Is Your Martial Arts Studio A Breeding Ground For Student Motivation?

By Dennis Lawson
Published on May 13th, 2015

An article in the Harvard Business Review discussed a 2008 study by Nohria, Groysberg, and Lee which identified the role of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, in human motivation. Without getting too technical, when dopamine takes a particular neural pathway, the brain predicts that something – whether good or bad – is about to occur. That mental image initiates a response. The response may be to reinforce an expected reward or minimize a potential threat. This and other studies, cited in the article, supported the theory that dopamine acts as a transmitter for both toward (goal seeking) and away from (avoidance) motivation.

In their book, Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices, professors Lawrence and Nohria (above)blend their work in neuroscience with motivational theory. This blend arrived at four habits of human behavior they believe are fundamental to all motivation. This article will focus on how these four desires, habits, or drives (as they refer to them) relate to increased motivation for Martial Arts students and their instructors.

Desire for bonding – The importance of bonding with other humans has been studied in psychology for decades. Ideally, bonding in a Martial Arts studio requires the entire group to have a shared direction and common values. This shared direction often defines the primary focus of the studio - whether that emphasis is on competition, higher levels of contact in training, or development of internal energy, etc. Whatever the studio focus may be, caring and supportive social relationships must develop and be reciprocated for all individuals in the group. Instructors must model this caring approach to the learning environment; leading by “Walking the Walk”.

Desire to learn – The longing for human beings to make sense of their world is as old as the race itself. Students often come to study the Martial Arts with the objective of comprehending and making sense out of an, all too often, violent world. Teachers must organize their teaching methods and curriculums with this yearning in mind, if we are to be successful teaching the Marital Arts in the 21st century. Are you incorporating contemporary learning models (micro learning, blended learning, etc.)in your teaching methods?

Desire to acquire – This aspiration relates to possessing things, taking control of one’s life or various situations, and the human want for immediate gratification. The emphasis is on the short-term. Many Martial Arts studios and organizations work effectively with this desire. Belt rankings, increased social status in the studio, and how quickly a student can become a “Black Belt” are often sold to students and their parents to fulfill this short term want. Does this approach satisfy their long term needs outlined by the other three motivational factors? Only you can decide for your studio and learning emphasis.

Desire to defend – The Marital Arts emphasis on self-protection and personal defense is a major reason an individual may begin to study the arts. The student can learn to act and react to various threatening situations building habits of counterattack, avoidance, and a willingness to flee, when necessary, with self-respect intact. Training to defend may also include defending beliefs, loved ones, and accomplishments, not just the self and material possessions.

How well does your training environment address these fundamental human desires? When was the last time you considered the importance of bonding with your students or altering your curriculum to make the training experience more enjoyable and fulfilling for your students? If this article has sparked some comments, I’d enjoy hearing them. I can be contacted

Filed under Philosophy and Opinion

Author Bio :: Dennis Lawson

Dennis Lawson has trained for 4 decades in Ed Parker's Kenpo. During his varied career, Mr. Lawson has been an IKKA Regional Director for Region #3, has acted as Master of Ceremonies for the International Karate Championships, and has published numerous articles in publications for the International Kenpo Karate Association, The Martial Arts Learning Community (TheMALC), and Kenpo 2000.

Mr. Lawson has had the opportunity to study other Martial Arts and holds advanced rank in Aikido and Takemusu Aiki Budo. Dennis taught, competed in, and promoted events in the New Orleans area for 20 years. Among his list of favorite achievements is choreographing and performing Kenpo for the Dance Council of New Orleans. His academic background in psychology and love of music allow Dennis to offer a unique and entertaining approach to tailoring "the Art" to the individual. Dennis has taught seminars in Ireland, Jersey Channel Islands, The Netherlands, Portugal, and throughout the United States.

Dennis holds a Sixth Degree Black Belt in Ed Parker's Kenpo and was awarded the title “Professor” under the auspices of The Martial Arts Learning Community (TheMALC). Mr. Lawson was inducted into the International Black Belt Hall of Fame as Master Instructor of the Year for 2006.

Other Articles by Dennis Lawson

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