#32 in a continuing series— 84 days in the teaching life of an
American sensei in 1999)
Steve prepares to go, Paul emerges from the waiting room. Both men are
musicians. Paul plays blues guitar. Steve is a passionate jazz pianist. I
introduce the two. They rap about music for a few minutes.
love to jam when I return in March,” Steve tells Paul.
say goodbye to Steve at the front door.
Dharman wants to share Paul’s private today. “Paul needs to concentrate on Chinto,” I
tell Dharman. Paul had just begun the Chinto kata a month earlier. Since he rarely
attends group classes, he needs the focus.
is a departure from the sparring work that I have been doing in the threesome
of Dharman, Scott and Paul. Paul is a kind-hearted, sometimes fidgety, cerebral
student. I once half-jokingly told him, “If I could remove your head and leave
it on the sidelines we could get a lot done with your body.”
students don’t always benefit from more talking and analysis. By contrast, I
had a hulking, handsome male student by the name of Greg who weighed in about 220
pounds. Greg was a trouble magnet. Fights found him. He was earthy and tough,
and got out of most jams by relying on an abundance of instinct, but a scarcity
of wit. Greg needed more martial conversation than physical movement to advance his art
because he lacked strategic awareness.
He needed to develop his ‘white’ man, his analytical side, over his primitive ‘red’ nature.
I decided to work with Paul on the
nuances of weight shifting, timing, speed, and just pure rote kata memory.
half-hour later I glimpse Teresa, the mother of two sons, Greg and Bobby.
The two boys tromped across the front yard. Bobby, the youngest, is coming for a private. Although both brothers study karate with me at the YMCA. Bobby is having trouble
performing the basic I Form exercise. He’s taken his orange belt test three times
and failed. Missed classes have put him out of sync with the class progress.
“This session will do a world of wonder for
Bobby,” I assure Teresa at the front door. “Bobby is a hyper-active child. He easily gets distracted in a group class setting. But I have a positive connection with him.”
primary teaching tool with children is imagination. I engage children with it
immediately. I watch Bobby perform his I Form twice without commenting, noting
where he has recurring difficulty. He is not grasping the reverse cat stance
and is also pivoting poorly.
kata is one of the most difficult things to impart to any student, young or old. Children only
see the gross movements of a kata, never its nuances. This parallels the evolution
of their fine motor muscular control. Kata presents complex movements for most developing bodies. Bobby does not comprehend the detail because he cannot see its abstract value. It takes a much more developed brain to understand how kata
patterns relate to the rest of the human systems and particularly, systems of
self-improvement. I stand close to Bobby and make constant eye contact, find
affirmations and encouraging statements and, most importantly, engage his
imagination with micro goals and challenges. First, I tell him what I see of his
“Bobby, I see your problem here. It’s your
rearward turn. You are making the same mistake in three different parts of the
form. But each mistake is actually the same mistake. So if we fix one, it will
correct all three.”
kids only need a clear verbal explanation to correct their mistakes.
Most need a visual cue. I perform the exercise both the wrong way and the
correct way for him to see the difference. If this method fails, I will offer tactile stimulation. I will guide his limbs indicating
the position on the floor that I want him to move toward. I touch Bobby’s arm
this leg.” He responds well. Ideas, like foot pivoting, are difficult concepts for
kids to embrace. They rarely differentiate between a ball or heel pivot. I
explain the pivot. “A person crushing a bug with his heel is a heel pivot. Recrushing
the same bug with the ball of your foot, is a ball pivot. Can you demonstrate
these two?” Bobby’s pivots are either too shallow or too deep, or inconsistently the ball of
one foot and the heel of the other.
a quarter from my Japanese change bowl on my mantlepiece and place it behind
him. “Step on the quarter with the ball of your foot as if you’re squashing a
bug. Good! Now tap that metal bug three times before settling into your reverse
scientific study conducted on mental recall determined that twenty-one
repetitions of a physical event was often enough for the brain to remember the
I purposely trip Bobby up. I change his lesson.
you to concentrate on your withdrawing hand during the punch, Bobby.” This new focus draws Bobby’s attention away
from the reverse cat step footwork we have just worked fifteen minutes on. Unbeknownst to Bobby, this is a test for me to see how deeply he has processed
the change – that is, how deeply he’s brought the foot correction into his subconscious.
He reverts back to his old manner of stepping. I haven’t broken his brain/body
barrier where the body roots to the new message.
follow the formula ‘less is more’. It’s better to drill students more and cover
less material until a lesson thoroughly sinks in. If I could keep Bobby enthused and focused on
just one stepping action for the entire hour, I would do it. So I slightly
shade the lesson red one moment or blue the next to keep him curious, thinking
and moving, but all the while I am actually ladling the same technique into his
“I have a better idea.” I remove a dozen
pennies from the ceramic bowl. “Baby elephants!” I blurt out looking at the
coins in my hand. “I have a handful of
baby elephants!” I replace the quarter
on the ground with a penny. “If you can step on the baby elephant I put on the
floor, you can keep it. But…, if you miss it with the ball of your foot, you
have to give it back to me. Bobby’s pivots squash baby elephants uninterrupted for five
solid minutes. Elephant after elephant succumbs to his mammoth foot.
Next, I place a triangular-shaped black
plastic object about seven inches tall on the floor. “Meet Darth Vader! He will speak to you if you collect a half-dozen
that?” Bobby is curious about the mystery object.
will cost you six elephants for the answer.”
Bobbie’s brother stops playing Game Boy on the sidelines. Teresa puts her romance novel down. I’ve
snared both of their attentions as well. None of them know what the triangular
object on the floor is.
adds six more copper elephants into his trophy collection and hands them back
to me, paying for my answer.
I remove a small plastic cap from Darth Vader’s face. “It’s a metronome,” I
tell everyone. “Now, follow the beat.” I set up a three-quarter beat, and perform
the entire I Form for Bobby following the rhythm so he can see how I want him to perform.
Imagination to a child is like bait to a
hungry fish. Bobby can’t wait to try it himself.
One hour and twenty repetitions
later, Bobby can now perform the I Form exercise without a single mistake.
“Do this at your belt test and you will
have a hundred percent chance of passing to the orange belt.
Bobby was psyched.
his Saturday class, he completed his routine without a single hitch and gained
a heap of confidence.