Sunday, August 24, 2014


By Phillip Starr

Over the decades that I've been involved in teaching martial arts and qigong, I've come to better understand the importance of the words we use and how they impact a student's performance as well as our own. This is something that most teachers (and students, for that matter) rarely consider but I think it's really very important.

For instance, in teaching students to rotate their hip(s) quickly when executing certain techniques (as in the body action of “Rotation”, which is discussed in detail in my book, Martial Mechanics. If you don't have a copy, get off your butt and get one!), I would tell them to “quickly turn” or “rotate” it. This resulted in them making a smooth but rather slow movement and that wasn't quite what I wanted. I wanted the rotation to be smooth and correct but FAST! So, I'd tell them to do it FASTER! That had about as much effect as telling it to the nearest shrubbery. Nada. Same old thing.

Okay...I tried telling them to “snap” the hip. That brought about some improvement but it wasn't quite where I wanted it...yet. It was some time before I tried using the word, “twitch.” And that did it! That word flashed through their skulls (and my own) and suddenly, their hip rotation was right where I wanted it!

And in so far as qigong (or anything else) goes, here's a story:

Many years ago, I was teaching a two-person qigong exercise known as the Unbendable Arm to a large group of students in my martial arts school in Iowa. An old friend of mine (who was then a professor of psychology in Missouri and an avid practitioner of taijiquan) was visiting me. He listened as I finished giving instructions and then asked if he might speak to the students about this technique. Of course, I agreed.

As he talked to them I could see that he was simply reiterating what I had already told them. I wondered why he had wanted to speak to them at all! When he had finished his brief talk, he told them to go ahead and try to perform the technique…and almost all of them failed! This had never happened in one of my classes! I could not understand what had just occurred and asked my friend if he had any recommendations. He laughed and said, “When you teach them, you tell them to just ‘do it’, and they always succeed. They do exactly what you tell them to do because they have faith in you as their teacher. But I told them to ‘try’ to do it. That single word, ‘try’, suggested the possibility of failure…and that’s exactly what they did!”

This was an extremely valuable lesson that I’ve never forgotten. If your mind believes that you may fail, you probably will. However, if your mind does not acknowledge that possibility, then success is assured. And learning to perform this basic practice technique proves the truth of that statement!

The word 'try' suggests the possibility of failure and because failing is almost always easier than succeeding, the mind chooses the path of least resistance. If you want to succeed at something, never use the word 'try.'

There are many others. Instead of using the word “speed” (e.g., “You need more speed in your kicks”...), try using “fast-sounding” words such as “zip.” We hear and use the “speed” so often in daily life that when we hear it in training, our minds tend to more or less ignore it. Another such word is “power.” That's a very common word and really doesn't express the concept of what we're after in so far as martial arts training is concerned. Words like “bang” work much better.

It'll take some time to re-evaluate the words and phrases that you use in your training or in teaching others but believe me, it's worth the effort. It can make all the difference in the world!