How Good is Good Enough?

Back in May, at a symposium on teaching kids organized by Madeline Crouse of Satori Dojo in Pennsylvania, many instructors raised the question,

How do you judge the quality of a child’s technique? How good is good enough to promote a child to the next rank?

Implicit was the understanding that young kids can’t meet the standards we apply to adults. Not even our best child-students can be expected to perform like adults.

Heidi Goldstein of Concorde Martial Arts in New York writes,

It seems we all get stuck on the “how good is good enough” question. It would be great to hear from other instructors on this issue. People say things like, “When he can do a good lower block;” or, “When her forward stance looks OK.” What does that mean? We need to define these terms so they are measurable in some way.

In my own experience I’ve noticed a principle at work that’s akin to the old adage, “Work expands to fill the allotted time.” It goes:

Perfectionism expands to make any step impossible to reach.

When we try to get young kids to learn the amount of material we expect from adults, we find they can’t do it—or it takes them many, many times as long. But when we break the material into smaller bits—manageable steps—the next thing we notice is that many of them can’t perform those steps to what we thought were reasonable standards.

So… What standards can we reasonably apply?

Tanner Critz of Unity Martial Arts in Arkansas writes:

I have a list of principles that go into making techniques good. My goal for kids at lower ranks is that they can show a certain number of those principles, and then the number needs to increase but not in any particular order. This allows kids to advance in different ways towards the same goal. The principles on the list, though, are far from standardized. I’d love to know what other people would put on their list (even if they don’t do it this way).

We’d love to know what Tanner puts on his list, too, and I bet he’ll tell us if we get a good discussion going here.

Ricki Kay of Fairwood Martial Arts in Washington writes:

I look for whether kids can consistently do the technique without any prompting from the instructor, and with about 50% good form. The forward stance may not look like a black belt doing it, but they have the basic form. At the lower ranks and ages, I look at their consistency in showing their knowledge of the technique. Do they do a middle block when asked, or do they just put their hand out?

Instructors: Please join the discussion, and forward this link to your colleagues so they too can tell us, How do you decide when a child’s technique is good enough to move him or her to the next rank?

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7 Comments on “How Good is Good Enough?”

  1. I look at the child’s effort and ability to take it seriously. I can usually see in a child’s face how hard they are trying. Are they listening and doing their best week in and week out? If a kid is constantly mucking around and goofing off, he will have his work cut out for him on grading day. There are certain standards that have to be met, but I also consider the child’s coordination, strength, and but most importantly, attitude. Many of these children who were not athletically gifted are now top martial artists and leaders in our organization. They just needed a little patience.

  2. Tanner Critz Says:

    Here’s the list of principles and the associated details I use. Obviously I don’t expect kids to get a large number of them quickly, but in whatever order they grasp and integrate the various details they will improve the associated principle for all of their techniques, katas, self defense, sparring, etc. I’d love to know if anyone has more to add.

    Principles and Details

    – Knee bent
    – Don’t slide back foot
    – Engage hip
    – Stay low
    – Pivot on heel
    – Tight foot position
    – Open the door
    – Correct stance shape

    – Reaction hand
    – Proper load
    – Tight hand position
    – Back straight
    – Keep wrist straight
    – Rotate technique on contact

    – Legs drive arms
    – Torso whip
    – Horizontal contraction and expansion
    – Vertical contraction and expansion

    – Strikes to target
    – Turn head first
    – Block through center
    – Timing of hands, feet, and breath
    – Load w/out flopping
    – Be still between moves

    – Go through Kicking stance two times
    – Turn on a line instead of a spiral
    – Drop to cat stance after kick
    – Don’t lean into techniques
    – Don’t look down
    – Don’t rush

    – Don’t wilt between moves
    – Don’t stand up to cat stance
    – Cut out extra movement

    – Kiai short and loud
    – Enjoy your techniques
    – Look to the horizon
    – Project
    – Don’t talk during exercises

  3. redwoodojo Says:

    That’s a pretty comprehensive list, Tanner! Rather than adding more, I wonder whether we could extract a much shorter list that a person brand new to teaching kids might feel comfortable working with. What are the most common “sloppinesses” of child-students– especially ones they are capable of fixing with a little help– so that an instructor could target just a few things, and set the goal of having a student test for rank when they’ve mastered, say, 3 out of 5 of those things…
    All the items on Tanner’s list are good & important, but what would you (readers) select for a shorter list if you had to choose? [& of course don’t let me discourage anyone from adding more items if you have them!]

    I like the idea that students of different strengths and weaknesses can progress by mastering different list items in any order. One can use a similar approach by making the technique requirements somewhat flexible as well. For example, lower block may be required for the first test, rising block for the second; but many kids may find it easier to perform a decent rising block – so a substitution can be made. For the youngest kids, and those who struggle, “testing” or “grading” may consist of finding what they are good at and featuring it.

  4. Tanner Critz Says:

    One reason I like looking at principles over techniques to measure progress is that kids will often have a very tentative grasp of the techniques from their last few tests and a few tests ahead of where they are, but their progression through the principles stays very consistent.

    I usually narrow it down to the overall principle as far as how I remember a kid’s progress and then look at the details to help them improve while they’re in class. So I may remember about an individual kid that their leg power is great and their arms are close, but their accuracy needs attention.

    The most common issues I address are:
    – Opening the door, staying low and holding a good stance
    – Reaction hand
    – Punching to the center
    – Going through kicking stance twice when kicking
    – Loading correctly on turns
    – Not wilting in between moves

    Once we get past these, the kids are pretty solid and many of the other details have to do with making them powerful and precise. Some kids get advanced details down before they get some of the basics, though.

    • redwoodojo Says:

      Great -Thanks, Tanner.
      Since a couple of these terms may be style-specific, I’m going to take a stab at clarifying…Please correct me if I’m wrong:
      “Opening the door”- you mean turning the foot out before taking an advancing step.
      “Going through kicking stance twice” – Passing through the “knee raised/foot retracted” position, once on the way out & once on the way back, when kicking. One could say, “Remember to lift the knee; remember to retract the kick.”

  5. Mark Brandenburg Says:

    How about children in upper ranks? Would you expect a brown belt candidate child to perform like an adult? Should children in upper ranks switch to an adult curriculum and join adult classes? If some kids join the adult class and some stay in the kids/teens class, should you expect the same from both of them? Should you judge them differently?

    • redwoodojo Says:

      Good questions. Hmmmm…. I have a couple of green belt kids who attend teen/adult (too young for all-adult). They follow the adult curriculum, and I expect the quality of knowledge, effort and good form to equal the adults. The only way in which they don’t match up is in strength, power and focus. Because they are still small and growing, it’s not healthy for them to overdo this, and I don’t require it until they’re bigger (literally bigger). So they don’t perform quite like adults, and they don’t pair up with adults, but they meet a high standard. Not all kids can do this. I’ve had many young teens whose technique remains careless or hesitant, who continue to behave like kids in terms of letting their minds wander and bodies go limp — I expect them to do better before they will get promoted on the adult curriculum, and some of them have taken a very long time between tests before they shaped up. But, in short, yes, I expect them to perform more like adults, once they switch to the adult curriculum.

      With kids in kids’ class who are getting more advanced, I leave them on the kids curriculum but sometimes skip a stripe if they are starting to learn and perform at more of an adult pace. And that’s when I may start encouraging them to consider switching to teen class/adult curriculum, where they will be able to move forward at a faster pace if they apply themselves.

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