Kata Technique Drift

By Erik Hofmeister

If you watch old videos of kata that we know in Yoshukai, or kata from related arts like Chito-Ryu, you’ll notice some differences.  How did they get there? Is there a reason for these differences, or are they just random? I don’t know for sure, but there are three likely possibilities.

The change is due to deliberate decisions made by higher-ups, like Soke.  There are some specific instances of this. When the WYKKO was formed, our upper block changed from using the lateral part of the arm (ulna) to using the anterior part of the arm (ulna and radius).  Several counts changed in forms, as did some of the placements of the kiai. All of these changes were made by Soke to bring our kata more in line with how they were done in Japan. Soke was also always continuing to learn and improve his karate.  As he had realizations and deeper understandings developed, the movement was changed to be more effective.

The change is due to mis-remembering by higher-ups.  Humans have a problem with memory. Our recollection is subject to so many biases and faults, it’s amazing we can retain anything accurately.  It’s not only high ranks, but, since they often have the responsibility for passing on information, if one high rank remembers something incorrectly, it is more likely to be propagated throughout the students and dojo.  This is compounded by the problem that we have a high degree of confidence in and belief that our memories are true. When confronted with contradictions to our memories, we tend to believe our own memories. This can make correction of misremembered techniques difficult.  I had taught the uraken in Niseishi as having an angle to it for years. Master Culbreth corrected this recently and, looking at videos that were made more than 10 years ago, the uraken was indeed the way Master Culbreth said it should be. How in the world had I misremembered this technique for so long and not had it corrected?  The illusion of memory is powerful, and we need to always be aware of it.

The change is due to mis-learned techniques.  Anyone who has ever taught anything knows that sometimes the student doesn’t learn what you had intended.  I have read answers by some students on an exam and thought, “Where in the world did you get that idea?” The same happens in martial arts- you may intend to teach the technique a certain way, but it isn’t learned that way.  This student then teaches it incorrectly to someone else, and so on.

In general, relying on people to learn and remember perfectly is unwise.  People are fallible. This is why movies and pictures are so critical to preventing kata technique drift.  Deliberate changes by the higher-ups are important, as their understanding and mastery of the art develops.  Accidental changes, though, can lead to frustrated students and conflict among higher-ups.

Video Improvement

By Erik Hofmeister

Improvement in your karate can come from a number of sources.  You may think about karate, imagining yourself doing a kata. Your instructor may observe you and provide feedback.  Your peers may have different ideas to impart. At camps, you may be able to learn different ways to do things from different instructors.  Reading and watching videos can be tremendously helpful. Most martial artists never do one thing to improve their skills. Most organized sports players, particularly on school and professional teams, do this one thing.  They watch themselves on video.

Self video review is one of the most powerful tools we have for improvement, but it is remarkably underutilized.  People hate seeing themselves on video. They are highly self-critical of their videotaped performance. They don’t like how they sound.  It’s hard to set up the camera and then take the time to watch it. Video has many barriers. But the benefits are impressive.

My first time doing self video with the intention to improve was in preparation for the 2014 Athens Tournament.  All of the head instructors agreed we would enter the competition in order to shame our blackbelts into competing.  I chose to do San Shi Ryu, which no one around Athens knew or could help me with. So I recorded myself. I’ve known this kata for a long time.  I tested to 4th degree knowing it. I thought it was pretty good. The video was really just to confirm that it looked good, not really to help me improve.

The first recording was… not great.  Maybe it was good, but I saw about a dozen things I was doing not as well as I knew I could.  So I fixed some of them, and did another video. I did about 4 rounds of this over the 2 weeks preceding the tournament, and my performance improved noticeably.  In teaching students in the classroom and the dojo, I have learned so much by watching myself, and my student evaluations improved as a consequence.

Even if you have access to a knowledgeable instructor, sometimes you need to see yourself doing something in order to understand it.  I have students who do a technique which I have tried to fix in several different ways, with minimal progress. Showing them a video of themselves has resulted in them immediately changing something I had spent the last 6 months trying to change.

If you are training on your own, or are higher ranked than most of those around you, or are preparing for a high-level test, self video is huge.  I regularly do self video to make sure I am constantly _improving_ my karate, not just _doing_ my karate.

Student Engagement Pt.2

By Erik Hofmeister

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


One of the greatest obstacles to improving student engagement is that instructors don’t know how to engage their students.  Most of us have learned from the apprenticeship of observation- we teach how our instructors teach. Maybe that is a good model for some, but it leaves out the important component of WHY our instructors do certain things.  This post presents some strategies you can implement to improve student engagement. While they work for all ranks, this set is focused on color belt students.


Ask questions according to Bloom’s taxonomy.

If you don’t know about it, Google it.  All students can handle questions aimed at all levels of the taxonomy.  Even simple questions like “What part of the hand do we punch with?” are valuable.  They promote engagement, they allow you to check student knowledge to make sure they are learning what you want them to, and they help the students learn what is most important.  More complex questions like “Why do we punch with the first two knuckles?” helps students reflect on their knowledge. Even more complex questions like “Is the ridge hand or knife hand a stronger strike?” allow students to begin to evaluate their knowledge.  Now, this is martial arts class, not a discussion seminar, so don’t go overboard. Try adding two questions to your classes for the next month and see what happens.


Have students interact with each other.

Students can learn from each other, help hold each other accountable, and increase engagement by interacting.  This can be stimulated by a question- “You three discuss what you think the best response to this attack is and be prepared to show us.”  It can be stimulated by a reflective discourse- “You three talk to each other about the hardest part of this kata for you and what you are doing to overcome it.”  It can be stimulated by a creative exercise- “You two come up with a short self defense routine that you can show the class.” The key is to get students talking and working with each other, not just following your explicit commands at every turn.  Try at least one cooperative learning exercise and see what the students think of it.


Have students demonstrate and describe/explain to the class.

One of my favorite tools is to call out a student who is doing a technique exceptionally well and show them off to the class.  “Everyone pause and look at Sensei Dawkins’ angle- that is how it should be.” This not only makes the student proud- rightfully so- but can be a springboard for a new way to learn something.  “Sensei Dawkins, briefly tell us what you are doing to accomplish that.” This causes the student to reflect- and engage- and they may provide some tidbit that will help the other students. Each time you run a kata or a drill, try to identify one student who is doing particularly well, have them show off, and ask them to share how they are able to be successful.


There are three simple but effective strategies to improve student engagement and enhance learning.  Try them next time you teach martial arts students!

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.

Taught by the Master

By Erik Hofmeister

I have read blogs that insist that you should make sure you will work with the head instructor before joining a school, and some which suggest that a school which asks students to teach is taking advantage of them by not paying them.  I obviously disagree with both of these stances, and here is why.

BlackbeltMasterKarateYou don’t need to learn from the head instructor.  You don’t need to learn from a blackbelt. You need to learn from someone who knows more than you and, sometimes, someone who knows as much or less than you.  In educational psychology, studies have shown that peer teaching is as or more effective than learning from a lecturer. Maybe the student can be more relaxed and hence receptive, maybe they feel more invested in the educational process, maybe the more junior teacher can identify more easily with the student.  This is not to say that less experienced teachers are objectively better, but that students may learn as well from others who are closer in rank and experience to them. Ultimately, it is up to the head instructor and blackbelts to make sure that the techniques are all correct and well executed. All of the instruction, however, does not and maybe should not come from the head instructor and blackbelts.  Doing so may hamper student learning.

As has been mentioned before, students learn by teaching.  In my opinion, not allowing students to teach is detracting from their own education and progress.  Asking students to teach is to their benefit as much as it is to the dojo’s benefit or the learner’s benefit.  Once a student starts to have their own classes that they are responsible for in a commercial school, the issue is somewhat different.  In that case, some compensation should be considered, as the student is directly helping the bottom line of the school and relieving the head instructor to do other (hopefully money-making) activities.

I have heard veterinary students complain during surgery labs about being taught by residents.  These are individuals who have finished vet school, an internship, and started specialty training in surgery.  Such people are more than qualified enough to teach a student basic surgical techniques. They do not need a board-certified surgeon to teach them how to tie a basic knot.  I feel the same with martial arts students. A white belt does not need a third degree blackbelt to teach them how to punch. They can be taught the basics of punching by, say, a blue belt.  This is not to imply that the blue belt has mastered a punch. But a white belt does not need to master the punch. They just need the basic elements, which the blue belt knows.

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?

Teaching Improves Learning

By Erik Hofmeister

In medicine, we have an (arguably broken) saying: see one, do one, teach one. This month, Ken, Susan, Hali, Jon, and I began work on our Martial Arts Certification for Instructors.  This program, we hope, will make us better teachers. And that’s important.

As soon as students are capable, I try to get them involved in teaching other students.  There is a lot of evidence coming out of educational psychology that indicates people learn better in a collaborative setting, when they can both learn and teach.  In fact, the lecture setup- where someone just spouts information at attentive students- is one of the least efficient means of teaching information.

I regularly learn while teaching. I distinctly remember teaching a turn in a Kyuki-Do form- the second form you ever learn- which had been a very difficult move for me to master.  After teaching it, I was able to conceptualize it in a different way which made the move much easier (I still call it the hardest move you learn in Kyuki-Do before your blackbelt).   If you’re not learning when you’re teaching, then maybe something is wrong.

I used to think that students would just know how to teach.  It’s not something that anyone ever taught me, so I never thought of it as a separate skill.  That is, until I encountered students who needed a lot of work to develop their teaching skill.  I realized that I couldn’t just launch students into teaching other students- they needed more supervision.   Now, I watch students teach and give them feedback to make them better.  The best way to improve a skill- ANY skill, which includes teaching- is to practice it and receive feedback on your performance.  I want my students to teach like they do their kata- not just adequately, but _well_.

I see students evolve all the time after teaching.  Having to explain the material and demonstrate it makes them think of it in an entirely different way.  I find that most students don’t really start to learn a form until they teach it.  Teaching students how to teach has the added benefits of expanding their skill set, allows the head instructor to effectively delegate teaching roles, and prepares the students to be instructors themselves in the future.  More students teaching and learning how to teach equals good.  Athens Yoshukai, the Teaching Dojo.