Book Review: Instructor Revolution by Kelly Muir

Posted March 29, 2012 by redwoodojo
Categories: Book Review, Martial arts instruction

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”

Posted January 27, 2012 by redwoodojo
Categories: martial arts for kids, Martial arts instruction

Tags: , , ,

“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?

Making the Connection Between Effort and Reward

Posted January 13, 2012 by redwoodojo
Categories: Martial arts instruction

A young student approached me today to ask when his belt test was going to be scheduled. He’d been scheduled to test before the holiday break, but became ill and missed a week of classes, then a couple weeks more over the holidays… He figured a new test date was due, now that he was back. Like many (if not most) kids, he’s very focused on getting that stripe or belt.

Normally, when a student misses a test date, I’ll schedule a make-up asap, but sometimes this doesn’t work out. This young man hadn’t kept up his skills during his absence, and when I ran him through the basics at the first class of the year – expecting to check off his test requirements one by one – I discovered he just didn’t know his stuff. He didn’t recognize the names of basic techniques we practice every class, and he couldn’t show the difference between lunge punch and reverse punch. When I scheduled him to test back in December, he was able to do these things. Clearly, he had lost ground during the time off. It happens, and when it does, we get to work. I put him (and the other white belts) through their paces repeatedly during class, covering the 1-yellow-stripe techniques and stressing the importance of focusing on these basics before trying to copy the advanced kids or learn new things. Today I ran through the list again, and again he wasn’t ready.

So, here he came after class, asking why he hadn’t gotten a new test date yet. I told him that, as much as I wanted him to get his stripe, when I looked at his basics, I didn’t feel he was ready. I pointed out the difficulty he’d had with lunge punch and reverse punch, and with performing the lower block correctly. (This is a child who is old enough to do these things well.) He looked disappointed, as is to be expected; but more than that – he looked shocked, as though it hadn’t occurred to him there was a connection between what we were doing in class, and what stripes he would get on his belt. I assured him that he would get his date as soon as I saw him getting the basics back up to where they’d been in December. He continued to look surprised.

We instructors talk about it all the time, but it still amazes me: Many kids seem to expect rewards they haven’t earned. They want the stripe or belt, and figure they’re entitled to it just for showing up, no matter how little effort they put in! But they’re good kids. Usually, all they need is for someone to clarify the connection between effort, accomplishment and rank (and then clarify it again, and again). Today’s young man, like so many kids, somehow didn’t understand that the things he was messing up on during class had something to do with his belt rank. And like so many, instead of focusing on what he needed to improve and practicing outside the dojo, he was walking out the door and forgetting about everything till the next class. (That’s why I wrote the book – to help those kids take their lessons home and make real progress, instead of forever running in place.)

Instructors – How do you help your young students understand the connection between effort and reward?
Please share some of your favorite lessons and strategies.

Check Your Holiday Gift Guide!

Posted November 13, 2011 by redwoodojo
Categories: kids karate book, martial arts for kids, Martial arts instruction

Tags: , , , , , ,

We’re pleased to see The Kids Karate Workbook is now listed in the Century Martial Arts Catalog. It appears in their Holiday Gift Guide, too! As holiday season rushes toward us, keep in mind that a book makes a great gift on many levels. The Kids Karate Workbook helps kids love training (even more than they already do), promotes reading, and brings parents and kids together to discuss important topics like self defense (besides bringing them together to practice martial arts, which is a great family pursuit).

Click here for Century’s online catalog.

Or click here to order from Amazon.

The “Deck of Cards Class” and Other Tricks for Making Hard Work Fun

Posted July 3, 2011 by redwoodojo
Categories: martial arts for kids, Martial arts instruction

Tags: , , , , , ,

"Six push-ups!"

Instructors: What tricks do you use to make the workout fun? I don’t mean “playing games” so much as making a regular workout seem like a game, or giving it an aspect that keeps kids engaged through many necessary repetitions.

The “Deck of Cards Class” is something I picked up years ago from a member of an adult class I was teaching. He got it from a Hapkido instructor he’d trained under in college. I stole the basic idea–which was to use the suits and numbers to determine the repetitions done in class–and adapted it to my tastes. It goes like this: I shuffle a deck of playing cards, and designate meanings for the four suits. Clubs mean ‘hand techniques,’ spades mean ‘kicks,’ hearts mean ‘exercises/calisthenics,’ and diamonds may mean different things, depending on the class and my whim– maybe partner work, rolls and drops, or performing in front of the group. Aces and twos of any suit usually mean ‘kata.’

Class proceeds by letting a student draw a card, and having the whole class perform the repetitions suggested by the card. For example, if the first card drawn is nine of spades, I’ll choose a kick, and we’ll do a count of nine (or perhaps, nine on each leg) with a kiai on number nine. Then the next student draws. In a class with older or more advanced students, I’ll let the kids choose the techniques, jumping in only if someone is taking too long to decide. (It’s important to keep things moving!) Even with the younger kids, I’ll let them choose for hearts – push-ups, frog jumps, jumping jacks, etc. When clubs are drawn, the technique might be a hand combination (as opposed to a single technique), as appropriate. If the card drawn is a low number, I might make the most of it by tripling the technique done on each count. The possibilities are endless, really.

In a good Deck of Cards Class, each student will get to draw twice or more. Even when they don’t get to choose the techniques, they feel a sense of excitement and control when they’re drawing from the deck. It’s fun!

Do you use any similar devices to keep things exciting? Please share.

The “Mat Chat”: What to Talk About with the Kids

Posted May 20, 2011 by redwoodojo
Categories: kids karate book, martial arts for kids, Martial arts instruction

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Rachel left a note on the “Suggest Future Topics” page, asking this:

I have just become a junior instructor and one thing that I am most unsure about is the ‘mat chat’ for the youngest kids class. What topics and themes should I use?

Great question. The easy answer would be, talk about the same things you discuss in the older kids’ classes: respect, etiquette, perseverance, all the martial arts values. But discussions with 4- and 5-year-olds can be a little different.

I remember, early in my experience with that age group, I asked, “Can someone give me an example of using good manners in the dojo?” One hand shot up, and I called on her, “Yes, Kayley?” She announced loudly, and with great pride, “My brother is seven!”

One thing I do with my youngest kids is begin class by choosing a “word of the day,” discussing it a bit, and revisiting it throughout class. These include things like teamwork, fitness, balance, safety, and of course my favorite, respect. Sometimes I talk about the Five A’s of Self Defense: Aware, Alert, Avoid, Anticipate (what?! that’s a really big word!), and Act. (I might not get through all five in a day.) I try to fish for what the kids know and can contribute, while sharing what I think, what I’d like them to remember, and what it would be great to talk about with their parents.

Instructors, what topics do you use with your youngest? And, maybe more importantly, how do you go about discussing them in an age-appropriate way?

Working with blind or visually impaired students

Posted April 26, 2011 by redwoodojo
Categories: martial arts for kids, Martial arts instruction

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I received an inquiry from Sensei Cris in New Jersey:

I’m wondering if any of the instructors out there have worked with blind/visually impaired students. We have been asked if we can teach a six year-old who is blind, and we are exploring the possibilities.

I’ve been aware over the years of adult martial artists with visual impairments training successfully in various schools and styles. Working with a 6-year-old would pose different challenges. This inquiry got me wondering how I would handle it.

Undoubtedly, there are instructors out there well-trained and experienced with this issue. Any suggestions?