Teaching Methods – Spirit Made Steel Martial Arts

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Never a Master

Yesterday, a student answered a question with the words, “Yes, master.” I told him point blank that I don’t like the term and asked him to please not do that again in my dojo.

To be fair to the poor kid, a young boy of six, I was trying to get the class to respond with a hearty, “Yes, sir!” What can I say? This is the south – we still pride ourselves on the sirs and ma’ams. And the way most dojos have twisted the word “osu” is so ridiculous that I prefer to avoid using it in the dojo. Plus, let’s face it – at that age, discipline is a large reason parents are bringing their kids to the dojo in the first place.

But I don’t like the term master and I especially don’t like it when it’s applied to me.

I Am Nobody’s Master

This is America. Last I checked that means that I am a free man and you are a free man. I don’t have a master and neither do you.

I do run my classes with some discipline – especially my youth classes. I’m sure that my students think of me as something akin to a drill sergeant. But as I tell all of my students, the main role of discipline in my class is just to keep class itself moving. It’s hard to teach a group of students anything if they’re all talking, each about different things, and nobody can hear the teacher. If we aren’t moving in the same direction as we drill we’ll walk through each other – or, worse and more likely, punch, kick or otherwise hurt each other.

So yes, discipline is important. But I am not anybody’s master. Nobody has to listen to me. If they don’t like it, all they have to do is leave. We don’t do contracts in our dojo, so nobody is on the hook for anything they haven’t already paid for or attended. I am not your master and I don’t want to be.

Always a Student, Never a Master

StudentMasterNow, I know what many of you are about to say. “But Sensei, what about master in the technical sense, meaning one who has mastered a subject.” For that I refer you to this wonderful graphic that Century shared on their Facebook page this morning.

Life doesn’t let you tread water. It’s like a river with a current. If you’re not constantly striving to move forward the current will eventually pull you backward. As martial artists, we must constantly strive to continue to improve ourselves. We must constantly push to learn more, to refine our techniques, to push our skills to the next level. If we don’t, we’ll only move backwards and atrophy. As my good friend Sensei Joe Medlen of Quiet Storm Jujitsu likes to say, “The day I know everything is the day I stop teaching.”

My students shouldn’t worry that I’ll stop teaching anytime soon – I still have plenty to learn. I am not a master but still a student.

The Basics of Board Breaking

Last week I  talked about why some schools break a lot of boards, why some schools don’t break boards at all, and why we’re somewhere in between. This week I’d like to talk a bit about breaking itself. There are a lot of myths out there about breaking. Many of them are perpetuated by martial artists – sometimes nefariously, but most of the time out of ignorance.

While you can theoretically pick up anything you’d like for a breaking demonstration (it doesn’t even have to be wood!) most schools use small variations on the same basic concept. Schools that do serious breaking mostly use some variation of a 12 inch by 12 inch white pine board, around one inch thick. That’s an approximation because most martial artists will just go to the hardware store and by standard lumber (it’s what I do). Standard lumber doesn’t come in perfect one inch increments because it shrinks after it’s cut.

What I usually do is buy a long 12×1 board, in whatever length is most economical on the day I’m at the store. Then I’ll get them to cut it into 12 inch sections. However, a 12×1 board is usually actually 11.75 inches by 0.75 inches, or very close to that. Also, having it cut into 12 inch lengths usually means that the last one is closer to 11 inches.

I buy white pine. As I mentioned last week, some schools use even softer wood such as balsa (thankfully this isn’t very common these days, as it’s too easy to have it embarrassingly pointed out during a demo). Don’t buy hardwood like oak, cherry or ash. It’ll break your hands. Just as importantly, do not buy pressure treated lumber (more on that in a minute).

A standard 12 by 12 white pine board takes about 1100 newtons (roughly 250lbs) of force to break. Because wood is a natural material, that varies a bit from board to board. A rule of thumb generally taught to martial artists is that breaking one board is equivalent to break one rib. This is, sadly, one of those incorrect myths taught to most martial artists by their instructors and never questioned. Safety studies done by the Society of Automotive Engineers show that it takes about 400lbs of force to break a rib. That varies a bit depending upon which rib (the smaller ones at the bottom of the rib cage break easier than the thicker ones at the top of the rib cage). 250lbs might crack one, but it’s unlikely to break one.

250lbs isn’t that bad. The average adult male in the US ways just shy of 200lbs. It doesn’t take super great technique to come up with another 50lbs of force – but it does take good technique to properly protect your hands, feet, or whatever else you might be hitting with. That’s why I don’t have brand new students doing board breaks, whatever marketing advantages might come from it. I don’t allow students to do breaks until I’m comfortable that their form is sufficient to prevent injuries.

For simple breaks the board is placed or held between two supports. The first break I have most students do is with a downward hammer blow, so the board is usually placed on two cinder blocks. The blocks are situated in such a way as to hold the board steady but with the maximum distance between the two blocks. For breaks that use techniques such as a punch or a kick the board is usually held by one or two people, but in a similar manner. The arms are posted strong on either side of the board, with the minimal amount of hand coverage necessary for grip. Either way, this represents the “width” of the board.

The wider the board is the easier it is to break. If you’ve ever snapped a stick over your knee in the woods then you’ve likely discovered this for yourself. Going wider than 12″ results in boards that are ridiculously easy to break. Going less than 12″ wide can result in boards that are very difficult to break.

The last dimension is the height of the board. For adults, I use standard 12″ height boards. For children we go smaller – 10″ or 8″. Some schools go as low as 6″ or even 4″ boards. My personal opinion is that if the child is young enough to need a board that small he probably shouldn’t be breaking anyway because his bones are still in development. Even with the older children, I do less breaking than I do with adults – and I don’t do all that much with adults.

One final trick that some schools play is to bake their boards or bricks before they break them. Yes, bake in the oven like a cake. Baking the wood or brick removes moisture which makes it much easier to break. This trick is done with bricks far more often than with wood. From a distance you can’t tell that the brick has been baked – unless you see a giant puff of powder when it’s broken.

On the flip side, never break a board or a brick that is wet! That reinforces the material and will very likely break your hand or foot – especially if it’s a brick! Get breaking materials that have been kept dry and be sure to keep them dry before your breaking session! For the same reason, avoid pressure treated lumber and get only the untreated variety. The chemicals they treat it with will retain a lot of fluids (not water but chemicals) in the wood and make it much harder to break. I once witnessed a belt test where the student had been assigned to purchase his own boards and he absolutely could not break the board. The instructor later pointed out that it was pressure treated, and that was why.

Above all, if you’re going to do any breaking have somebody around who knows what they’re doing – and even then, be careful. It can be fun. It can bee a good way to prove to yourself, and others, that you’re capable of generating a lot of power in your blows. But if you’re not careful it can be a short road to a serious injury.

Why We Stopped Using a Rotating Curriculum

A rotating curriculum is a great tool for teaching large classes with few instructors. For those who are unfamiliar, a basic rotating curriculum works something like this:

First, take your curriculum and divide it into cycles. Typically, three cycles are used: Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced. Typically, each cycle lasts a year. In our case, however, with a three and a half year minimum to black belt standard, the Advanced cycle was a year and a half long.

Ideally, each cycle gets its own class. So in our case, a beginner class, an intermediate class and an advanced class. Unless you don’t have enough students – and then you can sometimes get away with collapsing multiple cycles into one class. This is undesirable, because it negates some of the advantages of a rotating curriculum.

Now, each cycle is divided into mini-cycles – typically about one quarter (three months) long. You teach mini-cycle 1 the first quarter of the year, mini-cycle 2 the second quarter and so on. Hence the “rotating.”

There are some serious advantages to this approach – and they’re real. First, everyone in class is working the same material. Thus, breaking off one group (say, low belts) to work on one area while another group (say, high belts) works on another is minimized. You can also avoid spells where you have one or more students sitting around watching while higher ranked students do something different. Everyone stays on the same cycle, so students have the ability to help each other as well. After all, they’re all studying the same thing. And everyone belt tests at the same time – typically at the end of a quarter. So you don’t have to run belt tests for one student one month and ten the next.

But there are some down sides as well. For the most part, supporters of rotating curriculums are correct: there’s very little in an intermediate cycle that truly has to come in order. Is it really a big deal if someone learns Kata 4 before Kata 3? Usually not… except in one important case: brand new students. In a tradtional, non-rotating curriculum, the white belt kata (to take one example) is just about as stupidly simple as it gets. In fact, most styles have a variation of the same kata as their beginning kata. In our school, we call it Basic Kata 1. Traditional Shotokan schools call it Taikyoku Shodan. In other schools it goes by other names, and sometimes it varies slightly – but all of them are essentially a combination of nothing more than down blocks and punches.

There’s a reason the beginner forms are so stupidly simple. They’re for beginners. A typical white belt coming in off the street has an awful lot of new information dumped on him very quickly. He needs time to process it all – and he doesn’t need too much dumped on him all at once.

The issue isn’t just forms, either. White belts typically need to learn quite a bit of basic techniques before they’re really ready to follow everything else going on in class. Stances. Basic kicks and punchs. Breakfalls, if your school does mat work. Dumping them straight into techniques that were originally designed for a 3rd or 4th belt level student right on day one is rough. Yes, it can be made to work – I’ve done it, many times. But it’s far from ideal.

White belts often lose out in another way. What happens to a student who starts halfway through a mini-cycle? When the next belt test comes around, he’s just plain not ready. But then he has to waith through an entire second cycle before he can test. I’ve had a lot of students put up with this – but make no mistake, that’s exactly what they’re doing. Putting up with it. It’s not fair to them, and they know it. And as an instructor, I’ve always felt it, too.

There’s another group that often loses out: senior students making the jump from your last underbelt to black belt. Rather than having a few signature items that are designated as “black belt material” – maybe a special black belt kata, maybe a few other things – they’re just learning something at random (based on their start date) as their final techniques. It takes out some of the magic.

But most of all, my issue with it is that it’s a system designed for teaching large classes with a small number of instructors – and that’s exactly opposite of where I want to take my classes. I run small classes, deliberately capped, with maximum student/teacher ratios and maximum class sizes strictly enforced. I like to give individualized attention to each and every student. And I like having a curriculum where each step feeds into the next step.

Is it more work to teach this way? Yes, absolutely. I understand completely why other instructors have chosen to go with or stay with a rotating curriculum. But I believe the results are worth the extra effort.