Martin Messier

July 18, 2023

NLP Modeling Lessons from Mr. Miyagi

"Wax on... Wax off..."

To me, these four words (immortalized by Mr. Miyagi) symbolize the modeling process. In this article, I will break down five modeling lessons derived from a specific scene of The Karate Kid. Before we get started, watch the scene:

Lesson 1: There's a right way and a wrong way.

"Walk on road. Walk right side, safe. Walk left side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later, you get squished just like grape. Here, karate same thing. Either you karate do, yes, or karate do, no.
You karate do, "guess so", just like grape. Understand?"

Here, Mr. Miyagi imparts to Daniel that karate is a discipline. According to the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary, a discipline is "the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience."

There is a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. If he practices karate the wrong way, Daniel will get hurt.

Likewise, NLP modeling is a discipline. It's not just a skill. There's a right way and many wrong ways to practice modeling. If you practice it the wrong way, you'll more than likely get hurt. In case you don't believe me, read these words from one of my readers:

Hi Martin,
Glad you started on the topic of safety, because I messed myself up pretty bad with it
In NLP I heard them talk about setting up a filter,
But nobody tells you how to do it
They also talk in hypnosis tons about how your unconscious will protect you and not go against your values and all this kind of stuff.
I've found it all not to be true.
I messed myself royally up through DTI and what you call modeling.
Nobody warned me and I never foresaw how it could mess up and derail my life.
I learned any suggestion can feel good even if its bad.
You can develop a state where anything that you put in it will have a "yes this will happen" and "mmmm this is a good feeling" type of quality attached to it, including very negative things.
My mind lost its ability to properly filter.

This is just one example of what can go wrong if you don't practice modeling in a disciplined, organized way.

Lesson 2: No understanding allowed.

"First make sacred pact. I promise teach karate. That my part. You promise learn. I say, you do, no questions. That your part. Deal?"

This is probably the most challenging part of modeling for all my students. Since they entered middle school, it's been drilled into them that the key to learning is understanding.

What this approach fails to realize, however, is we learn best by understanding AFTER we've learned how to do something — not before nor in order to do it.

Stop for a second and think back to how you learned to speak your native language. Did your parents sit you down and teach you grammar and vocabulary structures in order for you to express yourself?

Absolutely not.

You started studying grammar close to ten years after you were already speaking grammatically correct sentences in your native language.

You didn't understand how you learned the language, how you spoke it, or where it came from. And yet, you still learned to speak it.


That's what the next lesson is about.

Lesson 3: Modeling is doing.

"First wash all the cars, then wax. Wax on right hand. Wax off left hand. Wax on, wax off. Breathe in through nose, out through mouth. Wax on, wax off. Don't forget to breathe. Very important."

To teach him karate, Mr. Miyagi offers Daniel a set of behavioral instructions for him to follow.

1. Wash all the cars.
2. Wax — wax on right hand, wax off left hand.
3. Breathe in through nose, out through mouth.

Modeling involves action from the very beginning. It's behavioral in nature. It's physical. You do not model in your mind. You do not think. You model by acting out, in the world.

This is where the Nike principle comes handy. "Just do it."

With learning a language, that's what you did. You modeled the speaking of those around you without having a clue as to what you were saying. You simply noticed that your utterances provoked certain reactions. Eventually, you started attributing meaning and understanding what you were saying.

Lesson 4: Zero confusion.

"Wax on, right hand make circle. Wax off, left hand make circle."

It's a simple instruction. Anyone could follow it.

Remember how Mr. Miyagi secures Daniel's commitment at the very beginning? "I say, you do, no questions." He doesn't allow questions because the task at hand is simple. If he allows questions, Daniel's mind will start complicating everything.

Likewise, modeling revolves around performing simple actions that we do not consciously understand. I always tell my students that the tasks they perform in modeling cannot require thinking or decision-making in order to be performed. Thinking or decision-making invites confusion, and confusion paralyzes action.

When modeling, thinking is the enemy.

Lesson 5: Over and over and over.

Mr. Miyagi asks Daniel to wash and wax a whole fleet of cars. This means "Wax on, wax off" hundreds of times. By so doing, Mr. Miyagi knows that Daniel will integrate the movement he prescribed.

The approach proves effective when Mr. Miyagi later asks Daniel to defend his punches using the "Wax on, wax off" movements. His student spontaneously executes them.

Modeling revolves around pattern recognition, and repetition activates our pattern recognition abilities. The more we perform an action, the more that action imprints onto our neurology and the more our unconscious optimization mechanisms go to work identifying the underlying pattern that makes it work. 


Be sure to ask in the comments.

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