The Instructor is Always Wrong

Like many other instructors coping with the challenges of social distancing during the Covid-19 quarantine, I’ve been filming instructional video lessons for distribution to my students.

Being somewhat of a perfectionist I do numerous “takes” of each video, not only because I want to provide a quality product for my students, but also because it will be captured for posterity (or more accurately – an eternity…) once it is posted on the Internet. In reviewing my own performance, I am doing so with the critical eye of a master, carefully assessing what I see and looking for areas which need correction. Doing so reminds me of something my former teacher, Grandmaster Leung Ting, once said which was, “the instructor is always wrong.”

What did he mean by that you might ask? Well for starters it acknowledges that while we instructors may know how to perform and teach a technique perfectly, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we will do so 100% of the time. For another it deals with the fact that as an instructor, you must be responsible to correct yourself. After all, how many of your own students will point out that you performed a technique incorrectly? Without policing our own technique and performance, who in our school will? Thus is it your job as an instructor to always critique your own techniques and movements to assure they are correct.

In my case as I watched some of my video over the past few weeks, I spotted a basic technique of mine that wasn’t as accurate as it should have been. What’s funny is that I have a photograph of myself as a beginner from 1986 in which I am doing the SAME exact technique in exactly the SAME not-so-perfect fashion. On realizing this, I kicked myself and have since made successful efforts to improve it. When filming today’s lessons, I was aware of making that mistake once again and in reviewing the video, can clearly see that I caught myself and corrected it by the next repetition.

The big challenge for us as martial artists, particularly instructors and masters, is that we may have done tens or hundreds of thousands of repetitions of a given technique and it is now hard-wired into our physiology. While re-wiring these things may take some effort, it is certainly doable if we put in the time.

Honestly, I never liked the saying, “practice makes perfect,” because it is not entirely true. Why? Because the truth is that “practice makes permanent, not perfect.” As an aside, I much prefer the German version of the saying which goes “übung macht den Meister” (“practice makes the master”) because achieving mastery necessarily entails repetitive practice. Proof I suppose that a certain degree of resolution can be lost when trying to express the same phrase in a different language.

As I discussed in my post, “The Best is the Enemy of the Good,” even a master is not perfect at all times, they just make fewer mistakes than a novice and the ones they do make are often imperceptible to their lower and middle ranked students. However, the more advanced (experienced) the practitioner, the more easily these errors can be spotted.

So as we start another week on quarantine, I challenge each of you to put in some perfect practice on a drill, skill, exercise or technique that you know deep down could use some work. Each of us has something we can improve upon or else we’d all be…perfect. So start today, work it daily, and expect to see a positive change by Friday. Good luck!

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