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.

Karate in the Age of Instagram

In my usual forays around the internet today, I came across this article about how Lush UK is abandoning social media. Their reason?

“Increasingly, social media is making it harder and harder for us to talk to each other directly,” the post read. “We are tired of fighting with algorithms, and we do not want to pay to appear in your newsfeed. So we’ve decided it’s time to bid farewell to some of our social channels and open up the conversation between you and us instead.⁣”

And honestly, this is refreshing to see. If a big brand like Lush is tired of fighting with the monsters that own Facebook and Instagram, then it doesn’t feel quite so bad to be a small dojo swimming against the algorithms all the time.

I worked as a social media manager in my past life, before I ran away from corporate to become an instructor, and it was a constant battle of shiny, happy updates and vapid copy, my English degrees weeping on the wall while I used hashtags and SEO-friendly babble to sell books, or book launches. To this day, I still cannot abide hashtags, which are an abomination unto the flow of language and conversation.  Seeing them anywhere other than on a phone keypad and Twitter, where they started their rise, and where they should stay, gives me hives on the inside of my skull. Billboards, whatsapp chats with friends and family, cheesy t-shirts from Mr Price – I barf in my scorn.

But, if you want to play the social media game, you have to play by the rules, and that means hashtags if you want your post to be discovered. And so, on Instagram, I dutifully put in the hashtags, even if it feels like I’m trading parts of my soul for it.  And there’s nothing worse than one line of copy, and a paragraph of hashtags, and that’s one of the reasons why our dojo instagram account doesn’t have 10,000 followers.

Of course, I could just buy followers – it is easy enough, and costs less than one expects.  Risky, though.  And predictably, that article goes on to piously state:

Take the time, energy, and money that you would’ve dedicated to buying followers, and focus instead on building genuine relationships with a real audience. If your content is engaging and authentic, your loyal followers will spread the word and engage with your brand without needing any bribes.

Aye, there’s the rub. In a longer post. I’ve written about the day-to-day schedule a Sensei might have, but to paraphrase here: when you are running a business, it takes up the whole day when you’re doing it with all your heart.  But on social media, no one can see your hard work. By its very nature, it demands that everything is effortlessly beautiful. All is glamorous and charming, all the time.

But by karate’s nature, and that of any martial art, it’s definitely not glamorous. This isn’t yachting in the Bahamas. There are hours and hours of slog – of cleaning and administrating. Of drills done in the morning, when the dojo is quiet and it’s the only chance I have to train.  No one wants to see that. Up and down, repetition after repetition. Who cares? Only me, and definitely not Facebook.

And what about the complications of posting about my students? Sharenting is the new term for when parents overshare about their children online, and there are concerns about the creeps who hang around, looking for information and pictures about kids. Also, there are those who take it to extremes, like the Kardashians:

Last week, it was alleged that American celebrities Kim Zolciak-Biermann and Kim Kardashian (both of whom regularly post pictures of their children on the internet) appeared to have… enhanced recent photos of their daughters, aged four and five. Their stomachs had been slimmed, their skin had been smoothed, and it was claimed (by gotcha account @Celebface) that Zolciak-Biermann had changed the shape of her daughter’s nose, and lifted her buttocks.


Now, I teach a lot of really super cute kids, who look adorable in their karate suits. Do I post pictures of them posing to shore up my dojo ‘brand’? Absolutely not.  I don’t even post pictures of my own child online, because I don’t like the idea of any of those tech giants having any more say or information on my life than they already have. I am especially strict about others posting about him online. Why would I then have separate rules for my students?

As it is, I post only pictures of the top or backs of their heads – no faces, no tags, and no identifying markers.  Instagram, and its users, obviously don’t swoon over this kind of content. It’s safe, and boring. Nothing cute about the back of someone’s little head.

There are also legal issues around privacy and photography – this is the South African law around it, and worth noting is this:

You have the right to take photos of anyone or anything if it can be seen from a public area. This includes parks, city streets and sporting events or concerts. This also allows for any private property or buildings to be shot from within the public domain. Any person and member of the public is basically wavering their right to anonymity or privacy by appearing in these areas and are therefore fair subject matter for images.

This makes it interesting when you are dealing with parents taking photos of kids. It may be important to have a conversation about not sharing photos with other people’s kids in them, unless you stick an emoji over their face, as some people do. (Which is weird, but better than blurring their faces so that it looks like a documentary.)  Here are some good guidelines about posting pics, and overall, my rule of thumb is that I try not to post standalone pictures of kids, and these days, only group photos, at a distance, where the faces are small and no one is tagged.

All of this is even before we have a wider conversation about social media and its inherent problems, like how it is linked to the exacerbation of mental health issues in teens, or how it favours right-wing parties. Is this even something we want to be a part of?

Overall, it is just easier to avoid all of this nonsense and risk, and unsubscribe from the unrelenting demands of social media, and especially Instagram. I know its 2019, and everyone, including their pug, is expected to have a social account, and a following.  There’s even the careful monetisation of parenting, with moms (90% of the time, its moms) sharing how ‘exhausting’ parenting is, yet they have the time to make those damn cutesy letterboards with funny quotes and have perfect hair, and still be influencers getting paid that sweet dollar dollar for their twee posting. Parenting isn’t anything like that, and yet its now the new norm.

It all feels hollow, and pointless, and so antithetical to what a dojo is all about that it seems cheapening and soul-destroying to play the likes game. Because that’s all it boils down to: more likes = better, and how can I compete with someone who spends hours upon hours cultivating a careful artifice to attract those tasty likes?  And why should we be forced to compete?

It is important that students are not taught that their looks and image are more important than what they do. There is far more value to the qualitative life than the quantitative one, and social media actively promotes the worst in all of us. What message do we send kids when we post only their best, or use their tempers and failures as funny posts to get likes and comments?  Karate is about long-term goals, the daily work of attending class and practicing. It is the integrity to work when no one is watching, to do the lonely, simple work that progress requires. It is also important that students are taught not to value someone’s training based on their posts. Some people will post literally every time they put their gi on, but that’s no indication of how hard they work, and what kind of person they are on the mat. Social media is the opposite of the simple life called for in the dojo kun, and while it might help us promote our dojos to passing customers, it can easily distract us from what is important: teaching good karate and values.

I would much, much rather take the time to send photos I take of the kids in the dojo directly to their parents, so that they can enjoy seeing their kids’ progress. Especially for the parents who work full time and can’t come watch their kid train. I think that is a much better investment of my time than choosing hashtags.

Apps for Instructors

While the noble art of being an instructor goes back to the first time someone said “hey, let me show you how to do that better”, today we have incredible tools at our disposal. Sure, Sensei Youtube often causes more problems than it solves…

martial arts humor #jiujitsumemes

But we are lucky to live in an age where we can connect with instructors all over the world. Some of them are even on Twitter! Below are some of the apps that I use to free up time for teaching, streamline my admin, continue my education and improve my lesson plans.
(PS: Links below are for Android, since that is the platform I use and there isn’t always an Apple version.)

Metronome Beats 

Cover artYou’d be amazed how many training exercises you’ll come up with when using the humble metronome. It is ideal for teaching students pacing in randori, or for picking up the speed in drills. I like to do a Hell Week kind of exercise where they do basics at 40, 60, 80, 100 techniques a minute. Punches, blocks, kicks – sure, it gets untidy towards the end but it is great pressure-testing and for building spirit.

Beep Test 

For those nights when you really want to test endurance and cardio – the beep test introduces increasingly shorter times to do sprints. Handy for building energy fast in the dojo and doing a full-body warm-up.

Tabata Timer 

The gym rats don’t have to have the corner on High Intensity Interval Training. 20 seconds on, 10 off helps with doing crazy volumes of basics, hojo undo and kata snippets.

Invoices Online

This is the best accounting app I’ve come across yet. It is well priced, offers lots of features and has great support. It is made for South African businesses, so it has easy VAT functions. Once you’ve added your student body, it is super easy to automate invoices and free up hours and hours of your time. It also helps you keep track of stock, expenses, payouts, quotes and more.


Trying to get hold of people via email is a pain – spam filters are the enemy and people chop and change emails way more often than phone numbers. It is well worth taking the time to set up broadcasts and holding groups when parents send in their paperwork. I personally prefer Telegrambut not everyone is on it like Whatsapp. (Which is a pity, because Telegram is beautiful to use and has a much nicer variety of stickers and emojis.)

Namola (South Africa) 

How prepared are you for a dojo emergency? Do you have emergency response numbers up somewhere? Namola helps get first responders for medical, fire and crime emergencies exactly to your GPS location. They also let you run tests to check response times.

Any.Do or Evernote

Running a dojo means a checklist for DAYS of little and big tasks. Short-term memory is useless for keeping track of all the little tasks, so I use Any.Do for my lists and Evernote for my ideas. Having an external brain frees me up to think about big stuff and long-term goals. If you think I’m crazy, Tim Ferriss backs me on this.


I am a compulsive reader of articles about everything (anything from 10 – 30 a day) – I am always reading about everything from teaching practices to parenting to karate to running. Pocket is a great way to save all those articles in one place. Evernote offers the same functionality but it isn’t as streamlined. Articles are also nice to share as content with your dojo on social media, and this is a great place to store ideas.


Linked to my compulsive consumption of information, Stitcher is my favourite podcast app. I listen to podcasts on teaching practice, economics, history, medicine, news, the list goes on. Good podcasts for instructors include: The Cult of Pedagogy, K-12 Greatest Hits, The Tim Ferriss Show, Note To Self and The Art of Charm

Pages Manager (Facebook)/Hootsuite

Honestly, I hate Facebook, but a dojo’s got to have a good Facebook page. Use Pages Manager to manage only your dojo page and not get sucked in to larger Facebook and pointless scrolling. If you want to manage multiple social media accounts (FB, Insta and Twitter), then give Hootsuite a bash. I used it in my social media manager days.


As much as Pinterest is full of sickeningly twee photos and mushy quotes, it is an excellent place to find teaching ideas. Teachers, educational psychologists and occupational therapists post their ideas all over Pinterest, and I have found amazing ideas for lesson plans, reward systems and dojo games. Once you teach the algorithms what you want, it serves up handy links and infographics. (Although mine is interspersed with fudge recipes, because that’s my life now, apparently.)

Hopefully this list will help you free up time to enjoy your karate and teaching! If you have any apps that you find useful, please share in the comments below.

Feminism Isn’t a Hobby

Today, people will be wearing black in some kind of attempt to soothe their consciences about the appalling treatment of women in South Africa on a daily basis, made manifest in the tragic rape and death of Anene Booysens. Like with the rhinos and the POI Bill, today people will express their sort-of pissiness with the system by adopting faddy shit that will be forgotten in a month. 

I suppose one could admire it, but really, its slacktivism on a Kony 2012 level. People will wear black once, sign a petition and then go on their merry ways, cracking jokes about how dumb women are (notice there’s never any men in blonde jokes) and listening to Chris Brown, that hooting dickhole. Everyone is quick to make fun of feminism, saying how unnecessary it is, how angry it is, don’t we know that things are awesome for women now? We can, liek, even vote and shit. Yay.

Where have all these well-intentioned but clueless people been? Why is it that you get upset for a week, whereas some of us are upset all the time because each and every day is a mass-perpetuated war on women around the world? How can you not see this as anything except slow genocide? Girl children are exterminated before birth in India qua being a girl. There are groups in America insisting that women who have abortions should be imprisoned. Women who bring claims of abuse at the hands of famous men are ridiculed and shamed. Add to this the mass rapes in refugee camps in Africa, the continued assault on women in South Africa, the extent of which isn’t even fully understood.

And yet people have the audacity to wear black and think this helps anything. There have been organisations working tirelessly for decades, trying to make what difference they can in a violent world that has no respect for women. Jesus, there are infants being raped. How can people trivialise this by wearing a different colour? 

There are ways people can help. People can learn to grow a goddamn spine and not laugh at rape jokes or complain when fuckwit DJs play music by misogynist assholes (or act like misogynist assholes themselves). You can volunteer your money, time and help at any number of women’s shelters, or teaching at a school lacking resources. You can help one woman out of poverty, whether it is through putting a girl child through school or helping her find work through your own connections.If you’re ever fortunate enough to be hiring, try make an effort to give more women a chance, and equal pay. When we see a woman being verbally abused, we can step in. If we think a woman is being abused at home, have the courage and basic decency to offer help. 

Wearing black and signing an Avaaz petition is as insulting as it is pathetic. Making a difference takes the work of everyone, every day. Think about all the times men around you have been crude and disgusting, and every time a woman stands up against it, she is humiliated. Not the poisonous shits who were telling the rape joke in the first place. Feminism is not a hobby – it is the combined efforts of everyone across all class, sexual orientations, gender and race lines to eradicate the hatred for women that is endemic to nearly every society on this planet. Don’t let people get a free pass because they listened to Facebook and wore black. It doesn’t mean anything if you’re only a feminist for a day. 

Organisations that need our help: 

POWA – People Opposing Women Abuse

Rape Crisis Cape Town

Directory of South African Welfare Organisations

Bombani Shelter for Abused Women (Alexandria) 

List of Shelters that the Soul Food Project Supports

Usindiso Ministries Women’s Shelter

AmCare List of Women and Children’s Shelters

The Frieda Hartley Shelter for Women in Distress (Johannesburg)

Jou Ma Se Social Network

It is a well-documented fact amongst those that know me that I generally don’t tolerate pointless bleating. And while there is the usual white noise that suffuses the open-plan offices and braai lapas, nothing has hit quite an unnecessary pitch like the petulant whining that comes with each change of a social network. One of the most annoying First World problems of 2011, I reckon.

I have had my Facebook account for six years now. That’s longer than most of the houses I’ve stayed in, longer than the time I spent in university. It has been through so many changes as to barely resemble the original layout. And I’m still using it, and so are 880 million other people. And while Google Plus is…nice, I suppose, it doesn’t have everyone there. It was hard enough getting my family to understand Facebook, never mind porting them over to Google Plus. (Which does make Facebook your mom’s network.) Most people aren’t going to bother with the move. It has stagnated mostly, except for the small surge of people that joined it when it was open to all a few days ago. (Their excitement was cute.) Having been there since day one courtesy of tech guru Tally, I can say that I have mostly lost interest. Its more of a bizarre mix of Tumblr, Twitter and Flickr. There really isn’t as much intensely personal overshare as Facebook and the circles idea was great. But as for the hangouts…well, I don’t have the bandwidth or inclination. At the end of the day, its not a Facebook killer. Maybe that isn’t what it should be trying to be.

For some, it all boils down to fandoms, and people pledging alliances to things as indifferent to their love as Google, Facebook and Apple. Friend SJ said that he’d rather Google take over the world than Facebook and Apple, but considering that all Google does well is email and search engines, they really aren’t that close to any kind of domination. After the failure of Buzz, Wave and the sputtering of Google Plus, maybe they should just stick to the stuff they do really, really well: making the Internet an easier place to be. And paying for YouTube, that is quite charming of them. I have made my arguments for Apple before, and Facebook is an interesting phenomenon in that it really is the best way to share each other’s lives. With the new subscriptions and lists, its much easier to squeeze out the info I want from the people I like while adding the people I’m not really allowed to defriend to the Restricted list. I am aware of the security issues, but we have to make peace that everyone knows where you are. I’m not so sure why everyone gets upset about security on the net, but invite pizza delivery guys to their houses or readily put their residential address on any form they are asked to sign.

Ultimately, if the Facebook changes bug everyone so much, then just use it less. There’s a beautiful world outside and it doesn’t need a news feed.