Archive for the ‘Martial arts instruction’ category

Instructors Meet to Talk About Kids and Standards

May 29, 2014

Cuong Nhu IATC in Raleigh was a great opportunity for a group of instructors who teach kids to meet together to discuss common interests and concerns. At dinner on Saturday, a group got together, prompted by the following question, posed a few weeks earlier by Sensei Michael Hornback of Hero Academy in Longwood, FL:

“I have an eight year old student who cannot consistently keep her hands closed on punches and blocks (I know the various teaching methods to achieve this, but still, there is no consistency). How would she fare in a testing situation that you preside over? Would she pass? Fail? Get probation? Be berated [or, sternly corrected on this obvious, basic error] – even though you may not know her personal history and efforts as a student?”

For discussion purposes, we agreed to limit the topic to “testing standards for children,” and not stray into “teaching methods for kids.” As important as it is to share, discuss and revisit all the tips and tricks we can use to improve performance and cure specific bad habits (like loose fists), we know that children will remain imperfect in predictably unpredictable ways, and the question will arise, again and again, what to do when an imperfect child comes up for testing. Do we advance them, or bring them to a stop? How do we decide what to do?

Present for some or all of the discussion: Senseis Doug Storm and Shawn McElroy of Sung Ming Shu Dojo in Atlanta; Sensei Parnee Frederick of Revolution Dojo in Appleton, WI; Sensei Estela Atalay of Nei Ching Dojo, Miami; Sensei Ron Thomas of Tallest Tree dojo in Gainesville, FL; Sensei Lynne Correia of Blue Heron Dojo in San Diego; Sensei Tanner Critz of Unity Martial Arts, Little Rock; Sensei Kevin Cardoni of Northern Lights Dojo, Marquette, MI; Sensei Darius Jones of Crescent Moon Dojo in Pendleton, SC; Sensei Heidi Goldstein-Sidley of Concorde Martial Arts, White Plains, NY; Master Ricki Kay of Fairwood Martial Arts, Renton, WA; and Master Didi Goodman of Redwood Dojo in Oakland, CA.

The discussion ranged across several points of agreement, areas of interest, and matters for further discussion that we hope can be pursued in this and other blogs and venues. Among the points discussed – not necessarily in order:

– For developmental reasons, and reasons of individual difference (and sometimes disability), children cannot be expected to achieve perfection, nor consistently meet absolute standards for rank testing within Cuong Nhu.

– Instructors working with children and teens are in a constant process of evaluating, adjusting, and making individual decisions about what a student can or can’t master at the moment; things are not black and white, and this kind of flexibility is what good teaching is about.

– Even within a structured system like our children’s curriculum, this kind of flexibility also applies to testing: Instructors must decide which imperfections get a “temporary pass” and which ones constitute an absolute roadbloack to advancement.
– Instructors differ on which requirements they consider “roadblock” requirements. These may also differ case by case. For example, Sensei Tanner regards the basic push-up requiremment as an absolute after purple belt level, whereas many of us are flexible with weak push-ups in children, but are strict in other areas.

– Children’s testing, in general, requires much greater flexibility than adult testing.

– Different rank levels can be characterized by specific areas of concern (“what general qualities do you look for below purple belt? What do you look for from purple belt to blue belt?”), and these could form the basis for general agreement on testing roadblocks vs. passes. (This needs further discussion.)

– Instructors who do not work extensively with children and youth could benefit from some education and communication from those of us who do, in order to help them understand and handle testing situations more effectively/productively when kids and youth are involved.

– As instructors, we can help a student who has weak areas, but we can’t help a student who quits.


The concept of “growing into a rank”
was raised and of interest to many present. Master Ricki Kay stated that, in the children’s ranks through green belt, she considers a student ready for the next belt or stripe when they have reached an excellent level of performance on their current rank requirements, along with a basic knowledge of the next level requirements. For example, a two purple stripe is ready for purple belt when their two purple stripe techniques are excellent, and they have a basic knowledge of the purple belt techniques. Upon receiving purple belt, they have the opportunity to grow into the rank by raising their performance on the purple belt techniques.

This differs from the approach that would hold the student back from purple belt until the purple belt techniques were mastered to a level of excellence. In fact, it was noted, the purple belt techniques (including back stance and diagonal stance movements) are very difficult for young children to master, and the transition from 2 purple stripes to purple belt can take a very long time for those kids, leading in some cases to boredom and quitting. The “growing into rank” concept gives a different way to think about the problem.

Master Ricki also used the phrase “carrying our students.” When we advance students who have weak areas, with the expectation of helping them improve or grow into their rank, we are agreeing to “carry them” to some degree. Everyone who works with young kids agrees to carry them to a certain point. We have to be conscious of how far we are willing to carry them, and how we’re going to get them, in the end, to stand on their own.

Some instructors expressed concern about whether they were keeping children in rank for too long, or not testing kids often enough. The subject of realistic time-in-rank requirements needs further discussion.

Several of these same issues were covered in an older blog post, “How good is good enough?”, which is worth revisiting.

Also of interest is an older post on belt testing.

We invite instructors who were present to correct or add to these notes, and invite everyone to continue the discussion in the comments section, or propose other questions for discussion.

What to do about persistent talkers and goof-offs

February 5, 2013

bpostureA colleague has asked us to revisit the topic of misbehaving and “low-effort” students. The students they describe are ones we all have in our classes from time to time: Those whose effort is minimal (loose fists, weak stances, lazy posture) even though they are capable of good technique; who talk and goof off with whoever is around them, as often as they can get away with it; and who don’t improve their behavior in response to any of the standard approaches (ranging from “catch them doing something good” to “sit out the fun stuff” to whatever your most serious discipline happens to be).

Let’s add that, in spite of their exasperating behavior, these are not kids who “hate karate” and really just want to quit, nor are they malicious trouble-makers – they disrupt by socializing too much, not by being anti-social.

So, my colleague asks, are some kids just too immature to understand the required behavior – and we have to put up with it till they begin to grow up? What approaches have other instructors tried for handling and motivating these kids?

Those Vital Dojo Members: The Parents

December 4, 2012

253881_2063296270822_5229577_nThe most important members of your children’s program might just be the parents. After all, it’s parents who sign kids up, pay the tuition, drive them to class, support their practice, and decide if & when they may quit!

Supportive parents give a tremendous boost to a school, both in practical terms (helping out at the dojo) and by creating a positive dojo culture. In rare cases, “nightmare” parents can have the opposite effect: Think “stage parent” interrupting class with their own instructions; argumentative parent questioning the instructor in front of the kids, or disputing a decision about tests and rank; or just, thoughtless parent talking loudly on a cell phone while letting your student’s younger siblings run amok.

A colleague recently asked about dealing with parents: How do instructors handle all the issues we just listed? I’ll toss out a few specific questions, but feel free to post on any aspect of working and communicating with those vital members of your dojo community.

1. Parents don’t necessarily have a clear idea of martial arts values and etiquette when they first register their child. How do you communicate your values and expectations to new parents? through written material? website? conferences?

2. How do you handle “stage parents” and etiquette violators? (Clearly, it requires some tact!)

3. Do you enlist parental involvement in classes or dojo events? How does that work?

4. Do you talk with parents about dealing with those times when a child doesn’t want to come to class? What do you tell them?

5. Do you have a “model parent” – or have you dealt with a “nightmare parent?” Tell us about him or her.

These are such important questions for a successful dojo; I look forward to hearing some great advice.

Attendance Cards and Taking Responsibility

July 10, 2012

Lately I’ve been thinking about ways to get my young martial arts students to take more responsibility for themselves, for each other, for their training and their own progress. Of course I talk to them about these things, instruct them about doing so, urge them during class to be that kind of student. But words don’t always sink in; you just can’t assume they will get it. And this is doubly so with the younger kids.

There are always a few who seem born with the right attitude. They focus, they work hard; they practice with the intent to make progress.  These students are gems in the dojo; they would probably excel in any setting. Probably, too, their parents are reinforcing this ethos at home.

Then there are the students who attend class with enthusiasm, but when the hour ends, they drop it like a toy left in the middle of the floor and move on to the next activity. Come the next class, they don’t remember what they practiced. It’s as if they have to learn everything anew, every class. Some of these kids will happily tread water forever, if someone doesn’t come along to push or pull them toward their next rank. Yet they want that rank. They just don’t understand they have to earn it; they don’t get it that they aren’t earning it simply by showing up for class.

Practice with the intent to make progress. That’s what every student must learn to do, and what quite a few kids in my crowded younger-age classes have seemingly not been doing lately. So I did some thinking and decided, among other things, it was time once again to implement some form of Attendance Card/Test Card system to get them focused on what they need to do. I spent time on the recent holiday designing a new card to my liking, and more time over the weekend printing and cutting a set of color-coded, rank-specific cards. I’ll begin phasing in the new system today.

Mind you, I have used various forms of “test cards” and “rank checklists” over the years. These new cards combine familiar old components. But I’ve made an important mental shift. In the past, no matter how I might have described it, I was treating them as tools to help me keep track of all the kids, their attendance, and their progress toward rank. I was bearing full responsibility for tracking the students, then providing the necessary motivation as needed. The tools were helpful at times, but when I found they were more trouble than help, I dropped them, picking them up again only when I had a suitable (or troublesome) group in class.

This time around I realize the tools are for the students’ benefit, not mine. They are a visual representation of attendance and progress that can – and hopefully, will – begin to show even the youngest kids a connection between their own efforts and their progress toward rank. They’ll begin each class now, by getting & looking at their card, before bringing it to the instructor for use during class. It’s just one more component in an ongoing emphasis on taking responsibility for oneself.

I want to credit Kelly Muir’s attendance-card system, as described in her book Instructor Revolution, for sparking this mental shift for me. (Her student-run dojo is all about taking responsibility!) My review of her book can be found here

Instructors: What tools do you use to help kids learn to take responsibility for their training? Please post your thoughts and methods in the comments section.

Here’s a fictitious sample attendance card. The name and dates are made up, of course. A few things to note: The number of boxes in the attendance grid increases as rank increases (the first few levels have only 24 boxes). The number is higher than the minimum requirement for the rank. However, I’m not highlighting the minimum requirement, because it’s not important. Don’t focus on the minimum; rather, meet the minimum and keep training! On back, two levels of rank requirements are listed, and can be signed off by the instructor if desired.

Belt Tests/Gradings – What’s the Best Way?

June 3, 2012

Earning rank, in the form of belts and/or stripes, is an important part of the martial arts experience for many children who train. Instructors who test children for rank handle it in many different ways. Some offer tests on a set schedule, for any students deemed “ready;” others schedule a test only when there are students clearly ready. Some have special test-only days; others integrate testing into regular class time. Some tests are by invitation only; others permit students to make the choice. Some schools fail students on a regular basis, while others preclude failure by pre-selecting well-qualified candidates. Some schools I have heard of test and promote the whole student body every couple of months. Still others eschew testing and simply promote students when it seems right.

How is testing handled at your school? Why do you (or your instructors) do it that way? Tell us the pros and cons. Let us know, too, how big your classes are and how many students typically test or are promoted at a time.

Book Review: Instructor Revolution by Kelly Muir

March 29, 2012

We have a new expression in my household: “WWIRD” (“What would Instructor Revolution do?”). It’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but also reflects our genuine appreciation for the no-nonsense attitudes expressed by Kelly Muir in her book. Here’s how it might come up: I’ll be doing some reading, or pondering various ways we might streamline or improve operations at the dojo. We are a two-dojo family, my husband having operated a school for 30-plus years, and I for the past 20, so it’s natural to look for ways to keep things fresh and think about whether we’re doing the best we can do. And I’ll notice that a lot of people in the “industry” are doing this or that at their schools—often something we’ve rejected doing in the past—so I’ll ask, is there something in it worth adapting or putting to use? To which my husband will reply, WWIRD? And half the time I’ll laugh, realizing I just recently read—and agreed with—Kelly Muir’s take on a similar subject; enough said. It’s like having a hard-nosed conscience.

Instructor Revolution sets out to be provocative, but it’s hard to be provoked by an author with whom I share so many opinions. I was struck by how many of my own pet peeves she expresses throughout the book—and some of them are things I wasn’t sure anyone else cared about: for example, those ridiculous dances football players do when they score or make a play (Muir: “Isn’t that their job? I can’t imagine doing a victory dance every time I did something that was expected of me at work.”); the motivation and depth of knowledge that’s lost when students use video in place of live instruction (“…with the ease of learning kata online, the regard for it is beginning to wane.”); and the pressure on instructors to fatten their curricula with non-martial-arts content, social activism, and more, when we could be focusing on the value inherent in the training itself (“When a child only has a limited amount of time [to] dedicate to their training, I would prefer they spend it on their training.” Yes.).

 Then there are the larger issues, like the “self-esteem myth,” as she calls it: the idea that a child gains self-esteem through constant praise rather than genuine achievement—a subject that has come up often on this blog (here’s one example). And the trend among instructors and school owners to try to boost retention of young students via rewards and gimmicks, generally making things fun and easy, when the real value of martial arts training (through a traditionalist’s eye) comes from the fact that it’s challenging and demanding. And I certainly agree that children are capable of meeting very high demands.

In fact I agree with so much in the book, it’s hard for me to find it revolutionary. A great many of us in martial arts have been quietly teaching on these principles for decades; there’s nothing new about them. Even among colleagues who have adopted “industry” practices on the business side of the dojo, and adapted some popular material and drills into their children’s programs, many have maintained their basic, traditional principles throughout. To us, the title of the book seems overblown. Instructor Revolution: a superior method of teaching children martial arts. That’s pure marketing copy. The first time I saw it, I thought, “If they have to say it’s superior, it probably isn’t.” (Of course, now that I’ve realized how close it is to my own thinking, I have to admit it is superior!) But Muir is a once-and-again figure within the “industry,” and it’s really within that context that she positions herself as revolutionary. In addition, her years in the business world as a corporate trainer have given her a certain gift for abbreviations and jargon. An IR™ instructor at TKCC can be expected to utilize CLM, layering, sealing, door-to-the-floor, and more (all, by the way, perfectly sensible concepts when they’re laid out). Reference to ‘IR instructors’ and that little ‘tm’ make it clear she’s packaging this as a system suitable for sale or franchise—just like the systems and products she’s revolting against. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

It’s a good book, well worth buying even if you don’t care about “industry” bandwagons. Its greatest value is for instructors who are looking to create a new children’s program, or who want to evaluate and fine-tune their current one. Muir provides a step-by-step program development guide that can help anyone evaluate and strengthen what they’re doing. It is style-neutral, and doesn’t at all depend on your agreeing with everything she says about working with kids. It’s quite thorough and thought-provoking, asking instructors to consider the “what, when and why” of their curriculum in a way martial artists who have inherited or adopted a traditional system too often don’t ask.

As for her old-fashioned, disciplinarian, “no rewards” approach to kids, it’s worthwhile considering the case she makes, even if you are of a kinder, gentler nature. Either you will take some good ideas from it, or arrive at ideas of your own through opposition. While I personally tend to favor her views, I also believe—or rather, know—there is more than one kind of good instructor. A great deal has to do with personality and personal style. I have some “Mr. Nice Guy” colleagues who manage to raise excellent young martial artists. Strong principles and professional competence, holding the kids to high standards whatever your approach—those are the real keys. And if you’re not sure where you stand, it might be time to ask, “WWIRD?”

Find the book on Amazon here.
Or visit Kelly Muir’s blog here.

Being Positive is Not About Being “Nice”

January 27, 2012

“Any eight-year-old can point out someone else’s mistakes.”

That’s a quote from my 1991 article, “Learning from Children: Five Easy Lessons for Teachers,” in the book Martial Arts Teachers on Teaching. And, as anyone who works with kids knows, they do it frequently, often calling other kids on mistakes they don’t realize they are also making themselves.

I went on to say, no offense to eight-year-olds, but that can’t be what good teaching is all about. I stressed that it takes more skill to discern what students are doing right, than what they are doing wrong. Mistakes are obvious; pointing out mistakes is shallow teaching.

A similar subject recently came up in my parallel life as a writer-slash-poet. I was discussing with some writer friends an approach used by a successful local workshop leader we know. When writers in his groups comment on each other’s work, he requires them to begin with those things they liked, before launching into weaknesses and negatives. Many assume our friendly workshop leader uses this approach in order to be nice – to make people feel good, so they’ll be more likely to keep coming to the workshops.

I disagree, and I link it back to what I said about those eight-year-olds, twenty-some years ago. Requiring a reader to say something positive is a way of ensuring the critic has taken more than a superficial look at the work, before going for the negative critique. Criticism (the negative kind) is all too easy – and all too satisfying for some people, given the human trait of feeling superior when putting something down. By requiring the positives, our workshop-leader friend is raising the quality of instruction, by requiring would-be instructors to examine the work more carefully before speaking.

And, yes, it is more pleasant for the writer to hear some good things before the bad. This may make them more receptive to criticism, but more importantly, the criticism that comes through this process will often be deeper, more honest, and more useful.

Now let’s get back to the topic of teaching martial arts. There are those who confuse positive instruction with being nice – catering to students feelings, lavishing praise while avoiding critique, never saying anything that might (supposedly) harm their self-esteem. This is a mistake.

Positive instruction is not about being nice. It’s very pragmatic. It works, for one thing: Thanks to years of research in coaching and human behavior, it’s well understood now that the mind more easily processes, and the body more easily acts upon, instructions framed in positive (“do this”) rather than negative (“don’t do that”) terms.

And it helps you be a better instructor. What, after all, is your job as instructor? It’s not to correct mistakes day after day (though admittedly, you will spend some time doing that). It’s to guide students on a path from where they are now, to where they could be at their best. The ability to see what they are doing right is essential to both those things: seeing where they are now, and understanding where they could be. You’ll use that knowledge to build upon and to mold. It’s essential, then, that you take the time to see it – and express it.

Being nice is something altogether different. It’s about demeanor, personality, maybe personal style. Martial arts instructors come in all varieties, and I must say some of the most successful, effective instructors I know – experts in positive instruction – are the most hard-nosed, demanding, no-nonsense personalities on the mat. And they are beloved, not because they are warm-fuzzy-nice, but because there’s no question they care deeply about their students’ progress. On the flip side, although I won’t make a blanket statement, some of the warm-fuzzy-nice guy instructors I’ve seen have also been some of the least effective. The students are smiling and having fun; they leave the mat happy, and eager to come back; but on the other hand, they don’t learn much of what I’d call martial arts.

Where do you fall on the scale, fellow instructors? Warm-fuzzy? Tough meanie? – And how do you integrate positive instruction into your style?