How I Teach Beginners

“I’m a professional educator.” That’s what teachers say when they want to sound like experts.

I don’t know if I’m really an expert – there are a lot of variables involved depending on how you define the roles of teacher, instructor, and coach. I’ve played each role in a variety of academic and sports environments, and I’m always learning and refining my approach.

In this article, I’m going to give a brief outline of my current approach to teaching new adult students in Taido.

First Lesson with a New Student

A few days ago, a new student came to our dojo. She’s a relatively fit-looking 30-something with no martial arts experience.

The Diagnostic Warm-Up

The practice started off with the usual warm-up routine and went into some unsoku and basics. I stayed with the new girl and helped her as she followed along. I showed her the basic footwork for So, In, Ka, and Gen. Then I gave her pointers on trying the kihongi and broke down difficult moves into steps. Nothing out of the ordinary, but all this time, I was watching her movements, breathing, and facial expressions to evaluate her abilities and needs. All of this took about ten minutes.

Where To Begin

Now, I could have done a lot of different things at this point. Many instructors in Japan will start new students with unsoku. I think that’s a good way to confuse people. Most students already know how to walk, and they tend to think unsoku looks like walking in a pattern. Of course, we know that unsoku is special and important, but the first lesson is not the time to sell a student on that idea. First, we need to sell them on joining our class.

Kamae is another popular starting point. It’s very important, but really boring. Everyone will have plenty of time to practice kamae. We don’t need to drive it into the ground on the first night.

So what did I start with? Hokei.

I took senin as my basis to teach the her fundamentals of kamae and sengi. If she joins the class, she’ll be working on senin for a few months while she also learns unsoku and gets comfortable with kamae and the kihongi. Hokei includes all the basic elements of Taido training, and it has a flow to it that prevents boredom from repetition.

I know teaching a hokei may seem like an odd place to start for a new student, but I think it’s a really good way to let the student get an idea of what Taido practice entails. It also lets me test out their abilities in terms of physical skill and mental flexibility.

We can focus in on some details and leave others fuzzy. We can drill one or two parts or work the whole routine. We can work on fundamentals like balance, line, eye direction, kamae, and breathing. There are a lot of options.

Why Not Start From the Basics?

My teacher always started new students with punches from fudodachi. The idea was to master the most basic technique first. When I started teaching on my own, I found that everyone already thinks they know how to punch. People join martial arts classes to learn how to kick, so I started off with maegeri. Same basic principle. I still believe that teaching form the basics is important.

But I now use a different definition of “basic.”

What is “Basic”?

When most instructors talk about basics, they mean basic techniques – punches, straight kicks, stances. To me, the basics of martial art are fundamental to technique; they’re the principles and abilities on which good technique rests. Balance, body mechanics, posture, timing, spatial awareness. These are the true basics which students need to master in order to be effective and efficient.

You can teach these basics from almost any technical starting point, but you have to teach them. Many instructors seem to assume that students will learn these things magically if they just do enough repetitions of the techniques and hokei. However, a quick look at all but the few “talented” students reveals that this doesn’t happen. Indeed many black belts in Taido have terrible fundamentals; I know quite a few who can do bakuchu but can’t kick hard at all. I know even more who rotate on their heels in sentai.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not claiming that I exemplify mastery of these fundamentals. In fact, one of the reasons I insist on teaching them explicitly is that my own teachers gave me very little practical instruction in them. Sure, sometimes they would say “watch your balance,” but they very rarely gave me any advice about how to develop that.

Most black belts find themselves telling students to “punch harder.” When was the last time you saw someone explaining precisely to a student how this is done?

Hokei is Basic

The thing about teaching basics that they require a lot of time to master and polish. If you begin by teaching straight punches, your students will get bored long before they begin to improve their body dynamics. Of course, you also lower the standard of performance and allow students to move on to the next technique without refining the first. This keeps students interested, but teaches them little more than mimicry.

Hokei includes all the fundamental qualities of martial art. It includes every aspect of Taido: kamae, unsoku, technique, breathing, line… It’s all in there.

It’s easy to tell students that we have five kinds of techniques and unsoku and unshin and etc., but that doesn’t make sense to people who haven’t already invested some time with Taido. I want new people to begin developing a feel for Taido ASAP. Hokei is the most efficient way to give that to new students.

How to Teach Hokei to Beginners

Here’s a run-down of how I approached teaching senin no hokei to the new student a few nights ago.

The Overview

First, we walked through the entire routine together a couple of times with me giving very little technical detail. I had already determined that she could imitate my movements without too much trouble. Her balance was good enough to do sentai without falling over. She wasn’t so out of shape that a hokei would challenge her endurance at walk-through pace.

Kamae

She managed to keep up well enough, so we went to the next level. I showed her how to do gedan kamae properly from seiza. Only one side is necessary for the hokei, so that’s all we practiced. I corrected her hands and back foot position while she memorized the movement. After five or six times, we did the hokei again. This time, I pointed out every gedan and ejidachi and we corrected each one. I gave slightly more detail on the foot and hip position as we went along and continually reminded her about her back foot and pulled-back punch.

Then we did the same thing with chudan kamae. This time, we did both sides. I didn’t get too detailed about the positioning of the lower body. Instead, I focused on getting her hands in the right place. The hands are the most confusing for new students and also the easiest to fix. Everything from the waist down will take months to master, so I just let it go for now.

Evaluation

Walking through the hokei again, we corrected each kamae as we came to it. By this time, she was showing signs of starting to memorize the routine, so I stopped moving with her and switched to verbal instruction so I could watch her better. I looked mostly at her eye movements and places where she held her breath. Of course, I was also checking her overall movement, but she was starting to get the hang of it..

Course Correction

The mistake a lot of new students make on sentai is stepping the wrong direction – to the front side of the body instead of behind. I began to stand close to her while correcting her kamae, so when she stepped into the sengi, she had no choice but to step behind. She internalized that habit and didn’t make any more mistakes on that.

Ebigeri was the other big challenge. Like a lot of new students, she would try to kick with the front leg. I broke the movement down: turn, kick with the foot you are looking at, step back, and turn again. Since ebigeri isn’t the most important part of this hokei, I didn’t take it out of the routine. I just slowed her down a bit when it was time for the ebi. After a few tries, she got this too.

Adding Details

Finally, we came to technique. Up until this point, we were just stepping and spinning as we went through the hokei. I wanted her to work on a proper sentai, but doing too much sengi on the first night can be a good way to make sure students never come back. Sentai kills your thighs, and people don’t like being too sore to walk. I don’t want new students to think that Taido is too hard for them, so I avoid torching their muscles.

We had already gone through the routine several times, and I could tell that she wanted to make her sentai correct. We didn’t have a lot of time left, so I wasn’t worried about doing too many repetitions. I reviewed gendan (this time both sides) and chudan kamae again for a couple of minutes, and then we went on to senin nukite – the main technique of senin no hokei.

I broke down the steps with the front hand leading the eyes and step. From there, I connected the head turn with the second nukite. These two joined in the turn. Then the front hand again strikes to the front. Very simple, 1-2-3 explanation – it’s all that was required.

Bringing It All Together

In the last few minutes, we put those technical details back into the routine. I let her try to work from memory as much as possible and gave her reminders when she needed them. As she did the techniques, I continued to give her pointers and correct any mistakes.

By the end of an hour, a first-time student was doing a not-bad senin hokei with very little help from me. Not bad.

This last run through the hokei served to integrate all the details she had learned into a cohesive whole. What’s more, she could see how all the things she had practiced that night worked together in synergy. That synergy is Taido.

But What if She Forgets the Whole Thing?

I couldn’t care less if this student comes back in a couple of weeks and can’t remember the hokei. She will remember the habits I ingrained in her movement. She will learn the techniques and hokei again quickly and easily next time. She’ll be able to join in the warm-up and practice without feeling confused about why she’s doing what she’s doing. In short, she’ll be ready to learn Taido faster and better than if I had just made her do a hundred punches or kicks or lots of unsoku or kamae.

The Only Best Way

This method proved successful in this instance (and in others), but it might not be the best way to teach every student. The evaluation process is maybe the most important part of making this style of instruction work – if you don’t watch the student closely and tailor your feedback to their personal needs, they won’t get nearly as much out of it. It will be like telling to memorize some long routine they don’t understand.

Providing context is extremely important to making sure the students grasps the content. The content is the technique or routine being practice. In this case, the context is the basics – the fundamentals that make Taido work.

There’s no one best way to teach every student, but the most successful methods will focus on providing context to the individual movements from the first lesson.

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