Don’t Save: Teach

“We rescue because it feels good,” Lahey says.

Parents want to rescue their kids from everything, and so do instructors, sometimes. In this clear-eyed article about the gift of failure, we are reminded that “we seem to be more worried about raising happy children than competent or autonomous ones.”

Go ask your instructor if failing a student has ever bought them joy. For all that we may be a bunch of crazy people who do martial arts for a living, it is rare (and perhaps cruel) to take pleasure in failing a student.

We are the first to complain about helicopter parenting – how dare this parent question my teaching, we fume — but when it comes to our students and protecting them, we can be just as terrible. There are some students that we just shouldn’t be protecting anymore. Kids that we know that other instructors would never pass at a panel grading. There are some students that really do need to fail, and to fail hard. You know the one. The talented kid who coasts. The sloppy kid with patchy attendance. The know-it-all who needs to be taught the first line of the dojo kun: be humble and polite.

Of course, we worry. Most students quit when they fail, because they’re not accustomed to setbacks. That’s not just a dojo thing – that is a societal fear driven by our punishing treatment of those who don’t make an immediate success of things. Because success is made so obvious with so many ranking systems (Twitter followers, Grammy awards, Forbes Lists, bullshit internet “40 Under 40” lists) , failure seems an unacceptable outcome.

We’re surrounded by stories of success that conspire to make success seem easier than it in fact is – and therefore that unwittingly destroy the confidence we can muster in the face of our obstacles….We see our early failures as proof of conclusive ineptness – rather than as the inevitable stages on every path to mastery. Without an accurate developmental map, we can’t position ourselves properly vis-à-vis our defeats. We have not seen enough of the rough drafts of those we admire – and therefore cannot forgive ourselves the horror of our early attempts. – “How Knowledge of Difficulties Lends Confidence”, The Book of Life

(Remember when you were a yellow belt, and you thought you were never going to learn that kata? Like that, but for everything.)

We have a habit of praising outcomes, not effort. We focus on gradings, not the day to day grind of just showing up, the persistence and participation that makes for great adults. We laud talented kids, we set them up as the examples, and then when the talent fails to make up for hard work, we have left them without the tools to learn.

It is our job to be the instructors, not the saviours. It is hard to look a kid in the eye and say “not this time, buddy.” Especially when you think that the kid will quit, because the short-term pain is not worth the lesson, and you’ve seen it happen dozens of times before. Sensei Pain is a great teacher, but no one wants to take his classes. It is hard to not have a bit of a saviour complex when so many seek the wisdom and guidance of their sensei. It makes it hard to be the teacher, who simply teaches without offering salvation as well. We always wish some parents would try be parents instead of best friends to their kids – we need to remind ourselves that we are instructors first, and that means doing what needs to be done, even when it makes us uncomfortable. Especially when it makes us squirm.

When we choose to protect our students from their own shortcomings, we fail them completely. Like when we don’t force them to finish doing the boring, BORING drills that will fix their problems. Yes, it sucks, but eat your karate veggies, kid. But we worry that they’ll get bored and leave, and so maybe this time, we don’t drill basics (like we meant to) and instead we teach that cool bunkai that they don’t need to know just yet.

When we grade them and let them scrape by, we teach them (and the rest of the dojo) that the bare minimum will do. We lower our standards and theirs, out of fear and misplaced compassion. No one wants to be the reason a kid quit martial arts forever. No one wants to hear that a student cried all the way home in the car.

Then we worry about pushback from parents. How dare we, this karate bum who doesn’t have a ‘real’ job, dare fail their child? Can’t we see how amazingly special they are?

“Teaching has become a push and pull between opposing forces in which parents want teachers to educate their children with increasing rigor, but reject those rigorous lessons as ‘too hard’ or ‘too frustrating’ for their children to endure” Parents, Let Your Kids Fail

Or, and this is much worse, seeing a parent pile on the abuse – “see, even Sensei knows how bloody lazy you are,” and then an unwanted conspiratorial wink as they drag the child out the dojo. What was meant to be a lesson in hard work and growth was turned into a humiliation no one asked for.

Of course we want to rescue them, sometimes. There are some kids that we wish to plead a case for: they have problems at home, or they have lots of homework. But if they’re not doing the work, and if there’s nothing physically challenging them, it does a disservice to the kids who do do the work and make the effort, but who are rewarded equally to the lazy kids. In saving one kid from themselves, we may be discouraging the ones who do the work and put in the time. Why make the effort, when Sloppy Joe still gets graded?

If you think they don’t notice, then you haven’t figured out that kids will spot the laws you’ve broken and call you out on it. It is the core root of why kids tattle and snitch. (That article, by the way, offers the best advice for ending the scourge of mini karate police officers in your dojo.)

I know I’m guilty of making excuses, usually because they’re a sweet kid who loves karate but not the hard work. I would miss them if they quit. But after all, it is my happy duty to forge better character through karate. Giving them a free pass creates the exact kind of spoilt brat (and useless adult) that we all dread. And if they quit, then maybe this journey just wasn’t for them, just as it isn’t for so many thousands of others.

But if they fail, and come back? Well, then that’s a job well done.

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)


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

Courage in Karate: The Role of Vulnerability

“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

We so often take it for granted, as instructors, as seniors, what it takes for our students to keep returning to the mat. We have long forgotten that once upon a time, stepping onto the tatami required great courage. While seniors tend to suffer from Imposter Syndrome, our juniors and new students still face fears we have since forgotten.

In her work on shame and vulnerability, Brene Brown talks about how vulnerability, the willingness to try despite not having all the answers, enduring the risk of emotional, physical and mental exposure, is the driving force behind courage and growth.

“The willingness to show up changes us, It makes us a little braver each time.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

How vulnerable the new student is – all these new faces, this towering presence of a Sensei, these older kids who know what to do. All the rituals that have to be followed that make no sense. Why the bowing? Why can’t I wear socks in the winter? Why is everyone shouting this weird word all the time?

I think we forget so often that it takes great bravery to join a dojo. To learn something utterly foreign in so many ways, and to stick it out day after day after day. We so often forget to praise this, the consistency of showing up. The bravery of putting on mitts and sparring. The harsh spotlight of performing a kata alone. And to do it all as a tiny kid, or an adult who has forgotten what it takes to learn something new.

Perhaps one of the most important ways we can support our students and not lose them is to celebrate this daily bravery. To recognise that they are putting themselves out there, willing to learn and so terrified of failure or humiliation. I’ve been on the mat so long and so often that I’ve forgotten that once upon a time, every single move was difficult. I was not born with great natural talent, but sheer bloody-minded dedication got me to where I am today. It is important that we remind ourselves of how far we’ve come, and to not expect the same of our fledgling students. I know that it is not my place or journey to find the next Miyagi. But what I want to do, as an instructor-in-training and hopefully as an instructor one day, is to help others find their authentic selves through karate. To help them find a new confidence, a place to belong, and develop personal strength and integrity. In the modern world, karate is still a valuable tool for self-discovery and self-improvement. To treat karate as an instant answer to self-defence problems is short-sighted, and parents who think it’ll magically cure all behaviour issues without input from their side are wasting their money. It is a great sadness that many parents expect their kids to pick karate up instantly, not knowing how difficult it actually is. They fail to acknowledge this, and in so doing make their kids feel inadequate.

The most important thing we can encourage in our students is bravery. Bravery will take them far in all they do. It will help them take risks and endure difficult things. That bravery comes from vulnerability, and as teachers, it is our place to celebrate and support that immense act of courage. 

“Wholeheartedness. There are many tenets of Wholeheartedness, but at its very core is vulnerability and worthiness; facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks, and knowing that I am enough.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

For more on vulnerability: 

Shu-Ha-Ri – The Martial Recipe

In studying, practising and teaching karate, I have come across the concept of Shu Ha Ri a few times. Of course my mind latched right on to it, because it is a neat way to explain vast concepts. Anything that offers an elegant shorthand is basically catnip to the instructor-in-training. Of course, Karate by Jesse has already expanded on this concept, and it is a worthy read indeed. In writing this, I’d like to explore ways to understand Shu-ha-ri, both as a student and instructor. Let’s look at the concept and get down with some metaphors.

Shu – Keep | Obey | Protect

Anyone beginning their martial arts journey would be advised to stick to what their instructor offers. Of course, the value of this depends entirely on the instructor, but it is generally advised that for the first ten years (I know, a long time indeed), the budo practitioner should listen, imitate and study the basics intently. This is the foundation of a great martial journey, and the student that closely studies the principles, ideas and history of their school/style will build an immensely strong base on which to expand their understanding.

How to explain it, exactly?

Think about learning to cook. No one starts with deconstructed sushi served on a foam of chocolate with smatterings of mermaid’s tail. It starts with boiling an egg. Making white sauce. Macaroni and cheese. A grilled cheese. It’s not particularly exciting, but it takes repetition to not burn the cheese, or leave the sauce standing too long. We learn by watching our parents, sitting on the counter and staring at the pot as they stir.

Ha – Break | Let Go

Some say that this stage starts at shodan, but I feel that only once one has settled into being a black belt and a solid foundation that it’s possible to start bending the rules. Now we look into our kata and bunkai, breaking things down by understanding the constituent parts of every block, every strike. A face block, for example contains a strike, a punch , a reverse elbow strike, a cross-block and a grab – but only to the trained eye. To a white belt, it’s just a face block. To a ni-dan, it is an elegant compilation of techniques that can be tweaked to solve several problems. This is what happens when a student absorbs more than just the words of their instructor – this is the result of immersive training and study.

How to explain it exactly? 

Remember that macaroni and cheese? When you first started making it, it was just some grated cheese on some macaroni. Curbed your hunger, sure, but you’ve had maths classes more thrilling than that. But now that you’ve watched it being made and looked up a few recipes, you can make some delicious white sauce to go with it. Throw in some bacon bits, or  crumble in some pedano while you make the white sauce. Now, you’re starting to get it, and you’re making it your own.

Ri – Leave | Transcend

This is beyond fourth and fifth dan – this is when you get your own school of thought – this is the realm of Chojun Miyagi, who created Goju Ryu out of karate, or naha-te. This is the place where the storied legends live – Higaonna Morio, Yagi Meitoku, Yamaguchi Gogen. Each took Goju Ryu in a new direction, pouring in their knowledge and creating a distinct look and feel that is clear in their students’ work. A style like a signature, a whorled thumbprint that is unmistakable to the trained eye. It’s still karate, still Goju Ryu, but each school is entirely theirs.

How to explain it, exactly? 

Heston Blumenthal makes food. But what he does with ingredients, science and creativity is a culinary explosion that can only be achieved with vast, relentless study, exploration and practice. His food is a work of art, the peak of culinary science. He also started with learning to make a white sauce. No one gets to three michelin stars without burning a few dishes along the way.

Shu-ha-ri applies to all aspects of life – there are some areas in life where we are at the shu stage, or ri. When it comes to writing, I’m getting closer to ri. But with my training, I’m just starting to edge into ha, and even then only in certain areas. Don’t be disheartened by the seeming length of this journey – the time will pass anyway. And as it does, you’ll deepen your knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of your training.

3 Fun Ideas for Teaching Kids Karate

In my journey as a deshi, I have been given some great opportunities to come up with clever ways to get complex concepts across to kids ranging from the age of 5 to 15. I’d love to share these ideas, and hear back from other deshi students and instructors if they have had success, and have found ways to tweak them!

The Jelly Tot Game

This idea was inspired by my dear friend Clea, who got it from her dancing teacher. All you need is a big bag of sweets that have relatively flat bottoms. I use jelly tots, which look like this: jelly_tots

You’ll need sweets that will stay put when placed, but will also fall off as well if moved too vigorously.

How the game works:
Every student gets a sweet placed on each shoulder. They must then cross the dojo by moving through stances. I like to use the classic sanchin, zenkutsodachi, shikodachi trio. If they make it to the end without dropping their sweets, then they can eat them! If they drop them, they have to pick them up, go to the start and begin again. Good reason to keep shoes off the mat!

What it works on:
I noticed that the kids were wobbling a bit as they moved through their stances, so this is to teach them to tighten their core, keep their shoulders forward and to move through the centre. It is also a memorable way to reinforce a concept, and a good way to introduce some fun into the dojo during the cold season, or when the general energy level is low.

You can easily swap out the sweets for fruit, or place beacons on their heads and encourage them to move without their beacon sliding off. You can also use it to train core movements and proprioception by making them stand up and sit down without losing the cone.


Tick-Tock – The Metronome Game

In teaching the older kids basic randori principles, they were unable to grasp the concept of smooth, slow fighting. The dojo has a sound system, so I hooked up my phone to it and used a metronome app. There are many great, free ones. I use Sound Corset as it offers a lot of flexibility.

How it works
This is pretty simple to introduce. Once the students are paired off, set the metronome to about 50 beats, which is a slow enough pace for control, but not so slow that they get bored. Encourage them to use the beats to keep an even pace, so that they can tell their partner when they’re going too fast. It also helps you to see instantly who isn’t keeping pace, and to diagnose why.

What it works on
Timing is vital in all martial arts, so this helps students to learn pacing and control. It can also be used to teach beginner adults how slow randori should be. Because slow is relative to each person, this introduces an external way to track speed.

The same metronome can be used for kumite training, by speeding it up for footwork drills and plyometric training. If you don’t have a loud enough sound system, introducing a simple triangle or a drum into the dojo will do the trick.

1,2,3,4: I Declare a Clothes Peg War

A crucial element of fighting (at least in my style) is to control the centre line. This game is designed to teach martial artists of all ages how to defend their centre line while attacking their opponent. This has been a huge hit and is a great way to energise your dojo while introducing an important concept. Honestly, this is one of my best ideas, though I’m sure someone else has come up with it too!

How it works
You’ll need a lot of clothes pegs for this one. Either get some cheap wooden ones, or invest in good, solid pegs. You’ll need about three per student. If you are a kumite-centred dojo, you’ll probably need to look at getting the strongest ones you can.

Everyone will attach the clothes pegs to the centre of their training jacket, either on the lapel or on a bit of pinched fabric. Because of the nature of the game, it may be more appropriate to pair female students together. The goal of the game is to defend your clothes pegs while grabbing the other person’s pegs. The ground rules are simple: no running away, no holding your pegs. You can attack while the other person attaches the ones they stole. You can get your pegs back. The game is over after a certain time limit. I recommend about 5 minutes, max.

What it works on
Ah, so many things! Weapon, target, control, defending your centre, learning to keep a defending hand up, footwork, endurance and a fighting mind. It is a great way to train fighting principles in a memorable way. It is a good way to solidify a class on kumite and randori principles by introducing it at the end. Fair warning – it can get out of hand easily due to the excitement of defending and taking, so keep a very close eye on the students.

You can stick the clothes pegs on the back, teaching students to get around the person, and to step to the outside and get in their blind spot. You can also colour code the pegs, so that they can only grab the red ones, and if they grab the wrong one then its a penalty. This teaches hand-eye coordination as well as even clearer use of weapon/target. For sheer craziness (and only with very senior students), one person has all the pegs while two others get to pick them off – this is for dealing with multiple attackers.

And that’s it! I hope you find these games useful in your teaching practice. I am always working on them and refining them, and I would love to hear about your own inventions and success in the dojo.

Besides, while I know that I could keep these games a secret, I feel that it is more important to share them with the larger martial arts community so that we can learn together and improve our teaching practice.