It’s not us, it’s Zoom: How To Teach Karate Online

Last night, I taught four classes on Zoom, back to back.

By the time I finished and hit that ‘leave meeting’ button, I felt like my brain was pouring out of my ears. I’ve taught for hours before, but why is it that Zoom feels so, so much harder?

Turns out that I’m not the only instructor that feels this way. Chatting to other instructors, there’s the same frustration and exhaustion. Producing a short video is one thing – trying to teach karate across time and space is another. Teaching to a bunch of little squares on a screen compared to teaching in a dojo is like comparing tinned tuna to fresh blue fin tuna. It’ll get you by, but it’ll never be as good as the real deal.

What we’ve taken for granted before is the complexity of human interaction that allows us to teach so many at once, and to make those vital connections with our students so that they are receptive to what we have to teach.

Cognitive Resources

The reason I felt like I’d just written final exams after teaching Zoom is because of the sheer cognitive drain of online meetings. Gone is the dojo structure of demonstrating and then letting the students practice on their own and with each other. Everything has to be explained in the finest detail on top of physical demonstration, because we can’t assume that everyone has a high-quality connection and a clear view of the nuances that make up a kata or technique. Plus trying to watch all those little boxes at once, and correcting that kid for playing with their dog, or another one for making faces at the camera instead of training. And because, for now, I have to look at my face all the time (eew) while teaching, there’s a new level of self-consciousness that adds that little extra weight. Have I always bent my one finger just so? Is that really how my mawashi-uke looks?

Trying to teach and look at the projector screen with all the students on it is a challenge!

Rituals and Space

Karate is made up of rituals – rituals are the building blocks of habits and self-improvement. The rituals of entering the dojo, wearing a gi, bowing to classmates, removing shoes; these are all the building blocks on which we balance self-respect, discipline, integrity and thoughtfulness. Doing karate in the lounge undoes all of that. It is easy to mute Sensei when bored, or wander off to the bathroom, or (as we found out later) play Fortnite while Sensei talks. As instructors, we have to work ten times harder to keep their attention, and we don’t have our usual scaffolding of the dojo and its routines and peer behaviour to keep students focused.

Sensei Che Jagger (my hubby) doing a Facebook Live video. The ring light really helps with the dojo’s lighting and helps students see you better. Having a tripod is an essential investment for your digital dojo.

Micro-Expressions and Lag

When we communicate, our bodies and faces provide dozens of cues to support what we are saying (or not, when we lie), and our brains largely process this subconsciously. In a normal meeting, we can see these micro-expressions in real-time and spend less time concentrating on looking at people to understand them. Online, though? We have to really focus to catch all those expressions over spotty connections, and with bad lighting (especially those of you who have a window behind you! Move!)

It is much harder to tell if someone is listening when eye contact isn’t clear. Are they looking at you? Their block on the screen? Are they looking at the gallery of viewers? It’s like when you video call someone who isn’t au fait with technology and you end up talking to their forehead.

And when do you chime in? Pauses are artificially lengthened, and the number of times I waited for an answer, then assumed none were forthcoming, and just as I started to speak, then someone speaks over me. and then its the dance of “no, you go,” and “sorry, sorry, I was just going to say” and then we all want to go burn our modems.

How To Make It Better: Instructors

For now, it looks like this is the best option we have to maintain contact with our students until we can open our doors again. Lockdown is affecting dojos all over the world, and I hope that, whoever is reading this, that your dojo survives. Whether you own one or attend one, I truly hope that. A dojo only deserves to close down when the instructor is a fraud; I would hate to see great dojos sunk by something way beyond the instructor’s control.

Here are some ideas on how to make Zoom classes better, and to maintain that vital connection between you and your students.

Our movie night projector, laptop and ring light set-up for digital classes. Re-purposing existing tech to make classes happen. Adapt, improvise, overcome!
  • Don’t talk about the pandemic. Karate needs to be a break from the heaviness of what is going on. It is time for Sensei to be a source of energy. The kids are stressed enough.
  • Get creative! Tell your students to fetch soft toys to train with. Do broom karate. Add some stretches. Do a trivia quiz. Tell them a funny gashuku story. Yes, there is time for syllabus, but karate is long, life is short. Right now, you are trying to make Zoom classes worth attending, not creating the next black belt. There will be time for that later.
  • Lean on other forms of contact outside of Zoom. Whether you keep in touch via Whatsapp, Telegram, email or Facebook, let your students know you are thinking of them. Remember, they’re also going through their own troubles off-screen. Your care still matters. It matters more than you think.
  • Do some trial runs to find the right spot with the best light, least echo and strongest wifi signal. Here are some tips on online teaching and set-up.
  • Say thank you when they do make the effort to attend Zoom classes. Those students are making a bigger effort than many others. It is still a privilege to teach, even when it is in a crappy format.
  • Shorter is better. The sheer cognitive load of something as difficult as karate over a medium like Zoom makes it a double-whammy. And if your students are also doing Zoom for school, they are going to be exhausted by the time they do karate. Max 45 minute classes for your seniors. Also, some students don’t have wifi- they might be spending a lot of data to attend your Zoom class.
  • If you can, investing in some equipment will make your life easier. Get a good tripod, and haul your laptop in so that you can see multiple students at once. We use a phone for the good-quality front camera, and a laptop to see all the students at once.
  • Come up with a specific sign language so that students can catch your attention. I like to use jazz hands right up against the screen – they don’t turn on mics without permission, and it catches my attention much faster. Make this something fun and specific to your dojo.
  • Replicate some dojo routine. Still do your warm-ups. Still insist on bowing. They must still excuse themselves to go to the bathroom. Encourage them to wear a gi. It goes without saying, but wear your full gi as well. Yes, your pants too. Don’t be that guy.
  • Take 5 or so minutes at the beginning and end of class to leave the mics on and chat with the kids who arrive early. Ask about their pets, ask if they’ve had a heavy school load today. Let them see their dojo friends, and then focus them all together for the class.
  • Make use of the Spotlight video option when teaching on Zoom. I haven’t used any other platforms, so I can’t speak about any other features.
  • Be patient as people drop in and out because of their connections. Some kids tune in late because we are competing with online classes at the same time. Try to be grateful that they are trying, rather than frustrated when they’re not attending perfectly. Yes, I know, it is irritating to have to stop what you are doing to let kids into the meeting room, but it’s not being done on purpose.
  • This is not the time to be a hard-ass. Be kind.

How To Make It Better: Parents and Students

  • If you can, please pay your fees. This is really the only way to make sure there’s a physical dojo to return to. If you have lost your job, your Sensei understands. Let us know! It’s the ghosting that kills us. We can pause accounts, and wait for your return one day.
  • Try to treat Zoom like the dojo – dress in gi, listen as you normally would, try your best.
  • Drop your Sensei a message excusing yourself if you can’t make Zoom for whatever reason. It helps us to know why we don’t see you – is it data? No internet at home? Time clash? Not enough devices? We understand.
  • Parents, we know that there has been a massive change in routine for the kids. Part of the fun of the dojo is seeing their friends. Try remind them that their friends are training too. Dangle an extra reward. Chat to Sensei about your troubles and see how you can reach out to your little one. Offer to train with them – Sensei will be delighted to see it.

Every day, I think about how great it will be to see my students again. I miss them so much. I even miss the farting and the giggling that results. I miss hanging out with the adults for those extra minutes after class. I can’t wait until we reopen. I am sure that you feel that way too – that karate was never meant for this. But karate has survived wars – it will survive this. Now we must use that line from the dojo kun: practice earnestly with creativity. Keep training, take care of your students, and be a source of strength. Yes, it will be hard: that which gives light must endure burning. Right now, instructors must work hard to maintain their students and keep up with the changes thrust upon us. We have to be more creative, more disciplined, more patient than ever before. But if you can survive this, you will come out of it with a newfound appreciation for teaching, for students, and for the dojo.

How have you been coping with Zoom? Share your stories below – we would love to hear your thoughts.

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