Teach and learn karate

Article for Shotokan Karate Magazine 2010 by Jonathan de’ Claire – KDS 4th Dan

Working as a teacher

I changed my career several years back and retrained as a teacher, undertaking a Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). On the course, there was a major stress on the need to differentiate in your planning and delivery of lessons. This would enable a teacher, in theory, to deliver the similar subject matter to a range of ability levels within the same lesson, or planned group of lessons. This ability to differentiate your teaching, underpinned individual lesson planning and was the driving force for assessors and inspectors to focus upon. It was and is, meant to allow access to learning for all, no matter what their individual ability and specific areas of strength or areas in need of improvement. We also, were taught techniques for class management. Examples of these were proximity control, for individuals whose attention was wandering elsewhere, or visual and physical cues as indicators of intention and attention!

Then I qualified and my first long term teaching post was at a school near Cardiff. But this was no ordinary school. It was a residential school that focused on young people with a statemented learning difficulties – Emotional, Behavioural and Social Difficulties (EBSD) to be more precise. Statemented children with added wide ranging needs such Aspergers Syndrome, Terrets, ADHD, and Cerebral Paulsy were all common and so their demands and the demands to teach them was great. Considering their challenging behaviour was the main reason for their attendance at the school, the challenge for teaching then was massive, to say the least. For one thing, those with Aspergers might commonly misread body language and facial expressions (that is if they would even look at your face), sometimes resulting in violent outbursts that only they knew the reason for. This group would also take words in a very literal sense, so there was no room for ambiguity in any verbal communication or the reaction could be one of emotional crisis for a young person or just misunderstanding of an intended meaning. On top of this any anxiety in one pupil could trigger another off and a minor problem could soon escalate out of proportion.

Further more, there are multiple intelligences to consider. These are the areas of intelligence (other than bog standard academic) that individuals excel in the most and indicate a preferred learning style. For instance, a lot of the young people that I teach seem to prefer kinaesthetic learning activities. This is what they enjoy most and gain the greatest learning benefit from as it is what they are good at. For them they need to do things physically and experience it. Sitting and listening (linguistic intelligence) is of small value if used as a predominant teaching tool. Those who benefit most from a visual approach may need more in the way of pictorial learning or video footage for instance, to enhance their learning.

Certainly differentiated planning was crucial to account for these diverse needs in both academic ability or intelligence and learning style preference along with the emotional capacity to learn and function effectively with others. But do you stick to a planned lesson, just because you have planned it? Certainly not, is my answer! If an imagination is sparked, or an interest needs answering, then adaptability must be the key. A flexible approach to teaching has certainly allowed me deliver memorable lessons that were not planned, but will certainly be remembered! To go with the flow of interest is to jump on the roller coaster of enthusiasm and an opportunity not to be missed just for the sake of sticking to a plan! Of course, this is not to say that all the lessons I teach meander, far from it. Planning plays a major role in my teaching practice. Without planning, preparation is poor at best and subject knowledge can be left to chance. The result being, a poorly delivered lesson which equates to poor learning for the students. I soon found out that each young person needed to be treated in a different manner and that bog standard teaching tools had their place but also their limitations!

What has this all got to do with Karate you ask. On first impressions not a lot, but if you compare yourselves to those diverse needs I have mentioned you are not that different. You would generally not be statemented with a learning difficulty, but your teaching and learning styles and intelligence preference are certainly just as diverse!

Self assessment and reflection

Lets take memory for example. Recent psychological studies indicate that we remember about 30% of what we hear, 40% of what we see, 50% of what we say and 60% of what we do. So, if you have an instructor who shows a simple demonstration and then talks about it for the next 5-10 minutes on a regular basis, then the learning capacity of those karate students is diminished considerably and time has been wasted from actually doing, which is the best memory setter, especially if you have a kinaesthetic bias to further compound it. In doing, for any person, a stronger link is made and new neurons are laid down in the nervous system, rewiring the brain each time the movements are done. The human brain is a learning, adaptable and developing processor of information.

A problem may lie with the instructors preferred learning intelligence, as this then becomes their dominant teaching style. If an instructor is heavy on himself as the centre of classes, predominantly explaining everything, going off on tangents constantly, can lose a major part of his audience whilst he or she is clearly having a lovely time. Of course, ego may come into play here, but that is another can of worms to be opened on a different occasion. On the other hand you may have an instructor with a showing preference, but short on explanation. In this instance linguistic learners may be left by the wayside to some degree.

I hear what you are saying, Karate is a doing exercise and how you use your coaching ability varies according to your groups size and ability (and the ability of yourself). But I would consider this, how developed are your or your instructor’s abilities to coach? Are they just mirroring what they have seen in their instructors or are they working to their strengths? I’m sure you will agree different organizations seem to favour the approach of their senior instructors as their approach in many cases. Is this because this is what has attracted them in the first place or is it because they do not want to question present tried and tested methods?

For me personally, athlete led or centred coaching is the pinnacle for which I aim in the students under my tutelage. It is both challenging, thought provoking and raises self awareness in both me and those around me. In effect you learn to teach yourself through questioning yourself – self assessment and reflection of ones own practice becomes the key to progressing. Once you have identified a problem area of course, you can seek help to overcome it. But first you must be aware of it yourself.

Often, your students face the same difficulties, as they take an instructors lead. Once your students do become comfortable in questioning your practice in a meaningful and positive manner, progression can truly be made all around!

That is not to say some emphasis on telling and showing, a coach led approach is not necessary, especially in the early stages where fundamentals are emphasised. On the contrary, it can be very beneficial at times. However, a balance must be struck which can benefit both yourself and those who rely on you for guidance and a clear direction.

It is a lot to consider I agree. I’m sure I have raised many more questions than answers. But with questions come answers and with problems come solutions. Are you getting the best from the way you are being taught? Is your organisation suited to your learning style? Do you teach in a specific manner, week in week out? Have you got a short, mid and long term plan for your club? What plan does your organisation have to develop? Is your organisation really that bothered how you continue to develop? Is their focus continually on the next competition? In which case, does it matter what you do after your competitive days are over and so, is there a need to plan for your ongoing development at all? Many considerations, where do you start?

Plan objectives

With the competition bias, there is a parallel of what is wrong with the education structure at the moment. The emphasis is on achieving the highest possible grades and thus elevating the school position on a performance table. The students work hard, get good marks in respective subjects, but there is little emphasis placed on all round development with learning gaps being left else where as a result. The same, I would say, is true of the competition culture. A well rounded martial artist is not the result of this approach. To try to fill in these gaps later is almost impossible, the body takes years to unlearn bad habits and the competition mentality to win at all costs restricts any real development of a martial art. In this case Karate is the loser. It is not that I am against competition at all. But, ever more elaborate techniques and louder screams are often required to gain results. Real techniques need to be judged for their effectiveness, not ones specifically designed for the greatest effect on a judges perception rather than the opponents body!

So, maybe a complete rethink is required in this instant. A different emphasis perhaps? In this way development can be focused on throughout a Karateka’s career and not just on one lucrative faze of it. A plan is needed, a long term one. A change in thinking, a change of direction maybe? Challenge yourself and your organisation to improve in all areas. Only then will you get the opportunity to develop yourself, the way you teach and the way others are taught. Only then, can you truly differentiate your teaching so that others learning reaches its true potential and takes Karate’s development with it!

You see, planning informs what you teach. Once you have decided on a major objective, a structured plan will help you achieve it successfully. At this point you can focus on how you can deliver your lessons, taking into consideration what you are trying to get across in the best manner that suits you and your students. But you must have that long term focus, that draws all of the different aspects or strands of Karate practice that you teach and learn together and over-arches everything in your training regime until your objective has been reached.

Master Mitsusuke Harada's approach

I have watched in amazement, how my own organisation’s Principal Master Mitsusuke Harada, distinctly alters the ways he delivers courses in differing countries. The fruits of his experience allow him to take into consideration the cultures and internal politics of each group and this informs how he will approach a particular target. The same techniques can be built up to the level he requires in Portugal for instance, but in what could be a completely different format to the same subject matter only a week earlier in the UK. But the end results are remarkably similar. He also considers the personality traits of differing instructors when formatting a program. All this is aside from allowances for personal physical abilities or limitations. This is indeed, real differentiation of the highest level in his teaching approach. There is rarely a course that is the same as the last. It will have links of course, but progression is an essential part of his planning. Harada Sensei has never been one for standing still. Always he aims for his long term objective!

Harada Sensei’s preferred method of teaching, is by personal experience. He constantly encourages his students to touch specific muscle chains, to feel how his body works whilst he demonstrates techniques. This gives them a physical memeory on which to reflect and try to emulate in their own practice. Conversly, he will do the same to others in order to identify areas of unnecessary tension and help them to efficiently release their energy to its optimum potential. Harada Sensei’s personal approach to teaching has naturally been encouraged in others and is a key factor in his group’s development. 

I can speak from personal experience in saying that once a certain feeling has been transferred, it can be internalized and drawn upon months or even years later when your own body is ready to try to apply it into your own Karate practice. Harada Sensei’s teaching style is a direct reflection of his own personal experiences through one of his major influences Shigeru Egami. He encouraged the young Harada to accept Karate with his body. They rarely talked during practice, just practice, practice, practice until Egami discerned that Harada’s concentration was beginning to wane. Egami’s teaching approach, in turn, reflected his body accepting approach to techniques derived from his partnerships with Yoshitaka Funakoshi and Tadoa Okuyama. Of course after practice Harada and Egami would reflect on their practice in protracted conversations together. As an intelligent man, this was important for Harada Sensei to internalise what his body had experienced already.

Master Harada has developed in his group, the KDS, a distinct mentoring system. He takes care of his technical group (5th dans). They in turn oversea courses held in specific regions run by 4th and 3rd dans. For those courses, the 4th and 3rd dans can choose which member of the technical group they would like to assist them, bearing in mind what the theme of their course will be and who they can work with best. This choice allows the course providers to use the best teaching style for them and choose experienced help which compliments this or conversely could also challenge them to think in a different manner than their normal route. In doing so, they might come at a course program from a different angle which challenges and develops them as well! Naturally, this mentoring system filters through the grades, developing the next generation of instructors into reflective coaches. This is possibly Harada Sensei’s greatest legacy to his students. An open, questioning and reflective learning environment focused on nothing but the further development of Karate.

I am not saying that this is a perfect system. But it is a healthy environment that is not concerned by change. Instead Harada Sensei’s searching approach positively embraces change and forces his group to adapt constantly and be flexible, an approach that is mirrored in his Karate practice. To miss one of his courses is to miss the next important step in his master plan. Harada Sensei always has his eyes on where he is taking his group. The pieces of the jigsaw seem to slot into place every couple of years and then it is off on another learning curve of development to reach his next long term objective. Karate development should look like a spiral, always growing, always improving in an upwards direction, Harada Sensei says. This is irrespective of age he states!

I was fortunate, that whilst in the process of writing this article, I had the opportunity to talk with Harada Sensei directly about its content. I was supposed to be delivering a national weekend course with another KDS 4th dan in Cardiff. We had planned the course and decided to focus on Mae-geri and in particular, the importance of the standing leg in generating the power for the kick. Unfortunately, a back injury prevented me from delivering the course. But, there is always a positive in any situation.

I was obviously, disappointed with the hand that fate had dealt me. However, in fact this turned out to be very fortunate indeed. I went to the course to support and help as much as I could. When I arrived, Marie Kellett – 5th Dan approached me saying that Harada Sensei was in a similar position to myself and could I take care of him. We both sat on the sidelines watching the progress. At this point, I had already written the major part of this article and wanted his input. So seizing the opportunity, I read this to him and we discussed its content as we went along.

Harada Sensei soon became enthused and began calling over particular pairs of individuals under the watchful eye of his assistant Marie. He had them positioned with one side at the contact point of the mae-geri with a foot on the partners stomach. He wanted the kicker to be able to be able to transfer an explosive release of energy from the standing leg, which transers into a ‘flick’ as he called it, on the front leg as it drives into the stomach. Without the correct structure of the trunk or core and preparation of the standing leg, this was not wholly possible to a level which satisfied him. As I watched and he explained, I could soon discern which kick would be effective and which would not from the angle of the front knee before the back leg had even begun to deliver the end of the kick! Just and inch this way or that way, made a huge impact to the effectiveness of the mae-geri on contact. Before long, he had different pairs trying to demonstrate exactly the same point using gyaku zuke and gedan berai. Without that optimum knee angle to begin with, the effectiveness of the techniques were extremely compromised the links to the core structure and transfer of power from the ground were severely negated.

Harada Sensei instructed and Marie assisted, the techniques changed from good to extremely decisive. It all became so clear. His explanations were simple and so obvious once they had been brought to my attention. This occasion turned out to be a priceless afternoon, which crystallised my own thoughts in a number of areas. The knock on effect of this session is still making huge inroads into my practice and those that I teach. This session typified what is so effective in Harada Sensei’s teaching approach, simple explanations backed up by personal, physical experiences for his students to take away and build upon. Thank goodness I had been injured!’