It began with the warm up.
I can still remember the familiar routine of my first karate classes.
Star jumps, diagonal star jumps, running on the spot and bouncing in a ‘fighting stance’. Then would be the mobility rotations, neck, shoulders, hips, knees, ankles. Having ‘warmed up’ we’d all then engage in static stretching for about 10-15 minutes before engaging in syllabus drills.
The remaining class would be split in three pretty equal slots. We’d start with marching up and down in lines furiously drilling against thin air in ever more complicated (and often ridiculous) but fun and technically demanding combinations. We would then pair up and do fixed sparring drills. Finally we’d finish with kata. Whether it was the two hour class (I’d do six of those a week) or the one hour class (I’d do five of those a week), the template didn’t vary much. It was a practical way of addressing the demands of that syllabus. That’s not necessarily the same thing as addressing the needs of the individual students.
At other Shotokan clubs that I trained with the pattern was fairly similar. As a fairly mobile military dependent I trained at six clubs across five associations before being awarded my Shodan. A number of clubs curtailed the thin air work on a regular basis in favour of hitting pads. Often the length of the three-way split would vary so some sessions might be almost entirely sparring while others might be mainly kata, and then there were occasional ‘thin air beastings’ of hundreds of kicks or punches against thin air for football match lengths of time but without the injury breaks or half time. Quite standard stuff then and for a lot of clubs it’s still the norm.
Aikido was different. The soft art? Pfft. Attack, boom on the deck, jump up, attack, boom on the deck… and repeat. Even mats hit hard when you’re hitting them about 12 times a minute for about half of a 2 hour class. Jumping to your feet again, and again, and again is a really good workout. Warm ups were rolls and breakfalls and then the entire remaining class was sparring. The feel was very different to the distanced Karate classes. A hand- on art required more hands-on coaching, so instruction was far more individual to sparring pairs rather than ‘front of class’ demonstrations.
I’ve trained with a lot of people from a lot of different systems and I’ve also been taught in a lot of different ways in a lot of different fields myself. In my own background I’ve been qualified as a fitness instructor, a karate instructor, a secondary school teacher, a university tutor, an obstacle course instructor, a weapons instructor, a low and high ropes confidence course instructor, a physical intervention and restraint instructor, a conflict management instructor, a first aid instructor, a casualty simulator, a self defence instructor (3 different external groups to my own system), and have held military and civilian qualifications in risk management. I’m not afraid therefore to switch things up, draw on ideas from different fields, and vary my teaching and training methods to try and optimise the opportunities for my students.
Over the years I’ve changed almost every element of what I do in some way. Whether it be techniques, combinations, drills, training methods or ‘warm ups’ everything is subject to a continuous assessment process. When it comes to training and teaching, I am not a sentimental person.
Over the last year, since resuming ‘in person training’ since the last lockdown, I’ve been devoting the majority of my classes to sparring with reduced time on pads and on forms. That’s not surprising given how much time we’ve all had to do ‘thin air’ training whenever guidance has forced us to train online, on pads only or to work with limited numbers of partners.
What I have also changed in the last year is the weighting between static, dynamic and alive sparring. Static being a single attack and response (ideal for learning and refining movements), dynamic being fixed (or multiple choice) failure cascade options such as punch to tackle or boxer’s hug or clinch (ideal for improving positional recognition time and response), and alive being ‘anything goes’ from their repertoire within the compromises set for safety. I changed the weighting of those three from being 40/40/20 to about 20/40/40.
The greater amount of time spent sparring, especially free sparring, over the last year has seen students at all grades improve in position and option recognition and adaptability, in fact it has shortened the time required to gain particular levels of ability across a broad range of skill sets. That’s a strong argument for spending more time sparring.
In my classes kata tends to get squeezed in at the start or the end. I don’t like devoting large amounts of time to the solo rehearsal of movements my students employ in sparring when they actually have training partners to spar with. I’ve been doing kata to teach it and to assess it and expecting students to work on that in their own time at home. I do a lot of kata on my own at home. Examining their kata has shown that for the majority that hasn’t been the case. Even without watching the kata I can generally tell in sparring who will have good kata or not because those that do have greater precision and better biomechanics in the close quarter stand up sparring.
Pad work is a training medium I rate highly. It is so important to hit pads and to learn how to effectively deliver and control force. It is equally important to hold pads, to absorb the impact (and to give accurate and appropriate resistance, not to be a brick wall), to ‘spot’ the striker and to learn to recognise the telegraphs of different movements and to understand angles. Pad work is often be far more physically demanding than sparring because you are actually hitting a target with everything you have again and again. Done correctly it refines skill sets, improves speed and develops stamina.
Using pads in some of my venues is not a problem, they are already kept on site. In other locations I can resemble a squire from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, walking into a Leisure Centre weighed down with kit. This has meant that I don’t always do as much pad work as I’d like in those classes.
It is all about balance. The increased sparring has been great. It has enabled rapid attribute development, but at the slight expense of some of the skill refinement I want to develop. I want both. It’s time for a change.
So what am I doing?
I’m not making permanent changes. Not yet. What I’m currently doing works, it just could be better.
That leads me to believe that rather than introducing permanent lesson format changes what I should do instead is run ‘boot camp’ style ‘Switch Months’ where the lesson format and weighting is altered for a few weeks to help me address a perceived problem or enable students to refine particular skills that they can then hone better in our current format.
So, what am I going to do?
The recent April to December 2021 lesson format has been:
70% Sparring (20% Static, 40% Dynamic, 40% Alive)
The Switch month format will be a three-station rotation in each class:
33% Forms and Ground sparring/rolling (50:50 split)
33% Sparring (25% Static, 25% Dynamic, 50% Alive)
Crucially the grade range of the club will be split each lesson across the three concurrently running stations so that the pace and standard in each element can be influenced by the most senior grades.
How often will I do it? That will be result driven. I anticipate one month in four, but what we do will be driven by how the different training routines reinforce each other.