That Moment

When I was climbing the ladder to black belt, in the time before I started teaching, my focus was one hundred percent on the techniques and how to do them correctly. Tunnel vision. Sure, I cared about body connection, hip rotation and everything else, but only as it related to what I was doing. I didn’t think about it too deeply. I had a job to do and I was going to get it done.

That’s probably why they say, “When you become a black belt is when you really start to learn”. I believe it’s true. But I’ll take it a step further and offer that when you become an instructor you truly begin to understand the potential and how to improve both yourself and students. In the very beginning I can remember the moments of trepidation when I’d correct a student. “No, move your hand here” or “that foot moves first”. I second guessed myself and walked through the moves before I’d open my mouth. Lacking confidence comes with the territory for a new instructor. I’m sure of it. Those that bluster in, loud and pushy probably never get to the next stage of teaching. (That’s my own personal philosophy. You can take it or leave it.)

Once the confidence hurdle was crossed an interesting thing happened. In the quiet moments of teaching an idea or concept would click in my head. I could see the solution to a problem and didn’t have to muddle through how to fix it. I loved those moments then, and I love them now. There’s only one thing better.

It’s that moment. When I run a drill with a student and I see the smile involuntarily slide across their face. Their face sparkles, illuminated as if a light just went on. Maybe because it did. I had that moment yesterday. It was fabulous. The young lady who I was coaching ‘got’ my point. She punched the bag. I don’t mean touched it with her hand, I mean she smashed her knuckles in, determined to push the bag away from her. She dove in, grabbed her confidence and went from being a little girl to a strong, confident martial artist.

Oh, if I could only have captured that moment in a picture. The look on her face. It was priceless. Best of all, she knew what had happened. She knew all my coaching, getting in her face for the past thirty minutes, had worked. She knew she could do it. That moment. That’s why I teach.

Muscle Memory

One of the hardest things about being a karate instructor is finding the right balance in tone. You want to impress upon your students – especially the younger students – that what they do in the dojo is serious and needs to be done to the best of their ability while still making it fun. The real world is a dangerous place but we don’t want to create a generation of children who become overly paranoid adults. As an instructor, I want to know my kiddos are safe. That they can defend themselves.

So sometimes I have to be tricky. Creating drills that reinforce techniques students can use to defend themselves, while giving them enough repetitions to allow for muscle memory to take over in a moment of crisis. Last night I stumbled across an easy repetition that had the kiddos grinning ear-to-ear while they did about thirty reps of a move in just about as many seconds. It was quick. It was fun. And they learned something.

That moment was why I teach. It perfectly counterbalanced the news I’d read early in the day. Stories filling me with dread and concern. There have been four attempted abductions locally. Any one could have been my student. That fact gnawed at my soul. Last night, watching their faces glow as they did the move made me happy. It let me know I’m doing the right thing and even the hard days are worth it.

If I help make just one person safe, it’s all worth it.

Adapting to Change

We’ve all heard the saying, “The only constant is change”. I think that rings especially true for the martial artist. We’re trained to be observant, to watch what’s going on around us and to adapt to the situation. One minute we’re friendly and nice the the next we’re a raging bear protecting our cubs. Martial artists are ready to spring into action, to defend themselves and others, changing personalities and attitudes quicker than the David Banner turned into the Hulk.

Is this the only time a karate person can use this skill? Nope. Absolutely not. It doesn’t have to be a moment of danger for this to be a valuable skill set. Most martial artists I know also work a day job. Being able to read the situations going on around you and making adjustments to your reactions is invaluable. I’ve worked in the corporate world. Its fast. Its intense. And it is ever changing. Being able to think on your feet, to change a presentation and read the people in the room helped me to not only do a good job but to get ahead.

Think about that when you’re wondering why you should put your child in karate, or if you should train. The skills you learn in the dojo translate to the real world in a big way. Being a martial artist helps to instill and foster confidence and a unique mindset. You’re ready for whatever the world tosses your way.

Karate. It is more than a sport. Its a way of life.

It’s all in the hips

I’m always explaining to my students that their hip action is the key to their karate. Most of the time I get blank stares back. But not always. At some point, a lightbulb goes on and the student begins to understand. I love those moments. They are why I teach. That and I get to do karate every single day. It doesn’t get better than that.

But, getting back to the hips. Instructors spend a lot of time telling students to work on their core. It’s important for their strength. What ties the core together, though? The hips. They are the center – the rotation and movement takes a strong move and makes it much more powerful.

Hip vibration when punching is always fun to watch as it begins to happen. But it has to happen organically. There’s nothing that makes me smile more than a class full of students trying to get the hip action, but it looks more like their doing the hula. The spirit is there, not the technique. Since all things spring from the spirit these moments are precious to me.

Getting them to rip their draw hand, focusing only on that will usually make the hips begin to move. That’s the first step. Students who understand punching from the hip – ahhh….those students have trained a long time and eventually begin to understand my rantings. “Relax. Use your hips. It’s the hips, guys. The hips.”

Yeah, just like everything else, karate is a slow progression. Peeling back the layers of the onion, there’s always something new to learn. And to perfect. How can you not love karate?

Keeping it fresh

The best classes from a student standpoint are the ones that zoom by, working on new skills and different sets of drills. Keeping it fresh and exciting helps the student to stay engaged. The very same is true for the instructor as well. Going in and teaching the same old stuff over and over again begins to create apathy and monotony for the teacher as well.

There’s an interesting challenge for the martial artist as they impart knowledge to their students. Not only do they have to create energy and excitement in class but they also have to prep their students for upcoming exams, making sure they know all of the skill sets assigned to that particular belt level.

Sometimes its hard. You rack your brain, search the internet and look to other instructors for help. All good solutions. I’d like to suggest one other idea, you might keep in mind. What are the drills that you liked doing as you were coming up through the ranks? Is there a nugget of a new idea you can glean from those drills? Relax and think about it. I’m going to be honest, sometimes I take an idea designed for the younger students and modify it only slightly and I have what feels like a game for the more advanced students. Little do they know, the whole time they are doing it that they’re working on their muscle memory and perfecting their techniques.

They say, “Everything old becomes new again”. Well, take that to heart while you’re working on your class¬†curriculum and planning your lessons this week. Have some fun and your students will too.

Get a Partner

As a karate instructor, I’ve uttered the phrase, “Get a partner” more times than I can count. I watch the kids that grab a partner quickly and I pay attention to those who wander around like a lost lamb. Frequently, they’re the ones not interacting with others in the class and are quiet when I want them to be loud. It’s something I’ve thought about and wondered how to fix.

Then the light bulb went off yesterday when I was reading an article about a teacher and the way she finds out how the kids are doing in her class – social adjustments, peer to peer. It was pretty simple, involving a survey every Friday about who should be awarded the student of the week and who they’d like to sit next to in the following week. Simple enough. But the information it gave spoke volumes to her, especially as weeks unfolded into months.

Moving forward, I’m going to handle the “Get a partner” situation a little bit differently, I think. Theres’ a couple of students I have in mind that will benefit from my new approach. Nope, I’m not going to single them out and embarrass them. Instead, I’m going to make them the shining examples and help to set them on a path to success. That’s what martial arts is supposed to do. It’s not just about self defense.

There’s a whole mindset. Focus. Being good and kind. Having a strong character. Being respectful. Not being a bully. And helping those in need.

This new approach has me so excited. I can hardly wait for class tonight so that I can start making a difference.

Test Day

The last Friday of the month is always test day at the dojo. Gosh, I remember how nervous I was as I was progressing through the belts, knowing I had to demonstrate my skills. Like every other student I didn’t want to make a single mistake.

But life isn’t like that, and neither is the kyu exam. Mistakes are things we learn. Sometimes as nerves overtake our abilities we do something silly like put the wrong leg in front or do the incorrect combination. It happens. Being able to move on and not show any type of distress during the testing session is of the utmost importance. Students who do that are demonstrating to their instructors that nothing is going to stop them if they have to defend themselves. Perhaps they meant to throw a huge left punch into the face and smacked their attacker squarely in the throat. They won’t flinch, they’ll just keep going. Or they miss a block. They won’t show they’re hurt.

Tests – when mistakes happen – can sometimes be the very best window into what a student will do in real life. Mistakes happen. Don’t let them derail you. Keep moving and have a strong attitude while doing your best. That’s all you can ever do, anyway. Your best.

Never Stop Learning

One of the things I’ve discovered after I became a shodan and then a nidan was how much I still had to learn. I’ve been getting some pretty cool lessons from a fellow black belt – a shodan I respect a lot. My son.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to watch him teach a class. He was kind and patient, while being firm. He explained things thoroughly without talking too much. There was time to do the skills and the pacing of the class was perfect. Plus he was teaching a student who did not speak English.

I’d talked to him about the student before and how I’d helped to coach him through his first class. Just a couple of pointers and then left it at that. I’ve had students who were deaf, who’ve had Aspergers and a plethora of other problems. And I’ve raised five kids. Handling them isn’t such a daunting task. I was pleased to see he’d listened and adapted my techniques to his style. That’s the real key. You can’t always do it exactly how the other person did. Sometimes you have to make it fit you and the situation. He never missed a beat and had the child counting in English before the class was over. He captivated the interest of a three-year-old and that’s an accomplishment in itself.

Yeah, I learned something yesterday. For me, the lesson was bittersweet. It was about letting my son fly solo and soar on to success. I’m a proud black belt and an even prouder mom.

The Sum Total

One of the things I regularly teach in my classes has to do with attitude. What you practice in the dojo is what you’ll do when it comes time to defend yourself. Sure, adrenaline will give you an added boost but it could also cloud your mind as you stumble trying to figure out what to do. Muscle memory – that’s the key to being able to really defend yourself. Oh sure, using your hips, as I’ve mentioned before, big punches, all of those are important as well, but in the end it boils down to good old fashioned muscle memory.

What your body does in a time of crisis is what it has learned to do. What have you taught it? Instinctively, you will mirror your dojo training if you’re assaulted. What you teach it is important. As an instructor, I can coach you along, demanding you push yourself to do your best, striving to attain new limits but in the end its up to the student to dig deep, providing that added something to their training.

What are you going to bring to the situation? Most students, when they come into class, don’t think about being attacked. They think more about doing their kata, or their basics to get ready for an exam. I know that. I also know, the reality of being attacked is out there for all of us. No, I’m not paranoid, I’m just realistic. I wish the world was made up of completely nice people but that isn’t the case. I’m reading more and more news articles about young girls – very young girls – and boys being attacked. Pedophiles are an unfortunate reality, the same with rapists. These situations are the real test.

Remember, you are the sum total of your training. What will you do next time you train? I’d suggest you look in the mirror – see an attacker then handle him the best way you can. Through repetitions you’ll be ready and the best martial artist you can be.

It’s all about the little things

Learning karate seems overwhelming when you begin. Body parts moving in opposite directions at the same time can be intimidating. I can remember being a white belt and watching the more advanced students thinking “I’ll never be able to do that”. ¬†When I quit worrying about what was coming and focused on what I needed to do, it got a lot easier.

Yeah, like every other student I wanted to learn it all at once. I was chomping huge bites and trying to swallow them whole. It doesn’t work that way, as I found out. First, I learned how to keep my feet under me and make a good stance so I couldn’t be knocked over. After that, keeping my hands up became important. Now that I had a stance, I needed to worry about my foot position – was it wide enough? Mastering that meant my next concern was toe position for optimum balance.

Tiny little things that all mattered but didn’t have to be conquered all at once. Each one manageable when I took them one at a time.

Shotokan karate is tough. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. But if you follow the katas, learn each new skill in the order it’s presented it becomes much easier. Sensei Funikoshi knew what he was doing. Putting my trust in his teachings had a huge impact on me. (Hey, he and I share a birthday so I knew he had to be okay!)

You know the little things, like hip forward as you’re in back stance or ripping your draw hand when you punch – they aren’t too hard to get the hang of if you study them one at a time. But they make all the difference to your karate. I think most things in life are like that. Take it one step at a time. Master a skill and then move on to the next. You’ll be a black belt before you know.

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