Coaching versus Instruction – The Way to Win
in Martial Arts
By Tommy Thompson (assisted by Rocky Sondhi)
MYTH: “Always train heavy, light sessions are
for wimps not proper boxers” – unqualified coach/instructor
Tommy Thompson began boxing in 1974, having had 69 contests
and then retiring through injury. His coaching career kicked
off in 1981 and has become Nottingham’s only senior
ABA coach, since 1985. He has worked extensively, and is still
involved, with Brendan Ingle’s stable in Sheffield.
Boxers he has worked with include Johnny Nelson (WBO World
Cruiser-weight champion), Fidel Castro (ex- British Super
Middle weight champion) and Prince Naseem Hamed.
Since 2000, Tommy has been heavily involved with martial
artists, teaching concepts of the arts through the principles
of boxing. He has been working with the Winsper brothers,
Jon Jepson and team, and Krishna Godhania.
Martial Arts Illustrated have kindly allowed us to write
summaries of our forthcoming book, “Martial Arts Training
through Boxing Concepts”. The series of articles will
be as follows:
1. Coaching versus Instruction
2. Core Principles
3. Attacking tools
4. Defensive tools
5. Augmented Training to develop attributes
6. Training phases
7. Fitness principles
8. Mind training
9. Fight tactics
10. Designing a training programme
In 1976, I was sparring with Kirkland Laing, former British
Welterweight champion, trapped against the ropes. I asked
my coach how do I get off the ropes. He replied, after putting
his cigarette out, “if you don’t know now, you’ll
never f*** know!” I was trapped for the rest of the
This experience made me realise the importance of good coaching
to helping proteges achieve their potential.
For the last few years I have worked extensively with martial
artists and have seen the gap between coaching and instruction
grow and feel it is an issue that needs to be addressed.
The goal and objective of every coach is to see their students
explore, stretch and fulfil their potential. Under an instructor
mentality, there is an assumption that all students have the
same potential, and as such dictates the design and delivery
of the training programme.
The key drivers of potential are:
As a starting point let’s explore the
definition of these two words:
Coaching – Making a difficult skill appear simple,
so that the student can grasp and make the skill their own.
Instruction - Giving a set orders, without flair or individuality,
assuming the student will need to “do or die”.
The traditional martial arts appear to convey a macho image,
where the instructor likes to make difficult things appear
difficult, while showing his own prowess and capability, with
no consideration of the limitations of individual students.
The instructor appears to have the view that “what worked
for me, must work for everyone else”. This limited perspective
can be translated into declining class numbers, stagnation
in technical capability and the overall demise of traditional
The Core Principles of Coaching
Coaches need to understand the fundamental skills and principles
of coaching. The key principles of coaching with key skills
in a calm manner to transfer the skill
in the most effective way
||Communication, Emotional detachment,
|Repetition in a creative way
so as to avoid boredom on the part of the student
|Strong rapport with student
so as to understand the main drivers in the individual
|Slow movement to maximise
understanding of the principles
to a very high level
|Individualise for the student and
his/her circumstances, to allow the student to
explore what works and what does not work
||Empowering the student,
The Learning Cycle
A key tool the coach needs to take into account in the design
of the student’s training programme is the evolution
of the student’s learning cycle. The key stages of the
learning cycle are shown below:
Let’s consider each of these stages:
Unconscious incompetence – This is
the stage of the learning cycle when the student has a weakness,
but is unaware of this weakness. This is the stage where the
student is at his most vulnerable, as he will probably feel
he is better than he actually is. At this stage the student
may be cocky and blasé.
Conscious incompetence – This is the
stage when the student suddenly realises a weakness exists
and feels something needs to be done about this. The student
will feel down and anxious.
Conscious competence – At this point
the student is aware of what needs to be done, but has to
think about in various steps. The student will feel challenged
and needs inspiration.
Unconscious competence – This is the
stage where the student grasps the technique and it becomes
second nature to the student. At this point the student individualises
the technique. The student will feel excited and realise the
more I learn, the less I know.
A good analogy of the cycle is demonstrated by the progress
of a student from white belt to black belt, and then as the
black chips off the belt, the student becomes a “white
|Stage of cycle
||Response of coach
||Response of instructor
||To act as role model.Show weaknesses
in student in a positive way.
||Breakdown of skill into simple stages.
Advise student on next steps to maximise progress. (This
may mean advising to have a break!)Motivation to improve.Positive
feedback to stimulate student.
|Do what you are told!
||Repetition of key skills in a creative
way to stimulate progress.
||Sweat, blood and tears!
||Set new standards and goals for each
||Carry on and follow the
The emotional state of the student through each of the stages
of the learning cycle can be seen in the graph below:
The outcomes from poor coaching and instruction
are essentially the same. These result in the following:
Burnout – students lose
motivation and find it difficult to move out of a “rut”.
Inspiration is needed, as is rest. Good coaches recognise
the need for rest, and see this as a primary driver in athletic
development. Interestingly, the ability of athletes to do
nothing can also be difficult, particularly with amateur athletes
who have day time occupations. The coach needs to explore
activities such as yoga and meditation to maximise the benefits
Loss of interest – as with burnout,
loss of interest means the student will stop training. Instructors
generally feel the students are responsible for maintaining
their own level of interest. Coaches inspire students to maintain
and create new levels of interest.
Lack of focus – coaches possess an
intuitive feel for what needs to be worked on in training
sessions. This intuition is the result of experience and experimentation.
Drop in skill level – as a consequence
of the above skill levels begin to decline.
Abandonment – the end is near!
Outcomes of good coaching
Good coaching leads to:
Creativity - to create a complete martial
artist with the following abilities:
» Think the unthinkable
» See the un-see-able
» Do the un-do-able
Enthusiasm – to keep the student learning
and developing and moving towards fulfilling their potential
Experimentation – to stretch the students
capability and maximise learning.
Variables to consider in coaching
Consider these situations:
|Two students go to a
club, both same age and weight, but different body types.
||Instructor will say to both students, “left
or right foot forward (depending on student’s strong
side), weight evenly balanced on both legs, elbows tucked
in – just jab and move!”
||Coach will say to the taller of the two,
“weight slightly more on rear leg, body weight side
on, use height and reach (which will indicate the style
of a jab and move boxer).”
Coach will say to the shorter of the two, “bodyweight
to the front foot (but never over it), slightly square,
indicating the style of a counter-punching boxer.”
|Two students go to a
club, with different temperaments.
||“Keep going forward
and don’t back up.”
||Coach will try to mould a more attacking
style of boxing with the more aggressive of the two. With
the more timid of the two, the coach will encourage a
more counter punching style.
The above examples suggest that when designing
student learning programmes, coaches need to consider the
Student’s Style = f (Body type, Temperament
and mental state, Thinking styles)
(Look out for Tommy Thompson and Rocky Sondhi’s book,
“Martial Arts Training Through Boxing Concepts”
published by Airworthy Publications, due to come out in January