Sport karate has been buzzing on the Black Belt Magazine platform recently with a live stream from the Pan American Internationals, a world tour event of the North American Sport Karate Association (NASKA), reaching over 6.3 million users on Facebook earlier this month. The millions of views and thousands of engagements show evident public appeal for the sport, but I have found that sport karate is heavily underrepresented in martial arts studios across America. Some of this is due to traditionalists who are set in their ways and never intend to accept sport karate, this article is not for those people. I believe that much of this issue is the result of martial arts instructors who have never heard of sport karate, don't think that they are capable of teaching it, or fear that tournaments could introduce a toxic environment for their students. However, I feel that the potential benefits of sport karate with regard to student retention far outweigh those concerns. I'll begin by describing these three key retention-boosting benefits, then provide some helpful resources for learning sport karate at the end of this article.
1. Meeting Student Expectations
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I started my journey in martial arts, in part, because I loved the cartoon series Samurai Jack. The generation before me may have started martial arts because of The Power Rangers, and before that it was the iconic martial arts movies of the 70's and 80's. Today, many students come to martial arts schools because they see their favorite super hero kicking and punching their way to victory in a Marvel or DC Comics film.
The funneling of super hero-loving kids to martial arts studios is great for the industry, but this source of inspiration presents the challenge of new students who expect to become the next Superman or Captain America through their training. Imagine if you were the eight-year-old girl who begged mom and dad for karate lessons after watching Black Widow, then you had to spend the first three months of your training learning how to do basic blocks, stances, and stand at attention. You would probably be pretty disappointed, and would decide to go play soccer or be a cheerleader with your friends from school.
I'm not saying that those foundational skills aren't important, they are essential to basic martial arts training. My point is that supplementing traditional curriculum with sport karate skills can be a valuable tool in meeting the expectations of those students who are anticipating superhero-level training. If they are already learning stances and punches, is there any harm in adding a leaping "superman punch" with a big kiai to make them feel like they just took down a big, bad villain?
The moves commonly used in extreme martial arts routines at sport karate tournaments for performance value, like the "superman punch", are often criticized by traditionalists in the comment section who proudly proclaim that it would never work on the streets. Maybe it won't, but it just might keep students coming back into your school so that they can learn the techniques that would actually be effective.
2. Curriculum Enrichment
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Another period in which schools often lose students is right after they get their black belt. They may stick around for a little while so that they get to wear their new belt in class for a few months, but over time many of them fade away before climbing much higher in rank. I believe that this is frequently caused by a lack of satisfactory curriculum beyond first degree black belt. I have observed many martial arts schools that have a seemingly random black belt curriculum, in which the "black belt class" really just consists of whatever the head instructor feels like teaching that day. This lack of formatted curriculum quickly becomes repetitive and it is easy to see how students inevitably get bored.
Introducing a sport karate curriculum is an excellent way to provide a diverse program beyond the rank of black belt. This can be done in a variety of ways. Maybe your traditional style doesn't feature much weapons training, which would be a perfect opportunity to bring in sport karate-based training of the bo, nunchaku, kama, or sword. What if you don't want to steer away from traditional martial arts at all? Then maybe your students can have the opportunity to learn another style of martial arts (like Tae Kwon Do black belts learning a Goju-ryu style form) to use in tournaments. If you are more willing to try the extreme aspects of sport karate, those students could take their kicking skills to a new level by learning tricking. I haven't even mentioned point fighting yet, which introduces a multitude of new techniques and strategies for students to wrap their minds around.
Regardless of which element of sport karate is selected for your school, each of those examples could provide years of additional instructional content that will keep black belts intellectually and physically engaged in their training. We are taught as martial artists to always be students, forever seeking to learn as much as we can. Give your students the opportunity to keep learning through sport karate.
3. Prolonged Goal Setting
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The most common reason that students stop training in martial arts is because they achieved whatever goal they set out for in the beginning. Oftentimes this is obtaining a black belt, sometimes it is meeting a weight loss goal, and other times it might be gaining a baseline knowledge of self-defense. We try to combat this with the classic adage about "pursuing the unattainable goal of perfection" or preaching the "never give up attitude", but sometimes this just gets old. Some students need a clear, well-defined goal to continue sacrificing their time and money to come to class.
Once again, sport karate can solve this problem. Although a school does not have to participate in tournaments to use sport karate in their curriculum, much of the philosophy behind the techniques is designed to make a practical movement more visually appealing or optimize it for speed in a point fighting match. Therefore, it just makes sense to compete if you are teaching sport karate. The world of competition organically introduces a near-endless list of goals that could never be obtained within the walls of a single studio. Competitors can seek to win first place in their division, become ranked by some league or region, win a grand championship, get sponsored by a national team, become a world champion, compete on television, and so much more.
The two most common anti-tournament concerns I hear from school owners are fears that losing will make their students want to quit and the fear that if another school's students win, students might leave for the school across town. As for the worries about quitting after a loss, I believe this 100% comes down to culture. If students are appropriately taught to view losing as a source of motivation to train harder and improve their skills, it is hard to imagine a circumstance in which losing a tournament makes a student quit martial arts all together. Regarding the concern about losing students to another school, I have seen this extremely rarely in my fifteen years of competing in sport karate tournaments. The only times that I have seen this occur is when there is direct mistreatment of the student by the original instructor, such as the instructor threatening the student to only train with them and not seek private lessons. If the instructor handles the student and their parents professionally, I have never seen a student change schools simply because they lost a tournament.
In addition to the goal-setting benefits of competing in tournaments, I would be remiss to not mention the importance of the social relationships built through sport karate competition. Sharing the ring with other martial artists, going to dinner with them after the event, carpooling on the way home, and so many other aspects of competition are proven to foster lifelong friendships. These friendships will keep students coming back to continue their martial arts training even when times are tough, because they know that the next tournament is when they will get to see all of their best friends again.
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I could list dozens of more reasons that people should start training in sport karate. I firmly believe that this sport and style of martial arts has shaped me into the man that I am today, and I wish that every martial artist could experience the same blessings that I have. From a martial arts school owner's perspective, a sport karate curriculum could be your key to meeting students' expectations early on in their training, retaining those students after they achieve their black belt, and giving each of them a multitude of goals that will keep them in the martial arts for years to come. Here are some helpful links to start sport karate training or introduce it to your school:
Sport Karate University is probably the most diverse and cost-effective training tool to get started on the forms and weapons side of sport karate. I joined Sammy Smith in this project to provide world class training on bo, nunchaku, open forms, tricking, and more for as little as $29.99 for one program.
The Flow System is a more in-depth option that is a bit pricier for martial arts schools that want to go all-in on introducing a weapons program. I started the project with a complete bo curriculum, and Mackensi Emory was recruited to include a kama program as well.
Retention Based Sparring is an excellent program that was created by Team Paul Mitchell Executive Director and successful school owner Chris Rappold to help instructors teach sparring in a way that will keep students coming back. A world champion during his competitive career, he balances teaching techniques that really work in the ring with methods that make sparring a more inviting experience.
Adrenaline Action Design is a new product founded by Maguire and Jimmy Kane that directly introduces Hollywood stunt training into a martial arts curriculum. The featured instructors include actual stunt doubles who have performed in blockbuster movies, such as Caitlin Dechelle who doubled Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman. Their Adrenaline Worldwide website also has a membership that provides a ton of content for tricking and extreme weapons training.
There are plenty of other resources for learning sport karate and bringing it into your school, but these are some programs that I have intimate knowledge of and would recommend to anyone interested in this unique aspect of martial arts. I would also highly recommend hosting seminars with world champion competitors or taking private lessons to learn specific elements of sport karate. I encourage you to contact me personally on social media for recommendations. If you have already identified a notable competitor who you would like to train with, most of us are easily accessible via social media and are happy to spread sport karate to as many people as we can.
The exhibition is being held in collaboration with the Bruce Lee Foundation, headed up by Lee's daughter, Shannon. According to the South China Morning Post, the exhibit will feature more than 400 pieces of memorabilia, many of which haven't been displayed before, as well as interactive installations. Among the items shown are personal letters from Lee to his wife, Linda, a fencing mask Lee used for training and the famed yellow track suit he wore in the film "Game of Death."
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Many scientists have oriented towards brain research and have found that there are significant differences in brain anatomy between left and right-handed people. Although we use both brain functions in everyday life, one side of our brain is still more dominant than the other. It has been proven that right-handed people's left side of the brain is more dominant, with centers that control speech and language. On the other hand, the right side of the brain has more control over our emotions. In left-handed people, this division is reversed. Also, in left-handed individuals, both brain hemispheres are equally developed, in comparison to right-handed individuals. This allows them a quicker transfer of information between hemispheres. Also, the excess fibers are an advantage that permits left-handed persons everyday adjustment to the world of right-handed people.
A significantly larger number of neural fibers in the brains of left-handed people is responsible for a quicker transfer of information between brain hemispheres, which is the reason behind better spatial orientation and a greater success in math, art, architecture. Also, if a left-handed person needs to perform a task with his or her right hand, he or she will do it better than a right-handed person would with his or her left hand (e.g. writing). Left-handed people have a totally different approach to problem solving than their right-handed peers and show enhanced abilities in divergent thinking, i.e. finding different solutions to the same problem (thanks to a better intuition and a greater diversity in ideas). Research has shown a larger sensibility among right-handed persons to their right side, while left-handed persons are equally sensitive to both sides of their bodies. The right hand is a bit larger and stronger in right-handed people, whereas, in left-handed individuals, both hands are equally developed.
Mothers that are over 40 years of age during pregnancy have a greater chance to give birth to a baby who will become left-handed. The chances for this to happen are 28% higher than in women who are in their 20's. Interestingly, as many as 90% of babies suck the thumb of their dominant hand while still in their mother's womb so the ultrasound can also give you an idea of what the baby will be like once it is born. As already stated, the connections between the left and right side of the brain are faster among left-handed people. This means that information is transmitted in a faster manner which makes left-handed people more efficient in processing a larger amount of information that are emitted through both sides of the brain. This is one of the main reasons why various research has shown a large rate of left-handed persons among professional athletes, especially in one-on-one sports, i.e. sports that include two opponents such as tennis, table tennis, baseball, martial arts or fencing.
Research has proven how visual information received by the sportsman (fighter or player) is processed by the right brain hemisphere. This is why information, in case the athlete is left-handed, travels faster to the brain center that is in charge of motor skills in as much as 20 to 30 milliseconds. Thanks to these better spatial skills and a quicker motor skill reaction, left-handed persons are more successful in martial arts. So, the advantage or left-handed persons in martial arts are both physiological and tactical. The reason being a faster connection between the left and right side of the brain hemispheres and, simultaneously, a more frequent usage of both brain hemispheres thanks to which they are, in addition to a better spatial assessment, capable of thinking and reacting faster.
Also, left-handed people are extremely adapted to those who are right-handed because they constantly come across them. In comparison, right-handed people adapt much more difficultly to their left-handed opponents. Sportsmen whose left hand is more dominant present a much bigger threat because of their "reversed” body stance. In all sports where athletes face each other, left-handed ones have a significant advantage so the same goes for martial arts. Their abilities are best seen in sports where a very quick reaction is necessary to confuse the opponent who is used to fight a right-handed person. The reason is simply because right-handed athletes are used to fighting right-handed opponents.
To simplify, a left-handed athlete is used to right-handed opponents and has frequently had the chance to fight them and has also trained among them. On the other hand, right-handed athletes rarely have the chance to train with or fight against a left-handed peer and this is where their shortcomings are best seen. So, when faced with a left-handed opponent, a surprise element comes into play which is an advantage for the left-handed person. A left-handed fighter leads his attack with his right hand and his fighting tactics are developed by using the right side of his body. He does this so he can give a stronger, faster and a more precise punch with his left hand which, in turn, confuses the right-handed fighter unadapted to this style of combat. Right-handed athletes develop their fighting tactics and punches with the left side of their bodies so they can hit more precisely and strongly with their right hand (after the left hand, they cross their punch with their right hand) so fighting against a left-handed opponent is confusing for them.
These left-handed advantages have been spotted a very long time ago so, more than 3000 years ago, a fighter named Ehud won and killed the evil Moabite King Eglon which was described in the Bible. According to the legend, Ehud came from the Benjamin tribe for which some biblical experts believed was trained by a warrior squad to use their left hands. Also, according to a legend, the Roman Emperor Commodus loved to fight in the Roman arena where one special characteristic helped him to be invincible- he was left-handed. Most martial arts fighters have used 90% of their time fighting right-handed opponents. This means that they will be very surprised to get punched from the other side, which is something they do not expect to happen. This advantage has helped left-handed fighters to be a bit more dominant in martial arts (55%) in comparison to their right-handed peers.
First in boxing and, a bit later on, in other martial arts sports, the stance in which a left-handed fighter sets his right hand and leg forward, leading the fight with his right hand and then turning his right hip and punching with his left dominant hand is called the "southpaw stance”. According to some legends, a 19thcentury fighter called William "Bendigo” Thompson is responsible for introducing the southpaw stance. Some other boxing experts consider the left-handed boxer Al McCoy to be responsible for endorsing the stance. He became a world champion in 1910 and his nickname was Southpaw. According to some legends, the very name comes from baseball. Some sports historians claim that the term was coined because of the baseball pitch orientation (the pitch, i.e. its lines are oriented towards the west) so that the Sun wouldn't shine in the players' eyes. This is why the left-handed pitcher has his left hand turned towards the south. In the beginning, the term "southpaw stance” denoted something unusual and was known to be used in sports since 1840.
The advantages of left-handed fighters aren't expressed only among boxers (or in savate-boxing, kickboxing, Chinese boxing, etc.), but also in karate, tae kwon do, kung fu, capoeira as well in wrestling, judo, ju jitsu, aikido, MMA, fencing and other martial arts disciplines. The technique of performing certain grips is a bit different in left-handed fighters, their creativity is somewhat larger and their ability to adapt in using their right or left hand needs to be significantly bigger. This is why some left-handed fighters' techniques (certain punches, various punching combinations, throws, levers, pinning their opponent to the ground or choking) can greatly confuse a right-handed athlete. As said before, when a right-handed fighter is faced with a left-handed one, there is an element of surprise. The surprise is even greater if a left-handed fighter started the fight in a classic right-handed stance (his left hand and foot are set forward) and then, during the match, he switches to a southpaw stance, i.e. makes a switch-hitter. The term "switch-hitter” is used for those fighters who deliberately switch from a right-handed stance to a left-handed stance or vice versa, in order to confuse their opponents during combat.
Left-handed children who were forced by their parents or teachers to write with their right hands has caused a large number of (originally) left-handed people to use both their right and left hand efficiently. This is especially present in Asia, i.e. among the Chinese, the Koreans and the Japanese because their script (because of its characteristics) cannot be written by using the left hand. This is why there are only 2% of left-handed people registered in China, i.e. only this amount of people have declared to be left-handed (they eat by using their left hand), while in Japan, this percentage is a bit over 4%. According to this statistics where, allegedly, there aren't more than 2-4% of left-handed people in Asia (which is impossible), we shouldn't be surprised that a term for left-handed fighters isn't specified in Eastern martial arts, in comparison to the "southpaw stance”.
However, people cannot be simply divided into two homogeneous groups (left and right-handed ones). It is more of a continuum on which ends there are two smaller groups of exclusively left and right-handed fighters. Most of us are somewhere in between, having a stronger or weaker predisposition to use our right hand.
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