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!