Correction vs Criticism

Written by David Dangerfield

What is the relationship between correction, criticism and learning — and why is it important for martial arts students to know the difference?

 Nishioka Sensai of the Shinto Muso-ryu

As both a teacher and a student, I believe it has helped me enormously to understand the concepts of correction and criticism, and how they differ.

In the dojo in particular, I’m very aware of the need to separate these aspects of teaching and training. In my experience, a correction is advice that I provide to a student (or receive as one) with regards to a fundamental aspect of practice. I correct the student (or myself) against the ‘image’ template I have in my mind’s eye or against the ‘feeling’ template in my body. The fundamental aspects of a correction will usually involve posture, centre, tension, use of the eyes, distancing, timing, rhythm or something similar. The correction aims to draw attention to an aspect of the student’s training (action, behaviour, feeling) that they may not be aware of at that time. Or, they may be aware of it but are yet to find a way to address it.

The spirit of correction is one where the teacher makes the effort to assist us as students so that we can adapt ourselves to meet a standard or expectation to which we have already committed in joining the dojo. Personally, this helps me realise the goals inherent in that commitment to bujutsu (so I am grateful) and it also satisfies the teacher’s role of preserving intact the standards and expectations of the ryu.

My experience of criticism is different. This has occurred when, as a student, I have failed to take into account the correction(s) I have received. This may have been for one or a variety of reasons: I thought I already knew better; it wasn’t important; surely I was already doing it; I was doing a lot of other things right so didn’t need to worry about it; I didn’t understand it; I couldn’t do it; I didn’t have time to make the change; I thought I had already done it…and so on. For whatever reason, the teacher had made a conscious choice to invest in me by following up the correction with a criticism. So, to me, the spirit of criticism can still be very much a caring one.

Sometimes as students we might feel negatively about correction and criticism, as if receiving the comments was ‘bad’, then the connotation is that maybe we are ‘bad’ as well. On that basis, sometimes people react poorly to critique rather than recognising it as the gift it often is.

I recall very well an epiphany when training with my Shinto Muso-ryu teacher, Nishioka Sensei, in his dojo on the outskirts of Tokyo a few years ago. Sensei had made the exact same correction quite a few times over the period of three or four days, to a point where it had become genuine criticism (accompanied by the sharp reminder of a whack or two). My self-talk had neatly concluded that he must have some problem emerging with his memory (‘Have you forgotten already that you must have told me the same thing 20 times at least!’) when suddenly my mind opened…and I realised that the reason his corrections had continued and become criticism was very simple. I hadn’t taken it on. I wasn’t doing it! Following straight on from that realisation was the awful knowledge that his self-talk must have been going along the lines of, ‘What’s wrong with this person? Is he deaf, stupid or both? I’ve told him this 20 times at least!’ It was a very humbling experience. I wanted to apologise and reassure him that I would try very hard not to make him think I was stupid again.

And that brings me to the final point — learning. Being corrected is not learning. Receiving correction and saying ‘Hai’ or ‘Osu’ is not learning. Adopting a correction is not learning. Even accepting criticism is not learning. My experience tells me that learning is what happened in the story above, when my mind opened and I understood what was required of me. I began the journey of learning the point Sensei was transmitting to me. Learning begins when the mind, body and spirit integrate a lesson.

These days I really feel that learning is less an event that can be spoken of in the past tense and more of an active, organic process that has no end. Sometimes I wonder whether at this stage in my life I have really completed learning anything at all…and that feeling keeps me curious and excited about my world and my training. How about you?

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