Teaching Kids Karate And Chinese Whispers

One day my karate sensei (my teacher) came to me and told me I should start a kids karate class. Our own club, founded in 1989 was started in a very similar way. His sensei told him he should start a dojo, and he did what sensei asked.

I was nervous. We were pretty happy not having to deal with kids in the club, and we’d talked about that in the past with glee. Teaching adults was reasonably straight forward, children not so much.

I thought about it for a while, and ultimately did what any good student would do – exactly what sensei says.

So I began teaching children, and fortunately for me it turns out teaching kids is awesome.

It is a great service, and effects peoples lives in a truly meaningful way.

It is little surprise then that teaching is also a lot of work.

It requires that you are actually proficient in the skills you are trying to pass on, preferably highly proficient. It requires that you have a great deal of tenacity. It requires that you enjoy the time you spend teaching.

Without those three things you can absolutely perform the act of teaching, I just don’t think you can teach very well, and there are certainly plenty of poor to mediocre teachers out there!

Teaching karate is different to teaching most other things in that you are also preserving legacy. You are teaching things that, in the case of traditional martial arts, have been passed down from teacher to student for centuries. Chinese whispers might be a fun game, but no one likes the “Chinese whispers” version of traditional martial arts where every person taught goes on to make changes themselves, and the core art form is lost.

The message is ruined.

That is frankly, a little intimidating.

I don’t want to change the message, I like the existing message a lot. Sloppy karate teachers with sloppy technique can’t help but change things with their mistakes and failings, and that accidentally distorts the message of traditional karate.

Holding real proficiency is important. You won’t be perfect, but that doesn’t matter. You just need to try to be. My karate isn’t great by any means, and it will probably never be “great”.

What really matters is that you strive for consistent, genuine and purposeful self-improvement.

There are no great karate teachers that just “coast along” or “cruise”.

Training kids in the 6+ age range is a challenge. You’re not dealing with teenagers, you’re dealing with kids that are barely in school. I often tell parents that my goal is to have fun and “trick them” into learning a little bit of karate along the way.

They won’t learn anywhere near as quickly as you’d like them to.

They won’t go home and practice.

They will come back from school break and have forgotten a lot.

They will randomly regress and start doing things wrong, even after you think you’ve corrected that issue for the “final time”.

Games and competitions seem to work really well. If you can condense a key concept into a game or competition you’re onto a winner.

Nothing seems to grab a young child’s attention like winning, or playing a game.

If you can’t turn a key concept into an idea – teach the key concept and split those drills up with games or challenges in-between.

You can still teach them respect, discipline and focus, but technical/physical proficiency will probably have to wait for the little ones!

Once they hit 8 or 9 you can start really sorting out the physical issues with their karate, but as you’d expect this really seems to come down to a child by child basis. They are all so very different, especially boys to girls.

I’ve found girls are generally a lot easier to teach for whatever reason. There is a noticeable difference in maturity levels between girls and boys from around 7+ years of age and continues indefinitely.

My female juniors are technically far more proficient than the majority of my boys, which isn’t what I had originally expected to see at all (not that I really had many expectations).

I’d just foolishly sort of assumed that boys would be more in control of their limbs.

Not the case.


Disciplining children is hard.

We live in an age where children have a lot of power. They can do a great deal of harm with very little repercussion at all. I’m not going to debate the validity of that reality, and ensuring the weak among us have agency is very important – but it does make discipline a challenge.

If a child is causing problems:

  1. I try and resolve the issue right there and then, in less than 5 seconds, and get back to teaching the class. They get very little attention and their punishment is doled out swiftly and reliably.
  2. I have students do press-ups for minor infractions, in multiples of 10 based on their belt grade. (although I let kids away with a lot). I have another student “keep and eye on” the student doing press-ups and they check their form while they continue to train. If the press-ups are lazy or bad in some way the other student will judge and a repeat may be required.
  3. For truly disruptive behavior I just exclude. Depending on severity they will either sit out on the side and be able to watch, or if they’re a real problem I will sit them in a quiet corner facing into the corner on the floor. Excluded kids are generally out for the full session, and I try to make sure we play a game the children value highly whenever we have excluded kids. This tends to sort them reasonably well next class, they value the game higher than they do the acting out. With some children it can be helpful to tell them quickly why they’ve been excluded. The trouble is, with other kinds of children that can simply invite argument.

I was told when I started teaching by various people that the kids wouldn’t be the real issue. Having to deal with all the parents issues would be the bigger challenge. Perhaps I am an anomaly in that regard, or perhaps I just need more miles on the clock, but I haven’t found that to be the case at all.

Gradings can be a challenge when kids of similar ages or in similar social circles grade to different levels. I’ve tried to sugar coat things in the past and it didn’t go well. If a child isn’t good enough for a certain grade I just tell them they weren’t good enough.

I know that’s a little “rough”, but the alternative in my mind cheapens the process and makes gradings meaningless. While junior gradings don’t have the gravitas of a full adult grading, I think it is really important to make sure they still mean something, and aren’t just handed out to all that might apply. We talk about the reality of failure before we test students. A child with a solid understanding of what failure means and how to deal with it makes for an adult with the same skills.

People who see failure as a positive are much more likely to lead happy, successful lives.

Another interesting thing I’ve noticed is that some children will improve a great deal, and you might not really see it in class. I’ve had a couple of kids who really didn’t look like they were making much progress after 12 – 18 months of training, only to have the parents come to me and tell me how much they’ve changed at home and at school as a result of karate.

While I’ve taught adults for a while – this is only my third year teaching children, so I am still a daisy-fresh rookie with a lot to learn.

As often as teaching is an ordeal, it is also a true privilege. You are shaping the minds of young folk who will go out into the world and spread the things they have learned. They will interact with other human beings based on the humility, compassion and respect they have learned in the dojo.

Traditional martial arts aren’t really about punching and kicking, they’re about self-improvement. The physical training is simply a tool we use to get there.

I hope to refine my personal karate, and karate teaching skills for many years to come!

Body Balance, Physiotherapy And The Mind

I’ve always been a very tall, skinny, weak nerd.

You can fight your genetics all you want, and you can certainly move the needle – but you’ll be fighting forever.

I’ve been fighting (in a friendly way!) my genetics for a long time.

I never really played a lot of sport, I just hung out with friends and messed around with computers. Then my darling wife dragged me to Queenstown and everything changed. I was in my mid-20’s and everyone around me was exercising. I started cycling, I tried running for a while, I started skiing, day walking, all sorts of shenanigans. I had a physical base of about 0. I was lucky in that I wasn’t carrying around any excess weight, but I had the strength and fitness of a wet towel.

I had no significant musculature and no idea how the human body was supposed to work. My expensive private school education hadn’t taught me the first thing about how my body was supposed to move. A real shame.

I trashed myself very quickly. My horrible mechanics put me on the lightning fast track to chronic pain, my joints hated me. Crohn’s has a nasty habit of causing joint paint too, but I didn’t know I had Crohn’s at the time, and while it would be easy to just blame that – it probably accounted for 20% of my issues. I was a mechanical mess.

Fast-forward to my early 30’s. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on subsidized physiotherapy and had little to no result (the biggest benefit of my therapy to date was simply having them tell me to take it easy for a while, an enforced stand down period).

On the positive side, I’ve watched hundreds of hours of YouTube material on physiotherapy, I’ve got books everywhere and I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts on the subject. I decided to fix myself, because it was clear no one else was able to.

It took me months of research to stumble across one of the fundamental principles of a healthy body, and that is one of balance. Specifically muscular balance across your joints.

In simple terms, if you push a lot, you need to pull a lot.

If you develop strength doing a particular movement in a particular direction – you need strength in the opposite direction.

Karate is a great example – we push all day. Punching, kicking, blocking. It’s all forward focused. The front of the body develops, the back of the body does not. The supporting musculature for all of our pushing movements slowly withers away and we end up with a huge muscular imbalance across the shoulders. Loose traps, malfunctioning lats and non-existent rear deltoids coupled with strong, tight pecs and tight biceps are a recipe for shoulder disaster.

Look at any joint, look at a movement, you need to be strong in both directions. The opposing muscle group must be trained or you loose balance, and you make physiotherapists a lot of money.

My shoulders.

I had a shoulder impingement issue from karate and I’d had it for a few years. Id gotten a lot stronger over time and my pecs were chronically tight. My posterior musculature, tasked with keeping that anterior strength under control was woefully inadequate.

I haven’t had a serious shoulder problem for over 2 years but I didn’t fix it with goofy physio exercises with a band, or with rows.

I’d tried that stuff for 6 months and I was still impinging. I was certainly stronger for my physio exercises. My rotator cuff was stronger, my rear delts were stronger, my traps were stronger.

No improvement.

I wasn’t really sure where to go from there.

Fortunately for me, I didn’t really have to look hard for an answer. This random guy started renting the desk next to me at work and stuck around for a few months.

Turns out I knew (of) him, I’d seen him on TV. He was a famous multi-sport athlete.

Naturally I bitched about my shoulders. “My shoulders keep getting pulled forward when I train karate, my pecs are tight blah blah blah” – my usual whinge at this point.

He told me to pull my shoulders back and keep them there.

Cheeky bastard.

I’ve been in and out of physio for a year with this shit, “pull your shoulders back” isn’t much use to me!

Long story short, I started walking around with my shoulders back, it took a while but months later that’s where they stayed and they’ve stayed back ever since.

Problem solved.

I fixed my shoulders with my mind. My mind is clearly some sort of deadly ninja.

I think about that conversation whenever I see people walking down the street waddling like ducks with the feet pointed outwards.

Don’t do that duck walk thing, it’s super stupid and we all judge you for doing it.

That was a weird, abrupt ending.

No one will notice.

Why Everyone Should Train In Traditional Karate

There are so many options these days.

It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for a university (that place where you pay extortionate fees for an education you probably could have gotten from YouTube for free), or toilet paper (likely the pinnacle of human achievement thus far) – you’ve got options galore.

The fitness industry has surely reached near-complete saturation by this point – even in yoga circles there are at least a dozen options, from Bikram to Ashtanga, Hatha to.. AcroYoga?

In the “martial arts” space there are also six zillion options, and one is traditional karate. I started learning karate when I was 11 and started teaching karate a few years ago. Therefore I am naturally about to tell you why what I do is the best, and everything else is poop.

I know what you’re thinking. “Chris that sounds awesome, when do we learn the 3 finger tiger style exploding face technique?

Great question, I’m glad you asked. Let’s look at what traditional karate won’t do for you:

  1. You won’t win any medals, there aren’t any medals.
  2. You probably won’t have a heap of fun to start with, it takes a while to become masochistic enough to genuinely enjoy hours and hours (and hours) of hard physical training. Honestly though, it’s great.
  3. No one is going to be throwing high fives and “broing it up” with you after class fraternity style, it won’t happen.
  4. Your body wont cooperate, likely for years.
  5. You won’t feel like you’ve mastered much, or anything at all, 10 or even 20 years later. I certainly haven’t.
  6. Your body won’t like it – it won’t feel good and you might not feel like you’re going anywhere.
  7. You won’t become a killing machine after 5 classes. You won’t become a killing machine after 500 classes, either.

Sounds pretty great, right?

Let’s look at some less impressive stuff, here is what traditional karate will do for you:

  1. You’ll look at yourself a few years later an be blown away by how much you’ve slowly changed physically. Hard gains from hard training.
  2. You’ll learn to respect yourself, and to respect all other human beings.
  3. You’ll make better decisions in stressful situations, both physically or mentally. You’ve have likely dealt with worse on the training floor.
  4. 5 foot tall or 7 foot tall, you’ll be able to look after yourself.
  5. You’ll make as many friends as you want to make.
  6. You’ll realise that competition, improvement and success is an internal phenomenon.
  7. You’ll have started a journey that takes a lifetime to complete. Training in your 60’s is common, 70’s is common. People train traditional karate into their 80’s.

Traditional karate hasn’t changed with the times, the last thing that really changed was the belt system so that we have these funny coloured belts now (rather than just white belts and black belts). That happened bloody ages ago.

Traditional karate teaches you that you can improve your life immeasurably through the tool that is hard work. Hard work and discipline don’t seem to be particularly popular in 2017 – but I can assure you it is as worth it now as it was in the “good old days”.

I feel like I’ve really nailed this sales pitch.

Go and try traditional karate, it’s good stuff.