Too Much Karate? Avoiding Burnout

By Hali Serrian

Those of us who are training martial arts have—to a greater or lesser Karate Burnoutdegree—been bitten by the martial arts bug. For some of us, this means enthusiastically coming to class once a week and moving along at a nice steady pace toward rank goals. For others it might mean three classes a week.  For those at the more intensive end of the scale, this can mean 8+ hours of martial arts a week, in multiple styles, ranking in each style. Whatever your martial arts fever, given enough time you run the risk of becoming burnt out.  Here are some of the ways to recognize if you are becoming burned out and how to keep something you love from becoming something you grow to resent.

If someone is close to burning out, they might feel tired, apathetic, annoyed or uninterested in the activity. In the case of karate, you might be tired every time class rolls around, or you might not want to go. You might even be annoyed that you “have to” go to class.  You might be uninterested in your material. If one or all of these feelings are present, recognize that you might be on the verge of burnout.

In order to keep burnout from taking you out of martial arts, take the following steps:

  1. Take a step back: Remind yourself why you started martial arts in the first place. For fitness? For fun? To achieve black belt? Why are you here?  Repurpose your goals if they have changed over time.  Create new goals!
  1. Be honest with your goals and how hard you want to work. If you only want to commit to one class a week, that’s OK. It means you won’t advance as quickly through the ranks.  If you want to make excellent time moving up the ranks and you want to be an excellent teacher, then you have to come to at least two and probably three classes a week. Be prepared and know what your path means for your development.
  1. Talk to someone. Be it a higher rank, one of the instructors, or someone in your rank group, let somebody know that you’re not feeling as excited right now. Ask them for help, or just let them know to keep an eye out for you since you don’t want to drop off the map.
  1. Come to class, and have fun! Remember, you definitely enjoyed martial arts. Get back to that starting point. Simplify your reasons for being here, and everything else can sort itself out.

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Out of Class One Week, One Month, One Year, Forever

The recipe for success is simple: show up.  This is simplistic, since Show Upobviously you need to practice well, get feedback, work to improve yourself, etc.  But step number one is to show up.  Everything else flows from there.  Consistency is key to martial arts progression.  Students who come only intermittently are always just catching up and never improving or learning new material.  Many students stop coming for one week, then a week becomes a month, then a month becomes a year, then a year becomes forever.  How do you stop the long slide to leaving karate forever?

What leads to student absenteeism?  Injuries are common culprits.  When you’re injured, you shouldn’t be doing martial arts.  However, depending on the injury and your rank, you can continue to come to class to observe and help teach, thus keeping your mind involved in karate.  “Life” is a commonly cited explanation, which usually means work, kids, family, and all the other things which can occupy one’s time.  Sometimes work is more demanding, or the family requires time and attention, or you feel your other hobbies are suffering.  In these cases, reprioritizing temporarily is necessary for life harmony.

The problem comes in when momentum is lost.  It feels so nice not to have to get up and go to class two or three times last week like usual.  Maybe you’ll just take another week off to refresh.  Then you start finding other ways to fill that ‘free’ time- hanging out with friends, increasing time in another hobby, or watching TV.

A month passes with no karate class attendance.  Now there’s anxiety about coming back.  What have you forgotten?  Have your peers advanced beyond you?  Has your fitness fallen off, and will you look ridiculous coming back to training?  There are so many barriers once you have been off.  It is essential to realize that all everyone wants from you is to show up and try your best.  I have gone through so many ‘get fit then injure myself then get fit then injure’ cycles that I’ve lost track.  But I know now that I CAN get back into class and train hard and recuperate lost gains.  So can anyone else.  Once a month passes, then excuses begin piling up, then a year passes, and suddenly karate is no longer a part of your life.

Time is never actually free- you make a decision with each hour of your day.  Make the decision to show up.

Teaching Tips

At the end of August, Master Ken Blumreich and I put on a Certified Instructor Training course for AKF Athens, Athens Yoshukai, Clarke County Yoshukai- really any martial artist who wanted to improve their teaching.  I’ve been a part of this course about 6 times now over the years, and I continue to get something positive out of each and every time I participate.  This year, I was reminded of a few good teaching techniques- PIP, DDD, planning, timing, and warm-up pacing.

The first actual teaching technique I ever learned from participating in the CIT was PIP.  It stands for Praise, Improve, Praise.  The principle is you are providing feedback, which is essential to student learning.  The first piece of feedback is something the student is doing well.  The second piece of feedback is something for the student to improve.  The key to each of these pieces of feedback is they need to be specific.  A positive feedback of “Good!” is not useful to the student.  “Good foot position” is more helpful.  “Now keep your guard up,” is a good piece of feedback for improvement.  The final piece of positive feedback is given once the student incorporates the feedback and makes the improvement.  “Good job keeping that guard up!”  It an extremely simple but highly effective way to give feedback, and is one of my core teaching strategies.

Demonstrate, Detail, Drill (triple D, or DDD) is a recent addition to my repertoire.  The principle is you show the student the technique, provide some details about the technique, and then give them opportunities to practice it.  For psychomotor skills, the more time students have to drill, the better they get at it.  It’s a good tip to give new teachers, as they often want to talk techniques to death before showing them or letting the students try themselves.  This tip helps to keep newer instructors on task.

Throughout any level of teacher education and preparation, professors tell you to plan.  Overplan.  You can never do too much planning.  It’s easy to get complacent, as an experienced instructor, and just make up lesson plans on the fly.  That works fine, and I’ve been doing it for years.  On those days that I do plan ahead, I find classes run much more smoothly and efficiently.  Whenever I can, I try to plan what I’m going to work on that day during class.  It may change based on which students come to class, but having some framework makes the lesson better.

Timing is one of my weaknesses as a teacher and, more importantly, I am starting to see that same weakness in the students I have taught.  Good time management is important so that students and teachers don’t get burned out, everyone has an optimum opportunity to learn, and everyone can count on class starting and ending on time.  Good planning will help ensure good time management.  One area I am working on is telling instructors how much time they have when the group splits up.  This allows them to budget their own time effectively.  It’s a work in progress.

The pacing of warm-ups- especially intense cardio or strength-training exercises- is always an important consideration.  This is particularly true in a class of mixed strength and physical abilities.  Doing exercises to a certain number (everyone do 20 pushups) may be too easy for highly athletic students and too hard for others.  One solution is to do exercises based on time. For example, however long it takes the _instructor_ to do 20 pushups is how long the class does push-ups.  This allows students to go at their own pace- stronger students will do more than 20 and weaker students will do less.  Another option is to pace to the fastest student- whenever the first person finishes the count, everyone is done.  Regardless of method, making sure that each student gets an warm-up that is challenging to them is good.

I have been teaching martial arts for more than 20 years, 12 years of that as a head instructor.  I’ve been teaching swing dancing for 12 years and veterinary anesthesiology for 14 years.  Even with all that teaching experience, I still learn about teaching and continue to try and improve my knowledge.  In studies of experts (such as expert coaches), one characteristic is consistent- they have a thirst for knowledge of how to do things better.  You keep coming to class to get better with your martial arts.  How’s your teaching?

Making Time for Martial Arts

By Hali Serrian

AthensYoshukaiTimeForKarateWith all the activities we have to fill our life—work, school, other hobbies, kids/family, so on and such—it can be easy to let something slip through the cracks. Since work and family tend to take a priority, for just reasons, oftentimes it is a hobby, perhaps martial arts, that slips through the cracks. It starts simply enough; miss one class one week, two the next, the third week you are unable to attend any class. From there it can be a slippery slope into “never having time” for class and getting out altogether. This is a sad end to what was presumably an enjoyable hobby at the very least, if not something much more meaningful.

We have a limited amount of time for “non-essential” activities. And unless martial arts is your livelihood, then that is the category where training Yoshukai and other martial arts falls. From there, training has to be a priority in order for it to continue. Because you will have to give up time doing something else in order to come to class, even if that something else is chilling out in front of the T.V.  But, as anyone who has been training for an extended amount of time will tell you, it’s totally worth it.

You don’t have to be a super-karateka and come to four classes a week, nor do you have to train in three different styles to reap the benefits of martial arts. But you do have to come to class one or two times a week. One or two hours of a seven day week isn’t so much to ask for something that will give you lifetime benefits.

If you have decided to dedicate yourself to martial arts as an activity, go ahead and make it a priority. It will give back what you put in, so go ahead and put something good in.

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Lineup Protocol

A couple of Winter Camps ago, the Shihan-Dai (4th degree blackbelt) line was AthensYoshukaiLineupWinterCamporganizing itself.  In the line (from left to right) was Mr. McInnish, Ms. Brinkley, myself, and Mr. Wheeles.  Mr. McCullars got there after we had organized ourselves and got into the line at the far right.  Each of us already in line continued to shuffle him to the left until he was in his rank-appropriate place at the head of the Shihan-Dai line.  In this anecdote, two good, important things happened.

The first good thing that happened is that a late-comer placed himself at the ‘end’ or right hand side of the line.  Mr. McCullars didn’t just appear at the left hand side and ask us all to move down, although he very well could have, as the highest-ranked in the line.  We were already lined up, so he went on to the end.  He was showing respect and modesty.

The second good thing that happened is that everyone else in the line identified a problem with our order and corrected it.  We were showing respect and attentiveness.

When you line up, the first criterion is by rank, then by test date, then by age.  Unless you are very confident that you are the highest ranked student in a line at an event, you should not head directly to the front of that line.  For example, I know that Ms. Brinkley is the only active Shihan-Dai who outranks me at the time of this writing.  If she is not at an event, I know I should be at the front of the Shihan-Dai line.  When I was a Nidan, I would usually mill around near the middle of the Yudansha line.  I would never place myself at the front of the line, and actually was only at the front of the line once- when bowing in for my Sandan test.

AthensYoshukaiLineupAtTournamentWhen in doubt, you should not place yourself at the front of the line.   If you know there are students present who outrank you, you should move them to your left.  The first time I met Mr. Trawick, I didn’t know when he had earned his Yondan, so deferred to him as probably being senior to me- I moved him to my left.  If you aren’t certain you are the highest-ranked student present, you should probably not be at the head of a line.  When in doubt, you could ask those around you.  My solution was to just put myself in the middle of the line when I was Yudansha and Sempai.

You should always be showing respect, modesty, and attentiveness.  If your goal is to make it to the front of the line, your plan should not be “get there first, and quickly run to where the line will form.”  Your plan should be, “I will continue to train until I know there are no students to my left.”

An Interview with Sensei Dawkins

By Hali Serrian

Sensei Ben Dawkins is one of Athens Yoshukai Karate’s most enthusiastic students. At Athens Yoshukai, he fulfilled a number of roles, including kickstarting the Tate classes, serving as Senior Instructor, and initiating the Instructor Apprentice discussions.  Now he serves as Head Instructor for his own school, Upstate Yoshukai Karate.  I thought there were some tidbits we could all learn from Sensei Dawkins, and so wanted to interview him about his martial arts experience.  Here’s what I learned:

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Sensei Dawkins is on the right

Hali Serrian: How long have you been studying martial arts?

Sensei Dawkins: I started martial arts at age 6, studying Tang Soo Do in the Atlanta area.  I trained until I was 11 and about to take my first degree brown belt test (3rd keup).  After we moved, I didn’t pick up the martial arts again for years.

HS: What first got you into Yoshukai karate?

SD: In 2010, I was talking with my friend Joel Dover, and the topic moved to martial arts.  He told me a bit about Athens Yoshukai, and I mentioned that I would have gotten back into martial arts years ago if it wasn’t for the cost.  He told me a bit more about the dojo’s not-for-profit philosophy, and I observed a class that night.  I started the following fall, and I began training in Kyuki-do and Hapkido the following spring.  A bit later, I also began studying Judo and IOKA kobudo.

HS: How have you participated in the WYKKO?

SD: Besides work in the Athens Yoshukai dojo, my participation in the WYKKO as a larger body has mainly been through the organization events and making friends with other WYKKO practitioners.  Lately, teaching at Upstate Yoshukai, my dojo, has allowed me to become more directly involved in the WYKKO, and I look forward to being more involved as time goes by.

HS: What made you want to have your own dojo?

SD: I knew fairly early on that I would want to continue teaching martial arts.  They’ve become so important to my everyday life that I can’t imagine not being involved.  Teaching here in Spartanburg is a natural extension of that, and, for a pseudo-selfish reason, I wanted to continue actively training, so I found students I can train with!

HS: How did you decide what to charge for classes?

SD: First, I spoke with the director of the community center where I teach.  I got a sense of the cost of the various activities at the center.  I knew I couldn’t support free classes at this point in my professional/financial life, so I settled on $25, which seemed like a good figure–substantial enough to be serious, but inexpensive enough to incentivize starting right away.

HS: How would you like to see your dojo develop over time?

SD: Once finances allow, I would like to teach martial arts full time.  As for my current program, I would like for it to continue to be an outreach for the martial arts in the area.  I believe strongly in the martial arts as a way to build respectful, healthy, confident citizens, and I hope that Upstate Yoshukai will reach many, many students in the years to come.

HS: Do you have any advice for someone wanting to start their own dojo?

SD: The first important step for those who want to start their own dojo is to immediately partner with their instructors, who are a wealth of knowledge and can get the ball rolling much sooner than feeling blindly on your own.  Ideally, you should have already been teaching and engaged actively with your home dojo.  From there, pick a start date and get to teaching!  There are so many aspects of being a head instructor that must be learned by direct experience.  But, it is extremely difficult to get started without the help of an experienced instructor.  There is no substitute for that kind of help.

HS: What are some of the differences in your teaching style when it comes to kids vs. adults?

SD: With adults/older youth, I am much more content/big picture oriented.  Martial arts have such deep philosophical roots, and they are also engaged with anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology.  I’ve found that many adults find this aspect fascinating, and when adults know why they’re doing the same kick hundreds of times, they’ll do it.

With kids, I couch a lot of training in games.  They’ll be kicking, punching, blocking, and sweating, but as long as they’re smiling and happy, they’ll run until well after most adults are out of gas.  I’ve found that content has to be introduced in a fun and engaging way–kids won’t do it if it’s not fun, even if they see the long-term benefit.  I’ve found my enthusiasm is contagious with kids.  Their parents really seem to enjoy how excited their kids get, as well.

HS: How has your teaching developed and changed over your years of instruction?

SD: It’s hard to describe how my teaching has changed because it’s a very fluid process.  I’m an educator professionally as well, so I’m well in tune with pedagogical strategies and theory.  In practice, I’m finding ways to engage each student at his/her personal wheelhouse.  It’s hard to do, and it requires constant observation and empathy to really find what might excite one individual student vs. another.  I strive always to be positive, but I want my students to know that I’m not going to accept mediocre effort.  Not everyone is a natural athlete, but everyone can give his/her best effort.

HS: What are some of your best memories of martial arts?

SD: My best memories are of great classes, which inspire me greatly.  There have been AthensYoshukaiKarateDawkinsGreenbeltdays that I didn’t really feel like training, but 15 minutes into class, I’ve forgotten why I’m tired and I just get into the learning.  I hope I always love class as much as I do.  Big events and trips are fun, and I love being involved at that level, but amazing classes are really where it’s at for me.

HS: Can you tell us about some of the more difficult parts of your experience as a martial artist?

SD: My more difficult experiences with the martial arts have been at the hands of “bad tough guy” martial artists.  I don’t mind intensity, and I don’t mind people who love fighting, practical training, and really painful techniques.  I mind when a martial artist’s ego gets so wild that he/she has to tear down everyone else on the floor.  Dealing with those experiences has always been hard, and whenever I feel myself getting a bit too “tough guy” in class, I remind myself how it feels to be treated like an inferior by someone who is supposed to be teaching.

Another big challenge was in the development of stamina and cardio.  When I started martial arts, a tough class would really knock me on my behind.  I’ve enjoyed working hard on my physical fitness, and I feel the benefits every day.

HS: What is your favorite weapon?

SD: My favorite weapon is the sai because it is also the weapon I have the most trouble with.  I just want to make it awesome, so I work and work with the weapon.  It feels so potentially effective, and they’re just fun to hold onto.  Nunchaku is fun, and the bo is also beautiful in its line and requisite precision.  But, to me, the sai is the weapon that requires the most skill to even start to use.

HS: What was your hardest test and why?

SD: My hardest test was my 3rd kyu green belt test.  It wasn’t that the test was so much [more] difficult than others, but I was testing in a gymnasium at the East Athens Community Center, and it was so hot that for the most part, I had no idea where I was.  It took everything I had to keep it together for that one!

HS: Your best test?

SD: My best test was my shodan test.  It was the culmination of months of intense training, and I felt like I pushed myself to the edge to get my technique and conditioning ready.  All of that work made the shodan testing experience so fantastic for me, and I’m really proud of how it turned out.

HS: When you don’t have time to train like you’d prefer, what do you do?

SD: If I only have time to run through a form or two, I’ll work through the rest in my head.  It’s a process called eupraxia, and major psychological studies have shown that concentrated mental practice engages the same portions of the lateral cerebellum as the actual practice.  Of course, it can’t all be mental practice, but until I can perform a technique, form, or combination in my head, I can’t be certain I really know it.

HS: Was there a moment when you knew you were going to stick with Yoshukai?

SD: I was a new blue belt at the first annual Athens/Clarke Yoshukai karate cabins.  I was training hard in the grass by a lake, and I felt fantastic about the training and the people involved.

HS: Everyone knows you have an awesome knowledge of kiai. What’s one of the most common mistakes you see with kiai and what are the most important things to developing good kiai?

SD: I think most people think that kiai must first be loud.  I disagree–loudness is a byproduct.  Kiai has to originate from the core.  Some will say “breathe from the diaphragm.”  Again, I disagree.  The diaphragm is an involuntary muscle, and an individual has very little control over that.  Instead, I say focus on breathing as low as possible, from the abdominal muscles.  That’s where efficient breath lives, and then from there, experiment with your most natural vocal range–like the pitch that comes out of you when you sigh.  From there, set that sigh on fire and let it go.  That’s a kiai, and if it’s born from that place, it will be loud, distinctive, and real.

HS: Is there some story that should go down as legendary from your martial arts experiences?

SD: There are a few that my training partners will tell–I don’t know if they’re legendary, but they’re definitely fun:

-I once ran a class where literally every student who walked in complained about how cold it was.  I ran a warm-up until I saw condensation running down the mirrors, and then I asked if anyone felt cold.  I still hear about that one.

-I remember a fight class where we all sweated so much that the floors were dangerously slick–that was a lot of fun, and I was extremely sore for the better part of a week.

-I remember watching a fellow student test for 1st kyu while running a pretty rough fever–he didn’t think I knew, but I was definitely impressed.

-I remember several instances of 1,000 jumping jack classes–the dread on newer students’ faces, and the pride of having done it, especially when we did more like 1500 jumping jacks.

-I remember the first time I saw Soke–the man looked like something out of a samurai movie.

HS: Anything else you think we should know?

SD: The WYKKO is a large enough organization to enjoy all of the benefits of camaraderie and excellent training.  But, remember that it is also small enough that *you* can get involved in a substantive way.  Think about how you want to get involved, and talk to you instructor about your options!

So there you have it!  If you haven’t met Sensei Dawkins yet, be sure to next time he makes his way to Athens. He truly is a fountain of Yoshukai knowledge as well as a pretty cool guy in general.

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White Belt Perfection

By Erik HofmeisterKarate Rocks Balance

Every now and then, I encounter either a new student who wants their technique to be perfect, or a teacher who wants their white belts’ technique to be perfect.  Striving for perfection is a good goal, but it must be tempered with the understanding that it is frankly not possible, and may even hinder progress in some students.

Learning anything is a progression.  You first learn some information, then more, and then a little bit more.  At the vet school, we don’t expect first-year students to be able to diagnose anything, much less complex diseases, but we do expect them to be able to make diagnoses 3 years later.  What changes?  Why not expect them to master diagnosis in their first week?  Quite simply, because they can’t do it. There is too much information- they aren’t capable of assimilating the information in a useful manner.  They might memorize the data, but they don’t know how to use it.

Some students want to learn everything they can as soon as they can.  After promotion, they want to learn and master their next kata.  As white belts, they want as much feedback as possible on their technique so they can perfect it.  I have already discussed the utility and necessity of dwell time of information in the brain.  In addition, over-eager students are not grasping the larger concepts of patience, commitment, perseverance, progression, esprit de corps, and understanding. A white belt who develops an excellent front kick must do so at the cost of some other techniques (since there’s only so much time in a day), and may become overconfident in their abilities.

New students have to learn basic elements like balance, strength, and coordination as well as basic techniques like front kick.  Trying to get the perfect front kick out of a white belt is pointless- they may be able to DO it, but they won’t be able to understand it, teach it or, most importantly, replicate it.  The ranks exist to facilitate a constant progression of understanding and mastery.  A white belt has thousands of hours of practice in front of them before their front kick will be excellent because it needs all the elements, most of which take time.  There’s no point in cramming information which they cannot use into their brain in the first week- let them learn in an ordered, steady fashion.

Striving for perfection, continuing toward excellence, is what’s it’s all about.  Wanting or expecting to be excellent with a technique when you first learn it is counter-productive.

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One of the first classes at Athens Yoshukai – notice all the white belts.