Posted on 17 Comments

Get your kata right! Or else!

Recently one of my subscribers, Michael, asked:

“My sensei had me teach some kids the first taikyoku kata last night and he told me that whenever one of them did a movement incorrectly to make them do pushups. So we get going and I have them drop down to do pushups a few times before I realize that one of the youngest kids maybe 10 or 11 isn’t even trying and getting it wrong all the time.

I ask him if he is sick and he says he is tired so I ask him if he wants to sit down and he says no. So we keep going and he still isn’t even trying. Every time the group has to drop down to do pushups he lets out an upset sigh and is dragging the group back. It got to the point to where I just didn’t even focus on him and focused on the rest of the group. But I’m not sure how to deal with kids like that who don’t really want to be there.

What’s your take on it?”

I told Michael I’d answer his question in today’s post since this type of thing, seems to be all too common in martial arts. My answer is below:

First, thanks for your question Michael.

This type of an approach for correction is a low level response to the real problem. Sure there are times when I use pushups to motivate or incentivize students to do better, but I do this sparingly. I use pushups usually to “amp up” their energy, or on the rare occasions I have a group of students who insist on being apathetic when I know they’re capable of better.

In a beginner class however, patience is required as basic skills haven’t yet been honed. Giving students pushups because they keep making mistakes doesn’t usually make them any better. It makes them feel badly and makes them more tired. It also takes away from their practice time in which they could be practicing the correct way to do their technique.

It reminds me of a t-shirt I have that states, “The beatings will continue until morale improves”.

Get it right... or else!

Maybe it should read, “The pushups will continue until the kata is right”. Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

An alternative to pushups whenever there is a mistake is to start the kata over. That way, students feel the pressure of needing to perform but aren’t physically exhausting themselves. I’ll use that approach every now and again, however realize there is a mental fatigue point also.

The longer this process goes on, the more likely mistakes are going to happen. However, this approach does get students thinking about making the right movements, and it also reinforces the repetitions.

If you simply have a student who keeps making mistakes you need more information before choosing a course of action. Is he making mistakes because he hasn’t learned the skill yet? Or is he making mistakes because he’s feeling apathetic?

These are 2 completely different issues and should be addressed as such. One requires more or better instruction, while the other is motivation related.

If it’s the latter, then you need to find out what’s going on. Is he generally a good student, but he’s been up since 6am and his Dad yelled at him before class? Or is he nearly always lethargic and really doesn’t want to be there? (Sometimes this can be diet-related, or lack of water / sugar to the brain.)

However it usually comes down to interacting with students in a way they can relate to. Some respond better to the carrot, some respond better to the stick. Also it would be helpful to know what kind of learner he is. This will help you understand him better, which will allow you to teach better. You can read up on my series about the different kinds of “learners” below:

Great question, hope this helps!

– Jason

P.S. For anyone else who has a question you would like answered please email me. Maybe yours will be featured here on the blog…

17 thoughts on “Get your kata right! Or else!

  1. I am always surprised at the way kata is taught anyway. There seems to be little in the way of explanation or justification for doing kata. It’s just “Now we’ll do some kata”. I think making sure the students know what it is for would help a lot. Particularly at the lower coloured belt grades, it is just done as one of the things you need to grade rather than as a way of learning techniques and training independently.

    What are your views on the “why” bit of doing kata?

    1. Great question Adrian… My answer will be too loooong for here. I’ll post it next week in an article.


      Stay tuned.

      Thanks for your input.

  2. I found a good way is to get them thinking about the bunkai of the kata. Teach them one bunkai… then pair them off with a partner and they have 5 minutes to each come up with a bunkai for a particular part of the kata and demonstrate to the class. They won’t forget that part of the kata then.

    1. Good one Mark.

      Reminds me of the Confucius quote, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

  3. Totally agree that pushups should not be used as punishment. No desired progress is made and the students leave feeling down. While it’s important to work hard, it should also be enjoyable. If they don’t feel a little stronger, smarter, faster, more kind, more mature, [insert desired quality here] every time they leave the dojo, don’t expect them to keep training. Our role is to challenge them, but with intent to teach, not punish. At our dojo, thehead instructors make extra time to meet with struggling students after class to get to the root of the issue. Parents are included, but we really strive to get the kids speaking for themselves. Often, that little bit of extra attention clicks and we see remarkable improvement.

    Jason, thanks for sharing this. -TS

    1. You’re welcome Todd and thanks for your input.

      Love the line “…with intent to teach, not punish”.

      Perfect. I wish more instructors focused on this.

  4. l find l get a good responce to a student who is “lagging” to excite them to punch quicker if they imagine that there is a fly on the back of the student in front of them and they have to be so fast to be able to hit the fly before it escapes !
    These little mind incentetives change their thought pattern they may be in at the time.
    Other than that, the mention if we do this really well we will have a game after it !
    Hope this helps…

    1. Thanks Gary…

      Thought pattern interrupts are an awesome way to change the mental state in a heartbeat.

      However, I’m curious how many students have been punched in the back of the head using this method?


  5. Hoi Jason,

    Long since I posted once a comment. But new season is now gone for about 2 months, ans like in every club I also have some brand new children who want to practice karate.

    In big lines I work like this, during the first lessons:
    1) learning the rough form in ‘shizentai’ position
    2) executing this techniques in progress with stance
    3) kumite from distance with the techniques (this way there is ‘no’ danger of ‘contact’
    4) kata itself

    Of course you have to keep them entertained with performing slow, speed, … Kiai not to forget.

    Honestly, I really have very good results this way. I only have I student (if you can call him this way) who is not able to follow the group. He’s sleepwalking the whole time.

    I informed and it seems that this kid is going to sleep around midnight and awake at 6 o’clock in the morning. Everyday … Of course that he’s sleepwalking! If you ask me: it are the parents who deserve some push ups to perform, no?

    Andy Willaert

    1. Andy! Nice to hear from you… Hope life in Belgium is good.

      Thanks for sharing your method.

      And as for the the sleepwalkers – we have them here too – and yes, the parents often need the push ups!


  6. I had this problem with my young I made a game of it(but still kept the kata the focus)but make it fun for them.. I had all the students line up and do the same kata and one by one eliminate them one by one(if they did the wrong stance, punch or turned the wrong way, things like that) until the best 2 were lift, at first it was easy to pick the ones that were going to the go first, but by making it fun for the kids, they made it into a competition and so when it came time to do there kata, they were champing at the bit to show me how good there kata was, and now they look forward to doing it and go as far as to ask to do it.

    1. Good one Geoff… anytime you make a “chore” a “challenge” it creates a mental shift and kids will often respond well. The only thing I would say is the ones that are eliminated are the ones who probably need more work. Maybe this exercise could be done at the start of class, and the ones who are eliminated need to go practice. The ones who win or do well, are rewarded with learning the moves of a new kata, etc.

  7. In my dojos we don’t give pushups as punishment. I want the students to appreciate exercise as being good for them, hard to do when you are punished with it. Within my club we ask a more senior student to help the lower grade with their kata, this means that the higher grade has to articulate his movements which aids in his own understanding. People learn differently so what I can’t get across, someone else may. I also agree with Mark above, teaching meaning with movements aids in understanding.

    1. This reply reminds me a little of what Ed Parker once said, “To teach is to learn twice!”


  8. Thanks Ian… this is also something I do with my students, and it works great. Thank you for your input. For anyone else who would like to learn more read this post for more details.

  9. One of the greatest ‘Sins’ an Instructor can make is punishing the whole group continually for the mistake of one Student ~ it is an injustice..!! and the other Students see it as just that ~ Punish the perpetrator only..!! ~ I have found ignoring that Student until the Kata or whatever is over then taking them aside and spend a few moments one-on-one in motivating talk achieves best results.

  10. I don’t agree with punishment with pushups. There is always something you can do to make a student retain Kata. I teach by example, I practice Kata on the floor with them with alot of spirit. When a student is doing Kata next to his teacher they seem to pay more attention. Its not often I get to practice Kata with my sensei but when it happens its special.

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