Late Bloomers Welcome

I got an email from a possible student the other day, asking if we offered adult classes, or if we would be willing to accommodate a 45 year old. I get messages like this all the time – parents and grandparents who want to either join their kid on the mat, or find something to do now that the children have all grown up and gone. Sometimes, it’s picking up where they left off thirty years ago, always plagued by the regret of quitting. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me they wish they hadn’t quit as a kid, I’d be able to buy a shiny, fancy new gi.

Always that question: is it too late for me to start?

I always say, never. 

If you want your child to become national champion, then yes, they have to live it from when they are four or five. You also have to hope that they are freakishly gifted in strength, agility and speed. (But that’s a blogpost for another time.) Otherwise? It doesn’t matter when we start – what matters is that we stay. 

While the majority of my students are under 16, we are fortunate enough to have a thriving adult class of 30, when everyone is on the mat. The oldest student is 67. There is a grandmother aged 62, who trains consistently and with great humility and a smile. She’s properly awesome, and rightfully inspiring.

But this is the hard part for us – keeping adult students interested. The sheer demands on our time – work, family, health – make finding a couple of hours a week a challenge sometimes. In Joburg, there are literally hundreds of dojos, but anyone in a small town will struggle to find one close enough. Even then, proximity isn’t enough, because a dojo should be good. A dojo should be accommodating without sacrificing the integrity of the syllabus.

Adults have different fears; they’re afraid of falling, of not knowing everything, the risk of injury, of not being up to standard. Adults don’t like to work in close proximity with each other, and many feel exceptionally limited by their bodies. And as I’ve written before, the more classes a student misses, the harder it is to come back.

But the important thing is the trying – the participation. Joining in and doing your best is all that ever really matters. Only instructors and professional martial artists have to care about a hundred possible bunkai. Only instructors have to immerse themselves in history, in hardcore training regimes, in endless weekends given up to seminars, gradings and tournaments.

But you, the adult student? All we ask is that you try to attend class whenever possible, and that when you are on the mat, you learn to trust the process. If you’re free and willing to help out, then great! We would love that. But if not? Well, life isn’t all burritos and naps.

I myself started ‘late’ – while I did do judo in primary school for four years, I took a long sabbatical during high school and my gap year. I started up again when I was 19, and only started taking my training seriously in my second year. I never really planned to be an instructor – that only occurred to me about four years ago. But the advantage of starting as an adult was that I already had the necessary focus and experience to fully enjoy my martial arts. Some start too early, hit a plateau while waiting for black belt, and quit. Some kids burn out. Some teens, incandescent with talent, quit because their friends make fun of them, or because their parents want them to focus on their studies.

But you, the adult student? You may have commitments, but you also have more control over your time. You probably don’t have to spend your evenings doing homework. Your Saturday mornings are yours, no longer tyrannised by school commitments. You have the patience to train slowly and steadily. You are less likely to need the external motivation of the next belt.

So why not start? Why not try something new? Meet new people, discover new things. Get stronger, enjoy more focus. The internet is full of wonderful stories of people finding just the right dojo. My life is on a very special path because of one little dojo hidden in a university. Try a bunch of styles. Go to a few free classes. If your gut warns you, then try another dojo. (And if they ask for six months’ fees in advance, then best you run screaming. That dojo is failing.)

May you find the dojo and style that gels with you – remember, there is no perfect or best style. There is only the style that you enjoy, and that you stick with. The rest is decoration.

Vygotsky and the Sempai

In one of my many gchats with an old friend, the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) came up, and I went squirreling off in search of this fascinating education theory. In it, Lev Vygotsky offers a way for us to understand the value of peer teaching, which appears in all good dojos around the world: the sempai-kouhai relationship.

What is the Zone of Proximal Development? 

Basically it is a system that puts students within the orbits of those who are best placed to help them depending on the subject material and their learning styles.

Lev Vygotsky views interaction with peers as an effective way of developing skills and strategies. He suggests that teachers use cooperative learning exercises where less competent children develop with help from more skillful peers – within the zone of proximal development.

Vygotsky believed that when a student is in the ZPD for a particular task, providing the appropriate assistance will give the student enough of a “boost” to achieve the task. – Saul McLeod (emphasis mine)

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Or, as Vygotsky himself wrote,

“the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p86).

It is a far less top-down method of teaching, instead employing the collective to help scaffold a learner until they can solve the problem themselves. While the term ‘scaffolding’ was not used by Vygotsky himself, scholars after him created it as a tidy term to explain the way others can build a support structure for another learner until they can solve the problem themselves.

Wood et al. (1976, p. 90) offer the following definition of scaffolding:

‘Those elements of the task that are initially beyond the learner’s capacity, thus permitting him to concentrate upon and complete only those elements that are within his range of competence’.

Basically, put people with others who are best placed to help them – teachers, students, parents. But for our purposes, let’s stick to peers.

Okay, that’s nice, but what does it have to do with martial arts? 

Have you ever been in the dojo, or at a gashuku, or just sitting with dojo mates, and memstylessomeone just explains something in a way that clicks?

We know that there are 7 different styles of learning, and a good instructor tries their best
to cover as many of these as possible. We tend to use visual, verb and logical cues.

But in a class with many students of different abilities and understandings, sometimes it helps to crowdsource a better explanation. 

Within the classroom, the person who is more knowledgeable is not always the teacher; students can also be placed in collaborative groups with others who have demonstrated mastery of tasks and concepts.- Heather Coffey

I myself am a more social, verbal learner, and sometimes someone just says something that explains one problem beautifully. But others might need just that one physical correction – a touch to a floating elbow, maybe – and the problem is highlighted and therefore solvable.

In your dojo, you have a variety of intelligences, and while we shouldn’t expect our little champs to be good teachers, this is vital to introduce into your dojo from about the age of ten. I have an orange belt, who is ten years old and an exceptional fixer of stances. I have never seen someone so dedicated to working with his peers to fix their footwork. When it comes time to pair them off, I know who I can rely on to spot that issue and fix it in another student.

What are the benefits of the Sempai-Kouhai relationship? 

Briefly,  Sempai-Kouhai is basically a mentor/student relationship. It has overtones of big sibling, little sibling – a gentle way to teach students to take responsibility and pride in the success of their classmates. Once in awhile, pairing seniors with juniors can yield many fruitful results.

The Sempai-Kouhai relationships uses scaffolding as a way for a more junior student to learn from the higher student. Perhaps it is the first 10 moves of a kata that the sempai knows well. By letting them work with a junior, you teach them how to improve their own kata along the way.

To teach is to learn twice – this is one of the major advantages of a Sempai-Kouhai pairing. Below, some benefits that I have gleaned over the course of my uchi-deshi course and in the dojo over a decade:

  • Building esprit de corps
  • Leadership through gentle mentorship
  • Learning to give and receive criticism – feed forward, not back
  • The sempai realises that teaching isn’t as easy as it looks
  • By being able to sit out and watch for a bit, it is an excellent way for the instructor to pick up on problems – whether something was inadequately explained, or there’s a general problem preventing further progress
  • Likewise, it also gives instructors a tool to manage the need to micromanage students. An instructor is a gardener, not a carpenter. 
  • Building confidence for both sempai and kouhai
  • More rank, more responsibility – teaching the value of dojo hierarchy
  • Engendering patience and kindness towards fellow students
  • Learning to use different pieces of dojo equipment to fix or explain a problem
  • Taking pride in the dojo through teaching juniors
  • Awareness of the depth of understanding required to be a good teacher
  • Responsibility is more important than technical perfection: we can always fix the technique later, because we are building people, not robots
  • Humility
  • It helps splits up the syllabus on those occasions when there is a wide split in abilities in the class

Over the years I have been immensely fortunate to have seniors along the way that have been integral to my martial arts journey. From my first Sempai, who ignited my love of kata and general martial arts studies (thanks for all those wonderful Sunday training sessions, by the way) to all the seniors I have now from whom I learn each day. In South Africa, we have a term for this: ubuntuI am, because you are. The idea of collective growth, love and support is beautifully encapsulated in this phrase, and I love to pair it with ZPD.

Of course, our instructors will always be important, but we can learn from everyone in the dojo. To sum it all up: I am, because you are, to teach is to learn twice, and so we can scaffold each other to greater heights.

Do you have a sempai that has hugely affected your martial arts journey? A kouhai you’re proud of? Please share your stories in the comments below.

Further Reading: 

An Introduction to Vygotsky edited by Harry Daniels

The Zone of Proximal Development by Heather Coffey

The Zone of Proximal Development – Some Conceptual Issues

Simply Psychology: The Zone of Proximal Development

How to look after your gi

They say the suit maketh the man, and while that’s a bit narrow, it is helpful to paraphrase it as the gi maketh the warrior. A clean gi (or do-gi) is a sign of respect, not only for oneself but towards one’s dojo and fellow training partners. To arrive in a dirty, untidy gi is to show a lack of self-respect, and is especially egregious in Japan.

This year I invested in several high-quality gi, as befitting my journey towards becoming an instructor. After all, I spend upwards of twenty hours a week in my gi, and that’s excluding gashuku and other training seminars. If I am sitting on a grading panel (even in just an observational capacity), it still behooves me to look the part. Having a few good suits to switch between extends the lifespan of each one, and the old ones still have their place for outdoor training. I would never take a Shureido out on the mountains, after all.

To whit, I’ve created an infographic that has some basic and easy care tips for a gi. In the spirit of martial cooperation, it is yours to download and share amongst all members of your dojo. Feel free to print it out and staple it to every gi your dojo sells, or to put in your next dojo newsletter. If you put it on your website, please just link back to me, that’s all. And if you print it, please don’t crop out my website name.

I hope this will help students (and parents of young students) in all styles keep their gi in great condition. If you have any suggestions, corrections or stories to share, please do!

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