Motivation. A big word and an even more important concept when you stop and think about it. I’ve had this word rolling around in my head since teaching my classes last night.

What is it that motivates some students to give their all? And why don’t the others. I have this thing I say when I’m teaching. My students will smile, and some even get it. “Its not dancing with the stars.” (I must confess I’ve never watched the show.) I’ll go on to explain to them that I mean its not just a bunch of choreographed moves (speaking about kata) that you fling your arms and legs around. There needs to be power. There needs to be focus. There needs to be purpose.

Otherwise, there’s this misconception that students can protect themselves when they need to. And they can’t. In a moment of crisis, they’ll only have what they’ve put into their training. The hard part, as an instructor, is knowing what motivates each student. Yesterday I found out, that for one, standing there with a bag for them to punch was the only way. They’ll only do what they need to do when they are forced to. That’s not so uncommon in children, I know.

Now I’m off to solve the next part of the teaching puzzle. How to instill in them the fire to want to do it on their own. Peer pressure is the next tool in my tool bag. But we’ll talk about that another day.



I’ve never seen a student, in all of my years of training and teaching, who hasn’t succeeded when they have stuck with their training. Yeah, some of them have progressed slowly, but the important thing is, they have progressed. One of the things I love about the martial arts is that we’re not in a race or competing against anyone else. Its about doing your personal best.

Its an important lesson for everything in life, hang in there and keep trying. Don’t give up, even when it gets hard. I guess I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. There were times in my own training when I questioned why I was doing it because I was struggling with one move or technique. Or a kata. Heian Sandan was almost my undoing. The first four moves. Trying to perfect them seemed impossible. Today, I look at them and think “a piece of cake”. Funny what time and practice can do.

Yesterday, my youngest son proved once again what persistence can do. He reached a personal milestone – ten straight years of training. That’s a long time in a kid’s life. And he struggled through some of it like everyone else. Today he wears his black belt with pride. He looks and acts like a Shodan.

And his students look at him with admiration. They want to be like him. He wears the title Sensei with honor and respect.

Persistence. That’s the magic potion that got both of us to where we are today. Don’t give up – especially when it gets hard. The rewards are immense for you and for those walking the path behind you. After all, you’re their inspiration. Remember, you can do anything you set your mind to.

Finding a Way

Not everyone who comes to the dojo is excited to begin training. As an instructor I know a number of the students we see  are there because their family wants them to get one or more of the benefits karate brings. Discipline. Self control. Learning how to deal with bullies. Self confidence. The list goes on and on.

The kids who are reluctant to train aren’t hard to spot in class. As an instructor I can spot them almost instantly. Its in their body language and their disposition. But that doesn’t matter. My job is to reach them, instilling what they need. All in an hour or two a week. There are times it seems impossible, when only a magic bottle of pixie dust could possibly help me overcome the obstacles.

And then I listen. Almost always if I talk to the child and listen to what they say I can find a way to crack through their outer shell and teach them the way they need to be taught. In the silence an answer wiggles its way to the surface, letting me glean a nugget of an idea – a new way of teaching. I had one of those moments yesterday. It was spectacular. Even better, my solution when shared with the parent triggered an outpouring of even more information about this student at home and school. Boom! My idea was totally in line with what that martial artist needed.

Not all karate teaching happens with instructions yelled, words reverberating around the room. Sometimes the best moments occur when you converse with the student, learn more about their interests and ‘what makes them tick’. Finding a way to make a difference…that’s why I teach.

You Never Quit Learning

Far too often karate students think achieving black belt means they’ve reached the pinnacle of their craft and there’s nothing left to learn. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve had my belt for quite a few years now – I can’t believe how many actually – and I’m still learning.

Sometimes lessons come when I’m in a class and sometimes they come when I’m teaching. Last night was one of those teaching moments. I can remember my instructor explaining to me, when I was in the last months before my Shodan test, that I’d stretched him to a new level as he’d had to reevaluate something he was teaching. I wasn’t getting it and he couldn’t teach it the same ole way.

He actually thanked me for being a ‘difficult’ student. It makes me laugh now because I totally understand now what he meant. Last night I found a way to explain something simply and the student got it. It took their karate from okay to really good. The student got it. Seeing the problem was the first part of the battle but understanding how to explain and get the change I wanted wasn’t as simple.

It stretched me as an instructor and gave me a greater, deeper understanding of the technique. You never quit learning, no matter what rank you are. Last night proved it. Thanks to my student for helping me gain a greater insight. Nothing beats teaching the martial arts.

Strike First?

Self defense. Defending yourself. That means not letting someone inflict harm on you? So how do you do that? The easy answer is kicking and punching, blocking and striking. Obviously. There’s a portion that lays under the surface, seldom addressed with karate students. That’s the question of who strikes first. This is a complex question and one I completely understand not being posed to younger students. Parents spend their formative years telling their children, “Don’t hit anyone”. Some parents take this a bit further and tell their kids, “Don’t hit anyone but if they hit you – hit them back”.

Now, I’m not here to tell anyone how to raise their children. I’ve had my hands full with the five I have. I’m not saying the advice above is bad, but be ready for what the schools will tell you as we live in a world with zero tolerance. So, having a conversation with younger students about striking first is one I wouldn’t undertake.

It’s the older, more mature martial artist (yes, I think teenagers fit in this category) who need to evaluate who strikes first. I look at it this way. And as a point of clarification, I am only talking about situations where someone wants to cause me great bodily harm. This is not a school yard scenario but an abduction attempt or something similar.

I have two options.

  • Option 1 – Let them strike me first
  • Option 2 – A preemptive strike

Let’s look closer at the options. Option 1, letting them offer the first punch leaves me in a position of having to block them and possibly being injured and less able to defend myself.  The second option, a preemptive strike means I land the first punch and take control of the situation. It also means I might have to prove that I felt imminent danger and only did so to defend myself. Another words, I’d better be positive that there were no other options available to me. I’d rather be standing there talking to the authorities about why I punched someone than on the ground, needing medical attention. Or worse.

So for me, there’s no choice. Option two clearly plays out best. Until I consider another scenario. Getting myself out of harms way by creating distance from the aggressor is and will always be my first line of defense. If I can move away from someone who wants to hurt me, that’s what I’m going to do. And I’m going to do it yelling and screaming at the top of my lungs. I don’t want to have to physically defend myself unless I have no other choice. And the, believe me, I’m going to do it as strongly and as fiercely as I possibly can. You should, too.

‘The Talk’

I was chatting casually with my instructor about some marketing initiatives that we were working on, some upcoming events and he was sharing some teaching tidbits and ideas with me when he ever so casually said, “I need to see you before you get out of here.” Just like that. And then he was gone.

Why all of a sudden did I feel like a teenager in trouble? “Whatever it was I didn’t do it unless I was supposed to do it, then I did it for sure”, I thought to myself. Instead that feeling of dread grew in my gut, like a tiny knot that grows and festers into a huge boulder, weighing you down and making you sweat internally overcome with emotion, just waiting until ‘The Talk’.

I taught my class and tried to remain cheery and smiling, upbeat and positive while beads of perspiration covered my brain. Inside, I was a turning into a jello person. I pretty much knew what was coming. I wasn’t ready to test. “But I have to test,” I screamed until my own ears hurt. On the outside what everyone else heard was “great job, let’s do it again. One – two – three.”

I found myself wondering if I could wimp out and escape without facing the music. Maybe if I faced it later it wouldn’t seem so bad. But no such luck. I gamely hoisted my workout bag across my shoulder and smiled, saying “goodnight” in my most pleasant, I-don’t-want-to-face-the-firing-squad voice and prepared to leave.

That’s when I saw the finger beckoning me. “Come here for just a minute. Let’s talk.”

Let’s talk. That sounded so ominous. I carefully dropped my bag on the counter, sauntering off as casually as I could to the back mat. “Okay,” I thought. “I can take this. Toughen up. Black belts don’t cry.”

After a few minutes of conversation about my teaching skills and where I was at and how I’d improved he gently said, “So, now let’s talk about your test.” I didn’t know it was possible to really feel your heart lurch and drop to your feet. It is. Mine did. The only good thing was so far I wasn’t feeling the sting of tears fluttering against my eyelashes. “Toughen up,” I reminded myself. “Black belt’s DON’T cry.”

I must have been thinking so hard about holding it together because I didn’t hear him right. “I’m thinking your test will be at the end of February. Now, here’s what we need to do, here’s what you need to work on…”

Testing? The end of February? Really?

Now, I haven’t done a somersault in a long time but tonight I think I could have. I wanted to grin uncontrollably but figured that didn’t look very sophisticated. Did black belts grin? Yeah…when they tie that belt on for the first time I think.

I slammed my brain back to reality and listened intently to what he had to say. Time to really step it up. I’d be testing on my own, no breaks, no one else to distract the Board. All me. And it would be a Shotokan test, “That’s what you want to test isn’t it?” he asked. I nodded my head almost unable to speak. I’m testing! I’m really, really testing!

How come that feeling of exhilaration when I heard those words only lasted a short while? How come the nerves kicked into high gear and anxiety took over? I didn’t really have to wonder about that. I’d seen other dan exams. Over-confidence is a bad thing. A desire to train twice as hard, that’s what helps to take you to the next level.

I have to be honest, I won’t believe it until it happens. I won’t be confident of passing until I hear those words. “Let me present our newest black belt.” Only then will I believe it. And that’s when one black belt will definitely be grinning ear-to-ear.

The Teacher Becomes the Student

One of the most exciting new developments in my karate training has been the class that I now co-teach. Its a class for women taught by women and its all about self defense and fitness.

It was so intimidating to stand before all of the ladies the first time, offering them instruction and advice about how to handle dangerous situations. I heard the clock ticking on the wall. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. We had an hour class. A whole hour to fill. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

I saw their faces staring at me waiting to hear what I had to say. I felt my voice choke up inside and internally I stuttered, practically unable to speak. But somehow the words flowed out, spilling forward with an ease that seemed effortless. One idea after the next. One instruction after the next until the minutes melted away. The ladies were smiling but serious and did each technique eager to master it and move on to the next.

I was smiling, offering encouragement as my instructors have always given me. Words of praise and subtle corrections all mixed and blended together, designed to move them forward and become stronger and more powerful. Every word, every instruction I gave was important to them…and possibly even more important to me. Whatever I said had to be correct. I had to be sure. I had to KNOW what I was talking about.  I had to be right.

That room full of smiling ladies helped me grow more in that hour than I’d probably grown in karate for a while. The test wasn’t for them to succeed it was for me to realize all of the things I still had to learn. It was for me to go back to the beginning and redo all of the basics that I’d done before. But not just to do them. To understand them. To know why they were important and what they meant to self defense. Anyone can tell you ‘now throw a punch’. You have to understand body dynamics, hip rotation, focus, and how not to be forced to throw a punch to really be able to teach it.

At the end of the class we all celebrated our success in completing it. For them it was a physical accomplishment, sweat proudly dripping from their bodies. For me it was more mental and emotional. I had entered the class as a teacher and left it as a student. I’d learned so much but still had so much yet to learn.