Posted by Damon O'Hanlon
Over last weekend, it was my pleasure to have the indomitable Nick Wilson stop by for a visit. He's an amazing 4th degree black belt, and one of the most phenomenal teachers I've ever met. Because an ounce of his opinion is worth a pound of gold, I took the opportunity to consult with him about my karate program, and something he said really got me thinking. What he said was this:
"Your program is more structured than some decade-old schools I've seen with hundreds of students." - Nick Wilson
I really took that as compliment, especially coming from him. Then I asked myself: Why? Why do I think of that as such a compliment? Why should a karate program be meticulously structured? Why not teach front kicks Monday, maybe punches Tuesday, and oh, say, backflips Wednesday? And why not promote a student to a new belt “just whenever they look ready” ?
After I thought about it, here's what I realized, and maybe it will be of some help to you. Ask yourself, does your program fire on all of these cylinders?
Emphasize your natural strengths
Most martial arts schools have belt ranks and classes divided by skill level. This lends itself to a very structured environment. I’m not saying swimming or piano lessons couldn’t be similarly structured, but in karate the structure is obvious, to the point of being physically worn around your waist! So emphasize it. Make sure each belt rank is meaningful. Failure should be an option. Make sure different classes have different curriculums, and different responsibilities, with different expectations.
It will all contribute to your students having a stronger sense of mastery, and also...
Create a sense of orientation and bearing
Having a clearly structured program gives your students a sense of situated-ness. When there are palpable differences between a beginner, intermediate, and advanced belt, it means a student can confidently say, "I was there. Now I’m here. I will be there."
A sense of past fosters a sense of shared history, which is a key part of community. Knowing what the future holds also makes the future more real, engendering stronger motivation.
Meet public demand
For at least a couple decades now, karate schools have made structured discipline a selling point. The public perception is that the martial arts is a place you can take your kids to learn patience and respect. Take pride in your ability to meet and exceed this parental expectation. Cultivate an environment where patience and respect are rewarded.
Plan to succeed, or plan to fail
When you get right down to it, structure is in many ways basically a plan. Each day you know what you'll be teaching. You might teach it in different ways to break up monotony and disguise repetition, but the core lesson is a known item. Once you've structured your program, your goals for the day, week, and month will become clearer. And once you define success, you'll be able to better determine whether you’re actually being successful.
Head off danger
I don't believe a karate room, when run properly, is an especially dangerous place. And I doubt there are instructors out there teaching "The Touch of Death!" on day number one. However, the martial arts are originally, well, martial in nature. In undisciplined hands, in a world without consequences or checks and balances, it could be dangerous. It's an instructor's responsibility to impress upon their students that, although we live in a partially chaotic world, one of the few things you can rely on is that bad things come to those who live completely without restraint.
So what do you think? Is your karate (or other program) structured enough?