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Martial Arts, Modelling & the Art of Learning

As small children our parents teach us everything. From how to walk, to how to create the sounds that make speech in a way that even replicates our parents’ regional accents! We don’t learn these development milestones by sitting in a classroom, looking at a flipchart or listening to a lecture. Often, we don’t even realise we are actually learning. We observe, we copy, we practice, and we model.


Modelling was the key method to transfer learning for martial arts from the master to their live-in student who cooked, cleaned and cared for them whilst also learning the martial art and, at the same time, absorbing the master’s values and philosophy.

This traditional approach changed significantly when teaching was taken to the masses, where form and technique became the key focus areas, resulting in an erosion of the smooth energy flow that was originally at the heart of all martial arts. Whilst a large group approach taught by rote was an efficient way to transmit the form of the movements, it lost the essence.

Is this also true as we think about learning inside organisations? Have we lost the essence of how we help people learn and develop? Do we only teach form and technique? We need to go beyond technique if we want to become artful in our chosen subject.

Earlier this year I had the privilege of hosting a wellbeing retreat with my partner where we spent a week with 20 retreaters in the beautiful Algarve. The retreat blended yoga, meditation and a peaceful martial art, Washindo and focused on how to live healthier longer.

group peaceful martial arts teaching practice

One of the most powerful experiences of this amazing week was the speed of learning. Many of the participants had never practiced a martial art before and after just eight hours of practice, they were awesome!

I believe the way we taught them was the key. Modelling through practice, surrounded by experienced practitioners committed to helping others learn. There was minimum formal instruction and maximum immersion in the actual doing.

The effect was incredible. Learning a series of moves that, traditionally, are taught by rote by correcting every posture and gesture in a serious environment, replaced by a fear-free space where practitioners experimented whilst modelling alongside those with more experience.

If you observe this video, you can see the beginners modelling the essence of the teacher’s movements perfectly. Every technique might not be technically perfect yet, but that’s the easier element to master. The flow and smoothness that you see here is something that typically comes much later in the martial arts journey.

So, how can we utilise modelling to help efficient and effective learning in the workplace today? Rather than focusing on the act of coaching. I believe, that we need to first build awareness and understanding for why we need coaching. For example: what’s the problem it’s solving, and, who are the people who need to be better coaches?

If the modelling concept has resonated with you, why not give this new approach to the art of learning a go? Below are my ‘Top 5’ tips for anyone looking to create a powerful, learning-based environment within their workplace.

There’s never a better time to try something new, than right now, so get in touch if you’re interested to hear more!



5 top tips for creating a powerful modelling learning environment



Understand the why: be clear about why you are learning, what are the benefits and how will it impact positively



Be present and supportive: focus deeply on the practice and remove any distractions, be they environmental, practical or mental, and be supportive and immerse learners with skilled role models who know how to help people learn


Cultivate curiosity: an open-minded, non-judgmental approach is key to helping practitioners feel safe, vulnerable and fully immersed in the experience of learning



Practice is key: continually practicing the process and the essence of what you are learning is a must


Maintain a ‘beginners mind-set’: even the role-model learns when they help others, so never assume you know everything

Karen Stone

Published on October 8, 2020

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