Teenage Martial arts training group
Shutterstock / BearFotos
One of the most controversial topics when teaching groups (especially teenagers) is the issue of collective punishment. I would define this as punishing the entire class for the actions of a single student, such as making them do push-ups or run laps when they aren’t focused or paying attention.

I have found this policy to be an effective teaching tool when used properly. As much as it would be great to tell students verbally, I find that helping them remember with physical feedback helps them alter their behavior quickly. After all, we all hopefully learned not to touch the hot stove after one sore finger. That sore finger kept us safe because we learned to avoid hot surfaces which would bring similar negative results. Similarly, when there’s too much talking in class, I tell everyone they have too much energy and need to burn some off. Therefore, I have them run back and forth a few times. Soon, they understand talking means sprints, and therefore, talking should be avoided. And if it’s your classmate that is talking, you should shush them yourself and hold each other accountable because if one person screws it up, everyone will be doing sprints.

It’s a great policy, but it can be easily abused.

First, this tool should not be used if you have a student who is consistently a problem and lagging behind. That’s a very different issue that will be dealt with in an upcoming article. If everyone has to suffer for the actions of one student, that student will be hated and likely bullied. This is the exact opposite of the intended purpose, which is to build the team. Collective punishment is when you see students exhibiting similar issues across the board, and you want to deal with it efficiently. Therefore, you deal with it collectively.

Second, this tool should be used carefully. While it can be used with great effectiveness, this concept has gotten misused by instructors, who use it in order to frighten the class into submission, and can easily turn the class against the instructor. The goal of treating the students as a group is to reinforce an important lesson. They have a responsibility to each other, and their actions have consequences for the group.

If some students talk instead of train, it spoils the experience of the entire group. If some are wild and lack control, the entire class is put at risk. Therefore, students who are struggling to maintain discipline get a new incentive of not wanting to ruin it for everyone. This is especially helpful for younger students, who often like to be the center of attention. If they crack jokes and misbehave, they can bring down the tempo of the class. If I punish those few students, I reward their behavior with attention. If the entire class suffers from the jokester students actions, the other students will usually handle the issue internally and tell the funny friends to knock it off because they aren’t in the mood for more sprints.

It also humbles the more advanced students by reminding them that in the end, they are also part of the group. Therefore, they should share their knowledge and skills and elevate the group instead of only thinking of themselves. In the end, martial arts is about training leadership and morality, in addition to muscles. This is why it’s a tool used in the military with soldiers.

A soldier from my former unit was killed in a training accident a few weeks ago, and as I mourned, I remembered how I had almost died in the same way more than a decade ago when I was a new recruit. During an early boot training drill, a confused fellow recruit broke protocol and began firing from the wrong position. I remember dropping into the dirt, digging my nose into the sand as the bullet flew over my head and my life flashed before my eyes.

My teammate was rightly chewed out by our commander, who told him the next mistake would mean being dropped from combat service, but all of us soldiers had to do burpees and sprints together as punishment.

The commanders wanted us to never again repeat the mistakes of that day. As miserable as it was to do it, physical discomfort is a very good way of learning and making the learning memorable. We would forever associate not following orders with terrible exhaustion.

But only one of us made a mistake? Why punish all of us?

This collective punishment made us aware that despite our teammate being the screw-up at the moment, we were a united group. We triumphed together, and we failed together. While each of us was responsible for our own mistakes, we also had to watch each other’s backs and make sure no one was headed into danger. We were a team, and the only way to success was together. That lesson was painful but invaluable.

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