To be fed or to feed yourself
As a child, my step father was a basketball coach, and would avidly encourage me to engage in the sport, be a part of his team, and develop in a group activity with fellow athletes. For some reason it never, ever stuck. Whether this was because I had karate as a central focus of my athletic life, or whether it was because I just didn’t enjoy Basketball; I never ever pursued it fully. At the time he would say, ‘Shaun doesn’t enjoy team sports’, something at the time I would resent, but the more I think about my personality and life in karate some twenty years on, I think he may have had a point.
Karate is an individual journey. Yes there are times when you engage with others as a committed force, in kumite team categories etc, but even then you have a solo job to play in a larger group. I always liked taking responsibility for myself, so therefore it is natural I suppose for me, as a child, to choose a hobby that allowed me opportunities to worry and focus solely on myself.
When I was 18, I was lucky enough to start following Sensei Dave Hazard 7th Dan. Anyone that knows him, has trained under him, or has even read the comments of others concerning him, you are left in no doubt that this gentleman is a full force to be reckoned with, both in his own outstanding physical attributes, but also in his approach to teaching and developing others.
Outside of karate, I work in an educational environment, in a secondary school. Something I have learned in this environment is that the schools are now geared less towards giving you information, but more in the developing of skills to acquire such understanding for yourself. To make this clear, I will explain:
Whilst one teacher may tell the pupil the details and information for you to understand a specific piece of poetry, another teacher may develop the skills in the pupils for them to be able to analyse the poem themselves, to gain an understanding of the poem for themselves. Therefore, one is giving the pupil information, whilst the other develops the skills to acquire the information and understanding for themselves. This is of deep interest to me, in my development of my own karate students.
Sensei Hazard always encourages his class to think, be self critical, be self analytical. I have trained with many instructors that dictate. They simply point out errors or praise; they feed the student. Sensei Hazard however doesn’t feed his students; he gives them the skills to be able to feed themselves.
In my small and humble dojo, I have a small group of people. Some are fresh students of mine that I have worked with from white belt. Others have started to train with me at alternative points in their training career. Some have come to me as purple belts, other have come to be as 2nd Dans. Therefore I have an eclectic mix of students, many from different backgrounds with different habits. I say this with no disrespect to anyone, but in my attempts to achieve what I want to get from these students, I have to erase certain parts of their technical past.
My approach to teaching however is a far distance from the style of dictatorship. Please don’t get me wrong, in my dojo, members work towards achieving what I want to achieve. In my attempts to get them there however, in my teaching style I try and develop ‘thinkers’, rather than simply ‘do-ers’. In doing this I am passing on the skills that Sensei Hazard has without doubt bestowed in me.
I will give you an example. I have a young lad, 4th kyu. He is a superb kumite competitor, and loves to fight. To some extent however, he could walk on a tatami and do relatively well with no preparation, it is his kihon and kata however that he focuses on primarily. A few weeks ago we were talking about the arms and their relation to the sides of the body. I have always stressed to my dojo the importance of healthy technique to propagate longevity. Therefore I encourage the karateka to avoid forcing the arms to positions that puts stresses on any of the joints. A few weeks later I paired the class up, and I asked them to watch their partner do a kata and provide constructive feedback. I stood back and watched the feedback, not getting involved myself. I heard him say to a black belt that in his execution of Heian Nidan, his hips were too open on the seiken/tetsui (depending on technical and association perspective) technique in the opening waza. Knowing my style of teaching, the black belt then asked him, ‘Why is that a problem?’ to which he responded ‘because it is placing stress on the shoulder joint, and disjoining the hips and shoulders from the technique’. I was blown away, I had received the confirmation that although my students may not be doing everything perfectly, they are developing the skills to analyse and have a keen eye.
Sensei Hazard has this ability to work with you on the smallest of techniques or technical elements and be able to locate where the problem lies in the technique. It is this quality that I feel Sensei has developed in me, and that I hope to pass onto students. I don’t want my students to do a certain technique because I say so, but because they are intelligent enough to analyse the technique sufficiently themselves.
Asking questions is probably one of the most important teaching strategies I have developed within the dojo. Not dictating, but asking them what they think. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying my students are perfection in motion, but what I am confident of is that they are developing the skills to improve.
In my dojo there are a collection of mirrors. A few weeks ago, in my brown and black belt class, I said ‘pick a kata, and pick a sequence within to improve this lesson’. Some were ambitious, whilst others picked a short sequence of movement from their chosen kata. I then said ‘Right, you have an hour to improve it’. For the first ten minutes I simply stood back and watched, refusing to answer any questions at all. I told them ‘you all know the answer to your questions, but you need to figure this out for yourself’. I wasn’t being lazy I promise, but I was hoping they would see me as a last resort for feedback, and in turn force them to internalise their questions and produce the answers themselves. When things were blatantly going wrong I gave direction, but more-or-less, they self taught that lesson.
An instructor isn’t always around. So when they are not around, but you want to practice, how do you analyse?
I have in my possession close to 15 years of notes from karate. I have notes from a session with Sensei Hazard when I was a pup. I noted, at that tender age ‘the food must not point to the floor in mae-geri’. Don’t get me wrong, my notes as a 10 year old weren’t in-depth, but the process was in place already, to note and collect understanding. Now, when I am thirsty for improvement, I don’t always need to search out NEW information. I re-visit what I already know, and allow that to excite me.
Three Strategies to develop a ‘feed myself’ rather than ‘Feed me’ mentality
1. Ask questions of the student – don’t give answers easily, instead direct them to the answer so they uncover the answer themselves. 9 times out 10, if a student asks a questions and you say, ‘why do you think?’, they will answer their own question. Sometimes they get so reliant however on being spoon-fed that they neglect their own bank of knowledge and understanding.
2. Develop activities that facilitate analysis of others. Sensei would often get the class to pair up at the end of a kata session to perform kata. One would do the kata, while the other provides feedback. This repetitive act of observing, engaging their own understanding, and sharing their understanding helps develop the skill of analysis.
3. Develop activities that facilitate analysis of themselves. Get them in the mirror (where possible) or in a private space, and force them to internalise their questions. Ask them questions ‘why are you doing that?’ etc and they will develop an understanding, and self analysis skills.
One important hurdle to jump is the idea of a rule applying to one thing and one thing only. Sometimes you tell a student that the hand and hip in gyaku-zuki should complete their action simultaneously. Once directed to do this, they improve their gyaku-zuki timing. But it is key that they learn to take a concept, or idea and broaden its implications to other areas of their karate…therefore thinking – Is my hip in time with my foot in mae geri? Is my leg driving in time with the extension of my other kicking leg in Yoko Kekomi?
The point of this article is to note, through my own experiences with Sensei Hazard, the importance of developing yourself and your students in such a way that they develop the skills to improve themselves as well as seek guidance from the instructor.
Therefore FEED yourself, don’t always expect to be FED.