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Sofia's picture
Motivating my students

I need help to get the youths in our club motivated to progress!

I have them one hour every thursday, and another sensei has them 1½ hours every monday. The kids are mostly around 12-14 years old, tho we have a few younger participating too this semester. Today I asked them what they thought was fun with karate. A few of them had good answers, self defence, kumite and techniques. But a few of them just want to play games, like dodge ball etc. I feel it very frustrating when a few of the students arent motivated to learn karate, and it somehow feels like they are dragging down the whole group.

Personally Im quite new to being a trainer/teacher, but I do believe Im pretty good at teaching basic stances and techniques, tho I can still improve on motivating students. I do want them to succeed in whatever they want to do, competitions, belt exams or just general improvement.

Don't get me wrong, I do understand they are still kids and want to play and have fun. So I'm trying to figure out a good way to teach karate in a fun and playfull way, but still having them consentrated so that they actually learn something on the way.

What do you guys do with your youth in your dojos? Is there a high level of consentration or do they just want to play around? Do you have specific or general goals for them?

Jason Lester
Jason Lester's picture

Hi Sofia, teaching children is not easy and keeping them motivated is even harder.

At one time i had about 15 kids, the problem i faced was half wanted to learn and the other just wanted to play games and mess around, as a teacher / coach i havent got time for this. I was also treated as a baby sitter by some of the parents which, yeah ok all parents need a break but their not going to wast my time and my students time for those who really want to learn.

Anyway cutting a long story short i asked the ones in question to leave, i mean if the parents have no control over their children what chance have i got? Maybe its a bad attitude to have but im sure there is a few who will maybe agree with me here. So now what i do with any new potential students is assess them over a few weeks, then if i think they are up for it i take them on board, if not im honest and tell the parents maybe its not for them.

I will teach whoever wants to learn, really learn that is. As for games the children i do have are well behaved etc, so if they have listened and trained hard i reward them with a fun exercise at the end of class like tag with a foam stig etc, they do sometimes get out of line so depending how they have been i just dont do the games at the end.

After all a martial art is a dicipline and a life skill, not a kindergarten class, if they want to play games send them to the park.

Hope this is of some help.

Kind regards,


Stevenson's picture

I teach quite few kids that age.

Kids that age really don't 'get' that you need to put in order to get out, so you have to trick them into things.

- For stances, I play tug of war with their belts (great for kokusu dachi) and towing games. Get them to drag each other around in long stances, or make a snake in sanchin dachi.

- Also for stances, push pulling gae. One person pushes and pulls and the other has to try and keep their posture. Adults like this too and it's good for stances and conditioning. You get a good work out.

- I play 'Shoe of Destiny' (my daughters name for the game) whereby they take turns coming from behind a shoe I place on the floor to do a series of techniques against a kick bag. I try to get the whole class to kiai with their last technique (more for generating a bit of atmosphere and enthusiasm). The more yelling and encouragement you can get going the better.

- They love self defense games: One from Rory Miller is a kind of 'Piggy in the middle' and someone behind pointing at the next attacker (some times 2 at once) which they have to respond to and counter.

- Probably the game they enjoy the most is creating your own Kata. In order to make sure it doesn't get out of hand I stipulate that the Kata be limited to 5 moves: 1 block, 1 strike, 1 kick, 1 turn, and then something flashy and silly for a laugh. They then have to perform and devise their own bunkai. You'd be surprised at some of the incredibly ingenious and occasionally practical things they come up with. You get them to make up their own names for the kata (for the younger ones) and they have to perform the kata and the bunkai. The highest grade in the group is the captain and usually performs the bunkai.

- There is also the mit game. It's a sparring game where you have a mit in your belt behind you, and the aim of the game is to try and get the mit. They seriously love that one.

- There is also the peg game, where you have colourful pegs attached to their Gi on the shoulders and the legs which they have to get off one another. That's a great one for white belts as it gets them moving without requiring too much skill.

- Sensei says, for younger kids, if you have them. You go through Kihon saying "Sensei Says" before each technique and if you don't say sensei says and they do the technique, they have to do push-ups. It used to be that you were 'out' but that means they miss out on training they could do with.

There are a few others, but that will probably do it. No getting around the graft of having to work at kata and kihon. I try to pace it so that when gradings approaching, that is the motivational tool, meaning I can be more direct about technique. I also give out a jelly bean at the end of each class and if someone trains particualrly well they will get an extra one. It's small thing but kids really look forward to it.

Wallace Smedley
Wallace Smedley's picture

I work almost exclusively with youth. Motivation is always an issue when there are people in the class who want to say they are in karate more than they want to actually learn karate.

My usual thought is that if there is to be a game, it needs to be earned. If everyone is class is working hard and doing their personal best, then I will allow a short amount of time to use a game. I really like a lot of those mentioned above.

Beyond just games though is the manner of presentation. I use a dynamic high energy presentation to the lessons. And I pour on the positive feedback in heavy doses. Every student should hear what they are doing correctly before the lesson ends. Some student are a little more of a challenge to find something honest to praise, but pay attention and you will find something. Ex: "Billy, your feet are in exactly the right position for a back stance! Awesome! Now just bend your knees a little more...more...more. Right there! THAT is a PERFECT back stance!"

Keep in mind, whatever you praise needs to be good stuff, or you end up encouraging poor performance. But the more that you "catch them doing good" the more of a positive factor you become in their mind, and the more that they like being around you. This is a process, but once they enjoy being in class, the motivation is there.

From my perspective, this is a much more sure road to motivation and student success than tailoring the class to what they think they want. Just make the training hard, fun, high energy, and make the Dojo a positive place that they want to be. Good luck with your classes!

Sofia's picture

Thank you all for your inputs!

A few general questions. How long are your classes for youths, and how many times in a week? What do you do for kata? Do you make it into a game or are you trying to make them focus on correct techniques and stances?

In the class we have a wide span of belts, from 6th kyu up to 2nd kyu, so the higher belts usually wants to train on higher katas that the lower belts dont know yet. And the lower belts needs to learn the lower katas, which the higher belts are getting a bit bored of. Any thoughts on this?

Jason: Kicking people out of the club, or making them quit in one or the other way, is not what our club stands for. We are trying our best to include everyone that wants to come train with us. So I dont think your methods will work for our club, but I understand where you are coming from. And they'll figure out for themselves if karate is for them or not.

Stevenson: I do like many of the games you have described. A few of them sounds very similar to games we play in my club. Though I must admit my imagination is lacking a bit, and I forget to make learning into a game for the youths. Something I have to work on! So, thank you for your ideas and I will take them with me and maybe make them into my own little games :)

Wallace: I do try to give everyone compliments, even if its just a tiny improvement they have made. But as Im quite new as a trainer (Ive only had the youths for one semester, otherwise Ive been training the grown up beginners) it's something I have to work on.

Wallace Smedley
Wallace Smedley's picture

Sofia wrote:

A few general questions. How long are your classes for youths, and how many times in a week?

My case is probably a little unique. I work for an organization called KICKSTART KIDS, and we are an alternate Physical Education credit elective class in the school, so I see my students five days per week, and for those that participate in the after school class as well, I see some of them twice per day and as our class is a part of the student's regular school day, we have 45 minute classes.

e wrote:
 What do you do for kata? Do you make it into a game or are you trying to make them focus on correct techniques and stances?

I don't make kata a game. I do try to make it fun, because the biggest reason people quit training in the martial arts is if they are not having fun.

It is my goal that the student performs everything correctly, meaning the way I demonstrate and teach it. This can be pretty difficult for some kids. We handle the difficulty of this by taking very small steps to build the big picture. This is an advantage of having a group that has to be there every day. Where some students in a regular martial arts class may show up when they feel like it, mine are there every day. This can cause a problem of motivation on the days they "just don't feel like it", but that just lets me get creative. There are adaptations that can be made to allow the student who has poor attendance to progress and still do everything correctly. It can be a challenge to be positive when correcting and trying to get that perfect performance out of a kid, but by remembering that they are kids, this does get easier as well.

To me, making sure that the lesson has a real life connection makes everything go smooth. As I work with at-risk youth, the idea of being attacked is not just a thought but a sad fact of life. So the interest is really up when I teach bunkai. Kids love it when what they are learning is real and has an application to their life. Anytime they mention to friends that they are training in karate, they will get the attitudes from those who do not respect what we do. When we give the kids that connection to show that this is practical knowledge, they eat it up. A friend of mine says, "Karate teaches you to protect yourself and look cool at the same time." Kids love that!

e wrote:
In the class we have a wide span of belts, from 6th kyu up to 2nd kyu, so the higher belts usually wants to train on higher katas that the lower belts dont know yet. And the lower belts needs to learn the lower katas, which the higher belts are getting a bit bored of. Any thoughts on this?

This is always a challenge. Unfortunately it is a challenge I have every school year. I don't get to set the schedules, I simply teach the classes. So, just as anyhting else in life, I take the situation as is and make it the best it can be.

When we are in the stage of the students still trying to learn the kata itself, I divide the classroom into however many areas I need, and go through the movements by the count. Once they know how to perform it, there is still practice by the count for purposes of memorization, but we also break into groups and practice bunkai and flow drills. In my experience, the fact that these are the activities I love; kata, bunkai practice, and flow drills, my enthusiasm rubs off on them. This makes motivation for them much easier as I am sharing something I love to do rather than just trying to get them to memorize something that is a testing requirement.

Just make the best of everything. When you are working with kids you are creating an impact on their life, and this can be good or bad based on how you handle everything that arises. It is a priviledge and a big responsibility. Treat it as such and you will do fine!

Quick2Kick's picture

Kids HATE to stand still and listen to you talk. Most people and especially kids learn from doing not hearing. You can tell a kid 50 times to rotate the bottom foot and it won't sink in. Your students may not be motavated because they are bored (tired of standing still) or tired of doing the same thing (disguse repition)

Games can develope skills. some games to try with kids

 - Tossing a striking pad in the air then clapping your hands behind your back before catching it. Try having them clap under there leg or spining in a cirlce while the pad is in the air. If they drop the pad make them touch there chest to it before picking it up (a push up) 

- When playing dodge ball (as you said you do) have them perform a kata when hit by the ball before they may return to the game. 

- Toe fencing. Partners hold each other by the wrist. Each player attempts to tap their partner's toe with their own toe. Loser does 10 push ups.

- finger fencing. Same idea except you hold hands like you were going to arm wrestle. Point your index fingers at each other and the first person to touch the other with there finger wins.

Disguese Repetiton.

I'll use squats as an example.

- spinning squats.  start seated with legs crossed. stand up using the outside of the feet perform a 360 spin and return to seated cross legged position. All of this is done on the outside edge of the feet. (if done correctly you will alternate sides automaticaly)

- kneeling squats.  Start on your knees sitting back on the feet. Explode straight up to front stance. Return to starting postion and ad a 180 degree spin.

- sumo squats.  start feet wide knees bent with hands on knees. Lift one foot high in the air then slam it down. Then the other foot. Finally squat as low and you can and clap your hands togother in front.  Basicaly mimic the begining of a sumo match.

bowlie's picture

you coud make karate specific games, like touch tag. Divide into teams or individuals, and you have to touch other peoples shoulders or knees with your open palm. basically its a punching and defending drill, but it gets you thinking about positioning, distance and mixing up the hight of targets.

Or you could have two people face each other with pads a few meters apart. The kids take it in turn to go in the middle and roundhouse kick each pad, turn 180degrees, and kick the other. See who can do it fastest for, say, 10 kicks.

Although there is no better game than contact sparring.