teaching karate

This is part of a series of lessons on how to teach martial arts. While most every teacher is a skilled martial artist, few are ever provided the tools, tactics, and strategies of a great instructor. MATA is dedicated to providing the resources and education to fill that gap.

The 100 Percent Rule
There’s one acceptable percentage of students who do what you tell them to do, 100%. That’s a standard, not a goal. Anything less than 100% and your authority begins to diminish.

The danger of allowing less than 100% risks a toxic culture of students thinking that what you say is just a suggestion and not a command. This is the opposite of the discipline inherent in a good martial arts class. It causes students to see noncompliance as an option. It also violates your promise to teach focus and self-discipline.

Good instructors get 100% compliance in a controlled, authoritative manner. Those who don’t, are often clueless as to who is and who isn’t participating in their own class.

Some instructors teach as though everyone was participating when many are not. It’s like he/she is teaching to a wall. They just don’t notice or care. That’s a recipe for an eroding classroom and energy. When 100% of students are engaged, the energy is much higher than if 85% are and the others are just looking around or making faces at themselves in the mirror.

The Time Between the Notes
Musicians talk about the time between the notes as being just as important or more important than the note itself. For a martial arts instructor, the technique is the note. The time students spend focused on you, in good posture, remaining silent, and respectful is the time between the notes.

The process of learning teaches these traits, not the techniques we teach. It’s a quality of perfect practice.

Take What You Say Seriously
If some students are non-compliant, the instructor has to establish authority. You must take your own commands seriously. If you don’t, why would your students?

The first step to achieving a 100% conduct standard is to notice when it’s not happening and address it instantly, firmly but not aggressively or by shaming.

Let’s say that in your school your rule is that when you speak, everything stops. Every student turns to look at you.

Many instructors will say to the kids, “Eyes on who?” And the students respond with, “Eyes on you!” That’s fine as a blanket command. But a top instructor needs more tools when that is not getting 100% compliance from individual students.

When speaking, the instructor is asking for two things from the students; turn to him/her and be silent. The turning includes assuming a “parade rest” posture with the hands behind the back and eyes on the instructor. This means that just turning the head is not enough.

Students have four possible responses to the instructor’s command to shift attention to him/her:

1. Turn and not be silent.
Sample response: “Joey, when I am speaking, no one else speaks. I want you to learn this kick. If you are not quiet, you won’t learn it and the students around you won’t hear me. That’s disrespectful to your classmates and me. I know you’re better than that. Tell us, why do I want you to be silent when I speak?” “Correct. You’re a smart guy. You know this.”

2. Be silent but not turn and look at you.
Sample response: “Samantha, I want you to learn this, so you have to turn and look. Joey, show Samantha how to turn and focus. Thank you. Samantha, your turn. Show me how you do that. Thank you.”

3. Neither turns and looks or you.
Sample response: “John. Turn and focus on me. When I speak, turn and look at me. John, what do you do when I speak? Correct. Now show it to me.”

4. Turn and become silent.
Sample response: Carry on. You have compliance.

Notice that the instructor did not lavish the student with “Good Job” or “Awesome.” The kid was non-compliant. That does not warrant false praise. Your goal is not to make the student feel good. It’s to teach them important focus skills without embarrassing him/her.

Also, in every case, the instructor has the student feed the rule back physically and/or verbally. This helps to anchor the rule, but it also puts the rest of the class on alert that nothing less than 100% compliance is acceptable.

If you advertise that you teach focus and discipline, you have to teach focus and discipline.

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John Graden
John Graden

John Graden is widely credited with leading the martial arts school business into the modern age. He is the founder of the first successful professional association and trade journal. MA Success editor John Corcoran first called him a “visionary” in 1995. Martial Arts World magazine dubbed him, The Teacher of Teachers. Mr. Graden’s leadership was recognized in many mainstream media outlets including a cover story on the Wall Street Journal, documentaries on A&E Network, and as a guest on the Dr. Oz Show and many others.