Instructors (and their ads) have a long list of things karate can help with. Some of them seem to preach anything from curing asthma to making them “bully-proof”. But what can karate really do, and how?
1. Listening & Focus
So many students come to me with parents insisting that they cannot — no matter what they do — make them focus.
But in karate, focus is non-negotiable. Here’s why:
Every game, drill, and activity here is built so that your child must focus. If
we’re playing a game and your kid doesn’t listen to instructions, they will lose the game. If it’s a drill for older kids they often run the risk of getting hit by their partner, and to a kid, any hit — even one cushioned by squishy foam gloves — is a nerve-wracking thing. Everything in the dojo, from listening to respectful behaviour, comes back to our rewards system. Showing up to class isn’t enough: you must earn your attendance and can have it taken away for poor listening or focus. If you earn enough attendance, you earn belt stripes. If you earn enough stripes, you will be invited to grade to your next belt.
Action equals reaction. Bad focus equals no attendance, equals no stripe, equals not grading to your next belt when your friends do.
It’s a domino effect. And it works.
Surprise to some of you, but I teach both kids and adults in both karate and kickboxing. And the amount of un-coordinated adults in the world is astounding.
And I’m talking can’t-chew-gum-and-walk uncoordinated. I’m talking can’t-jump-to-save-their-lives coordinated (you'd be surprised). And coordination is important for an array of reasons in adult life, far beyond the dojo. It can keep you from falling or injuring yourself or others, or help with other sports or activities in life. Or maybe just help you walk and chew gum at the same time.
Karate (at least in my dojo) requires the use of steps, footwork paired with hand techniques, running, hand-eye coordination and more. I’m not a big fan of standing still and repeating punches for an hour without moving. We’re constantly moving, balancing, jumping and learning different steps. Everyone gets it eventually. I see kids who can hardly run two steps for tripping over their own feet transform into kids who can handle six or seven-step combos with no problem when they keep at it.
Some kids (girls especially) often come into the dojo lacking confidence. You can spot them: heads down, shoulders slumped, shuffling steps, no eye contact. Well, not here.
We actually teach eye contact. Weird, right? We teach confident posture. It’s an actual lesson we do with the kids. Because some kids just don’t know how to be, act, sit, or walk with confidence.
Now, showing them how to look confident is one thing, but giving them real confidence is another. I’m not crazy: I don’t think it’s magic. But there is real magic when you give them something to be confident about. By doing karate they learn to defend themselves, they look strong, they feel strong, and they have something they’re working toward and feeling good about.
Karate isn’t going to magically infuse your kid with confidence, but there is a certain level of confidence that comes with knowing how to throw a punch. About knowing that if someone gives you crap, you can handle it on your own.
Goals are a huge part of the karate atmosphere. There is almost always a goal to be set and achieved.
Many martial arts encourage the goal of ‘black belt’, but I try to stress short-term goals too. Here, we don’t have many child black belts. A black belt is a long-term goal: for kids, a better goal is Golden Dragon (our highest belt in the pee-wee class) or even green or purple belt, which are intermediate belts for youth. Black belts in karate (unlike some other martial arts I won't mention) take a lot of time. But that's a different conversation.
Like I mentioned before, everything here is based on a rewards system. Let me explain:
Attendance is rewarded with "circles" in our dojo. Every four Circles, you earn a stripe. If you misbehave in class, you lose a circle. If you misbehave badly, you lose a stripe. After a certain amount of stripes, you’re eligible to test (grade), but you can also lose your grading if you're badly misbehaving in class or at home. For kids, this is a goal moving further and further away based almost entirely on behaviour. Being good equals getting what they want. Not being good equals getting their goal pushed back. So, if they behave and try hard, they can see a direct path to achieving their goals, which is a huge incentive.
5. Respect & Behaviour
I’m pretty chill as far as ‘traditional karate’ Senseis go, but one rule I think should never be ignored is respect in the dojo. Not to an extreme degree, but polite speech, good listening, and good behaviour are always a requirement here (see above: losing attendance if this rule isn’t followed). Why? Well…
If we’re not teaching kids to respect each other and their instructors, all we’re teaching is fighting, which isn't the goal. If you don’t respect your partner enough, and then you go into a sparring match with them, you’ll hurt them and yourself. And if you're injured, or hurting someone else, nobody is learning anything.
When we spar or do partner work, we're not learning to fight. We're learning to apply our techniques in a practical setting.
Which we can't do if our partner isn't being respectful.
Karate, or any martial art, isn’t magic. It’s not going to do any of these things overnight. But with perseverance and determination, and a hint of cooperation between parents and Sensei, anything is possible.