Teaching Karate Part 1

Part I, teaching Karate

I have written numerous articles on human development and now KarateCoaching has been kind enough to ask me to adapt my research to karate. I may or may not have a better idea, but by sharing we begin our dialogue and hopefully everyone finds something of value.

Before we even discuss karate technique and curriculum we need to define our task. Which is primarily teaching humans to move, unless any of you has some cosmic connections and are working with alien life forms.

That  question aside we will confine our discussion to carbon based life forms on earth.

So with “all due respect,” to everyone that knows more than I, a large list, I would like to make some suggestions.

For example instead of thinking of your particular style as the Acme of martial arts, try to simply examine our task and that is presenting martial arts as a codified system and tradition of combat practices. Adding to this component that some instructors will include philosophical interpretations in their teaching of the their martial arts. Then setting aside the presumption that your style is the Higgs Boson particle of Martial Arts, there are likely areas of pedagogy that are not included in your curriculum.


  • How to teach
  • How to understand human movement.
  • How humans move as a bio-mechanical system
  • How humans are motivated to pursue a practice that includes some privations and pain.


Just like a mathematics problem let us identify the constants and the variables.

If I can presume to select the first constant all instructors have some intention of showing or telling students how to move.

Next all instructors will try to enhance this movement by embellishments of power, speed and control.

Next most instructors confine themselves to a particular curriculum, even the ones that are “progressive minded,” still select punching, kicking, blocking etc., as the areas of study.

The variables are the fact that we must use humans as our object of design.

With these few parameters in mind a Sensei might be well served to understand pedagogical science in order to communicate his/her message. Then would it not be helpful to understand the pathology of healing, training and stress to the human body?

Then it may be helpful if the instructor understands the curve of human learning and mastery.

Very few argue that there are few shortcuts in creating an elite athlete and most buy into the 10,000 hours of practice to mastery.

But that elite athlete is the top 1% of students. And I am not discounting the elite athlete but do you also know how to teach the other 99%? Can you teach the kid with two left feet? Would you like to be able to handle all the ADHAD kids that walk in your door?

These questions depends on what your goal is and how you measure your progress to that goal.

For example, tomorrow a family comes in a mom says I want you to teach my son or daughter karate. And I want the best Sensei I can find to teach my kid.  I wouldn’t, nor would the that mom put up with me just being average. And should this new young karate student decide to enter a tournament no parent wants an instructor whose students only lose. But if every parent wants their kid to be a winner and every Sensei subtly implies they will make that same kid become a winner, and every school in the country has the same goal, we have a problem. At the end of the day only one kid in each division never lost. So we either dance around this problem or we present different goals.

Sure winning is great and I would love all my students to always win in all the tournaments they attend. But I recognize that everyone else is chasing that same rabbit and my student and their parents are going to be disappointed if we all focus on winning as our goal.

But what if we taught everyone student and parents to see the “long term.”

After adjusting everyone’s eyes to see long term, think about how to motivate the karate student to stay with you long term. Karate like most activities for young people has a problem keeping students when they get into their teen years. Sure we can find a few isolated examples of young people staying on through their teens. But most kids quit their sport of choice by age 15.

In all sports kids that start young usually quit by age 15. The US Olympic Committee working with the USSA, (US Snow Board and Ski Association) sampled a wide range of coaches and children to discover the main reason for quitting their sport of choice are the following:

  1. Coaches, we could say the Sensei
  2. No playing time, meaning young people need competition. If presented correctly it provides the correct challenge young people need to develop.
  3. Too much emphasis on winning.
  4. After this some admit to seeking other interests

But according to this survey and the Positive Coaching Alliance the number one reason kids quit is adults.

There is a movement in the USA to begin a dialogue about changing the culture in Sport. We all agree sport is a terrific learning ground for so many life lessons, but we need to change our focus to the future.

The President of USA Karate is an example of a forward looking instructor, John DiPasquale has been pursuing his vision of providing scholarships to college age karate students for a couple of years now. And after more than two years people are starting to listen. I personally watch his organization hand numerous college scholarships. Can you imagine how powerful program becomes with the parents? Now adults are providing a vision of the future for karate students.

But karate needs more steps forward.  The next step might be changing our focus about being the best dojo, style or organization and start teaching life lessons.

Instead of teaching winning at all costs we should teach character.

I will tell you a story about winning at all costs. Many people over the years have said that Vince Lombardi said, “Winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing.” But did you know According to the late James Michener's Sports in America, Lombardi claimed to have been misquoted. What he intended to say was "Winning isn't everything. The will to win is the only thing." When pressed on this  quote Lombardi admitted he did say “winning is everything,” but also said I want you to understand that is not what I wanted my players to learn, my life is about preparation. Here are some things Lombardi did say and write down.

What Lombardi was really about:

  1. Pay the price, Spartan dedication
  2. American Zeal to compete
  3. Strive for perfection
  4. Responsibility of Freedom
  5. Discipline
  6. Leadership is earned
  7. Will is character in action

To be continued in Part 2…. Areas of philosophical adaptation to teaching karate (will be released March 3rd)

Doug Jepperson

USA Karate Technical Committee

Park City Karate

Living at 6,500 feet above the sea.

Doug headshot


KarateCoaching Admin

  • Doug Jepperson says:

    NIce comment. At our school we struggle to compete with the schools that offer a more exciting experience. I had one father recently tell me his son was quitting. Then he offered some advice, “you know the school down the street is more exciting and you guys do a lot of exercise.” I have no idea how to respond to those sorts of comments.
    I think you on the right track give the students more feedback, but also give them value in their lessons. I would add we teach Life Lessons and that is far more important.

    Take care

    Doug Jepperson

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