Tips for Teaching Kids, Part II: “A Million Times”

Rohai Dojo in Berkeley sometimes posts on the bulletin board a story borrowed from Louise Rafkin’s book, The Tiger’s Eye, The Bird’s Fist: A Beginner’s Guide to the Martial Arts. –This book, by the way, is a nice collection of stories, legends, biographies and history, giving kids an introduction to martial arts in general, their culture and philosophy. It’s out of print, but sometimes available at Powell’s Books or Amazon. In fact I was in Powell’s recently and saw a copy there.

The story is titled “A Million Times.” Here’s an excerpt:

A legendary teacher once taught one of his prize students to punch. The student put his fingers together in a fist and hit the target a few times.
“Can you teach me something else?” the student asked.
The teacher frowned. “First practice the punch a million times,” he told the student sternly. “Then I will teach you something new.” The student was discouraged, and went in search of a new teacher.
The new teacher taught the student a kick. “Practice a million times,” he said.
“What? Not a million times!” The student once again went to find a new teacher.
[ . . . ]

I’m going to leave you hanging, readers, but if you teach martial arts to children, you know this story; you experience it every day. Which brings us to the topic of this blog post:

How do you get kids to put in enough work on the basics, while keeping their interest up and teaching them the value and necessity of repetitive practice? Another way to phrase the question: How do you disguise repetition, while at the same time teaching the importance of it?

Different teachers take different views, and may have equal success with opposite approaches. I want to start the discussion off by revealing my personal bias, and feel free to disagree.

While some seek to keep kids interested by making everything in class into a game, I’m not a big fan of this. I like using games for a few minutes as warm-ups at the beginning of class, or as a release at the end of class, but the heart of class for me is practice, and most of that is going to be basics. So I have to find different ways to break it up—and there are plenty: change gears frequently; change tone of voice, speed, or counting; intersperse bursts of calisthenics; switch between forward and backward, front foot and rear, alone and with partner, in the air and on the target; have the instructor do sneak attacks with a foam “bopper” during basic repetitions. I think Kathy Varady meant something similar when she mentioned “theme classes” in her comment on our previous post about teaching.

There are a million ways to get it done “a million times.” What are some of yours?

Explore posts in the same categories: Book Review, kids karate book, martial arts for kids, Martial arts instruction

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

10 Comments on “Tips for Teaching Kids, Part II: “A Million Times””

  1. I love to disguise repetition of basic techniques during my kid’s class. The kid’s don’t even realize that they have done as many rising blocks, front snap kicks etc. etc. as they have because they are engaged and focused and enthusiastic (and having fun!). One thing I have expanded on that I got from another instructor was the “Jungle Walk”. We walk around the dojo and pretend we are in the jungle and pretend to be different animals. When I call out “log” we all jump and when I call out “branch”, we all duck. I have expanded on this to get the kids participation and to incorporate the basic kid’s curriculum techniques. Each kid gets to add an animal of their imagination (with an animal sound to go along with it) and pick a karate technique that seems appropriate. For example, Julia (a 4th grader) decided to add the giraffe on our last jungle walk and she gave it a sound and corresponding rising block. My son, Benjamin, created his own cheetah, made up a cheetah sound and had us do inner chops whenever “cheetah” was called out. We do the technique until I call out “log” or “branch” and then I call out another students name and then they get to call out an animal (which has a set sound and set technique that they have created). Everyone also has to work their memory (keeps the kids engaged so they don’t wander off and lose focus since they don’t want to miss out). Monkey was pushups, Gorilla was upper knee kicks. They LOVE this and they get to do LOTS and LOTS of basic technique repetition.

  2. Mark Brandenburg Says:


    You hit on most of the ways to disguise repetition! One “game” that I challenge the students with is based on the old electronic game Simon where you have to press the colored bars in the order they light up. In the Cuong Nhu version, I call out a single technique then add a second, third, fourth, and so on. The kids do much better than adults at this game! I write down the list of techniques in order so I don’t forget and usually the kids get all the way to the end (15-20 techniques). This game works on their memory as well as repetition of techniques.

    • redwoodojo Says:

      Thanks, Mark. I love that– I do a similar “game” (now, I think of that as a “challenge,” not a “game”).

      I did toss out a lot of General ways to disguise reps, but let me give a more Specific example. “Varying the count:” I tell the kids to move forward when I am counting up, and backward when I am counting down. So simple! But it engages that little bit of their mind that wants to get bored with the repetitions. I might also say, “kiai on #3 and #7.” On top of it, maybe start counting out of order, so 3 and 7 don’t come when expected. Just enough little distractions to keep them going.

      Anyone else have specific techniques?

    • Kathy Varady Says:


      My gymnastics instructor used to call this “add a trick”. It is one of the first games I can remember playing. We used to do it on a trampoline. My teacher seemingly never could keep up with us. In retrospect, he was probably playing along and making us feel good about our memories and proud of our techniques.

    • Chris Baglieri Says:


      Either Mark’s answer had not been posted, or I skimmed too quickly, but I apparently copied his “Simon” idea in my post! [blushes]

      Didn’t intend to repeat a technique on disguised repetition!!

      In any case – It’s fun to see where we all go with it.

      [And yes, Mark, my kids are -invariably- better at Simon than I am!]

      “Copy from one, it’s plagiarism; copy from two, it’s research.” – Wilson Mizner

      • Mark Brandenburg Says:


        No need to apologize!

        I am going to “research” (well let me do it twice and then it will be “research”) your example of using letters to spell words with techniques. I think my kids will love that.

  3. Tanner Critz Says:

    Most days I have my classes lined up by age, so that I’ll have four or five classes in a row starting with the pre-K’s and ending with adults. I’ll have a theme for the day and then as I go through the classes I can stay on each drill longer and diguise the drills and repetition with games less and less.

    One thing that helps ease kids into a new level of intensity when they move up to an older or higher-rank group is my tone of voice (Didi mentioned this above). Maybe in the class before, we disguised the exercise in a game about animals or racing the ball and now we’re calling it sprints and pushups, but if my voice has suddenly become upbeat and energetic, they’ll see it as fun regardless. As they begin to see through the veil, they’ve already learned about the rewards of hard work and they’ll start to have fun with the challenges of physical exertion and precision of technique.

    Guiding their energy level with my tone of voice, punctuating at key moments demonstration as opposed to guiding them with demonstration all the way through helps me observe and give feedback better, as well as making 25 classes a week more doable.


  4. Chris Baglieri Says:

    A million repetitions….Hmmm.

    Here’s a quick list of my hidden repetition techiniques, not including the ever-popular “now let’s play a game that’s really just more reps” -technique.

    Counting –

    – in other languages, and then repeating the count with the kids learning the words.

    – using letters, or spelling out words

    – using words in a sentence (aka-counting cadence – “I don’t know but I’ve been told…Sensei Chris is getting old!..”

    – doing a technique (eg – push-ups) one time for every year of age (Then they ask me to do forty of them!!) or ten seconds for every year.

    Non-counting repetition ideas

    I ask the class how many ways there are to do kata – Too fast, too slow, too low, too silly, two moves at a time, “double-vision” (each move repeated twice), machine gun (each move repeated three times). Then we do our kata each way.

    I play – “Simon”, building longer and longer chains of techniques by repeating and adding one. E.g. – Start with punch. Then punch-high-block. Then Puch-block-kick. They need to remember the chain and repeat it with the added technique. This builds up repetition pretty quickly.

    (One class remembered and repeated a chain 14 techniques long!)

    And one last favorite – I disguise repetition by not disguising it. I simply say – “How many of these do you think we can do in a minute?” Then I add, “Wow! Let’s see if we can beat that!”

    Then I remind them that the great wall of China was built one brick at a time.


  5. On the topic of using letters to spell words – I recently ordered a bunch of little square flat leather bean bags from online sports and they came with all kids of letters on them. I get the kids to balance them on their heads for good posture and complete an obstacle course of techniques around the dojo without droppping them – they are split into two teams and they both have a home base to deposit the bean bags and run back to get more. If they drop them they start over until all bean bags are at each home base and no more reamin (Kindergarten kids get 3 drops restart and older ones get none to make it fair) – after all bean bags are on either teams home base, the first team to then build a karate word out of the bean bag letters wins. They then have to demonstrate the technique.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: