Saturday, March 1, 2014

Teaching Kendo to Children

Teaching Kendo to Children – an introduction for new instructors

this article was originally published in Kendo World magazine issue 5.2, June 2010.

With its low injury rate, a structure that makes it possible for small to dominate big, and its long and captivating history, kendo is a wonderful activity for children of all ages. However the way an instructor teaches can have a big impact on a child’s experience of kendo, and will, whether we like it or not, often be the determining factor as to whether that child becomes an adult kenshi.

This article is a short guide to some of the major do’s and don’ts of teaching kendo to children. It is specifically aimed at yudansha who are considering offering children’s classes in kendo: people who have a comprehensive knowledge of kendo fundamentals and perhaps some experience instructing adults but who have little or no experience of working with children. Some points in the article have been made simplistically for the sake of brevity when in fact many of these issues are complex and can be addressed via a wide range of approaches. The author welcomes correspondence from other instructors on any of the ideas dealt with, or not dealt with, in this article.

Children mature at different rates. What does this mean when it comes to setting up classes or even setting up a new club?

Generally from the age of seven and upwards, children become capable of practicing an activity for its own sake. Naturally this will vary depending on the maturity and interest of the individual child. For instance the child’s ability to focus on a single activity for a period of time, their ability to hear and process verbal commands and/or visual cues, their ability to mix with a new group of children many of whom may be older, all these things have an impact. As an instructor, your very first job will be to make appropriate judgments on this point with regards to the children who wish to join your class.

It is important to allow new students to experience kendo at least once with no obligations or expectations in order for you to gauge their ability to integrate into the class. A good rule to have is that if a child comes ‘just to watch’, always get them to join in. They will only know whether kendo is really for them if they experience it first hand. This saves everyone’s time if it proves straight away that the child does not want to do kendo. It also gives you time to assess the child’s ability. Although this sounds like a difficult task, I should say that in the last eight years I have never once had to turn away a prospective student because I felt they would not fit into the class.

As a general rule however, children younger than seven will not integrate well into a mixed-age class that has a focus on skills-acquisition. For those kids a separate class of between 30 and 45 minutes duration focusing on kendo-related play is more appropriate.

Games vs skills
Always the difficult balance in children’s kendo classes is on how much time to spend on skills acquisition versus ‘having fun’. Children don't always conceptualise exactly how drills relate to practice. This is the reason why you might spend a great deal of time correcting a child’s footwork during suburi, only to see them constantly returning to natural walking or running when doing more dynamic practice like uchikomigeiko, or jigeiko.

An instructor might feel that it is easy to engage the kids when doing ‘fun things’ like jigeiko, but they might at the same time feel that it is dangerous to let them run before they can walk, as it were. Most instructors will want to return to basic drills as often as possible to try and instill the correct body movements before allowing her or his students to move onto more advanced training. This imperative will be deeply ingrained in the instructor’s psyche if it was how they, as an adult learner, were taught themselves. However children will usually find this more abstract way of learning to be at best, boring and difficult, and at worst, pointless and de-motivating.

A simple way to avoid de-motivation is to remember to teach skills embedded within games. The most obvious, indeed the ultimate kendo ‘game’ is shiai itself. As their students progress towards shiai ability, instructors should use their creativity to design games that are both fun and instill correct technique.

One example is to have motodachi throw rubber balls at students waiting in kamae. The student must time their cut to strike the ball in mid-air as if it is an opponent’s men, kote or do. Varying the size or number of balls alters the difficulty. This challenging exercise is universally loved because it seems more difficult than it is. For many kids their reaction is “this is like Star Wars!” But it also can instill correct technique if the instructor models it correctly and keeps a close eye on things like hasuji and ki-ken-tai-itchi. Five minutes of a play-focused drill such as this can reinvigorate a lethargic class and guarantee that every child will want to return the following week.

How will you know if the drill you designed is sufficiently game-oriented? Simple. By the end everyone, including you, will be smiling. Warning: there may even be laughter. If you find the idea of laughter in the dojo challenging then perhaps teaching children is not for you!

Some training techniques you devise may not be games as such, but generate similar interest because an unorthodox approach has been taken. For instance tying each student’s ankles together with thick elastic as a way to help develop muscle memory regarding the quick return of the left foot to kamae position during okuriashi.

Many other games can be developed using simple props that are either already in the dojo or require little outlay. One example is using the line markings on the floor (if you have them) to create complex ‘racetracks’ that the students must follow whilst using kendo footwork.

The only limit is the instructor’s imagination. All children, especially those over the age of 18, enjoy a holiday from routine, being surprised, being shown something familiar in a new way, and testing themselves in new situations. All of these things support learning.

Attendance and retention
When a child chooses to do kendo they have already distinguished themselves as unusual. By the time they walk though the door of the dojo they have travelled a long way down the path of doing kendo. That’s because in Australia and many other countries outside Japan or South Korea kendo is not a freely available option. Considerable motivation is required of children to get as far as finding out where the nearest dojo is and getting mum or dad to agree to take them there. Granted it is much easier now with the advent of the internet. But you should still see new students as already having a degree of commitment. In other words, even if they look and sound undecided about kendo when they arrive on the first day, think of them as already having made up their minds to give it a red-hot go.

It is important to remember that a child’s attendance is entirely dependent on the whole family’s schedule. Furthermore, parents and children alike are generally used to sports that have an off-season, not activities that continue year-round. This means that scheduled time off throughout the year is important. A third important point to remember is that parents’ ability to retain details about dates and events is generally less than if you were dealing with adult club members. So plan to send out multiple reminders for each important event.

As an instructor, it will be important that you, or another senior member of your club, maintain as good a relationship with parents as with their children. Regular newsletters are a great communication tool. A club weblog can be used as a record of what the club has done, although beware of posting identifiable images of your students (or their family names) on the internet. Parents will appreciate being informed, reminded and consulted.

Retention is a more difficult matter, and is largely outside your control as an instructor. So long as you have done your utmost to teach correct kendo, and have done so in a way that tries to understand the needs of the child learner, you cannot hold yourself responsible for children who stop coming to training. Hopefully you will get, either from the child or the parent, a reason or at least some warning about the end of their participation. But sometimes they will simply stop coming. It is not the fault of the instructor or of kendo. Children like to try many things and only a few will ever stick at kendo.

If you have observed these points above, then at least if you experience a falling attendance rate you can generally assume that it is due to demographic, economic or other factors outside your control. It would also pay to remember that while these factors may occasionally lead to a decline in numbers, they just as often can lead to increases as well.

For the majority of my students, it is the case that they are keen to do kendo and their parents are facilitating that choice. This is the scenario that informs the observations above, the assumption that the child is the instigator. However there is also the situation where it is the parent who is the motivator behind their child starting kendo and the child does kendo to please the parent. In this situation many things are simplified for the instructor, and most of the observations above do not apply. In this situation my policy is to encourage the parent to join the class as well, allowing them to model the kind of participation they desire their child to display.

Energy, strength and co-ordination
Children’s energy is also very different to adults. In young children it is quick to deplete and equally quick to replenish. Short bursts of exercise with regular breaks are what is required. Older children and teenagers may be able to push themselves to exhaustion if they are very committed to kendo or the instructor. However the kind of severe training that was once commonplace in Japan is not generally possible in Australia for instance, the reasons being more cultural than physiological (anecdotal evidence suggests it is also becoming less common in Japan). This is a constant dilemma for instructors of children in kendo: balancing fun and enjoyment with fidelity to kendo’s budo heritage. Above all, avoid simply replicating the structure of an adult class unless all of your students are high school age or older.

Muscle development is also different to adults. Before puberty, children’s muscles don’t grow in response to exertion to nearly the same degree as adults’. Instructors should focus on developing muscle memory rather than muscle power, particularly in areas such as footwork and the use of the left hand.

Co-ordination can be a problem for some children, so it is necessary to be aware of what each child is capable of, both from a biomechanical point of view and a neuro-psychological one (see hyperlink below). Strive to have realistic expectations and don’t be afraid to be compassionate and forgiving. Sometimes a lack of co-ordination results from specific cognitive or neurological causes*, for example a developmental delay in short-term memory or poor visual-spatial awareness. Sometimes it might be from a general lack of strength or little muscle memory of that drill. Sometimes it can just be from the nervousness that comes from feeling closely scrutinised. In the majority of cases, practice over time will help solve most difficulties with the movements of kendo. And there’s much to be said of the observation that, in the end, the least talented often prove to be the best students.

Duty of care
Duty of Care as a concept came about so as to give legal weight to the concept ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself.’ In the United States it is called a Legal Duty.

There is much information available on this issue. The main thing that needs to be said here is know what your legal responsibilities are. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred your own common sense will match best practice. However there may be issues that you are not aware of, or which at first glance do not seem significant or your responsibility. Here is a list of questions for the prospective instructor from my own past experience. It is by no means exhaustive but is meant to give the reader an idea of some of the areas that may not be immediately self-evident where the instructor has a legal Duty of Care:
  • Do you have emergency contact numbers for all your children?
  • Do you have signed parental consent to call for an ambulance or administer first aid?
  • Do you know whether any child in your care has epilepsy, asthma, diabetes?
  • What allergies do your students have – latex, band-aids, nuts?
  • If one of your students is anaphylactic, do you know what the trigger is, and also how to use an epipen (self-administered adrenaline delivery device)?
  • It is an extreme example, but it has happened and shows just how far ‘out of left field’ these issues can come: do any of your students have a non-custodial parent or other relative who is the subject of a Restraining Order and who is not allowed within x metres of the child?

It is your responsibility as an instructor to stay informed. The Australian Sports Commission website has a wealth of information and resources relevant to Australian law. Most other countries will have similar organisations producing resources relevant for coaches and volunteers in their jurisdictions.

It is worth noting that many countries’ kendo federations have recently developed formalised coaching qualification programs as a pre-requisite to starting a new club or dojo. The best of these programs deal in depth with such issues as mentioned above, so that coaches enter the field informed of the variety of issues they may have to deal with and confident that they can do so effectively.

Coaches and volunteers working with minors are now required in many countries to have a Criminal Records Check to establish that they are suitable people to work with children. If you are teaching kendo to children and are unaware of what your legal obligations are, contact your national or regional kendo federation.

Kendo is as safe an activity for children as it is or adults. However training between two students of vastly mismatched size can be dangerous if it is not well managed. The main danger comes not from taiatari, which is relatively easy to monitor, but striking men from above. Even a moderate men strike from a high angle can miss the mengane altogether, and strike the top, and unprotected back, of the child’s head. A dojo policy must be in place, and demonstrations regularly given by instructors, on how hard to strike someone who is considerably shorter than oneself. Instructors should be up-to-date with the latest information about head injuries and concussion.

How hard is too hard? This is a tricky question as children, particularly those new to kendo, have a lower pain threshold than seasoned kendoka. However when it comes to the brain and its casing one should always err on the side of caution—doubly so with children’s brains. If a child can tell you that they heard music or saw stars after receiving a heavy blow then that’s it for them for the rest of training. They can sit out and watch, or do suburi by themselves. Make sure also to remind the student responsible to take more care. Finally, let the child’s parents know and recommend that the child in question refrains from contact sports for a couple of days.

Children’s kote are often lightly made and also do not ward off blows as well as adult kote do. Here too, explicit instructions to all students about how to strike in this situation are crucial.

Finally, all instructors of children should undertake first aid training, whether through their governing renmei, or at their own expense.

If there is one principle that I have learned and used to guide my teaching it is this: children learn differently to adults. They are indeed able to run before they can walk. That is, Kid A may not be able to answer a simple question about kendo terminology but that will not stop her from being able to perform degashira men instinctively. And just because Kid B constantly needs reminding which foot goes in front when standing in chudan no kamae, doesn’t mean he won’t then dazzle you with the kihon uchi of an 8-dan.

From my point of view, the important learning from this has been to make sure even whilst instilling correct technique that I not, in doing so, smother the spark that brought that child to kendo. In a country like Australia where children generally are not forced to come to training, that spark, if it is there, is the thing most likely to keep them going throughout their life in kendo. As an instructor that means I must always take care to know all of my students, to reflect as best I can on what they each need, and always seek to improve how I teach. Embarking on teaching children is a daunting task, until you remember this one thing: to have had a positive impact on a child’s life means that you have created something good that will outlive you.

More research
Kendo instructors of children should maintain their own personal research. The literature covering childhood development, both physical and psychological, is vast. The answers are out there, it is mainly a case of knowing what your question is.

Most of the information in this article is based on experience, not scientifically gathered data. It is designed to be of assistance to those of you who are venturing into teaching kendo to children for the first time. I hope it can be of use to you and that you will build on it with your own observations and experience.

The British Kendo Association has a clear and informative page on this topic, with additional information regarding developmental physiology and psychology at

A book that I have referred to often and found very helpful is Martial Arts Teachers on Teaching, edited by Carol Wiley and published by Frog Press, Berkeley. Although none of the essays deal with kendo specifically, several do focus on teaching children, while others explain how different learning modes (visual, kinesthetic and aural; global vs analytic thinkers, etc) can affect how you teach. It can be previewed on Google books.

** If you are lucky, occasionally these issues will have been medically diagnosed and the parents can explain the implications. Later on, experience will allow you to recognise similar traits or symptoms in other children and adjust your teaching accordingly.

Notes on being an instructor

As I progressed in kendo inevitably I was called upon to start teaching. Some people relish the opportunity to teach, but I became quite apprehensive when faced with a class of people looking expectantly at me awaiting direction and maybe even (gasp!) advice as to how to they should improve. "I can hardly perform basics myself, how can I seriously teach others not that much less experienced than myself?"
This article is attempt to write down on a few things that perhaps would have made my life a bit easier back then.
Follow the pattern
In the beginning it is enough just to run the class. Follow the pattern, you're just a supervisor. Warm-ups, suburi, kihon, uchikomi, kakari, jigeiko: it's a time-honoured sequence that does not need much fiddling with. If my sensei asked beforehand to add in some time practicing some specific technique, I realised it was OK just to repeat sensei's teaching method even down to his exact phraseology. In a sense the junior instructor is a cypher for their sensei and is not expected to display any personal flair or skill. They are not expected to have an interpretation of waza based on their own experience.
As time goes on I was called upon to decide on the actual content of the class. This started with running beginners' classes and taking care of the lower kyu grades. This is where a junior instructor starts to bring their own take on how to perform basics. However in my opinion the gap between a junior instructor's actual grade and the level of the techniques on which they can instruct should be quite large. Here is my own personal metric (YMMV, etc): shodan should not express an opinion on any techniques but simply announce them and call "hajime/yame!"; nidan/sandan can instruct footwork and suburi, basics of kamae and wearing of dogu. Kihon and other waza should only be taught in depth by yondan/godan and above.
Issues of teaching
There are a number of reason for the gulf between technical proficiency and teaching ability:
  • it is one thing to be able to perform an action with one's own body, it's quite another to be able to explain it effectively
  • recognising that different people learn at different rates and often require completely different kinds of instructions to reach the same goal is a subtle skill that requires experience
  • teaching is about closely monitoring and diagnosing the needs of others, not displaying one's own skill for personal gratification
Japanese versus 'Western' teaching methods
As I gained the experience to be able to run an entire class unsupervised, I realised I needed to develop a teaching methodology. In kendo, two conflicting methodologies operate side-by-side in many dojo, very often without the conscious knowledge of the instructors. For argument's sake let's call them the "Japanese approach" and the "Western approach".  Typically the Japanese approach is to make the student perform repetitive drills with little or nothing in the way of advice. Historically, even high-level waza were not explained and it was left up to the individual to observe closely and imitate. The rationale for this approach was that once the student could see a waza, they would also be ready to do it.
The Western approach is frequently characterised as being more analytical. Students usually have the waza explained to them verbally first, then demonstrated, then more verbal explanations follow. Often the waza will be broken down into its component parts, and each one of those practiced, before reassembling them back into sequence. This is seen as being a more time-efficient and student-focused approach, as it allows students to question the instructor and get clarification on specifics of the waza that are pertinent to their individual needs.
Which path is best?
The big disadvantage with the Western analytical approach is that it encourages over-thinking. Students will often mistake a superficial grasp of the main concepts for real understanding. One indicator of this is the ability to perform the waza momentarily but not later on. On the other hand, few 'Westerners' have the patience for the old-school Japanese approach of "three years kirikaeshi, three years uchikomi". There's insufficient cultural conditioning to be able to stay with the apparent neglect of this teaching style. So a hybrid methodology is needed. How to combine these two approaches will differ according to individual instructors and their students.
Learning to observe
As the old saying goes, "God gave us two ears but only one mouth so that we should listen twice as much as we speak." As a guideline for teaching kendo I think this is hard to beat. When in doubt about what to tell my students, I found it was best to tell them nothing. Not being sure about what to say, was, I realised, a sign that I had nothing worth saying right now. So I learned to kept my mouth closed and my eyes and ears open. Actually, I'm still learning that...
I learnt to notice of my students, letting their actions tell me what I needed to do in order to teach them what they needed to know. Some sensei, Japanese in particular, are observing machines. They rarely feedback to their students but when they do, it is worth the wait. Their methodology is to observe intently over very long periods of time. Perhaps the amount of time you spend observing is directly proportional to the depth of the insights to be gained. Whatever the outcome of their advice, as a result, they become masters of observation as much as kendo.
The very best teachers avoid giving advice to themselves when speaking with their students. If you know what I mean then you know how hard that it is. If you don't know what I mean and you're an instructor then you could be doing it without realising.
I do believe in being available for questions from students. However I am frequently struck by how technically unhelpful not only the questions are but more especially my own answers. It is rare that I feel that I ever get it so right that the student has a light-bulb moment. On the other hand the discussion can serve an important social function. Interaction between teacher and student is important and your demeanor as instructor, and the fact that you are open to questions can, in and of itself, be a valuable learning and motivation tool for your students.
Mohan 模範
Mohan means "a model performance of keiko in front of many beginners". This is a really tricky part for those of us who are instructors but whose own kendo is somewhat short of hanshi level. How can we perform an example of a particular waza for our students and do justice to it? How can we do that time and time again without mistakes? How can we avoid the nervousness that comes with being in front of an entire dojo? How can we avoid stuffing up?
Short answer is, we can't.  And we shouldn't. Every now and then you will fluff a seemingly basic men in front of all your adoring students. You will see them knot their eyebrows in puzzlement. You will feel nauseous as you realise you have just slipped a rung in their estimation. Best thing you can do is apologise and try again.
But the thing I have realised is that these moments are to be cherished. When you have the ego knocked out of you in front of your students, it is good for your kendo, and for you as an instructor. It has the following benefits:
  • shows you are human
  • shows that the techniques are difficult
  • shows you are striving to improve just like everyone else
  • shows that striving for improvement is a process that doesn't end
  • shows that you are a decent bloke/sheila because you don't take yourself too seriously
  • makes the technique look even better when you nail it next time
  • gives you instant feedback on what you did wrong – when you do it in front of a crowd, you know
  • forces you to perform under stress, like a grading or shiai
Eventually you will get used to it and these moments will no longer be stressful... at least not until the next time you have to demonstrate a technique that deep-down you know you can't do very well! But keep doing it, stuffing up now and again, and trying again. Your students are watching you for a whole lot more than just how you perform a technique. You were a mohan as soon as you entered the dojo.