November 20, 2015

Goals vs. Justifications

I’m a perfectionist at heart – if I’m going to do something, I want to do it really well.  And if there’s a better way to do it, I want to find it.  This was precisely one of the things that kept me coming back day in and day out to karate training.  Whatever the instructor told me to do, I wanted to do it as best I could.  I was given the task to do, and I did it, because that effort was getting me closer and closer to reaching my goals.  I wanted to be better at each training than I was the day before.  And that can be incredibly motivating as a practitioner.

But it can be frustrating as an instructor.  I now provide the drills for my students – and I want them to be better.  But just being better isn’t a goal in and of itself – we need to know: better at what?  And that’s where goals come in.  Do I want someone to be better able to defend themselves, or better at tournaments, or better on their test, or a better person, or more fit, etc.?  Because different goals require different methods to get there, or at least to get there optimally.  We need to understand what goal(s) we are working towards to be able to define anything as “better.”

It would be easy if the syllabus was a fixed thing that met all of our goals optimally, but with competing goals that can never be the case.  The grading syllabus sets the intermediate milestones toward meeting our training goals, and I believe the milestones should be set by the goals and not the other way around.  More importantly, the syllabus should be open to change when better methods are discovered.  The goals and the necessary building blocks to reach those goals will remain relatively static, while the exact techniques, drills, and training methods should be relatively fluid as we are always striving to find better ways to reach our goals.

Being limited by a static, technique-based syllabus prevents the use of precious and valuable training time working to reach our objectives if our goals don’t align perfectly with that syllabus.  So those of us who have been working with (and teaching) the syllabus for years end up putting a lot of effort into justifying why those elements are there and why they are necessary and why the progression is necessary. But are they? 

If you could start from scratch to try to get someone from zero skill to one of your goals, is there anything that you would change in the syllabus?  For example, I’d throw out 3 step sparring in a heartbeat if students didn’t need to test with it.  Whether your end goal is self-defense or free-sparring, 3 step sparring has no place in the progression.  There is nothing that you get from 3 step sparring that you couldn’t also get from other forms of sparring that we do, and it has the added detriment of teaching poor tactics. 

You can dream up all kinds of things that you are learning or working on in 3 step sparring, or any drill.  But are they necessary/important skills, and would there be a better way to teach them? When the syllabus is handed to us and we don’t have the power to change it, it’s easy to fall into the trap of rationalization.  Working out the syllabus based on goals might look completely different, but even if we end up with things looking the same, I think the intentionality of what we do is important.

To me, the syllabus (or test) should be a checkpoint to make sure that students have all of the skills required at that point in their progression.  And it should clearly progress to an end goal(s) if you look across the entire syllabus.  Karate training has the potential to do so much for students, both physically and mentally.  We can develop some very useful skills through our practice of the martial arts.  But we can’t allow the training and the techniques to be the goal by themselves.  The training needs to be driven by and focused on the skills and abilities that we are trying to develop.  I think we would benefit from defining our goals, identifying the necessary components and skills to achieve them, and working from there to develop a progression that gets our students to be the best they can be as quickly as possible.

Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Sandan