Physical Training July 2010
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From the Teacher's Corner 8:

copyright 2010 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved

Case #1

Recently, a beginning teacher, one who had just started a dojo, talked to me about how different it was teaching, rather than learning. He had to be responsible for a lot more than just showing up to train. That is the student’s luxury, not the teacher’s. He was feeling overwhelmed and asked for some help. One of the many issues he brought up was this one:
He was trying to teach the beginners kamae but they just couldn’t do it right. Either the hand is wrong or the feet or the body position or some strange contortions with their bodies and so on. It was really difficult, he said. He was frustrated.

Case #2

A while ago, another teacher with a few years of teaching under his belt told me how his class was becoming mundane. They would do the same opening exercises, which in this case amounted to some practice in kamae, then basic cutting exercises, then kumi-tachi (partnered kata). He felt that the students were getting bored and got the feeling that they felt the class was getting repetitive. What should I do? he asked me. He felt that he had to do something or they would soon be leaving in droves.

Different circumstances, same problem

Welcome to teaching: It is, at times, glorious, at times frustrating. Sometimes glamorous, sometimes exasperating. And in the two case examples we see above (which by the way are true events), we can feel the frustration and anxiety. But before we decide to throw in the towel, let’s look at these two cases in more detail.

In Case #1, this new teacher has a problem. He is dealing with beginners and there is a lot of work to be done. His problem is that there is too much to be done. Everything is wrong. There is too much to fix and naturally he feels overwhelmed.

In Case #2, this novice teacher has a different issue. The class is going fine but it is getting monotonous. Same thing, week in, week out. The routines are set, that is good. But it is too routine now. The danger here is that one might get into the habit of “just going through the motions”. There is no thinking about whatever it is that they are doing, no engagement.

While both cases have different issues, they actually both share the same problem. That problem is lack of focus.

“Focus? But I AM focused when someone is pointing a sword in my face!” some might argue.

But no, not that kind of focus. Focus, as it pertains to training goals. In other words, every class should have a focus. You can’t do everything in one class. If you think you can, you are in for some frustration.

Build the house brick by brick

For our beginning teachers, in Case #1, we are confronted with the scenario where there is so much to do, one doesn’t know where to begin. Case #2 concerns a situation where the training has become unfocused and purposeless, like a ship with no captain.

I have talked to teachers in both of these circumstances and this is the list of foci that I usually provide them with:

Practice Objectives: Basic Level

Physical (Body)

sword grip: focus on thumbs (no straight thumb; wrapped around hilt)
sword grip: focus on fingers (last two tight, middle firm, index loose)
sword grip: “twisting a towel”
sword point: no wavering; dead on
foot placement: front foot (straight forward or out)
foot placement: back foot (perpendicular)
body position: orientation (45 degrees in seigan; han-mi in gedan)
body position: hips sideways, not forwards
body posture: erect, upright, no slouching; correct posture
balance: stability
balance: rooted to the ground; both feet flat on floor
balance: 50-50 (no leaning forward or back)
where to look: opponent’s eyes (“metsuke”)
where to look: looking at whole body without looking directly
shoulders: no stiffness, relaxed
elbows: bent, tucked close to body
head: upright, no bobbing, level
back: straight
body movement: settled; not jumpy
body movement: head should be level, not bobbing up and down
body movement: how to “walk”; focus on feet

Technical (Kata)

distance: “ma-ai” (correct engagement distance)
distance: correct distance in all strikes, blocks, and evasions
angles: correct angles on all strikes, blocks, and evasions; geometry
timing: “correct” timing of strikes, blocks, and evasions
cutting: ensure “correct” sequence of motions to make cut
cutting: correct trajectory of cuts
crossing swords: resistance (ie. “meat and bones”- see my interview with Sozen Sensei.)
ki: kiai; big, loud, spirited
execution of kata: slow it down
execution of kata: each move must be done “correctly”
execution of kata: go through kata move by move
execution of kata: correct number of steps in coming to make a strike
execution of kata: repetition, repetition… – building automaticity
execution of kata: remembering the entire kata
bowing: correct bow-in procedures (step-by-step)
bowing: correct bow-out procedures (step-by-step)
bowing: correct posture
bowing: correct movements (stiff and formal)
bowing: correct observance of rites

While this list pertains to the practice of Katori Shinto Ryu in our dojo, I think you can extrapolate and apply it in more general terms to the unique characteristics of your own art. This list is by no means exhaustive either but I think it will give you a good starting point to think about how to structure your practice sessions with specific goals in mind.

As an example, you might want to focus on balance in your next session. A great focus and one that cannot be stressed enough. Balance can be looked at in terms of stability, weight distribution, posture, depth of stance, etc… You can stress balance in motion, in transition, or stationary, particularly in the execution of kata.

The point is that having that focus makes the training session less mundane, less ambiguous, and adds meaning for the student. It introduces an attainable goal that is specific and measurable (or observable). In the business field and in education, we refer to this kind of goal-setting approach by the popular acronym: SMART goals.

In other words, goals that are:
S = Specific
M = Measurable
A = Achievable
R = Realistic (or Reasonable or Relevant)
T = Time-Bound/ Time-Framed

So, back to our example, the student now having a specific, measurable (or observable), achievable, relevant, and time-framed objective, can more easily see his or her own progress in the achievement of the goal. They understand clearly what is being practiced and assessed for that session or for that month or whatever timeframe you set for the achievement of the goal.

If we are focusing on balance, he or she will quickly understand where they are with regards to their skill in balance, in static stances like kamae and while in movement, as in the execution and performance of kata.

It is easy to do. Just start with the phrase, “Today, we are going to focus on _______” and insert the name of the issue you’d like to focus on for that session. And in your post-class debrief, you can then either choose to talk to individual students about their progress or you can make general statements to the entire class about common things that you saw from everyone or particular instances that stood out but are useful lessons for everyone to hear and to learn from.

Why is an approach like SMART goals useful?

This will take care of Case #1, namely where there are too many issues. Choose one and work on it that session. This will structure your class better. Build the house brick by brick. This week, we focus on this. Next week, we focus on that. Brick by brick. Adding bricks and building the foundation.

This will also take care of Case #2, which is the situation where there is no focus. Now you have a focus and the students will find the session more purposeful. Gives you a purpose too and forces you to think about what you want them to achieve and how to achieve it, today, in the short term, and in the long run. Now you have to sit down and plan and that is surely better than having no plan at all.

For teaching, you need to have a plan. A plan typically involves goals, objectives. Nebulous goals only create confusion. SMART goals therefore, goals that are achievable, are really the smart way to go…

For more information about SMART goals, see:  and 

Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.

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