Student Engagement Pt.1

By Erik Hofmeister

This is the first of a short two-part series.


Tell me – I forget.

Show me – I remember.

Involve me – I understand.


Students pursue martial arts for a variety of reasons.  One thing is consistent: if they aren’t engaged, they probably aren’t learning, and they probably won’t stay long.  Engagement means a student orienting to a task, having some interest in it, being challenged by it, and ultimately being involved in learning.  Disengagement is usually easy to get- just stand in front of a class and drone monotonously for about an hour without asking any questions, changing your pacing, or changing your style of presentation.  Many college classes are like this, and are terrible at getting student engagement.

Encouraging engagement is complicated, but it’s not complex.  Give students something to do. Ask them intriguing questions.  Make them active learners and not passive learners. Have them interact with each other.  There are dozens of strategies, some of which we will go over in the next few posts.

Besides this short blog post series, how do you learn about exercises, or drills, or questions to ask to engage students?  Talk to your peers- everyone has different exercises! Books can be good resources- almost every martial arts book has its own set of exercises and drills.  Of course, the internet if filled to bursting- “martial arts exercises” is a fine place to start. Be careful about making everything new all the time.

When Sensei Blumreich and I were first getting to work out together, he showed me many binders filled with elaborate and detailed warmup plans.  This contrasts with my warmups, which are pretty routine and similar from class to class. He initially felt he would be bored by my warmups. After doing them for a while, though, he said he actually liked having a similar routine.  It allowed him to zone out and just focus on his workout and pushing himself, instead of trying to figure out all these different exercises. So change it up a little bit, or on occasion, but realize there may be value in regularity and consistency, too.


What are arguments against increasing student engagement?

Complaint: You have to learn new skills.

Solution: Learning new skills is GOOD for you.

Complaint: You have to practice something different.

Solution: You practice your karate- why not your teaching?

Complaint: It takes too much time.

Solution: If you spend 30 minutes teaching a technique but the students are disengaged, you didn’t teach them anything.  I would rather spend 40 minutes teaching them a technique with engagement, so they will actually learn.


Many instructors don’t understand engagement or know enough about it.  Let’s fix that.



By Erik Hofmeister

At the start of a class, the highest-ranked student has a choice: do a formal bow-in or an informal bow-in.  Generally, if the highest-ranked student is visiting another school, if a promotion is occurring, or if time permits, a formal bow is preferred.  An informal bow consists of the highest-ranked student facing the other students (facing away from shomen) and calling, “Kiyotske, rei.” and everyone bows.  This is tachirei- standing bow.

A formal bow involves the highest-ranked student calling “Seiza!”.  Everyone then kneels, left knee first, to seiza position. The highest-ranked student calls “Mokuso!” and everyone closes their eyes.  Everyone breathes in through the nose, out through the mouth, expanding the diaphragm, and clearing their mind. The highest-ranked student then calls “Kaimoku!” and everyone opens their eyes.

The next command is “Soke-ni, rei!”.  This is a bow to Soke Yamamoto. Everyone holds for a four count (ichi, ni, san, shi) and then comes up.

Assuming one of the directors is not leading the bow, the next command is “Kaicho-ni, rei!”.  This is a bow to Kaicho Toyama and Kaicho Culbreth. Everyone holds for a four count, then comes up.

At a small dojo and when high-ranked visitors are not present, the second-highest-ranked student (Second) now has a choice.  If the highest-ranked student (Highest) is also the head instructor of the school where the bow is taking place, the Second should call “Sensei-ni, rei!”  If the Highest is not the head instructor, the command is “Title-ni, rei!” Acceptable variations in either case include, “Mr/Ms lastname, rei!”, “Title lastname, rei!”, and “Mr/Ms lastname, thank you for today’s training/today’s test, etc., rei!”.

This process is zarei, or kneeling bow.  The zarei is a time for all students to reflect on their role within the WYKKO, and to help cement relationships and the rank structure of each dojo.

Starting a Dojo

Although not every student wants to have their own school, my personal goal is to help every student who wants to open their own school do so.  Starting a school is probably easier than you think, although it depends on the type of school. Starting a for-profit commercial school is like starting any business, requiring a business plan, startup costs, etc.  Starting a club or free school is relatively easy.


1) Talk to your instructor.

This should go without saying, but if you have even an inkling of wanting to start your own school, talk with your instructor and other higher ranked students.  Your instructor has gone through the process, and can provide information, support, and perspective. In the WYKKO, your instructor’s approval is virtually a requirement for opening an official branch dojo.


2) Find a location.

The hardest step is to find an actual place to hold training.  Let’s assume you’re not wealthy enough to buy or rent a commercial space.  Your options are to use your home, a city or county space, or space in an existing business like a gym, dance studio, or yoga studio.


2a) Use your home.

Unless you live somewhere with perfect weather, you’ll probably need an indoor location.  If your house has a single large (500 sq ft) room, it is workable. Some people use their garage, but such a space rarely has an appropriate floor, unless it has been remodeled.  You can also build an addition, but the price for such is around $60-100/sq ft. Enticing students to come to a private home is difficult due to distance from central areas and cultural bias against strangers going to a private residence.  If you live in an apartment complex, a common-use area may be the perfect solution.


2b) City or County Space

The recreation department of a city or county is a good starting place.  If there isn’t a martial arts program in place, they may be willing to accept proposals for starting one.  They may have students register through them, or they may just allow you to schedule the space and manage the school yourself.


2c) Existing business

A related business which has the space and open time slots may be willing to host a dojo.  The easiest arrangement is for students to pay the hosting business the usual rate for classes.  An alternative is to charge students directly and then pay the hosting business. The most important thing is establishing clear expectations and a positive relationship up front.  If the hosting business is hoping or expecting dojo students to eventually sign up for their business (such as a gym), that should be made clear to the students.


3) Get authorization.

Although mostly taken care of by item 1, the parent organization will need to approve your dojo.  For the WYKKO, this requires confirmation by Kaicho Toyama and Kaicho Culbreth. Usually, your instructor will initiate this conversation.  Once you’re authorized, you can begin training students!


4) Marketing and attracting students.

Product, price, place, and promotion are the classic principles of marketing.  Why would a student want to come to your school? What do you offer that differs from their other entertainment options, or even other martial arts options?  Where and how can you advertise your dojo? People are bombarded with so much passive advertising, active marketing is much more effective, but consequently more time consuming.


5) Be patient.

Some days you’ll come to class and no one will show up.  Sometimes there will be only one or two students. This is typical for the first year, and as long as you have some students who keep coming back and having fun, you should persevere.  If you have no students show up or no students come back, you may need to reconsider your approach to be successful.


Opening and running a dojo is one of the best, most satisfying things I have ever done personally.  It hits the three principles of motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. If you’ve done martial arts for long enough to earn a black belt and enjoy teaching and organizing, starting a school is a minor step in contrast.  You should do it.

Shodan to Godan

By Erik Hofmeister

As with every rank, there are expectations of yudansha for time in rank, class hours, learned techniques, and improved techniques.  There is also an expectation of WYKKO event attendance and contribution to the dojo and organization. In addition to all these requirements, I imagine several differences among the ranks of yudansha.


Shodan to Nidan is Precision

To me, the primary difference between Shodan and Nidan is precision of technique.  The nine new forms required for Nidan have to be nearly flawless, unlike every promotion before, where the new kata merely had to be acceptable to good.  The foot position for each stance has to be precise, the hand techniques clear and clean. There are a lot of kata at this rank to help emphasize the precision of each of the techniques.  This is a rank to get everything clean and smooth, similar to how I see 4th kyu.


Nidan to Sandan is Understanding

Once you have precision, what more is there to achieve?  Obviously the Nidan student has not achieved perfection, but all of their older kata should be performable to a very high degree.  What the Nidan student now learns is understanding. Why do the kata do what they do, what is the bunkai for all the kata, and how can that information be best imparted to others?  All of these questions and others should dwell in the mind of the Nidan student. They should seek understanding of the motions, and universal principles which can be applied throughout their martial arts.  They should understand why the technique is done one way and not another, and how to maximize their efficiency of motion.


Sandan to Yondan is Depth

Once you have begun to question your karate, you find there are unknowable depths to plumb.  Thinking about karate becomes part of your everyday life, and the philosophy inside the dojo and outside the dojo become one.  You have been doing karate for so long, and in so much detail, that it becomes an important, integral part of your being. You think of yourself fully as a martial artist.  You explore the history and talk to others endlessly about karate and martial arts conundrums. No longer are you satisfied by what you can learn in class- you seek depth of understanding in all things karate.


Yondan to Godan is Completion

In most martial arts, there is no curriculum above fifth degree black belt.  Once you achieve Godan, you have learned all of the official content of the martial art.  Obviously there is more to improve and other things to learn, but there are no more kata, no more weapons, no more paired exercises to learn.  Therefore, Yondan is your last opportunity to learn everything you can about the style. You need to ask any high rank you can about the techniques, their interaction with each other, the applications, etc.  Obviously after Godan you can still ask these questions, but once you have achieved Godan you will be expected to know the full content of your style.


These differences among ranks were the path I walked, and the one I think best suits most students.  Many students probably walk many different paths. I believe these expectations create an appropriate pattern of growth for the Yoshukai yudansha, and lead to the most adept, mature, and well-rounded student.  They provide clear goals for the student to work toward, in addition to all the written expectations.


By Erik Hofmeister

The actual translation for Yoshu is hard to come by, but it is at least approximately “continued improvement”, which is how we use the word in Yoshukai Karate.  It’s easy to “keep getting better at stuff”, particularly in karate. You always continue to learn in karate, even at very high ranks. Keep coming to class and you keep getting better.  It’s a simple recipe. Yoshu, though, can and should be applied to your out-of-dojo life.

It is my opinion that human beings should continue to get better as people over time.  “Better” is subjective and may include physical, intellectual, spiritual, psychological, etc. development.  This improvement should translate to improvement in your life- in your happiness and contentment. I am always sad when I encounter older people who are angry, discontent, and clearly not enjoying life.  They have, in my opinion, missed the point. You should be “better” at 30 than you were at 20. Better at 50 than you were at 30.

Getting better is hard.  It’s hard in terms of time and cognitive burden.  People resist change, because there is an implicit judgement that how we are right now is not acceptable.  There needs to exist a dual perspective- being happy with who you are but nonetheless wanting to improve. This requires no judgement of your current state- so that you can be happy- and simultaneously motivating yourself to improve without that judgement.

It’s a difficult balance to strike.  Many people have concerns about their physical being, such as being overweight.  It’s unhealthy to be depressed or despondent about being overweight. However, blithely accepting being overweight without any desire to improve is also counter-productive.  People should seek a balance, where they can be accepting of themselves as being overweight while also wanting to improve. Acknowledging the truth without judgement (“Yes I am overweight and I am happy with myself but I still want to get my weight down”) is a healthy step in the right direction.

While it is a comedy website, Cracked has addressed this in ways far better than I can.  I encourage you to read the article below and continue to contemplate: how can I be better than I am now by next year?


4 Simple Changes That Instantly Make You A Better Person


The 4 Kinds of People (And What You Can Learn From Them)


3 Things You Don’t Get Any Better at With Old Age

Why Learning Japanese Matters

By Erik Hofmeister

KarateKanjiRikkiHitatsuFor the test to Shodan, there is a written component which includes questions about Japanese terminology.  Athens Yoshukai has written tests starting at blue belt expecting a basic understanding of karate-related Japanese words.  Commands in advanced classes and tests are given largely in Japanese. Why? Couldn’t the command just as easily be “right leg front kick” as “migi ashi mae geri”?

Yoshukai is a traditional martial art.  One of the elements of that is learning, understanding, and respecting the cultural origins of the style.  Language is a major contributor to culture. Learning the little bit of Japanese we do helps us to understand the Japanese culture and pay homage to it within the context of karate.

In my opinion, traditional arts require a mental or cerebral component in addition to the physical aspects.  It’s not enough to be able to DO karate, you need to understand and KNOW karate. The language requirement helps to highlight that cerebral component and requires effort studying.  Before a test, a student can’t just run through kata and techniques- they also need to study written material.

Finally, our organization is tightly associated with Yoshukai Japan.  Students may be called upon to understand a Japanese speaker giving commands in the dojo.  Some students may travel to Japan, and having some rudimentary understanding of the language is helpful.

Learning Japanese can be frustrating for some students.  This is particularly true if you don’t understand the utility and need.  Demonstrating your understanding of Japanese for karate can be a point of pride- look at this cool piece of information you have for communicating about karate!  For anyone who has tried to learn martial-arts-related Korean, Japanese is a breeze, so be thankful you don’t have to learn Korean!

Types of Authority

By Erik Hofmeister

You’re an experienced, but enlisted-ranked, military firefighter and arrive on the scene of a fire.  There’s an officer on the scene from another unit with no MilitaryRanksKaratefirefighting experience and a lowly ranked private already fighting the fire.  Do you A) tell people how to put out the fire or B) wait for the officer to give orders or C) allow the private to continue their efforts?  There are three types of authority in rank-structured organizations like the military and the dojo: rank-based, positional, and situational.

Rank-based authority is the most obvious.  A brown belt gives instructions to a green belt because they are a higher rank, and so have authority over the lower ranked students. Obviously, this authority extends only within the dojo and with karate-related tasks.

Positional authority is that given in titles independent of rank.  At Athens Yoshukai, this is the instructor structure- Head Instructor, Senior Instructor, Instructor, and Assistant Instructor.  Students in the instructor hierarchy have authority when it comes to the management of the dojo and teaching of students. If a high-ranked student bows in class who is not in the instructor hierarchy, they then turn the running of the class over to the highest instructor.

Situational authority is often dependent on who is on the scene first with some ability and knowledge to handle a situation.  If a student has an injury, the first person to tend to them with any first aid knowledge can give others orders, regardless of their rank or positional authority.  If you encounter a situation that needs management, you must give specific orders to individuals (e.g. pointing at a person, “YOU, call 911!”) as opposed to diffuse orders to a group (“Someone call 911!”).

The interplay of each of these is unquestionably complex and requires consideration. Layered on top of this is the dichotomy of dojo-associated activities and non-dojo-associated activities.  When in doubt, ask a high rank or the head instructor what the appropriate course of action in a given situation is.