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!

Using Time Wisely

Presently our nation faces one of the largest challenges it has seen in the past 100 years. COVID-19 has not only affected the health of a substantial number of people, it has also hit everyone of us directly through the government mandated social distancing and quarantines.

Make no mistake, it is normal to become anxious and fearful of what lies ahead during such troubling times. Many of us Americans are sequestered in our homes, not working, and with too much time on our hands. Based on one’s own mindset, time can be either an enemy or a friend. For example, when someone is waiting to hear back from the doctor about whether they tested positive for cancer, every second can be a brutal eternity. On the other hand, when we spend time doing something that we really enjoy or in the company of someone we truly love, seconds can be blissfully fleeting.

In both cases time is still time. It is what we fill it with and how we perceive it that allows time to effect us either positively or negatively.

So how can we take the over abundance of time we now have on our hands and turn it into a positive?

Take advantage of it and use it wisely!

By using our time wisely, we can change a challenge into an opportunity. In other words we take time and use it to our advantage, for our benefit and use it to serve our purposes. How can we do this you may ask? Here are a few examples:

  • Finish that home project you’ve been continually putting off
  • Dive into that book you’ve been meaning to read
  • If you normally spend a lot of time at work, now you have the opportunity to spend time with your family
  • Improve yourself physically (set goals, recommit to your diet, and exercise daily)

For those of us who are martial artists, setting and achieving goals incrementally should be a normal part of our lives. How would you respond if all of a sudden you were given one to three weeks to focus on your martial arts training with very few distractions? Would you make a plan to improve your strength, speed, and flexibility? Would you pick one of your forms or techniques which [you know] you are weak at, and put in some solid repetitions each day? Would you practice to improve your footwork?

Or would you look at the amount of time you have on your hands and set up a solid personal training plan to accomplish all of the above? That would definitely be a wise use of your time!

Not to mention that the best way to combat the mental challenges of stress and anxiety is to challenge yourself physically.

Take this opportunity, seize the moment, because in the next few weeks when life g back to normal, this free time will be gone. Use this time and use it wisely.

Boards Don’t Hit Back

In the 1973 film Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee uttered some of his most profound and memorable quotes. Perhaps the most repeated of these quotes came during his interaction with Karate champion Bob Wall prior to a sparring match. As Lee and Wall bowed to each other before the fight, Wall held up a board in one hand and punched it with the other. The board can be heard hitting the ground off-screen in the distance, obviously broken into multiple pieces. In response to this, Bruce Lee stated his oft repeated and very true aphorism, “Boards…Don’t hit back!”

Very recently I was reminded of this quote when a middle-aged black belt (with over a decade of training in a Korean style…) visited my school to take a trial lesson. During the first lesson, I always stress to prospective trainees that effective punching requires doing so with proper targeting and at a proper distance. In my opinion, this is something that many arts and instructors fail to impart, yet they are absolutely crucial habits to develop from the very start. When one does not practice punching at a proper distance to their target, they will end up throwing thousands of punches which will always fall short of making contact. In the case of our black belt, they simply smiled and stated how many boards they could break, and assured me it would be a piece of cake.

But as they practiced with a live partner, it became increasingly clear that they were unable to make contact at a correct distance, even when they really tried. Instead each of their punches would stop at least 5 inches away from their intended target. Naturally, I explained that it wasn’t necessary to strike their classmate hard, but that being able to reach them and actually make physical contact between their fists and the partner’s body, was the goal. After a short period of time, the black belt then complained how awkward and uncomfortable the techniques felt and said it was unlike anything they were used to. By the end of the lesson, the black belt was still incapable of throwing slow, controlled punches and touching their target with a slight bend in the elbow, which would be necessary for proper follow-through in a real-world situation. They seemed quite discouraged and it didn’t surprise me when we didn’t hear back from this person following their trial lesson.

The problem experienced by this black belt could best be summed up as an inconsistent and unrealistic approach to training. This is because when they learned to break boards, they were instructed to punch “through” the target. Yet when paired with a real training partner, their previous martial art (or instructor) dictated they should do just the OPPOSITE and stop short of making contact with their partner each time.

This inconsistency in their training approach which says, “punch through boards, but if you punch a human, stop 5 inches away,” represents an unrealistic way to prepare for a real life situation. It’s exactly as Bruce Lee alluded to in his famous quote: boards don’t hit back, but people surely will, and they might even move around and try to avoid being hit in the first place.

There are many different styles of martial arts in existence, but the most effective are those which share a realistic approach to training the concepts which underlie the “techniques” and “movements,” namely distance, timing, and proper execution of force. Systems and styles may appear superficially different, but it is the concepts behind them, which make them fundamentally similar.

The Best is the Enemy of the “Good”

Voltaire, the famed French philosopher is generally credited with quoting an old Italian proverb which states, “The best is the enemy of the good.”

Regardless of your chosen field of study and your level of expertise in said field, no one is perfect. Speaking specifically of the martial arts, everyone who has achieved mastery in a system has studied for nearly 20+ years and they usually hold an instructor rank of 5th level/degree or higher. With a couple of decades of training and thousands of repetitions under their belts, they move with speed, power, fluidity, and adeptness. Undoubtedly, their students see them as flawless executors of each and every technique.

But as masters, we know this is not entirely true. Each of us having mastered the style/system/art is still not perfect. We are humans, not machines…and we make mistakes. The difference between us and the novice is that our mistakes are so slight, only we or another master perceive them. Though we may execute a move which is highly effective and looks flawless on the surface, we alone realize at that moment that perhaps we were slightly off balance, or we weren’t operating at 100%, or didn’t perform as “perfectly” as we should.

So whether we are beginners or advanced, novices or masters, there is always room for improvement. While one may be good at something, very few are the best at it. As Voltaire alluded to: being satisfied that you are “good” at a skill works against you ever wanting to become the “best.” Here we are not talking about best among everyone, rather the best that YOU are capable of achieving.

But where to begin? Well, self-improvement starts with the realization that we need to improve and then choosing to do something about it. Our next steps are:

  • Self-Assessment – consider the things you personally know need improvement. For example, if you’re skilled at applying techniques with your dominant side (left or right) and just so-so on your weak side, there is room for improvement. Put it on the list!
  • Consult an Expert – ask your teacher, master, Sifu or Sensei what they think you need to work on. As a teacher, I can tell you that we love having students take a sincere interest in working hard to improve their skills.
  • Make a List and a Plan – okay you’ve got some ideas of what you need to work on, now put together a training plan. Perhaps it is practicing only your weak side one day, or picking one technique per week to put in extra reps each day, or it may be gradually increasing how much time you devote to practice each week. Be sure to set some short-term and long-term goals. Goal-setting is crucial and you need to put them in writing.
  • Self-Discipline – this is the hard part. You know what you need to work on, you have a plan to do so, now execute. Start right away and stick to it. Experts say it takes 30 consecutive days to change any habit or behavior.

Satisfied with the good, or are you ready to be the best?


The Empty Cup is the title of a book I published last year which provides readers with the eight keys to developing a proper mindset for success in their martial arts training. Presented in the form of parables, these life lessons are analyzed and explained in a way that is easy to understand and apply.

But beyond it’s applicability to martial arts training, these principles can be applied to learning just about anything. As one of the reviewers of my book said, “The subtitle of this book is ‘Proper Mindset for Successful Martial Arts Training’ but really it is the proper mindset for learning really anything in life. Starting with approaching any subject with an open mind and be willing to learn from the newest person in the building or the oldest person in the room; each person can offer something new to help you on your journey either in Martial Arts, biking, programming, or writing a book – any subject where you are wanting to learn.

The book begins with and takes its title from the parable of the Empty Cup, a well-known concept in Chinese martial arts. Having an empty cup means entering a learning situation as an open vessel, fully prepared and anxious to absorb new knowledge. Only by having an open mind and a beginner’s curiosity to learn can we allow ourselves the opportunity to take in new information without prejudices or preconceived notions limiting us from giving fair consideration to the new material we are being taught.

So beginning with that, I encourage you to pick up a copy of The Empty Cup which is available in both paperback and Kindle format. This blog is meant to accompany the book, as well as my future book projects and it is my hope that readers will take something of value from The Empty Cup which they can apply to their everyday lives.

Check it out on