Design Matters in Self-Defense Instruction
Every once in a while, a story hits the media about someone touting the differences between men and women as the source of abilities (or lack thereof) related to science, math or military service. Welcome to prooftexting, taking a quote or data point out of context adding validation to an otherwise erroneous argument. Prooftexting works for the women can’t do science type of arguments because there are subtle differences between male and female brains. Using these differences as arguments to bolster positions about intelligence or aptitude is categorically without merit. Understanding how the differences influence decision-making can go a long way to effectively manage communication at the broad stroke level. Conflict management and prevention, applications to negotiations, sales, and all forms of personal and commercial relationship can benefit.
Let’s look specifically at an area of communication and relationship with a dominantly male leadership community and a target demographic largely female. Self-defense.
If you want to frustrate a female student, assume she is wired just like a male student. There are a variety of ways we can investigate learning and processing differences among all our students – again – regardless of gender, for this conversation I want to look at where gender differences can matter.
Specifically, take into consideration two structural/design differences between the male and the female brain:
1. The male brain has about 6x more gray matter and the female brain has roughly 10x more white matter.
2. The female brain’s corpus callosum (the cord connecting the two halves of your brain) is about 10% thicker on average.
White matter and the connectivity between the hemispheres are collectively responsible for the ability to make inferences, drive curiosity and discovery oriented decision-making. White matter also has the job of integrating large caches of information and while keeping us open to changes in how we navigate problems and solutions.
The reason for this is pretty simple. White matter is made up of myelinated axons. An axon’s job is to connect to other axons and collectively, they serve as the brain’s information highway connecting the points where data is stored (gray matter). With more white matter, a female brain has more myelinated axons v. the unmyelinated version of gray matter and as a result, more interconnectivity and interaction among the data storage centers.
Think of white matter as the train lines in a subway or commuter rail. The gray matter represents the individual stations or stops. The more stations that are interconnected, the more there will be travel between all the points, the more often the travel will occur, and the more station hopping there may be on a single trip.
It’s one of the reasons women can have a multi-dimensional conversation without losing track of all the different topics being discussed simultaneously. While the guys in the background have no idea how the girls are keeping track of it all and somehow, mysteriously, end up back at some random starting point without anyone missing a beat.
What does this mean in working with women in a mission-oriented paradigm like self-defense?
The subtle increase in gray matter causes men to be slightly more inclined to approach a task through a mission directed mindset. Get it done. “I need new boxing gloves” – goes to vendor or store, finds boxing gloves of correct weight –buys gloves. Done.
Women are more likely to consider how long the previous gloves lasted her and how they were used during that time frame. She may measure out the weight of the gloves against her training goals and her upper body strength along with the color and design as they influence how she feels about the gloves. Captain America, anyone? If you wonder why anyone would drop over $200.00 on a pair of gloves…
She will investigate the vendor as well as the product and she will do more comparison shopping than her male counterpart. If this is the first pair of gloves, the guy is going to ask the instructor: what should I buy? Tell him 18 oz gloves in X price range and he’s good to go. She is going to want to know more information, or may go out to buy them and come back with a fistful of questions instead of a pair of gloves.
On the mat, tell him he needs to move offline at a 45-degree angle and he has a mission to accomplish. Done. Tell this to her and out of respect and the power differential, she may jump in with the same mission-oriented approach.
For a while. Eventually, she is going to wonder about why the 45 degrees is the preferred angle for this skill. She is going to think about other situations and circumstances and where the failure point is.
She may even play around with the failure point. Like she investigated the purchase of her gloves, she is going to investigate the technique. If no one else is doing this in class, she may wait until she’s off by herself, away from the critical eye of her fellow students and instructors. She may play with it in her thoughts and visualize it instead of a physical test of the thing, but she is going to play with it.
One sure way to frustrate a female student is to shut this down. In the beginning, telling her this discovery and curiosity is wrong, may work. It will work out of her respect for the instructor’s knowledge and skillset. It will work in strong Sensei Cultures where no one questions the sensei. It will work if she has intuited that to be accepted in a male-dominated class she needs to act like a guy – it will work because she is socially programmed to behave appropriately.
This direction, to Just Do What I Tell You, is in direct contradiction to how her brain is wired. Squashing her brain’s need and ability to run through all the train lines, into all the stops and stations tying together the similarities while filtering out the differences works because she is being outwardly compliant and wants the approval she will get by not being “the girl” in the class. But it isn’t working the way we should want our instruction to work. We should want her to make these skills her own. We should want her to weave them into her being. That’s not gonna’ happen in a Do What I Tell Youinstructional style.
Give her time, though. If she sticks with it, as she gains confidence, skill and comfort in the male-dominated culture, that interconnected superhighway in her brain is going to win out. And it should. This is one of her superpowers but if the instructor is not ready for it, he (or she – female instructors often take on a “male” approach to teaching) will shut it down.
Here is an example. An instructor-level student is training with a cohort of instructors under a senior level guy. The skill being drilled and its related problem piqued her curiosity. She was having a hard time getting her body to do what the technique called for so she intentionally did a few repetitions incorrectly. Senior instructor walks by and asks her what she’s doing. Her answer was something like this:
“Trying to find out what happens if I don’t do this right – trying to figure out how to find the right motivation for my body to do the technique correctly…”
This did not go well. The senior guy snapped at her “just DO the technique!” – the verbal punishment was big enough everyone nearby to hear. Training stopped to see what the commotion was about and her training partner muttered…wow, you pissed him off!
Later, the instructor apologized.
This story is an example of what all that white matter is programmed to do. Her investigation of the training and the technique is anchored in the same neurological design that causes her to investigate those gloves, or ask a myriad of questions, or expect contingencies and exploration of options in a business meeting. This story is also an example of a tangle of social programs, expectations and failure points.
The senior instructor is frustrated by her because she is going off the reservation. She isn’t listening to him. She isn’t working the drill. He may even experience her actions as disrespectful. In traditional training cultures, her behavior is unacceptable. Note here, traditional does not apply solely to the context of ‘traditional martial arts’. Mixed Martial Arts and modern self-defense programs can fit in this box as well. The frustrated instructor may also be a woman. Just because her brain is also genetically programmed to run through the complex channels and plethora of possibilities, she has likely adjusted to the classic martial teaching paradigm and may interpret her student’s behavior through the same filters as her male colleagues.
To bring the wayward student back to task and back in line there will be corrective punishment. The punishment can be overt as in the story above, it can be subtle and back-channeled, it can be demonstrated in continued biting remarks, shaming, or open shunning. This leaves her with a choice. Handicap her strength to avoid punishment and remain connected to her training community, or leave.
Wait. What about speaking to the instructor? Having an intelligent, open dialogue? This may work – if he is open to the conversation and if she has the science to back up why she wants to test these training approaches (she’ll need this to be able to articulate). The culture of the training program will need to be focused on the successes of the students not the reputation of the instructors and an openness for instructors to acknowledge they may not be 100% right, 100% of the time.
That’s a significant number of caveats and significant socio-psychological inhibitors to a successful outcome.
There is a myriad of teaching methodologies to bring a student, any student studying any thing, back to a specific task without punishing a student’s natural functional learning modalities. Male and female, how our brains are wired influences how we learn and how we train. In a particularly goal-oriented environment like the dojo, the superhighway of white matter connectivity in the female brain may present as an anathema.
What’s really cool though, is this connectivity can be developed further and can be enhanced/increased in anybrain. The instructor who stays curious will default less frequently to classic obedient=good as a metric for success. This instructor will create a permissive training culture. When the student wants to find out what happens when she performs a technique incorrectly, the this instructor is going to be curious right along with her. It won’t be a threat to this instructor’s ego, authority or leadership. And out of this discovery training model, their partnership may uncover another possibility in response to the problem and more importantly, she learns an invaluable lesson: trust your instincts.
The majority of the future posts and blogs along these subject lines will be posted in Tier 1 in the 500Rising Patreon. For all the details check out the site & thanks in advance for your support! https://patreon.com/500Rising.com
 Pick up Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code if you are intrigued.