The Drama of the Gifted Martial Arts Student

There is a book called “The Drama of the Gifted Child” – I have not read it, but heard a great joke about the title: that the author, Alice Miller, had originally titled it “The Drama of the Narcissistic Child” but changed it because she knew the people who needed it would never read it if it were called that.

Yes, everyone would prefer to be thought of as ‘gifted.’

Back at the dojo, there is always at least one student who is gifted in some way – athletically gifted, or good at remembering new information, a natural at sparring, or perhaps incredibly strong. They will seem to do certain things easily when others struggle. For this, they will gain the admiration of their classmates, who will praise and look up to them. Their instructor will appreciate their strengths as well, and they’ll take this to heart.

What the instructor sees that the classmates miss is that this person, however gifted, is still a beginner like everyone else. They have the same proportion of bad habits and gaps in knowledge as anyone who hasn’t put in the hours and years – though their flaws may be partly masked by their shining strengths, at least through the kyu ranks.

Another thing the instructor too often sees over time is that this student becomes lazy. Because basics came easily to them, they didn’t gain the habit or expectation of hard work, and over time, they simply failed to put it in. They never took the trouble to iron out the bad habits their instructor was pointing out to them, and they never put in enough hours to discover the rest of their bad habits on their own. They may have worked out hard, when they were in class, but they never put in enough hours to make the moves their own, so their grasp remains superficial.

But they don’t get this – because they’ve also become complacent, riding on the admiration of their peers. In the most unfortunate cases, the ‘dramatic’ cases, they develop a sort of mental armor that allows in the praise of their classmates, and deflects the corrections and instruction coming from their teachers. They come to think of themselves as the class expert, and you’ll hear them constantly teaching and correcting their training partners during workout – which disrupts, and often misdirects, not only their partner’s practice, but their own.

It’s hard to know how to bring such students in hand. Perhaps the instructor is at fault, to a degree, for allowing things to progress to this state. On the other hand, some personalities just aren’t amenable to outside correction.

One can ban speaking during class – but have you noticed how hard it is to get Americans, or I should say Westerners, to keep quiet? One can call out the same critique year after year, devise exercises to drill it, delay testing month after month…

Sometimes the best thing is just to go ahead and put that person up for their test. Let them stand side-by-side with students who have put in the hours and years and effort; let them hear the same old corrections from a different group of instructors. Maybe even see them fail the test on the first try. Then you find out whether they have the will and the character to come back again and do it right.

2 Responses to “The Drama of the Gifted Martial Arts Student”

  1. Excellent post.

    How do you deal with the personalities that “aren’t amenable to outside correction”? I find this very difficult. I believe that it is my obligation as an instructor to guide/correct the students. I have yet to find a good way to get through to this type of student.

    • serpentstaff Says:

      Thanks for your comment, Michele. It’s a tough problem. Sometimes all you can do is keep leading the horses to water as if you fully expect them to drink. And, as you do even with the receptive students, keep changing things up to try to find what’s most effective. – But maybe others have other answers?

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