Thursday, 4 March 2010

Teaching martial arts - harder than it looks!

I helped with some teaching this week. I have been helping out in the Monday junior class for 2 or 3 months now but generally I just join in, partner someone who doesn’t have a partner and help some of the very junior students with their katas. However this week Sensei decided to give me a bit more teaching to do.

So instead of having a couple of yellow belts to take through their kata he asked me to take the whole class through some pad work! Well, the whole class bar two students whom he wanted to take aside to go through their grading syllabus with. This left me with about 14 students ranging from red belt to purple belt.

I decided not to feel too intimidated by this request; after all I’ve done loads of pad work – what could be so hard? When Sensei does pad work with us we just line up in pairs down the centre of the hall with a pad, he demonstrates the techniques he wants us to do, we do it to his count, left leg/arm, then right leg/arm, then we do ten left, ten right to our own count and swap pad holders who then go through the same routine. Sensei walks up and down praising/correcting our technique and encouraging us to go harder; simple eh?

Well, I got everybody sorted into partners and lined up with the pads – so far, so good. I then demonstrated the first technique – a spinning back kick. What was Sensei thinking giving me this kick to demonstrate? It’s my worst kick (apart from spinning hook kick – that just looks like an inelegant pirouette!). I can tell someone how to do a back kick and I can tell students all the little nuances that make the kick work better – drawing the knee up high, looking at your target, the correct foot shape on the pad, keeping your hands up, pulling the leg back after the kick etc. However, knowing what to do and actually being able to do it is not necessarily the same thing!

So I did my rather lack lustre demonstration and set them off doing it to my count: “Ichi..” They kick. I go off and help a young yellow belt who doesn’t know which way to spin. After a few seconds with her I look up and realise the whole class are standing there like statues waiting for me to count. “Oh sorry, Ni!” They all kick again. I help another child who’s confused for a few seconds. I look up – statues. I count again – they kick. I can’t seem to count and give attention to people at the same time! So I decided just to walk up and down counting and saying things like ‘don’t let your hands drop’ and ‘draw you knee up higher before you kick’.

I then realise I haven’t asked them to change legs yet (poor things!). So we do it all again on the other leg and my poor little yellow belt is still spinning the wrong way so I go over to help her and guess what? Yep! Statues again. Anyway, we get through this and get to the bit where they do 10 kicks on each leg to their own count. Respite! I can now concentrate more on helping those that are struggling. Then it’s time to swap pad holders and do it all again. This means I have to demonstrate the kick again – I tried really hard not to lose my balance, draw my knee up, and shape my foot - all the things I’d just told them to do. My demonstration went slightly better this time.

After everybody had finished I had to do the whole thing again with the side kick (another difficult kick for me). By which time Sensei is assuming we’ve nearly finished and shouts ‘finish off with some jump kicks’. Not if you want to go home on time, I’m thinking. Anyway we did fit in a few jump kicks (I’m okay with those) before Sensei takes the class back. Phew!

This teaching lark is a lot harder than it looks. I found it very difficult to watch people carefully and count at the same time. I decided the best time to give people individual attention was when they were kicking to their own count and doing the kicks repetitively. I was quite comfortable correcting and advising the children but less so the adults, particularly those that could do the technique better than me – it seemed rather patronising to correct someone who can do something better than me. Did I remember to praise? I think I praised some of the children who were doing it well but I’m not sure I did the adults, which is something I must remember – we all need praise occasionally, however old we are.

What were your early teaching experiences like? What did you find particularly hard about it?

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Indomitable Spirit said...

Hi Sue

One of the advantages I've had with teaching is that most of those classes train without an instructor's count. That certainly made it an awful lot easier to assign students a task and let them get on with it whilst I went around and helped as necessary.

One of my big challenges has always been splitting up the time spent on each task, ensuring that students are spending enough time practicing each thing rather than rushing them on to the next.

I guess that's a skill that comes with time lol.

One good thing about teaching, or helping teach, is that you start to value to skill of your own instructor.



Sue C said...

Hi Avril, I'm starting to think that my instructor must have about 4 pairs of eyes to watch us all! obviously we don't do everything to an instructors count, it was just the task I was assigned and I found it surprisingly difficult to do! Like you say - skill comes with time.

Ellie Belen Ambrose said...

In the beginning I found it harder when there were more than eight in a class, especially when the students are 4-6.

I have been teaching for 12 years now, and sometimes I have a class that still stumps me every once in a while.

Basically your students teach you something new almost everyday.

Sue C said...

Hi Ellie, I can relate to that experience with the youngest students - I can cope with about 3 at the moment and even then one can wander off without me realising! Like you, I expect I'll get used to it over time. Thanks for commenting.

Felicia said...

Howdy, Sue...

I haven't been teaching for very long, but what always used to throw me was remembering to be the mirror image of the other students. In other words, if I asked for left side forward long stance, I had to remember to fall into right side forward long stance. I taught spinning classes for years and managed to do the "mirror image" thing well then, but without the bike, it was kind of a mess for a minute...

I also had an instructor who used to literally say out loud "what do I want to do now?" during the warmup. My fear became big gaps when leading kihon as I didn't want to appear like I had no idea what I was doing, LOL. Even when my train of thought was running a little slow, I kinda willed my lips to stay together so "Hmmm...What next?" didn't escape, LOL...

It is harder working with large groups of kids as opposed to adults, but Avril is right - it gets better with time, for certain.

Sue C said...

Hi Felicia,

That mirror image thing really throws me at the moment but I know it really helps the students so I'll have to work on it.

I'm off to help again tonight so who knows what Sensei will throw at me this week! lol

Anonymous said...

You should let someone else do the counting (every teacher needs a second in command, usually the highest ranking belt) while you go around correcting people, it's impossible to do two things at the same time and this way both the one student you're correcting and the others that are waiting for you to continue suffer.

I found teaching isn't so hard aslong as you know what you're doing (teaching techniques you need to work on yourself is indeed challenging) and made a plan beforehand. Since I'm only an assisent my responsibility isn't that great and I only have to take over the class when sensei's away. This means there's no-one to correct me but I found it's actually much easier that way: I can pretty much do what I want and if I'm at loss or it's near the end of the class I may ask the students what they'd like to work on. Usually I start the class with a stiff warm-up, then a few rounds of boxing and/or kicking on the heavy bags or focus-mitts followed by a few lengths worth of breakfalls. I then usually review what sensei taught the previous weeks but with my own explanation and details (this seems to work since quite a few students told me their techniques improved with the extra review), I do try to show at least something new each class or a put a new twist or application on a technique they already know to keep it interesting. First I demonstrate & explain then I go around the class praising what they're doing right and correcting mistakes. After that there's usually some weaponwork or some sparring, I then line them up, tell them they did a good job & dismiss them. Simple, neh?

I found aslong as the students respect you and you do your best to keep them occupied (lulls during exercises are a real buzzkill) the class will be a succes. People want to feel like they've accomplished something, that need to feel they've exercised and most of all they need to feel you care about them and want to them to do good. The one thing that is not so easy to do for me is to explain every detail, sometimes certain techniques are hard to put into words and what I still need to work on is not only identifying faults in people's techniques but also verbally guide them every step of the way.


Sue C said...

Zara, thanks for sharing your teaching experiences and ideas with me - you are clearly further along the teaching path than me!

There is no way any coloured belt would be left to run the whole class in our club - Sensei wouldn't even leave the room unless there was a black belt present!

My teaching role is small, intermittent and for just short periods at a time (10mins), usually with very small groups. This is more for my benefit than the other students so that I can build up my confidence with teaching. Hopefully by the time I am a black belt (approx 14 months)I will have sufficient confidence and skill to assist sensei in a more substantial way.

Anonymous said...

That’s a very subtle way of saying you don’t think I’m qualified to teach, assuming you weren’t just imparting information about the inner workings of your dojo. Since we’re a young club we don’t have any black belts yet (though that’s about to change very soon) and currently no-one (besides me) over the rank of yellow belt so if sensei can’t make it either I take over or there isn’t a class at all. Even if I would do a crappy job that’d still be better than no practice at all and I haven’t heard any complaints yet, on the contrary. Since our students are either white or yellow belts and I don’t have to teach any advanced stuff I’m confident I’m not instilling bad habits and I’m actually able to teach them properly (I do know my basics). What I do is mostly review material they’ve seen before, teaching new stuff is sensei’s job and they need the extra practice. My emphasis is on first reaction drills and proper development and execution of atemi (intention, speed and impact training on the bags or mitts), while reviewing old material I try to illuminate certain aspects sensei just glanced over (there are so many of them and every individual has his or her own teaching-style) and pay extra attention to the correction of mistakes I saw earlier.

I’m quite experienced and technically proficient, I’m at least as good as most black belts in our federation and, perhaps even more importantly, I’m good at teaching meaning I can convey techniques & concepts in such a way people get it and ensure they’re having a good time while practicing. I’ve seen black belts that clearly didn’t deserve their rank (if you’re a second Dan and your locks don’t work on me than clearly you don’t deserve my respect) and others that were very good technique-wise but couldn’t teach even if their life depended on it. A teacher is one that excels in both categories and while I concede I still have much to learn in both departments training in the martial arts is my passion and I love helping others improve & reap the benefits of training. Within a few months I should be ready for my Dan-exam, I don’t put much stock in rank (I could have made shodan years ago if I wanted to) but it’s good to have a goal and to freshen up on certain techniques.

It’s a fairy-tale that putting a black belt around your waist suddenly turns you into a proficient fighter or a superior martial artist, let alone a good teacher. I know I am good, my sensei has confidence in me and as long as he and our students are happy with my performance I really don’t give a damn about other people’s opinions. Simply put there are people who’ll never be able to perform in high stress situations no matter what rank they have and they are those that thrive under such conditions and have a knack for fighting, even if they’re just beginners with little formal training. As an educator or former educator I’m sure you’ll agree certain people were born for teaching while others will never be any good at it, no matter their experience or the amount of training they’ve had. It takes certain qualities and personality-traits to become good at both aspects of the art and that is something that is largely innate (if you don’t have it, it cannot be developed… ex nihilo nihil fit), it cannot be instilled in you only nurtured through training and experience. A belt is nothing more than a means of keeping your gi from falling open and the respect people generally give black belts should be based on their character & skill, not on a piece of paper or a piece of clothing with stripes on it.


PS: if you are used to teaching, how come you’re so nervous about it in the dojo? It can’t be the stress of standing in front of a group of people since you should be used to that. If you’re not very good at certain techniques just practice them more until you master them (you are an advanced student after all), that way you won’t have to worry about whether or not you should be teaching at all.

Sue C said...


Whoa! I didn't mean to imply that you're not qualified to teach so I'm sorry if I offended you.

Every dojo operates it's own system and it sounds like your sensei is lucky to have you. I think the reason coloured belts can't teach without sensei (or another black belt) being present in our club is because of insurance conditions, I don't think we would be properly insured if an accident happened in the absence of a qualified instructor. Also we don't have any brown belts sufficiently experienced to take the whole lesson in sensei's absence in any case. The same situation applies to my jujitsu/kobodo club as well - no one less than 3rd dan has taught us there! My husband's previous jujitsu club also had a similar policy.

Clearly the situation is different where you are or perhaps you are considered an exception because of your skill, experience and support of your sensei?

As for me? Well I'm a bit nervous about teaching partly because I haven't done it for a long time (15years)and partly because I am not as qualified or experienced in karate as I was in nursing/biological sciences. I'm sure I'll get better at it with practice!

Anonymous said...

Then I’m sorry I took offense, apparently I jumped to conclusions. As for the insurance question: I’m registered as an instructor under sensei so if something happens everyone’s insured and I’m not liable for any damages. That is another thing I stress when I’m teaching: safety first, go easy on your partner and always realize what we practice can be quite dangerous. With certain locks if you turn just a few degrees too much you’ll break his arm, dislocate his shoulder or destroy his ankle (not to mention the dangers of necklocks, that’s why I refrain from teaching them). In most dojo’s here it’s not customary to put a brown belt in charge but since we don’t have a second black belt yet (again this will be corrected soon) we have to make due and I do think I’m capable enough or I wouldn’t accept such responsibility. Obviously sensei wouldn’t put me in charge if he didn’t think I was up to the task. In a way he is lucky to have me (having an assistant makes classes go smoother, especially if you have a significant disparity in experience between students or an exceptional numbers of participants) and he has someone to cover for him if he’s sick or attending an important seminar, otherwise he’d have to cancel the class.

Yet I’m also lucky to have him as my instructor: he’s very, very good (both technique-wise & as a teacher), he regularly takes time out of his schedule to train with me personally (good, yet also painful times) and he gives me the opportunity to assist him and acquire experience as a teacher. He’s only a second Dan in ju-jutsu but he also trains in other arts such as jeet-kune-do (the martial art created by Bruce Lee, an offshoot of Wing-Chung), kali-escrima (the Filipino MA, very weapon-orientated) and to a lesser degree thaiboxing & mixfight. He has cross-trained for years, he even trained in two karate styles for some time (wado & goju, achieving 4th kyu in both). He’s very good at integrating aspects of these various arts with our base in ju-jutsu to create a well-rounded self-defense curriculum, another major focus of his is researching training-methods and ways to make learning varied & fun. Compared to the routine at our old dojo his classes are fast-paced, varied (kickboxing, breakfalls, groundwork, unarmed techniques, weapon-defense in quick succession) & very structured. For an aspiring instructor there’s no substitute for hands-on experience & a proper role-model/mentor. On top of that he’s one of my best friends & we get along well outside of class (a good thing when you’re sitting in a car for an hour on the way to a seminar). He could have been a 3th or even a 4th Dan if he wanted (my old sensei pushed him to take the exam but her refused, the federation also asked him but he postponed) and studied japanology at university (the study of the Japanese language, literature and culture).

I didn’t mean to belittle you, even though what I said is correct. Teaching comes down to a combination of confidence & competence, you can be the greatest expert in the world but if you lack confidence people won’t take you seriously & you won’t be able to effectively lead them & transfer knowledge. The best way to be confident is to know your stuff and to come prepared, that is at least one luxury I do have: I know beforehand so I can make a plan. What subjects did you teach at nursing-school? Good luck with teaching.


Sue C said...

Hi Zara, sounds like you have a good partnership with your sensei. Good luck with your forthcoming black belt grading. When I taught nursing I specialised in renal nursing (kidneys)and taught all theoretical knowledge and practical dialysis skills to post graduate nurses. I also contributed a chapter to a nursing text book on the anatomy, physiology and pathology of the renal system - that was published in 1995 - seems a long time ago now!

Anonymous said...

We get along fine, as a sempai & sensei should. The preparation for the test is going ok, I just need to stick to the program and not got carried away by stuff not ju-jutsu related (boxing, groundfighting). You must have been a very good teacher if they asked you to contribute to a textbook, perhaps you should consider writing an e-book on your experiences as a female karate student. I’m sure you must have enough material on your blog. What kind of job do you do now? Not that it’s any of my business of course, nor very martial arts related.


Sue C said...

Hi Zara, me write an e-book? mmmm, well you never know! Think I'll just work towards my black belt first and keep on blogging :-)


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