Trouble Spot Training

 Robert L. Barton 

                Trouble Spot Training is a system for quickly diagnosing areas of difficulty in training for individual martial arts students and developing a training protocol to help in the resolution of these difficulties. The ability to address the problems that an individual is experiencing and to prevent many of the most common martial arts related complaints is one of the primary things that sets the finest martial arts instructors aside from the poor or average teachers. Development of Trouble Spot Training (hereafter referred to as TST) abilities will create an instructor of the highest skill with better student retention in his or her school and superior quality performance and confidence seen in his or her students.   

            These notes are intended to accompany the TST workshop and allow the attendee to refer to the principles and practices discussed in the workshop. It is my hope that people attending this workshop find in it something that will assist him or her in his or her own practice of martial arts and with endeavors as instructors of this way of life, which we embrace. I hope to see a new generation of teachers of the arts that are willing to turn to specialists and make these people available to their students. By working with professionals in their respective fields, we will increase the perception of ourselves as educated specialists in our field. 

How a Student Learns Martial Arts 

            When a person learns something new, it becomes a pattern in the brain, it also can be practiced until it becomes a habit. What we do as martial arts teachers is to implant patterns into the brains of our students and to cause the patterns of movement, posture and thought to become habits. Each of these patterned habits will stay with the student and dictate exactly how they move and think in related situations. When a habit is developed or when an old habit is modified by a new habit, we call this a paradigm shift. A general rule of thumb for bringing about a solid and lasting paradigm shift is the twenty-one day rule. Neuro-physiology tells us that if a new thing is practiced for a period of twenty-one training days, it will become a habit or it will modify or replace a related habit that has been excluded from practice for the same period of time. An example of this would be in an instance where a student comes to us from another school and has a problem with hyperextension of the elbow on a punch, the hyperextension has become a habit of motion. In order to change this unfortunate habit we will have the student begin to slowly punch in the proper form stopping the punch at the maximum strength point. Then for a period of twenty-one training days we have the student slowly increase the speed of the punch while maintaining the proper form. After the twenty-one training day process, the old punching habit will have been modified by the new punching habit. So we must remember that practice does not make perfection, it makes permanence. 

            Another detail of direct pattern teaching of technique is that it is always easier to alter or modify an existing pattern than it is to begin an entirely new pattern. So if there is a problem with a technique, the instructor should work toward a modification of the technique, as in the above example, rather than trying to completely erase and replace it. It also speeds up the learning process if the instructor can find a preexisting related pattern for a new movement or skill. An example of this is when an instructor compares a new technique to something that is already understood, such as explaining the motion of a side kick as it relates to a stomp in basic movement. 

            The last major point of direct patterning is that as instructors we cannot negative pattern, unlike computer software, we cannot erase a bit of information from the brain. We can only do positive patterning, building new patterns and modifying existing patterns. What this indicates is that it is seldom effective to tell a student "don't do that" or "that was wrong", both are attempts to negative pattern. Rather, we should use positive patterning in which we approach the problem technique as though we are adding the solution to it. 

            Yet another area of concern in learning is in how to speed up the ability of the student to translate movement: to help them develop the ability to see a movement and understand how to copy, or perform it, themselves. Generally new students are not very good at this skill, but it improves with time until we see advanced students who can be shown a technique or combination of movements and perform them correctly on the first or second try. It is important that as teachers we are aware that our students take longer to translate this information to their own bodies than we ourselves require. There are several things that we can do to improve the class time required to teach skills to students: facing the same direction as the students when teaching a new technique or combination (this removes one step from the learning process and allows the student to perform the technique as seen rather than trying to mentally reverse it to their own relative position); an instructor can also give simultaneous visual and verbal clues and directions, as simple as pointing in the direction of a turn rather that just saying turn left (playing a game of dojo follow the leader with a children's class at the start of each session will improve their translation ability and be fun for everyone). 

            Now let us take a look at the stages of learning a technique, and how we can approach each stage. Our first stage is going to be that of kinesiology, or posture and movement. At this stage we focus on developing the proper physical movements for the technique. Here we pattern the brain so that the body moves in the proper way and with correct posture. The next step is developing that movement as learned into habit as practiced and this is accomplished by regular practice of the technique in proper form. We then explain anything conceptually-related to the skill and teach the student to perform the move with focus. Finally, we move into the field of direct practical applications for the skill. At this point the student has been taught to do the movement correctly, the skill has become a habit, they are aware of the concepts of the skill and are able to understand and apply the skill. A teacher need not wait until one stage is complete prior to moving into the next stage, in fact, a student can often be given a motion study, conceptual study and some practical application study in the same session and practice the technique to the point of habit afterwards. It is when all of these things are in place that the student becomes able to perform a given technique with skill, commitment and total focus.              

Problem Diagnostics 

            A problem, once it has been identified, must be traced to its source. By finding the source of the difficulty, we are able to design a solution protocol that fixes the trouble at the root. First, we define the outward symptoms of the problem, which tells us what the problem looks or acts like. Once we have identified the problem in this manner, we begin to ask ourselves a series of questions designed to get at the root of the problem. We should also go through all of the questions and not stop at the first 'yes' that we come up with, since many problems may have several causative factors. By identifying all sources of trouble we will insure a complete solution rather than a partial resolution of the difficulty. Another important detail is that there are some things that just cannot be fixed and must be dealt with: physical handicaps, illnesses and permanent injury are among these. 

            Any type of troubleshooting always begins with the primary question, this question should always be asked first. "If I wanted to cause this problem, what would I do"? The answers to this question usually provide us with the first few things that we check, starting with the most obvious. The answers to this and the next few questions allow us to come up with the most effective resolution for the problem. 

            Next we ask if there is any kinesthetic difficulty with posture or movement. "Is the technique being done with the proper body alignment"? "Are the joints of the body being moved in the proper way"? To answer these questions, we check posture and form very closely. We also look to see if there are any physical injuries or trouble that may be contributing to the problem. 

            We move then to questions about concepts and emotions to find out how they think and feel in areas relative to the problem. "Is there a relative concept that the student is not applying, did not learn or has forgotten"? "Is there an emotional factor such as hesitation, confidence problem or fear"? "Is there a lack of education or knowledge about the skill that is active in this problem"?


            Once all questions have been asked and the answers written down, we have the areas of difficulty identified. Next we will break each area down into its most basic component areas. Only after we have an accurate view of the problem in its entirety can we begin to design a training protocol that will act as a complete solution. 

Solution Protocol Design and Implementation 

            Once the causative factors have been listed, the instructor and student should sit down and discuss them. Each area of difficulty should be addressed by listing solutions to the problem. When solutions or approaches to each factor have been listed, all of the solutions are taken and put together into a training protocol that will address the entire problem. Sometimes we find that a certain solution will fix several areas, such as when more knowledge of the proper use of a technique automatically fixes a relative confidence problem. Once all of this has been done we decide upon our approach to the solutions. Which should come first in order to accomplish them in the most effective progression? How should they be approached in light of the twenty-one training day rule? Lastly we put the protocol into action in a very positive manner. 

An example of TST in action 

            A pupil comes into my school as a new student, but he has studied martial arts for the last ten years moving through several different schools and instructors. He is strong, and in very good shape. His basic form appears good, and he is a skilled fighter, with a good eye for practical applications. He is intelligent, self-motivated and learns quickly-often only needing to see a technique once. 

            During his first month of training, I begin to notice some of the signs of knee pain and weakness. When I talk to him about it he admits that yes, his knees bother him quite a bit and that he has had a recurring injury to the right knee several times in the last five years. But as one of his previous instructors suggested to him, he ignores the pain, keeps training hard and when he gets an injury he starts training it hard as soon as he can, in order to restore strength. His general attitude is that this is something that he will just have to deal with, but he is a man and will just ignore it. 

            We sit down and go through a detailed examination of his problem and training habits for his stances, movements and kicks. We find out quite a few things about what circumstances have gotten his knees into this condition. Here is what we found out: when he stretches he bounces and holds the stretches for several minutes; when he practices kicks at home it is on a 100lb bag and he always kicks with full power; when he kicks in the air it too is done at full speed and the kicking leg goes into a momentary hyperextension and the supporting leg often raises up onto the toes and goes into hyperextension; when he spars he is usually leaning a bit forward and puts his weight in the balls of his feet most of the time during training, including when doing forms; when he does his deep stances, he often allows the front knee to extend a bit forward of his foot; he runs several miles a day for aerobic training; his repetitive injury seems to occur when he is rotating on his right leg and the knee goes into hyperextension. 

            So what we see happening to his knees is this: bouncing during the stretches is causing a build up of scar tissue in the muscles; the bouncing and holding the stretch beyond sixty seconds total per session is causing an over-stretch which damages muscle fibers and is transferring the stretch to the ligaments which is compromising joint integrity and contributing to the recurring injury. Extending the front knee beyond the foot and consistently supporting his weight on the balls of his feet is always causing a poor weight bearing alignment on his knees, which is not allowing them to carry the pressure in the strongest position. Kicking the heavy bag so much is causing too much shock on the soft tissue of the joint, as is allowing the joint to go into hyperextension during kicks. The daily impact of running is also putting too much shock on the knee. A quick visit to the doctor confirms that there is some chronic inflammation and permanent damage to the joint that results in arthritis. The recurring injury has never been allowed to completely heal and this too has resulted in a permanent state of weakness. The student becomes depressed and feels that his martial arts career is at an end. 

            Other details of his problem are that he has listened to martial arts instructors about injuries rather than consulting a doctor. He has had some very poor training attitudes given to him by inferior instructors along with poor training practices. He has never been taught the physiology of the knee joint or of stretching properly. He has never been taught how to rehabilitate an injury properly. He has never been taught how to examine and adjust the body for proper mechanical alignment. He has been taught to ignore what his body is telling him. If these things do not change, his career is over.

The doctor and myself decide how to approach the whole problem in a comprehensive fashion. First, the permanent damage cannot be undone, but we will try to minimize the effects and prevent more damage. The doctor places him on a course of medication to reduce the inflammation, we also decide that he will not run or do any intense physical training for at least one month. During this time he will study the physiology of the knee and proper stretching techniques. He will also study body mechanics so that he will understand his own kinetics. He will also be taught the general rule that when an injury has stopped traumatic pain and swelling it is only 25% healed and should be rehabilitated under the care of a doctor. For the depression, he will still come to class where he will start learning to teach. During his period of mental only training, he will be taught to use intense visualization in order to help learn his new skills, this cuts down on the amount of physical training needed and allows him to still direct pattern some things while he is not able to physically practice. When he is ready to start training physically again we will make some very serious changes. He will use swimming as his primary aerobic training. He will limit his bag kicking and he will use a 35lb bag, which will provide the inertia to slow the kick but not so much that the knee receives a shock. He will not kick into the air at anything more than three-quarters speed, and he will learn to slow the kick at the end and control the inertia with his muscles and alignment. When he first starts his physical training, he will practice all kicks and his basic postures and forms in slow motion so that he can pattern his body to maintain proper form-each of these extending over a twenty-one training day period in order for it to become permanent. When he practices he is specifically going to work on keeping his heels down during forms, and not allowing the knee to slide into hyperextension. After he has patterned these modifications in for twenty one training days he will begin to slowly increase speed until he can maintain proper form when at full speed, and only then can he begin to resume sparring and competing. He will have to learn to live with the pain of the permanent damage though that pain will be much diminished by proper training, and his 'macho attitude' toward training will have to be replaced by a perspective based on awareness and health. 

I would like to summarize here and say that I feel that all martial arts training problems can be tracked to their source and solutions found. It is this skill that sets the top level of instructors apart from the rest. By demanding this level of skill from the people who present martial arts training programs to the public we will see an improvement in the quality of martial arts schools and students and an increase in safety in our industry. In order to be a top-level teacher, each martial arts instructor must be willing to learn a wide variety of skills and develop a broad knowledge base. Simply being able to punch and kick may be sufficient to be a good fighter but the skills of fighting and teaching are two different things.             

All martial artists are welcome to contact me for more information or to consult with me about a training difficulty. E-mail to:

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