While I had stood before a class and taught, I quickly discovered being a karate instructor was far different. Except for the few students who joined the program from the Church, the new students who started mostly left over the next three months. I was teaching at the pace I had been trained, that of preparing for Sho-dan examination, beyond most of the students initial abilities, and the class size quickly dropped.
I wasn’t just teaching, but getting uniforms, patches and learning how to teach young people. I also had no one to turn to for advice. My original instructors were many hours away from me, there was no one else in my area doing Isshinryu, and the other programs there were not a source for me to draw upon.
Thankfully I had a resource to draw upon, my wife. She trained with me, initially down in Salisbury, Md. And her background was a physical education instructor, though she was coaching swimming and diving through the Scranton YMCA at that time.
She explained to me a great deal about teaching young people, mostly to understand how to ‘hear’ what their abilities were and to begin teaching to those needs, and many other details about being a teacher. The largest shock was to come when she shared some of her college texts on coaching junior high school girls swim teams. I found material about coaching and teaching a specific sport more advanced than all of the karate books I had found, and to this day nothing has really changed that either.
Now I was teaching for only one reason, to keep practicing Isshinryu myself, in turn I only taught the Isshinryu I studied, just at a more appropriate pace for my students. It was then, and would always be the study of Isshinryu karate, not a game program or a babysitting program. Games such as various sorts of races would be incorporated, but my original instructor also did the same with his adult classes one or two times a year, just to keep one’s mind fresh and open.
I think the biggest lesson I learned was my pre-conception if you offer a Karate program all the teenagers were going to flock to it. That was not the case and never has been. The Boy’s Club isn’t a cool place to go when you mature, and most often you get the younger students. I learned a great deal how to listen to the students needs.
Among the lessons I started learning (all of which are only the most general rules):
- Students train for their own reasons, and when those reasons change they leave. Frequently they are your better students. The instructor must keep their distance when that happens and focus on those who are training.
- Students who have the most difficult time as beginners frequently are the ones that learn most, having learned how to overcome they can progress further. Conversely, those who are most natural beginners don’t have to learn how to work, and later when the studies become more difficult, not having learned how to learn just move on to something else.
- Young women frequently are much better beginning karate-ka than young men. In kumite they are also often better fighters.
- Friends that start together, often progress together, but then leave together.
- As students progress into advanced kyu training, you need to work to keep their intermediate studies from backsliding.
- As students progress into advanced training, mistakes in earlier kata crop up with astonishingly frequency, perhaps 30% of them make the same mistake in the same kata, all of which they studied the same way. It leads me to question if there is a physical tendency in some nervous system to interpret their training into something new.
- Tournaments only appeal to a small percentage of your students. Among the reasons, cost, time involved for the families and the fact that young people get lost in the overall tournament scene. I held 3 youth only tournaments drawing good crowds from NE Penna, charging only $5.00 to compete, and made sure every young person left with a certificate of attendance. Many years later returning to Penna. I had many karate-ka coming up to me thanking them for that gesture helping them remain involved in their own programs.
Among the biggest lessons was my original purpose. The Sho-dan primary focus must be on their own training to progress. I had unlimited time as my wife was coaching swim teams every evening, so in addition to two Boys Club karate classes a week, I sought out other places to train, from people I would compete against in tournaments. I made many friends had many hard workouts, learned a lot, but still continued to focus on my Isshinryu too. Tournament competition in kumite, kata and kobudo was the best way to focus on my Isshinryu having to train myself. Training the kids started me focusing on small details they needed and in turn helped me in my own practice.
The other side of training hard with several other instructors was you learned what they were teaching. I never intended to learn their systems, but my studies in Tai Chi, Chinese arts, Shotokan, Shorin Ryu, Goju Ryu, Tjimande, Aikido and more (I had lots of friends) gave me some scope of what existed outside of Isshinryu (frankly a whole lot of good stuff in their own right). I was competing against the instructors or their students, and many others, and learned the value of pushing yourself to exceed the best.
In turn I was able to apply that, age appropriately to my students. I can only say this in 30+ years of teaching I’ve never had a student in the program let me down and when called to always rose to the occasion. I’ve also found in some small way this had an impact on many of their lives. I was only teaching Isshinryu, but they were learning that they could learn, which should be the only reason adults share with youth as teacher, as coach or as supportive parent.
During that time from 1979 to 1984 I was learning hard how to improve my own ability, and it came down to attention to small details such as Stance and focus, as much as anything. I began to consider all I was learning and challenged myself how I could prepare my Isshinryu students to do better Isshinryu.
Of course in all these issues I had no one to turn to, no one with my same experiences. I had learned that as an instructor the one person I must listen to is myself. That lesson was hardest.