My Old Master: How to Correct as a Mentor or a Teacher

Preface: I studied martial arts for a little over a decade (shaolin kempo at USSD) and learned a lot while I was there. Our teacher was a great guy who genuinely cared about his students, and in particular, taught my friends and I some really interesting things when we became instructors. I’d like to share some of that information with you in the “My Old Master” posts category. As cliched as it is, many things he taught us apply to all aspects of life, not just martial arts and I’d like other people to benefit from them.

My old master used to say…

“Praise, Correct, Praise. Even if you have to make something up, you need to say something positive.”

Let’s say that I’m teaching you how to punch and you aren’t quite doing it right.

Here are two things I might say to try and correct it:

  1. “Keep your wrist straight when you are punching so you don’t hurt your hand” or…
  2. “I really love how you are keeping your left hand up while you punch with your right. It’s doing a great job of protecting your head against your opponent hitting you back. Now try keeping your wrist straight when you punch so that you don’t hurt your hand.” Then I watch you try again and I say “Great, just like that, keep it up!”

Think about how those two responses make you feel for a second.

The first one likely makes you feel like you are messing up and need to fix it (a negative thing), while the second makes you feel like you were doing well and are now are doing even better.

What’s the difference? Well, like the opening quote says, I praised, corrected, and then praised. First I found something you were doing well, complimented you on it, gave a suggestion for improvement, and then praised you on doing (or attempting!) the correction.

This can be a great way to give people feedback, in a way that makes them feel better about themselves, and feel better about the feedback you are giving them. Instead of being a negative thing, it becomes a positive thing.

Pretty simple stuff, and if you practice this technique it starts to become second nature.

The quote says that if you can’t find anything positive to say, you should make it up. It shouldn’t be your first choice to make something up, because the more genuine you are about the praise, the better it will be. However, if you really can’t find anything nice to say, yes, you should make something up.

A person’s ego and self worth is a measurable quantity that is increased with praise and decreased with corrections or negative feedback (aka “you suck!”). When this tank of self worth gets too low, your student or mentee will feel worthless, get frustrated and/or start to get resentful at you.

This technique is useful because it allows you to give a correction while minimizing hit to the person’s self worth. In the end allows you to give MORE correction and help them more in the long run, just by phrasing your corrections differently. Another term for this is “complement sandwich” which you may have heard of before.

Another thing to be mindful of however is that you can only give so much feedback at any one time. The ego/self worth tank needs to refill after it’s diminished, and frankly, the person needs to absorb and internalize what you’ve taught them before they are ready for more.

Our teacher would say “it’s better having a mediocre black belt, than having a stellar white belt who quits out of frustration” and that’s very true. It’s better for them since a mediocre black belt is FAR SUPERIOR to a stellar white belt and much better able to protect themselves and their loved ones, but also better for the organization, since we are often teaching or mentoring in a “for profit” situation where the person we are trying to help is either a customer or a co-worker which the company is interested in keeping around.

Before wrapping it up, I heard a funny story regarding this topic about a special needs child and his or her parents. Just like everyone else, this child has a concept of self worth, however being disabled makes it very easy to feel depressed when you realize there are so many things you can’t do that other people can do. It’s difficult too for the parents to help the child feel better about themselves if they really can’t find an area he shines in. One day the parents noticed he loved to use tools and it clicked. They started loosening screws in the house and asking him to tighten them for him. “Jimmy, can you come tighten this screw up for us? You are so good at it!”.

I think that’s a cute story but really shows how we work as humans. Your job as (an effective) teacher, mentor, parent, boss or leader, is to teach whatever you need to teach, correct whatever you need to correct, but also to make sure you do so in a way that is least damaging to the person’s ego and self worth. They feel better about themselves, but you are also more effective at getting the job done. It matters!

So go out there and serve some compliment sandwiches, making sure to be as genuine as possible with your praise!

P.S. Yes people can have over inflated egos and feeding them more is only going to make things worse. That’s the topic of another post (;