprising how un-warlike the language can be. It tends to be just very practical, workaday, descriptive (in a mechanical, functional way) no emotion necessary just direct communication.

Compare that to types of language used by professional sports people and sports commentators, these tend to be oh so very warlike!

Battlefield and human combat metaphors and expressions come thick and fast. Tennis players are described as ‘punching above their weight’, the last time I checked punching wasn’t part of tennis – oh, apart from that really puzzling ‘punching the air’ gesture that top tennis players do when they win a point or match – what is that all about?

Golfers have a ‘battle on their hands’ – really? Footballers ‘hold the line’ – very 1914-18. And so it goes on.

Yet in serious martial arts disciplines you never hear these phrases.

This first occurred to me in a multi-discipline seminar, working with other martial arts styles. I found myself puzzled by phrases I had never heard used in traditional Dojos. I heard one instructor telling students that the objective of the technique was to “destroy the limb”, the phrase was clearly meant to dramatise the the effect of the technique rather than describe it. Opponents were described as “the bad guy”, ribs were “crushed”, and attacks to the knees were intended to “cripple” the opponent.

This was an emphasis on the after-effect of the technique and certainly not about the physiological mechanics of the technique, or how it affects the opponent’s structural integrity.

I know that in saying this I am sounding like an awful snob and being too picky, but I draw attention to it to maybe prompt people to think about where this is coming from, or even to think about what signals instructors send to their students.

So what is happening? Why that choice of language?

In part I think it is the cynical use of the language of fear. Consciously or unconsciously the instructor is cooking up a scenario of good versus evil – you are the good guy and you are having to ‘destroy’ the bad guy (and the world is full of ‘bad guys’, isn’t it? Well no actually, not if looked at proportionally; besides there’s good and bad in all of us).

For anyone familiar with Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ you will know that if you want to motivate people into taking action all you need to do is remove one or more of the component parts of the hierarchical building blocks, particularly level 2. Remove ‘Security’ or ‘Safety’ and people are forced into stressful, fearful mindsets. Remind them of their own fragility (illustrated with lurid examples) and then offer an antidote and you have a model for business success. But you have to keep the illusion/fantasy alive – hence the language; we can ‘take the man out’, we ‘annihilate the opposition’, ‘take him down’ literally and metaphorically.

I realise I am probably going to have to be super-cautious with my own teaching language from now on, or I may find myself ‘hoisted by my own petard’.


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Back of the net! Tim Shaw

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