Saturday, August 9, 2008

Lessons from the Dojo

A while back, I decided to find out about the sport of karate by way of my brother-in-law’s karate dojo (school). The first day of class was quite the eye-opener. Everyone seemed to know what to do, drills went off without a hitch (except for me), an eight year old came at me with fists flying, all in the name of practice of course, and in the middle of a lesson on kicking from another young student, the kid dropped and did ten quick, perfectly-formed push-ups…it was punishment for doing the exercise wrong and he had, to my surprise, doled out his own punishment.

Discipline, respect, excellence…all of these areas were repeatedly demonstrated during my weeks of class. My question was how? How do you get a room full of kids (and adults) to build confidence, accept discipline, give and receive respect, and strive for excellence while at the same time allowing them to have fun and build skills that they will use for the rest of their lives? The answer, from my fifth degree back belt brother-in-law and karate school master, includes the following points.

  1. There is one leader. The highest ranking person in the dojo is in charge. Period. It isn’t a democracy and everyone knows there is no arguing, debating or whining when the black belt in charge gives an order. This age-old tradition is ingrained in students from the first day and is taught both by the example of other students and the formalized bows and salutes to the karate master.

  2. The rules are consistent, thoroughly explained, and apply to everyone. Everyone must take off their shoes when entering the training area of the dojo. Not only does it show respect for the dojo, it also keeps the area clean that you will, no doubt, be rolling around on later. Everyone must attend class in a clean and complete uniform. This builds school unity, discipline, and shows respect for yourself.

  3. Punishment is swift, fair, and consistent. What happens when a student wears their shoes onto the training floor or shows up for class with a dirty or partial uniform on? 10 pushups. Immediately. Everyone knows that is the standard punishment and they will often drop and do their pushups before the Sensei can even bark the order. The students especially get a kick out of watching the Sensei do push-ups because of a rare aberration to the rules. Push-ups are a consistent dojo punishment for a variety of altercations. They are swiftly doled out and serve the added bonus of making the students stronger which improves their ability in the sport.

  4. Repetition is key. How many times can you do a kicking drill before you have the perfect height, snap and power to back it up? I lost count somewhere in the multi-hundreds but even though my kicks were OK there is still room to improve. And you improve by doing the action again and again and again. And being corrected again and again and again. How many times can the Sensei teach the kicking drill to one student before their eyes glaze over and frustration sets in? Fortunately this teacher knows that the student only learns by doing the same action over and over ad nauseum. His duty is to teach the student certain skills no matter how many times he has to repeat himself.

  5. Teach someone a skill then allow them to teach it to others. No matter the students age or abilities, everyone is allowed to be a leader. A student, even if their skills aren’t perfectly refined, can teach what they have learned to others. What better way to build a child’s confidence than by having them lead the stretching exercises to a room full of students ranging from five to 65 and skill levels from white belts to black belts. Teaching others often has the added bonus of making the teacher an even better student.

  6. Goals are clearly defined. One need only to look at the wall in the dojo to see what their next goal is. The belts are arranged on the wall in order of rank. If you are a white belt your next major goal is to earn a yellow belt. The goals you must achieve to earn each belt are listed next to each belt so there is no question what you need to learn next. Of course each component of the belt level test is broken down into smaller parts and taught at the students pace.

  7. Testing of skills is done often. Every week students get to show what they have learned. During the Friday night class, all students from four year olds to the oldest in the class, from white belt to advanced black belt, line up in front of the class and show their skills. Testing by the sensei, either for a belt or for a stripe signifying advancement towards the next belt, is done during this class in front of all students. The atmosphere can’t help but be supportive since everyone else has been through this drill many times before and they know exactly what you are going through.

  8. Celebrate small and large achievements. Every time someone reaches a large goal, like earning their next belt, or even a small goal like earning a stripe for their belt, the whole class recognizes their achievement. The student is brought to the front of the class, formally awarded the honor and then every student shakes their hand and gives them a hug. How’s that for a boost to the self-esteem?

  9. Have frequent face-to-face discussions. During each mandatory monthly session, the sensei will discuss one aspect of karate. Topics can range from respecting others to the spiritual aspects of life, from controlling anger, to doing better in school. The topics are meant to educate and inform as well as open up discussion from all attendees.

  10. Begin and end each day with acknowledgement from the Sensei. Every student is welcomed by name as they come into the dojo. He asks if they are doing well in class or if they are practicing at home, how their family is doing or what they did last weekend. This makes all students feel like someone really cares for them. At the end of class, the drill is the same; bows, hugs, often play time on the mats and positive parting words. No matter how class went, how many push-ups they had to do, or how much the Sensei yelled at them, the students can count on the beginning and end of their session to be happy and positive.

All of these lessons are applicable whether you are using them in your home, in your business, or with your team. The basics of practice, respect, discipline, and communication work no matter what lessons you are trying to instill.

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