I recently read Tim Hauser’s biography/oral history of Muhammad Ali, and found myself equally fascinated with the recollections of his trainer, Angelo Dundee as with those of  The Champ himself. Dundee was Ali’s trainer and corner man for the vast majority of his professional career, and several of his observations about training Ali overlap with the unwieldy task that faces the serious martial arts instructor. Caveat- One thing is apparent above all others: Ali is one of those people who is massively gifted in kinesthetic intelligence and physical ability. The vast majority of us will never be able to approach his prime level of ability, even with the best possible training. My point here isn’t going to be that we can/should all perform or train like Ali, but that some things that his trainer did to work with his natural abilities are worth considering.

Ali knew that he was an unorthodox boxer and that his genius and ability in the physical realm allowed him to succeed (or is it the other way around?).  Recognizing this, Dundee set out to avoid wasting both his and Ali’s time by trying to fit him into a typical training program or “fixing” his fistic idiosyncrasies. Instead, Dundee recognized that Ali would respond better to things that he had discovered on his own, or been led to discover. So he based training around pointing out instances where Ali did something in a way that he could benefit from developing further.

To paraphrase, Dundee adopted a strategy of asking Ali what he  felt like working on in a training session and using that as a starting point. As Ali did things that Dundee wanted to see developed more, he would point out “you did a great job with that counter, that was different” or “the way you figured that out was great. Do it that way again.” The end result was that although Dundee didn’t give as much in the way of typical instruction, he enabled his fighter to learn and grow. By helping Ali to “discover” things on his own, Dundee avoided the conflict that would have come from trying to correct or alter how he intuitively moved and fought.

The average student in a martial arts class will not present the challenges that Ali presented to Dundee. Most of us come into training at or past our physical primes, and more than most of us are not kinesthetic geniuses. But what we can take away from Dundee’s experience is the recognition that experience is the best teacher, and that the best teachers can do more for their students by enabling them to have those experiences and reflecting on them, rather than nitpicking every single “mistake” that they might make. Obviously there needs to be some structure to training, and an instructor should have concrete, achievable goals in mind along with a plan for realizing them. But within those goals some room can be left for letting the student find ways that he or she can achieve them, and highlighting their discoveries rather than forcing them. As I’ve mentioned before memory recall and integration is strongest when a person arrives at new knowledge by their own efforts.

Although Ali and Dundee’s example is not exactly the same as the typical martial arts club or gym, it does echo the challenges of teaching people how to learn for themselves.  It can be productive to point out persistent but unrecognized problems, but when the balance of instruction is dominated by negative feedback, the student learns that she can’t ever meet her teacher’s expectations and can become indoctrinated to the idea that she will never really develop past the training-wheels stage. Sometimes instructors do this unintentionally because it’s how they were taught, or because of the well-meaning notion that aesthetics translate into functionality. Some instructors seek out this relationship because it keeps them permanently and comfortably above the student, who should otherwise be capable of developing beyond the instructor or style. When the balance of instruction is positive recognition of something that the student has been nudged towards or come to recognize for herself, she learns that her strengths are hers, and that her weaknesses can be overcome by her own efforts.