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Who's Teaching Who?

Thirty-nine years ago, when I first started martial arts, it was all about discipline. You subjugated your preferences and comforts in order to follow a regime that would, eventually, lead you to somewhere you thought you wanted to go. Of course, I was a huge fan of Bruce Lee and thought if I could gain just a fraction of his skills I would be prepared to endure all manner of discomfort. And so we stood in Kiba-dachi (horse stance) for an eternity and did push-ups on our knuckles while we were hit with sticks. We punched roofing tiles and plunged our hands into sand. We ignored the sweat dripping off our faces as we front-kicked our way up and down the hall.

But that was a generation ago and in today’s world it seems crazy to even consider methods such as these for imparting any discipline on our kids. And that has me worried.

So, what has changed?

The values of society are different now and, to be fair, most of that is for the better. However, even though the central theme of this article is not generational comparison, I would like to briefly outline the things that have changed recently and the negative effect I think those changes are having.


We seem to be absolutely hell-bent on ensuring our kids don’t go through anything difficult in their loves, especially avoiding anything that might cause them emotional harm. We “wrap them in bubble wrap”, as the colloquialism goes. We’ve become so conditioned to the idea that the world is a harsh place that we try to raise our children in a way that sees them untouched by this harshness. BUT, in the same way that a pencil is sharpened against something hard, our ability to cope with the big challenges in our lives come from developing the coping muscles, made strong by going through little trials and tribulations along the way. If we avoid those little perturbations, we don’t have the fortitude to manage the bigger ones when they inevitably appear. Kids are not often asked by their parents to do much outside their comfort zone, in case they get upset. Consider the way we have removed scoring from junior league matches or the way every child gets a ribbon in a race or a participation medal. Is that to stop them feel disappointment at having lost or failed? Why? That will prepare them for times in the future when they WILL fail. And failing is what we need them to do, because most great successes have come with great failures littering their trail.

Teachers in our education systems often complain how they battle the kids all day and then battle the parents when it comes time to discuss the child’s lack of attention, lack of focus and poor grades. Once upon a time parents supported teachers and furthered their message at home. Now, they confront the teachers in support of the child and the system breaks down. The child gets the message that the world and the system bend around their needs and their whims.

So, who’s teaching who?

Ask your child to sit and do a jigsaw puzzle. To stare for hours at pieces that don’t move and don’t make a sound in the hope that they will eventually be arranged in the right order to make a picture that doesn’t move or make a sound; that doesn’t fight them or shoot laser beams. Consider the concentration that must be uploaded into this task, only to have a tiny, eventual downloaded reward of seeing a piece fall into place and, ultimately, to have the completed arrangement look “nice”. What is surprising is how good it feels to accomplish this task, but what also must be acknowledged is that the reward is gentle and the “rush” is small. 

BUT, the immense value of such an activity cannot be overstated. The concentration built from such activities will develop their attention span, which will see them through school and thriving in the workplace. The contentment in quietude will find them able to see the beauty in the small things and not constantly seek grand entertainment for fulfillment. The decrease in stimulus will enhance their inner peace and natural coping mechanisms. 

And, speaking of entertainment for fulfillment …


As our kids grow we give them the latest in gadgets. We are all familiar with the term “electronic babysitter”. The problem with these gadgets is, in a nutshell, they over-stimulate the kids. In fact, it’s not just kids that get over-stimulated by them. Anyone can be pulled into their gravity well. Forgive me for simply cutting and pasting from another article here, but noted blogger, Angelique O’Rourke, explains the situation beautifully. She says:

 ““Screen time,” or time spent staring at a screen on a device, is linked to a lot of negative influences on our brains, from disturbed sleep patterns, to—you guessed it—our attention spans.

Why is that? The short answer is that when our brain identifies something as a “reward,” we feel the positive effects of the naturally-occurring brain chemical, dopamine.

Novelty, such as a notification popping up on your phone (especially a novelty that is already linked to something positive like a social connection or progress in a game) registers as a reward to your brain.

Screens are essentially a reward-factory for the brain: points on a video game? Dopamine. Friend request on Facebook? Dopamine.

And you know what pales in comparison to a dopamine rush from stimulation on a screen? Sustained attention on an activity or task that isn’t providing any immediate reward.”

The rewards from the martial arts (and, in fact, most activities where mastery of some sort is desired) require prolonged study, participation and practice. The gratification is not instant. And, in a very real sense that is, in itself, the reason the rewards are so profound. You have to wait and earn them!! You have to show determination and grit and resolve. A black belt in some martial arts takes many, many years of toil, which is why the appreciation for the feat is universally expressed. The movie character, Mr Han, from the Bruce Lee movie, Enter the Dragon, says at one stage, “We are unique, gentlemen. Through years of rigorous training we forge our bodies in the fire of our will.” This is a feature of the martial arts.

Think about the years it takes to achieve a university degree. Think about how long it takes to learn a language, to become a concert pianist or to achieve certification as a master builder. They are not immediate rewards and, thus, they are accompanied by hearty congratulations and fanfare.

Screens, on the other hand, have been designed to offer stimulation every 3 seconds!! The watcher is provided a hit of dopamine so often that it makes screen activities gratifying and, ultimately, addictive. But, instead of creating games and activities designed to increase focus and concentration, we continue to cater to these ever-diminishing attention spans, even in the way our education packages are developed!

In developing my online education programs I am now forced into condensing the information into glib sound-bytes, accompanied by video snippets, explainer cartoons and exciting images. Not only that, this information must be presented in a package that is no longer than 20 minutes!!! Why? Because nobody will pay attention to anything longer than that!!! In this hurried and harried world we are simply trying to ingest too much at once, but nothing has any substance. Like fast food we live on a diet of anything we can jam into our system, but, just like fast food, most of what we cram in there doesn’t belong and is doing us no good!

So, who’s teaching who?

Martial Arts Today

Martial arts schools have so much to offer, most of which is actually not immediately apparent. There are, of course, the fitness and self-defence components that are the obvious drawcard. But, along with sustained training in a disciplined art comes character-building traits, such as confidence, humility, determination, concentration, focus and self-discipline. 

Unless we make it all about stimulation! 

I DO AGREE there is a place for all manner of activities in this universe, even the Daddy Daycare karate facilities and McDojos. BUT, have those types of facilities sprung up simply because of the pressure of modern society to provide kids with entertainment and stimulation? Have legitimate schools made the fiscal decision to modify their structure and curriculum in order to attract more students? Absolutely. Most martial arts schools offer stripes and badges to decrease the gap between rewards and gratification, rather than having their students endure a longer wait between rewards. In addition, many have altered their syllabus to provide the kids the stimulation they crave, by inserting games, under the label ‘martial arts activities’.  Some of these are effective, but many are simply catering to a world that wants to be jolted every 3 seconds. 

When interviewing a parent and child for potential enrolment in my dojo, should I tell them up front and frankly that mine is a place of discipline and concentration, where determination, focus and hard work are rewarded, or should I make sure the parent knows their child won’t be exposed to anything that will have a deleterious effect on their emotions and wellbeing? Should I assure them that fun is the theme of the studio and that community, teamwork, mateship and cooperation are central tenets? 

Now, if your reaction is to wonder why those things are so bad, I would ask you to consider where else fun, community, teamwork, mateship and cooperation are offered (hint: pretty much EVERY other sporting activity). I would also ask you to consider that the foundational benefits of martial arts are (and forever must be) something slightly different to those.

I would ask you to consider more often letting your kids suffer through the agonizing torment of having to delay gratification, because if we’ve even modified slightly our training environment to suit the kids (and NOT modified the kids to suit the training environment), then who’s teaching who?

(Hey adults … also, consider how many times we look at articles of this length and don’t read them because of the time it will take and the small reward at the conclusion.)


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