Archive for the ‘Martial arts instruction’ category

Discipline versus Punishment, and other topics

August 18, 2010

There’s a guest post on the Martial Development blog by Matt Klein on the subject of teaching kids; I encourage you to read it and comment if you have time. It echoes many of the principles and techniques we’ve covered here in various posts. It also raises some topics worth revisiting.

Matt teaches in Australia, where he has a chain of schools specializing in children and youth. He also has a nice blog that came online a few months ago, and is well worth a browse; you’ll find it on our blogroll.

The opening paragraph of his post made me think perhaps things are a little different in Australia. While it was once the case (perhaps 20 years ago) that good children’s programs were uncommon here in the U.S., it’s no longer typical for kids to be thrown in with adults and taught as “miniature adults.” There are nowadays so many excellent kids’ martial arts programs available, it has become quite a competitive enterprise in many towns. It’s true that children’s classes are sometimes used to keep adult programs afloat financially, and also true that instructors teaching kids need to learn how to work with children (hence this blog, among other things), but dojos and dojangs with ongoing children’s programs generally have instructors who enjoy what they’re doing and are motivated to do a good job. Of course, as in all fields, quality varies–and opinions vary as to what constitutes quality! Rather than saying “few get it right,” I’d say many are getting it right; there are many ways of getting it right; and more are learning how every day.

The question of push-ups as discipline

Under the heading “Discipline,” Matt raises an issue I’ve talked about with fellow instructors many times over the years, and I thought I’d raise it again here to provoke more discussion. It concerns the use of push-ups as a disciplinary tool. Matt takes the view that exercises shouldn’t be used as a punishment, because exercises should be a positive–something the student should want to do and feel good about doing. I don’t disagree with this position, yet I continue to use push-ups for discipline in my classes. This issue has been around for ages; in fact, I discussed it at length in the early 1990’s when I wrote an essay for Carol Wiley‘s book, Martial Arts Teachers on Teaching. My piece was called “Learning from Children: Five Easy Lessons for Teachers,” and lesson 3 covers this very topic. You can read it at this link on Google Books. To put it briefly, I think there’s a difference between discipline, a positive, and punishment, a negative; and it’s all in the delivery. My students love doing push-ups, and they know we sometimes use them for serious purposes, like showing our respect for the rules, helping us remember things, and sometimes for dissipating anger or excess energy.

But what do you think, readers? Do you make a distinction between discipline and punishment? What kind of tools do you use? Post your ideas here, and don’t forget to let Matt know you appreciate his blog, too. The more voices in the discussion, the better!

Added on August 24—just for the sake of argument 🙂

It’s worth remembering the original context where experts stated what’s so often repeated now—that it’s wrong to use exercise for punishment. It was in discussions about corporal punishment in the schools, and school gym class; and they were talking about “forced exercise” administered in physically abusive and humiliating ways. If you read discussions surrounding corporal punishment laws, you’ll see phrases like “forced to do push-ups beyond their capability” (forced via physical threat or humiliation), or, “run laps to the point of exhaustion or collapse.”

It was like that back when I was in junior high. The coaches, some of whom doubled as teachers, had paddles (two-by-fours with a handle sanded at one end) with which they would “bust” unruly students. The “jocks” considered it a badge of honor to endure a busting, but it was humiliation for the non-jocks – the awkward, the overweight, the “nerd,” the outsider. Gym class was already a humiliation for those kids, and the threat of further punishment could make it unbearable. I remember one kid who, when he complained he couldn’t do some part of gym class because he had a sprained wrist, was ordered to do push-ups on his sprained wrist (under threat of the paddle)!

Clearly this is unacceptable. No one should be humiliated or abused—ever. And in a school population that includes many kids who are reluctant to exercise or go out for a team, to add more fear to the situation goes against a society that values physical health for all its young people.

The context of the dojo is somewhat different. Here, we have kids who are already proud to be part of an activity that glorifies physical prowess, and helps them to gain it by increments. (The kids’ fantasies about physical prowess are a powerful part of the appeal of martial arts.) Some parts of training are hard, but that doesn’t deter the kids from their overall enthusiasm. Learning to work through difficulty is part of what training is about. The kids’ feelings about push-ups don’t change when they’re used (in small, non-abusive sets) as one tool for discipline, and I say this because I’ve seen it, with hundreds of kids over many years. Their feelings about push-ups have to do with how hard they find them, and their attitude toward doing hard things. But they are universally proud of themselves as they see their abilities improve over time (push-ups are a belt requirement in our style).

Of course if an instructor encounters students who have a strong negative reaction to push-ups, or to any tool used for discipline—or if the tool isn’t working for someone—we need other tools in the bag.

So, back to the original question- What are your tools for discipline? Or, when and how do you ‘punish’?

How Good is Good Enough?

July 6, 2010

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?

Symposium on Teaching Children

June 2, 2010

I recently had the pleasure of participating in a mini-symposium on teaching martial arts to kids, organized by Madeline Crouse of Satori Dojo in Pennsylvania. It took place at the annual training camp of Cuong Nhu Martial Arts, IATC 2010, in Raleigh, North Carolina.

One thing I took away from the symposium is that there’s a real hunger among martial arts instructors for knowledge and shared experience on this subject. We barely scratched the surface in two hours. Many subjects came up that will make good blog posts & discussions; I’ll get going on that asap (any suggestions where to start?). It made me feel, even more strongly, that we need more people posting on this blog, more people blogging on their own about teaching kids, and everyone linking to one another so instructors surfing the web can tap into a wide network of high-quality, practical information.

What do you say, folks? Who’s ready to help make it happen? If you want to share quick ideas or an occasional rant, please post on this blog whenever a subject interests you. And feel free to suggest subjects or propose a “guest blog” if you want to write about a special topic. If you have a lot to say and want to write on your own terms — start your own blog (it’s easy), let me know about it, and I’ll link you here.

Does anyone remember Dr. Haim Ginott?

May 14, 2010

I want to continue the discussion of bullying (begun in the last post) with a personal story. But first: Who remembers Dr. Haim Ginott?

When I was a child, we’d have The Today Show on during breakfast, before school. Dr. Ginott was a child psychologist who made regular guest appearances. He was a funny, kindly man with a thick accent, and we found his ideas endlessly amusing. One thing he stressed was that if a child did something to make you angry, instead of directing angry words at the child (“Look what you’ve done; you make me mad; you’re in trouble!”), you should instead speak about yourself and your own feelings: “I am angry about such-and-such; I feel upset when this happens; etc.”

Best of all, he suggested parents should make such situations into opportunities to teach vocabulary. Don’t just say you’re angry; say, “I’m perturbed! I’m distressed! I’m chagrinned!” We thought this was hilarious, and my brother and I would sometimes mimic Dr. Ginott and his accent: “I am AAAANgrry! I am perrrTERRRRbed! I am chagrrrEEENED!” Making fun—but then, it’s the fun that made the lesson stick.

As I remember it, Dr. Ginott also recommended against commanding a misbehaving child with orders like “Stop! No! Cut it out right now!” Instead, one should make non-emotional statements about situations or objects: “Jimmy, sofas are not for jumping; the sofa is for sitting! Trampolines are for jumping!” (One could add, I suppose, “I feel chagrinned when the sofa is treated like a trampoline!”) Delivered in a sing-song tone, it sounded stilted and made us all laugh.

Fast-forward to eighth grade, when an aggressive ninth-grader cornered me at my locker, grabbed me by the hair and began threatening me. The hair-pull hurt a lot. Rage welled up inside me and I naturally wanted to shout and curse, call her names in return, and quite frankly, punch her lights out. Having an older brother, I was no stranger to fist-fights. But I was also not a fool. Her friends were nearby, and I knew the routine: One girl would target someone, provoke an incident, and if the target reacted with insults or fists, the whole group would be on her in seconds. There would be black eyes, bruised ribs, and suspensions.

So in a split second, I cut the line between my anger and my tongue, and channeled Dr. Haim Ginott. “You’re pulling my hair!” I exclaimed in as sing-songy a voice as I could manage. “It causes me a lot of pain!” She blurted more threats and challenges. “Gosh that hurts! It really bothers me when my hair is being pulled!” By then she must have begun wondering whether I was nuts. “I sure wish you weren’t pulling my hair!” Then the bell rang, signalling we’d all be late for class. “When I’m late for class, the teacher wonders where I am!” (It’s true; I was a good, punctual student.)

Her friends were getting bored. They decided to let me go for the time being. This wasn’t quite the end of it; I got a second dose the next day. “You’re pulling my hair again, aren’t you!” I declared fake-cheerfully. “Gee, that hurts! I really hate it when that happens!” But clearly, she was looking for some sort of provocation to escalate to a fist-fight, and I wasn’t providing it. “I wonder if you’re going to let go soon!” She let go in disgust — or disappointment — or boredom.

The final incident occurred at the end of the next school day, and I think she was just showing my weirdness off to one of her friends. “There she is!” I heard as I started down the crowded stairs after the last bell. She dashed through the crowd and managed to grab my hair from above. “Jeez that hurts! I really wish you weren’t doing that!” She was smiling, looking at me and then at her friend, who looked amused. She let go, and never bothered me again.

Thank you, Dr. Haim Ginott! You saved my eighth-grade a–.

Note: Dr. Ginott was the author of a bestselling book that has since been revised and updated: Between Parent and Child: The Bestselling Classic That Revolutionized Parent-Child Communication
He is also credited as an inspiration by the authors of the more recent books, Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child, by John Gottman; and How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

As for bullying — our original topic — consider that many bullies are angry children who are trying, in a way, to communicate. Not all incidents are the same, and not all can be defused the way I managed to defuse mine so many years ago, but it’s something worth thinking about.

Martial arts, Self-defense, and Bullying

May 11, 2010

Dawn White of Satori Dojo in Phoenixville, PA, raised a timely and important topic over on the “Suggest Future Topics” page — namely, What can martial arts teach kids about how to handle school bullies? Here’s what she wrote:

“I had an issue raised to me today that has caused quite some thinking. I have a friend whose 10-year-old daughter was physically assaulted by another girl in school. This is what she told me [D=daughter]:”

D did nothing to this girl but ignore her. Never said a word. The girl started giving D trouble and D ignored her. Didn’t even look at her.
This went on for 1 class and part of lunch. When she was being verbally assaulted at lunch, threatened “do you wanna be smacked?”, a teacher heard the girl and told her to go sit down. Can you believe it? That’s all he told the girl!
At their next class the girl was running her mouth at D. D continued to not look at her or say anything to her. On their way out of the door, D was talking to a friend and the troublemaker told D to “quit being smart with me.” D said nothing.
Girl said to her “So now you have nothing to say?!!”
D said, calmly, “I’d rather keep my mouth shut.”
Girl said, “I told you to not smart off to me.”
Then smacked her in the back of the head, pulled her hair, and smacked her across the mouth!
D went to a trusted teacher, crying, who called in an administrator to help. Then sent D to another administrator who told D that the girl will “probably be suspended.”

Dawn goes on to observe that many of the physical techniques we teach in traditional self-defense classes, and even sometimes in kids’ self-defense class, are designed for use in extreme circumstances (against would-be rapists, kidnappers or child molesters), and wouldn’t be appropriate for school bullies. I’d add that even the “milder” martial arts techniques we teach our kids (blocks and counters) can be risky to use against bullies — not just because of the chance of escalation, but because in schools with “zero tolerance” policies against fighting, the victim who defends herself will be given the same suspension meted out to the bully. This is a source of great frustration to bullying victims and their parents.

Let me add one more item to stir the pot before opening up the discussion: I’ve heard it said that martial arts is the wrong answer for bullying, because “it only teaches more violence.” Needless to say, I think that reflects ignorance about martial arts. But maybe we need to be clearer about what we teach kids, and how it applies to situations like the one Dawn’s friend described.

I have much to say, both on the specific incident described above and the general topic of martial arts and bullies. But before I chime in further, I’d like to invite instructors, as well as teachers and parents who’ve dealt with these issues, to let us know what you think.

What are the two most important lessons in karate, kung fu, or taekwondo?

May 2, 2010

Once again, I’m borrowing material from the excellent long-standing blog over at Mokuren Dojo. In a recent post called “Two most important lessons in judo,” Mokuren cited an essay describing the structure and operation of local judo dojos in Japan. He was impressed with the principles governing them — that they claimed as their main objectives neither training the next Olympian, nor teaching techniques, nor self-defense, but:

According to Wilson, the ethic in these classes is that their most important objectives are twofold:

* to teach students how to fall without injuring themselves (ukemi)
* to teach students how to behave in the dojo (reigi)

Mokuren adds that he has borrowed this idea, and now frequently quizzes his young students during warmups:

Q: What are the two most important things to learn in judo?

A: How to fall properly and how to control yourself (or sometimes I’ll accept “How to fall and how to behave.”)

All of which got me wondering, what are the two most important lessons in karate? – if we had to distill it to two. Here’s what I came up with:

1. Physical fitness
2. Respect

I believe these two principles encompass everything we might want young people (or adults, for that matter) to learn from martial arts.

Our physical training in the techniques of karate and similar arts — stances, kicks, blocks, strikes — brings the kind of health, strength, and physical competence that will allow a person to move confidently through the world, and to take care of him/herself and others.

Our training in respectful behavior — which may begin with certain rituals in the dojo (reigi in Japanese), but surely extends to lessons in self-respect and respect for others in the world at large — helps forge young people who are able to make good decisions, avoid trouble, and handle trouble wisely when it cannot be avoided.

What do you think, readers? What would you say are the two most important lessons in your martial art?

Kids’ class vs adult class: What’s the difference?

April 1, 2010

It goes without saying that teaching martial arts to children is different from teaching it to adults. And then again- what are the real differences?

My question is prompted by a comment from a fellow instructor about what a great workout she had when she used some of the drills and games from kids’ class when leading the adults. I’ve experienced this, too, and it has occurred to me that in many ways, the adults in my classes are just like the kids: they thrive on fun and excitement (even while being serious); they have fantasies about gaining supernatural powers and performing amazing feats; they crave praise, recognition and advancement; they can be whiny and petulant (although they’re usually better at hiding it than the kids). And sometimes they just can’t line up straight.

In all seriousness, though, there are real differences, and they have consequences. There are physical, mental and emotional differences between children and adults, and surely they have an impact on curriculum and practice. They also have an impact on the instructor’s experience on the job. Perceptions about this affect attitudes in several ways. For instance, many instructors who are comfortable working with adults are quite apprehensive about trying to teach kids. Some simply don’t want to. On the flip side, many people don’t feel kids’ class can possibly be “real martial arts,” and find it hard to take seriously either the program or the instructor who devotes energy to it.

So let me throw it all open to discussion: What are the important differences between kids’ class and adult class? No answer will be considered too obvious, too humorous, or too serious.

The Dreaded “Triple Push-Up” & More Martial Arts Fun

March 4, 2010

photo courtesy of Shawn McElroy

Shawn McElroy Sensei, head of after-school programs at Sung Ming Shu Dojo in Atlanta, loves the “triple push-up,” adding,

I have had groups up to 5 do this exercise. Great for team building and strength!

What’s your favorite fun, funny, weird, creative drill or exercise for kids? Share it here. Leave a comment below, or – if you have a photo – send it to

Can’t get black belt no matter how hard they try?

February 9, 2010

Several instructors have posed versions of this question lately: What if you have a child in class who is dedicated and tries hard — but is simply too uncoordinated to perform the required material up to par? Is there a point at which you stop promoting this student through the ranks, in spite of his or her best effort? If so, is there a “magic rank” where this happens? –They might get green belt, but not brown belt; or, brown belt but not junior black belt.

I think we’ve all had students at one time or another who’ve caused us to ask these questions. Other factors usually come into play, like the age of the students in question, the reasons for their physical difficulty, and the expectations for future change as they grow and mature.

Instructors: Tell us about your experience. What have you learned about working with less athletically gifted students? What decisions have you made at test time? What advice would you give an instructor who is dealing with the issue for the first time? And, bottom line, can this student get his or her black belt?

Kiai and Kihap for Kids and Teens (and adults?)

January 26, 2010

Last week I asked one of my classes, “Which is worse: a wimpy kiai, or no kiai at all?”

Instructors, you know what I am talking about. Kids, you probably know, too. Every class has some students who are too shy or self-conscious to make a loud noise. When called upon to kiai, they let out a thin little squeak that sounds more like a sigh of surrender than the spirited shout of a warrior. And as a teacher, it sometimes makes me want to sigh in surrender. I’ve done everything I can think of to get a shout out of these kids (and sometimes, adults), and there it is again: the incredibly wimpy kiai.

So I tossed out the question, and there were good arguments on both sides. Context matters, of course. In class that day we were practicing kata, but there are other times where kiai might be used, and the question could have a different meaning.

What do you say, readers? Is a wimpy noise better or worse than no noise? Why?

And what can we do to help students who are too shy to shout? Do you have a tip or foolproof technique?