Humility is a virtue. While it is understandable that we would like to show as few flaws as possible, those who accept their shortcomings and try to improve them are generally better off than those who do not. I am not the most humble person there is. But I do know that in order to become better at something, I must sometimes make an effort to open myself to criticism from others.
I often criticize myself. I set high goals and often cannot reach them. But criticism from yourself and criticism from someone else can be vastly different. To criticize yourself, you already realize that there is something wrong. When someone else criticizes you, you may not have realized that there was a problem. In fact, even after hearing the critical remarks, it may still be difficult to see that they apply to you. While some people may mistakenly note something that is not necessarily wrong, most criticism in the dojo is based on actual shortcomings and should be recognized as such.
There are times when someone will be critical of another, not as a catalyst for improvement, but out of spite or jealousy. This is not the type of criticism that I am considering here. I am focusing on the type of criticism that an instructor may offer a student or another instructor, or a student may give to a fellow student, in an effort to help the other to improve. Granted, there are some people who do not give criticism well, as there are those that do not accept criticism well. However, if done correctly, critical feedback can help us develop and is something that we should all welcome.
Recently, I had the members of my class examine each other’s stance when performing techniques. As there was an odd number of students, I joined one of the lines, intentionally pairing up with one of the newest members. I did not do this hoping for him to be in awe of my superior technique. I lined up with him because I have too often lined up with my more senior students, who were unwilling to admit that they saw flaws in my technique. I was happy when this beginner told me that my front knee was moving slightly during some of my movements. This gave me something (more) to work on. I am grateful for that criticism. I think it is better to see that you have a mistake than to not see it. We all make mistakes. Acting as though one is perfect is a sure sign of imperfection.
When an instructor or senior informs a student of a mistake or a way to do things better, what is the proper response? Should the junior student counter the feedback with “You’re not perfect either!” Or should the junior student accept everything said with a deep bow and an “Osu!,” even if it is relatively insignificant?
I think the response to criticism should generally match the amount and tone of the criticism, while of course showing respect that is deserved. If the instructor or senior student is earnestly trying to help the junior student, the junior student should respond similarly, indicating in words and/or action that he understands and will try to improve that point. If the instructor ridicules the student and jokingly laughs at him, the student is probably not out of line joining in on the laughter and not necessarily thanking the instructor for noting the mistake. The former example is much healthier for both parties involved. The well-meaning instructor will often feel much better seeing a student trying hard to correct something just pointed out to him, than hearing a loud “Osu!” when it is obvious that the student was not listening at all.
One of my instructors in Japan told me that I should not train with my students. That is easy for him to say, as he is a member of the Instructors’ Class in Tokyo, where he gets to train with other senior instructors 6 days/week. I do not have the luxury of being surrounded by other instructors at my dojo. Nor do I have the luxury of time. I have a busy day-job and another night-job besides my karate teaching, as well as a young child at home and lots of work to do fixing up the house and tending the garden. In order to train, I must do it by myself, with my students, or train with instructors at other dojo. Needless to say, I cannot do that much of any of these with my schedule as it is, so I do it wherever and whenever I can. Considering how seldom I get to train, I want to make the most out of it, realizing that my skill level may slip without training, even more so if I do not get any feedback. While analyzing my movements in the mirror and on videotape has its benefits, receiving criticism from someone else can add much value.
While some people can be overly critical, to the point that it can become counter-productive, it is something that, when done correctly, can really help us to improve. I suggest that everyone, including instructors, take the opportunity to listen to comments and suggestions by others. Sometimes it takes more humility than we thought. But it is usually worth the extra effort.
A final note on giving criticism. When critiquing someone else’s performance, it is usually a good idea to mix the negative and positive feedback such that the tone is encouraging, not degrading. For example, when I have one person in class perform a kata in front of the rest of the group to receive feedback, I tell the others to give two comments; one negative (something to work on) and one positive (one area to feel proud of).
Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published March 2002)