Feedback from the mat

Asked to write on the topic of feedback, I struggled to think of an interesting perspective for this post. What did I have to say about feedback that hasn’t been repeated over and over again? What was my take on it?

I cast my mind over all of the times I had been given feedback in a professional environment: there were some good, some bad, some atrocious and some very middling examples of feedback given to me. Nothing stood out as particular interesting or insightful.

I moved my thoughts away from my career and into my personal life and I realised that there was one area in which I was always given direct, helpful and supportive feedback: martial arts.

I’ve been studying Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu for a little over ten years, and I’ve had the same instructor for most of that period. He’s a wonderful teacher and has helped me both to develop my own practice, and to become a teacher to the newer students in turn.

Quote from Grand Master Masaaki Hatsumi. Image from Bujinkan Weapons (facebook page)

Here are some lessons in giving and receiving feedback, that I learnt in the dojo:

Feedback must be appropriate

The amount and level of your feedback needs to align with the person to whom you’re giving it, and the task that they are doing.

When a new student is trying to get the hang of a technique, you need to give feedback that helps them to understand it’s general ‘shape’, something that will help them to stand and move in roughly right way. If you give a new student precise and detailed instruction on everything that they need to ‘fix’, you will overwhelm them with information and they can quickly lose confidence.

With a more experienced student, instruction and correction needs to be more specific to help them to hone their skills and become more precise. This is where you can get a little more tough on people. You’ve worked together for a while, you know their strengths and their blind spots, and they trust your judgement and your guidance.

For advanced students, it’s different again. My instructor encourages me to move past individual techniques, to find connections and patterns, so that I can develop a deeper understanding of the fundamental principles of the art.

Pitch your feedback at a level that will help people to grow. Provide information with an appropriate amount of detail, so that your feedback is relevant to them at this point in their development.

Good teachers learn from their pupils

When we train in the Bujinkan, we don’t split into specific groups based on experience, we all train with each other regardless of our grade.

If you’re trying to teach someone a new skill, and they are having difficulty learning it, it’s an opportunity for you to find a new way of explaining it.

If someone is asking you questions after you’ve given them some pointers, it highlights the gaps in their knowledge, and also provides subtle feedback for you: perhaps you haven’t explained something sufficiently, or maybe you missed a key detail.

In addition, if you are giving feedback to a number of people on the same topic, it’s good to take a step back from giving instruction to review the group’s performance as a whole. You may find that there’s an opportunity for you to help everyone to improve. While we train, our teacher watches for common mistakes. If he sees that many of the students are struggling with a specific technique, he’ll call us back together to demonstrate it again, going over some of the trickier details. Addressing these errors as a group, rather than giving individual feedback allows us all to progress faster.

My instructor and me, on a trip to Japan for training

Making the most of feedback

Receiving feedback can be tricky. You want to learn and grow, but it’s not always easy having your mistakes or flaws pointed out to you, especially if you thought you did a pretty good job!

It can be especially difficult if you feel that the feedback doesn’t tally with your understanding of a situation. You might feel that the person giving the feedback is being unfair, or hasn’t taken all circumstances into account. Instead of ignoring their feedback, or protesting that they are being unfair, ask them to clarify their point.

For example, sometimes when we have a new female student who’s struggling with a technique, she might say You’re bigger than me, so of course I can’t do it that way!

If you change this into a question, you will elicit better feedback and support: I’m finding this really tricky, I think I’m not big enough to do it. Could you help me to figure it out, or perhaps suggest another way of doing it?

Finally, when you are trying to incorporate feedback into your practice, don’t give yourself a hard time if you don’t get there straight away.

Let’s say you’re doing a task and someone gives you ten points to improve your performance, and the next time you do the task, you only remember to put five of those points into practice. It’s easy to get frustrated because you forgot to do half of the things that you were told, but guess what? You remembered half! If you get too caught up in what you did wrong, it can be hard to try again, or you might be so worried about getting it wrong that you make even more mistakes.

Take a deep breath. Evaluate your performance against the feedback you’ve been given. Acknowledge what you did right, and think about what you need to do to be even better the next time.

In the dojo, I’ve learnt a lot about developing myself, and helping others to develop. No matter how you give or receive feedback, the key to growth is curiosity, humility and compassion.

Keep asking questions, keep learning, keep growing.