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Dave Lowry: How Karate Sensei Can Avoid Mixed Messages in the Dojo

Karate sensei Kenji Yamaki teaches class.

For illustrative purposes, Kenji Yamaki is shown teaching
in his Yamaki Karate dojo in Torrance, California.

Children’s karate classes are frequently concluded with the stern warning from their karate sensei that what’s practiced in the dojo isn’t for indiscriminate use. You’re not supposed to “do this stuff” at home or anywhere outside the dojo, the karate sensei says.

I never liked that.

To me, karate sensei teaching students to do something and then telling them not to do it is, well, a little dumb. If you’re teaching people to do something and then telling them not to do it, you’d better do some thinking about just what you’re teaching.

“Oh, so you’re saying it’s OK for a kid to go home from karate class and side-kick his little brother in the head? It’s all right if he tries out his reverse punch on a friend and breaks his nose?”

Please reread what I just wrote about the need to think. Are you as a karate sensei teaching the children in your classes to kick people in the head or punch others in the nose for no good reason?

“Well, no. But those kicks and punches are part of training. That’s what we’re doing in a karate class.”

Yes, that’s part of what you should be doing in a karate class, but it’s far from the only part, and it shouldn’t be the goal — not for kids and not for adults.


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“So you want to have a discussion of philosophy instead of hard training? You want karate class to be like a church service or a therapy session.”

Nope. There needs to be a whole lot less talking in the dojo, in my opinion. Karate sensei spend too much time trying to explain things intellectually that are adequately grasped only when you learn them with your body. We often hear the adage, “Shut up and train.” Good advice. However, the karate sensei ought to be saying to himself, “Shut up and teach.”

Some Things Karate Sensei Need to Realize

First, let’s look at the fundamentals of the situation: We have children who, because they’re children, don’t always behave in mature, reasonable ways. As children, they sense their relative powerlessness in society, and when they’re given power, they sometimes abuse it — like kicking their brother in the head. Karate affords them the ability to kick like that; it’s unrealistic to think that they won’t at least be tempted to do it.

Yes, you can lecture them. It might work. However, what I think is more effective, and what I learned when I was a child practicing karate, is for teachers and seniors in the dojo to be role models. The leaders don’t go around indiscriminately kicking others in the head. They don’t even play at it. When we’re kicking, it’s under the special circumstances of training. We reinforce the idea that we’re doing something special in the uniforms we wear only in the dojo.

The attitude in the dojo reinforces it. It’s never playtime. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed, but it’s serious. Karate doesn’t get treated like an afternoon program at the YMCA. Karate is different. We approach our own training and the teaching of others, especially children, with that in mind.

How Karate Sensei Treat Dojo Time Sends a Message

If I were a grade-school basketball coach, I wouldn’t mind if one of my players shot hoops with his brother at home. If I were teaching karate, I would mind very much if that child treated the art like a basketball game. That difference has to be made clearly and consistently.

Think of it this way: Don’t use a karate class as entertainment for a kiddie birthday party, and you won’t have to worry as much about it being misused in other ways.

Second, if all we teach is kicking and punching, we shouldn’t be surprised when that’s the lesson children get. If children in a karate class get positive attention for showing aggressiveness, winning tournaments or being the center of attention, they’ll learn from that. They’ll learn what’s valued in the dojo and seek to identify with those values.


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Bokken: Art of the Japanese Sword



The Karate Sensei and Principles vs. Ego

If self-control, poise and humility are highlighted, those are the values children will esteem and emulate. If the teacher struts about, his uniform festooned with insignia, demanding to be called “master,” the children will assume that power is primarily for boosting one’s ego and status. If they see a teacher who’s unassuming and who trains alongside the class, who readily admits his weaknesses and shows others that he’s working on them, the kids will learn to behave accordingly.

If the curriculum changes to meet whatever popular interest has been sparked by a movie or an Olympic competition, the children will learn that their art doesn’t have any fixed concepts or ideals and is instead a product. If the art is taught with consistency and within the framework of what has been taught in the past, however, they will learn to see themselves as part of something larger and more important.

There are a lot of lessons taught in a karate class that have little to do with kicking and punching. Integrity, respect for others, dignity and honesty — they aren’t only in the kata or free sparring, but they’re in the dojo, too. Or they’re not. There are consequences, either way, for those training there.

It’s absurd to think that no matter what we do to influence or direct them, children will always behave appropriately. We have to keep an eye on them and look for behavior that might demonstrate aggressiveness or a tendency to show off or strike out in frustration. And if we see that, we need to talk to them and their parents.

However, if karate is the “way” many of us think it is, then the best approach in getting others — especially children — to walk it is to lead by example.


About the author:
Dave Lowry is a freelance writer who’s trained extensively in the Japanese and Okinawan arts. He started writing the Karate Way column for Black Belt magazine in 1986. He is the author of Bokken: Art of the Japanese Sword among other books.

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  1. Very good article about Karate teaching | Toronto Suiken Bugeikai linked to this post on August 26, 2014

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