Teaching With A Purpose

Each class our Sensei teaches has a theme. In my journey to become a sensei, I wanted to discover the positive theme being taught in each class. When Sensei Mae was training on her way to becoming a sensei, I could easily see the underlying theme of the class. Our Sensei has been teaching for so long it is like breathing for him to weave his theme into the teaching for each class. And he is able to continue the theme even when the class is not ready for the myriad of skills he wants to teach to go along with that theme.

As I prepared for the sensei test, my struggle was getting the class to flow with my theme. I had to negotiate with them. The negotiation was between what they wanted to learn and what I, with my limited universe of teaching experience, was able to teach.

Of course any higher belt student already understands what is expected by the sensei teaching class. They already know the normal routines and behaviors expected in any karate class. So, my issue was mainly in teaching students new to karate. They do not yet have an understanding or know the expectations for themselves. One of the main lessons, therefore, is teaching the student to follow the sensei’s instructions. The barrier to the next belt is often not the ability to throw a punch or a kick; it is, as my Sensei says, “Does the student have the discipline to learn?”

My negotiation began with one or more of the students saying “no” to follow my lead or my instructions. I wanted all students to say “yes” to my theme. Of course advanced students are conditioned to follow the teaching for easy items such as lining up properly and all the fun things we do as students. To convey my theme and to get the students to say “yes” for my theme or teaching was an initial struggle for me. I recently read The Power of a Positive No by William Ury. As far as I know, he is not a karate sensei. He did describe some of my issues with teaching and provided some positive ways to get to “yes” and ultimately have the students learn what was being taught that day.

Here is how the book plays into teaching and the theme for the day. My “positive no,” as William Ury says, is to immediately say no to undisciplined actions and yes to learning karate. My mom was a kindergarten teacher, and I asked her about kindergartners. She said that immediate action to stop the behavior you do not want is the best course of action. As a result, I am going to forget the underlying theme for my class of speed or timing. My teaching goal is now: Will students behave enough to make progress and therefore return to the dojo to learn additional lessons? My overarching “yes” is to impart knowledge that will assist them in life from self-defense, posture and positive attitudes such as “do not quit!” We have a lot to offer when a student walks through the dojo door. Of course, when I joined I did not realize that discipline was a primary outcome. When I am a better teacher, I hope to weave both a theme along with teaching a skill.


My theme + A Positive No = Teaching and the student learns! It comes back the yes we are looking for!

Incorporating negotiation or moving students to my “yes” is shaping my lesson plan for the class and the day. As I review this post and think on the theme that Sensei so expertly weaves into class, I am amazed that he negotiates with us so successfully each class. Now that I have recognized the positive outcome I am looking for, I am better at the “positive no” regarding behavior that is contrary to the “yes” I am looking for when instructing.

In preparing for my sensei certificate and test, I often attended all classes offered during the day. Because of this I see our Sensei with a theme each day that may not be apparent to each class—such as the 4-6 year olds or even the adults. I am amazed that the waza or technique taught varies while his theme for the day continues.

I am still listening for the theme of the day from Sensei. It was during a lesson on fighting this last week when I noticed that our Sensei’s real lesson (or the lesson behind the lesson) was power. Wow—I finally caught one!

How about you? Do you see your Sensei’s theme during or after class? Does he have one? I know that I do not always see the theme. When I am learning a particular skill, I am generally so focused on that skill that I only see the skill and not the bigger message. I need to remind myself to step back and look at the bigger picture. Do you hear the lesson behind the lesson being taught?

See you in class soon. I will be watching for the theme as well as working on sharing one of my own.


Is All You Really Need to Know Taught In White Belt Class?

A popular book from 1979 was: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things by Robert Fulghum. At the time, my mother was a Kindergarten teacher so this was a popular book in my house. When the book came out, I was in college. My thought was “can I skip exams and just go back to the dinner table?” Of course that was not the point of the book. How to get along in society was the point of the book with lessons on sharing, playing fair, not hitting people (except at the dojo under supervision!), cleaning up, washing up, taking naps, and general life balance advice. It was popular for a good reason and still makes sense for today.

Sensei shared with us in advanced class that the material taught at white belt will save your life. That is why he teaches it at white belt. When I was working on passing my black belt test, I went back several times to white belt class and I was happy that I did!  In white belt class the most powerful techniques are explained and I apparently needed to learn them again. Or to put it a better way: I needed to deepen my understanding and put the skills into practice.

White belt class is going back to the fundamental s of karate. How do I stand? How do I punch? How can I defend myself? How do I make a fist so I will not hurt myself when I hit a bag?  These were some of the basic elements I was trying to fit together with all of the other knowledge gained as I made the journey to brown belt. Having a year or so to put together all of what I had learned to that point along with knowing how and when to use certain techniques was intimidating.  So it took us longer than a year to get ready for the black belt test.

Sensei asked us this question in advanced class the other day: “How well do you know gyaku-zuki?”



Sensei Mae performing advanced kata.


Okay time for the Japanese word of the day. This is reverse punch or reverse hand punch. We learn this skill in a front stance at white belt. Sensei likely did not share the Japanese word until later, perhaps when we were yellow belts. His point was that gyaku-zuki is the “go-to” technique in fighting. It works and that is why it is taught early on. My understanding of gyaku-zuki is deeper than it was when I was a white belt. Then it was just another skill I was learning along the way. We learn over 100 ways to strike for the black belt test and this is just one. After the class and the deeper or more technical work on gyaku-zuki, we all knew it better and we were all convinced that more is available to learn about this simple strike taught first in white belt class.

Sensei wants students to benefit from his teaching on the first day of class. He has designed a program that takes the most powerful elements and teaches life-saving skills starting on day one. The benefit comes through the drill and repetition and the muscle memory of the techniques.

How about you? What skill or technique did you learn at white belt that you are still practicing or have used? I will not be able to spar again without thinking of the fundamental strike gyaku-zuki and the class on how it is applied. See you in class soon.


Ancient Drills

Do you know any ancient drills? I am surprised that I do know some. Of course I was not aware that I knew any until we were in the middle of a blocking exercise and our Sensei said “you know that this is from an ancient drill…” Of course we did not know. We did appreciate Sensei asking the question.

I am not sure what it is about the thought that the “ancient” practitioners of karate did the same drill we were learning that makes it so thrilling to be associated with that particular drill. The sensation of doing the same exercise that made someone else great was part of the emotion I felt as he said that we were performing an ancient drill.

Our Sensei was able to teach an ancient blocking exercise that brought home the circular movement of good blocks and the truth behind all blocking. Here it is: properly performed, all blocks are shedding blocks. Of course we do not mean shedding like a Golden Retriever! We know that when someone is holding onto us a big part of defending ourselves is to shed the hold.

Our dojo knows self-defense and we have numbers associated with each of our various self-defense techniques to ensure we pass along our knowledge in a systematic way of learning. We had already learned how to block and perform self-defense moves. Included in these lessons was the shedding of holds, especially in number 3. This ancient drill teaching put a cap on the knowledge about blocking and self-defense for me and several others who were with me in class that day.


Sensei Mae and Sensei Glen performing the ancient drill

Thinking back on my karate journey I know I have learned other ancient drills. How is it we have modern material or why not just learn the ancient ones? How have modern drills improved the ancient drills? Due to the infrequency of “ancient” drills being taught, are we right in assuming that karate is a modern art? Our Sensei says that all knowledge is open for discovery. He has learned, through practice, effective methods of teaching and essential truths behind moves. When our system was formed, he took the best of what worked and taught us that material. If it was ancient and did not work, we did not learn it at the dojo. Of course, ancient drills that work are an essential part of our curriculum.

Being a researcher, I looked up ancient in the dictionary (having been in existence for a very long time).  I found that we could argue that karate is “modern” or we can say a long time is 100 years making it ancient.  We live today in a modern world and we are learning a traditional martial art. I like the tradition in its best form.

Much of karate is shrouded in ancient mystery being practiced in secret societies or by the very wealthy. I had never given it too much thought. Of course it was the wealthy who studied karate, because who else in ancient times could hire a private teacher or even write it down.  Karate is said to have originated in some form prior to 1,000 AD. My experience comes from Funakoshi (the father of “modern” karate) through my Sensei in the last several years as I journeyed to black belt.

The point of our ancient drill is conditioning for our arms. The “ancients” were likely well off and required toughing up to succeed in the martial arts. The ancient drill we learned fit perfectly into Middle America where we are not working the land with our hands to earn a living or hitting a blacksmith’s hammer to fashion metal. Like the ancients, we also need to toughen up our bodies.

So, what is an “ancient drill?” One explanation is: if we can imagine Funakoshi taught the drill as an “ancient drill” or one pre-dating him and likely with no known school or author, then that would appear to qualify the drill as an ancient drill. Please leave me a comment below with your thoughts on what qualifies as an ancient drill.

Are you excited like I am to learn an ancient drill or exercise? Let us know in the comments below. I think that it does not make a difference how ancient is ancient to a newer student of the martial arts. It does influence how it makes me feel when our Sensei says we are performing an ancient drill.

It has always been exciting for me to imagine myself doing the same drill that the “ancient” practitioners of karate performed. Sensei Mae and I will continue to work on our conditioning and we are looking forward to the next ancient drill being taught.

What ancient drill or exercise are you practicing? Leave us a comment below. See you in class soon.



2016 Essential Gift Giving Guide

Looking for the perfect gift for yourself or someone you know studying karate? This guide is our effort to share what we like and works best for us and our family.

Before we turn to ourselves we want to encourage you to consider who will receive the gift. One simple question to ask is what belt level are they today and where will they likely end up in 2017? Take a look at our dojo ranking and see the accessories or equipment you may want to consider. For example, a white belt does not require a bo staff. As the student progresses and is a gold belt in our system the next level (blue belt) does train using a bo staff. We have purchased and been very pleased following the link on our dojo ranking page to Century Equipment. Since I began this discussion on bo staffs I will recommend a bo staff as a belt appropriate gift. Our family of four has purchased the non-tapered white wax bo staffs and they have worked great. My son and I have the adult bo staff. The only difference between the adult and youth bo staffs is the adult bo staff has a wider circumference and that extra width adds some weight. The adult staff is “heavy” and may be too big for some. The youth bo staff is a thinner bo and great for most uses.  Pricing: About $35.


Punching and Kicking bag with notebook accessories

For any belt level, a punching or kicking stand alone bag is a great gift. At our house we love kicking class. We own the Wave master bag. This bag is almost the same as the one used at the dojo, just smaller and works well inside our house. This bag is very versatile and fits me and Sensei Mae as well as our other two black belts in the house. Because the bag surface can be moved up and down, it fits us all. I know that several times after class we have gone back to the bag to re-create the class and discuss the technique as well as recall the drills performed.  Of course we kick and strike the bag. We cannot pass the bag today without throwing a few kicks or punches at the bag. It is one of our most used at home pieces of equipment. At the dojo we use the bag often for punching and kicking. This is a great gift for a student who wants to practice and does not have a family to hold pads or practice with. Pricing: About $140 for the basic bag, or $360 for the one used by the dojo.

A notebook is an essential item for any student at the dojo. Sensei Mae discussed the importance of taking notes. Of course all adults should have a journal. My recommendation is a blank page notebook to capture notes from the class. Either a sketching pad or lined notebook paper will work depending on the student.  Studies have shown that writing things down is much more effective in retaining knowledge than just using a memo app or thinking you will remember. You can have fun and personalize this item. I know Sensei Mae would like a batman notebook.  I would encourage any karate student who can write to have their own journal. Parents may have to help the child take notes. It could be a community journal. My favorite journal was purchased at a bookstore in India. My second favorite is a moleskin large plan journal. Of course I am more interested in the contents than the art on the outside. That is not the case for everyone. We started our notebook as a family and soon learned that we each wanted a personal notebook. Our beginning notebook was the wire bound subject notebooks which most students would have and are relatively inexpensive.  Pricing: Moleskin notebooks range from $10-15 and wire bound notebooks range from $1-2 at most stores.

The best dressed at the dojo wear a good heavy weight gi. I look at the gi as an essential piece of equipment often overlooked. Our Sensei can make his gi sleeves “pop” running kata or striking the air. Of course Sensei has great technique. I never felt better than training in a uniform that was of quality material. Our introductory gi tops did not have the same fabric quality. After we became serious we purchased from KI International their MUGEN Orange Label (white Karate uniform/gi). We are now able to get a pop out of our sleeves. We have all used this uniform at tournaments, and it stood up well when we took our black belt test. We could not be happier with the choice. When Sensei Mae received her latest promotion we went one step up for her with the MUGEN Yellow Label – Mugen cut (white karate uniform/gi). Pricing: Orange label about $50 and Yellow label about $80.

Sensei Mae says the only other essentials are gloves and a helmet for sparring. We are part of the AAU and participate in their tournaments. As a participant in their system, we purchase white gloves and helmets. Of course if you are part of the competition team we are now recommending a red pair of gloves as well for sparring. You will know why if you are on the team.

When purchasing gloves, we are actually talking about and recommend purchasing the “Karate Mitts.” You and I call the “karate mitts” gloves, like we would call them boxing gloves.  For headgear we are looking for a helmet with a shield on the helmet. We also highly recommend a mouth guard. These are inexpensive ways to keep away from dental work.  This does make a difference. We had a friend over for Thanksgiving and she shared that her only training injury on the way to black belt was a fellow student who kicked her on the bridge of her nose and her toenail left a mark (she can still see it—we did not). A face shield will help in preventing these injuries. Pricing: helmet with shield (white) $85, Mouthpiece $2, Karate Mitts $25.

Of course you can always encourage family members to purchase a month of quality classes or lessons at your favorite dojo. We are looking forward to seeing you in a new gi for 2017 with some accessories at home and others to bring to the dojo. See you in class soon.


Playing Games at the Dojo?

When I was a brand new (adult) student at the dojo, I was surprised to learn that the kids played games. As a beginning student and parent I wanted to know “what was the point of all the games?”  We have a fun Sensei and the kids really enjoyed the games. When we started, my two kids were in the adult classes and did not get to play games. Sensei Mae and her brother did go to karate camp and enjoyed a week of learning and games—so they were not too old.

Fortunately our Sensei has patience. As I look back of course he does, he was able to teach me karate!

I learned in my sensei training that the games are a great teaching tool, like any other drill that makes learning and perfecting a skill fun. We come to the dojo in the pursuit of knowledge (shugyou is the Japanese word for “pursuit of knowledge”). Games allow us to pursue knowledge in a fun way, and that knowledge will stick. In thinking about games, we know that kids love competition and it improves their skills. Imagine two students facing each other performing a front hand punch in a front stance. I say a word that is the cue for the students to hit the pad. The student has to listen for that word, process the action needed and execute prior to the other student to “win” the game. What they truly win is a better understanding of their skill level and how to execute the punch properly as we correct technique and stances.


Games with Sensei Glen

We played this great game today with the kids. I will have to credit another Sensei for this idea. We had about 20 kids in class of all ranks and ages from age 5 through 12. We were working on proper horse stances (kiba-dachi is the Japanese word for “horse stance”) and center punches. The Sensei had all the kids hold hands and walk out until they formed a big circle. What a fun way to create a circle! The kids then dropped into a horse stance and punched the air facing their fellow students. Soon a few had to sit as they could not hold their kiba-dachi any longer. We increased the tempo that the students were punching at to get the game going faster. Kids were having a blast. It turned out that of the 4 remaining students 3 were on the competition team and practice kiba-dachi on a regular basis. So, do you see the point of the game? The kids had fun and practiced their skills and now have a higher bar to shoot for. I am sure they will ask to try this game again next week to show that they have improved. As an adult are you practicing shugyou? Would you like to play this game as well? I know that making learning fun is something I am always trying to do.

We often ask after class if the class was fun. We truly want practicing shugyou to be fun for every student. Games are just one way that we have fun in the dojo. We practice drills, and while they may not appear to be as much fun as Sensei ’s game, I know that sometimes after work just being able to hit something feels really good. Drills provide a way to focus our thoughts away from the world’s problems and allows us to focus on a larger goal like black belt.

I enjoy working with the students, making drills and games fun learning adventures. It is not only acceptable to have games at the dojo, it really enhances the learning experience. I have come a long way since I was a white belt! I am a different person and more complete. I now know that I did not just learn kata and fighting but also a different way to look at the world. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” The same is now true for me about games at the dojo. How about you? Has being in karate stretched your mind to new possibilities? Are you interested in learning more and practicing shugyou? See you in class soon and maybe we will get to play a game together!