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Friendly Class Competition Reduces Basics' Boredom

By Deb Cupples


Repetition is critical to the improvement of technique. But finding ways to disguise the same old thing can diminish enthusiasm from both students and instructors. Injecting new life into old techniques, however, is not as difficult as you might think. Try this approach.


Inspiration sometimes comes from the most unassuming places. It may be hard to believe, but the inspiration I had for putting a new face on old teaching techniques came from a story that I was told, many years ago, in my teens. It’s a simple story about innovation to motivate out of desperation.

Here’s the story that crept back into my mind some 30-plus years later, and how it helped me keep the fire burning during classes when I’m not teaching anything new, but sewing down the seams of basic training.

I was told the following story when I was in my teens and it has stuck with me since then. It’s a simple story about a small town and how one man’s creativity saved the economic futures of many families. This story took place many years ago, although it could have taken place in present day, now that I’m thinking about it. It’s timeless!

There once was an old industrial, blue-collar town with a large manufacturing facility. Nearly every person, at some point, had been employed at this facility. And if you weren’t employed there, your mom, dad, uncle or cousin was.

ABC Manufacturing Facility manufactured widgets and had a long history of having top-notch leadership and high-volume production. Unfortunately, the factory had long ago hit its high point and was now in danger of closing down due to poor performance and subsequent outsourcing.

Attempts over the last five years to increase productivity at the factory included several different management changes. They not only failed to reinvigorate current employees, but also sickened morale and impeded production. It seemed as though, one-by-one, employees of the plant lost their drive. And once they did, it didn’t take very long to extinguish the spark that was left in doing mundane tasks day-in and day-out, by the same people, at the same stations.

One cold winter day, news started to get around that the plant was in danger of closing. Although everyone probably already knew it was inevitable, this is when things began to get worse. Workers were no longer showing up on time and were asking to leave early, in addition to calling in and using up sick time. They were literally sick and tired of doing the same thing over and over again. They had lost the drive to do their best.

The Mysterious Number 63

Things looked bleak until one day, the morning shift arrived and found a bright orange “63” spray-painted on the ground. It seemed like nobody knew what the number was for, or who put it there. It was a mystery! It was the topic of discussion during breaks with employees guessing what on earth that number could stand for.

“Is it the number of days until the plant closes?” “Is it the number of employees being let go this week?” There wasn’t a single guess in the positive direction as to what this number was.

As the afternoon crew came in, the morning crew pointed out the number on the ground and created that much more curiosity for the incoming shift. Just as the first shift hypothesized about the mysterious figure, so did this shift. They were captivated, confused, and mostly worried about just what that number could symbolize.

As the afternoon shift finished up their tasks and were getting ready to leave, the night crew was coming in. As the first shift shared with second shift, so did the second shift share with the third, alerting them to the bright orange “63” on the ground.

This is when Gary, a lifelong employee, spoke up and let the afternoon crew know that he was the one who spray-painted the number on the ground. Astounded and looking somewhat relieved that it was one of their own who painted the number on the ground, they begged him to tell them what it was for! That’s when he revealed to the crew who had finished their shift that it was how many complete widgets they had assembled during the third shift last night.

And with that simple explanation, he clocked in and took his place on the manufacturing line. You can imagine the relief that the outgoing crew felt, along with a sense of urgency to return and show Gary that they didn’t find his little graffiti very funny! They would show him how many widgets a good crew could put together during a shift and it certainly wouldn’t be a measly 63!

Well, at the end of the night, Gary crossed out the “63” and painted an even larger “71” next to it, again in bright orange paint. He had inspired his own team to be 10% more productive just by revealing the idea behind the number in the first place.

The morning shift came in. Now that word had gotten around about the puzzling number on the ground, they, too, pushed a little harder than usual. At the end of their shift, they crossed out “71” and replaced it with “74” — and proudly bragged to the afternoon shift.

This went back and forth for about three weeks until the number that was on the ground was “175!” Gary’s creative idea had nearly tripled production! Further, it cost him nothing more than a can of spray paint and the belief that he could make a difference with a little bit of friendly competition.

Finding Commonality Helped to Find a Solution

You might not think that a manufacturing facility and a martial arts school have much in common, but they do. And while I can’t take credit for Gary’s creative vision to motivate an entire manufacturing facility, I can certainly apply his methodology in a similar way to persuade my students to find new vitality in seemingly monotonous techniques.

Think about it. Both manufacturing personnel and karate students perform the same tasks over and over again. They both have the same employees/students attending shifts/classes every week. They both need employees/students to stay in business and they both expect someone to lead them to success.

While it is inherently more obvious to a factory employee why he/she needs to repeat their tasks day in and day out, it is not necessarily as obvious to a martial arts student. A factory worker knows that he/she needs to repeat tasks to receive a paycheck; however, a student training in martial arts doesn’t always understand that he or she needs a similar repetition to improve techniques over time.

It can be very difficult for some students to understand the idea that, until practice occurs regularly and repetitively, they will not improve. In fact, most students will not practice outside the classroom. It is for this reason that repetition is key to success and that we, as instructors, need to provide a variety of lessons featuring the same technique. This approach is key to insure the future success and subsequent promotion of our students.

This connection of factory employees and martial arts students is a perfect analogy to explain why we need to derive creativity from repetition. It’s good for us to think about motivation, success and determination and to change the perception from boring to blazing. Everyone can benefit from one small idea, from one man, from one story.


Why You Need Creativity

Students get bored much more easily these days. While I’m certain I don’t need to get into the fast-paced lives we live or the instant gratification that some people expect, I feel that I need to at least acknowledge that it exists.

Incentive found through competing inspired me and brought life into how I get students to practice basic techniques when the same old repetition isn’t cutting it anymore. Basically, I asked myself how could creativity overcome the expectation that repetition is boring? How can we convince our students that hard work can be fun and rewarding in a world that’s so much different from the one in which we grew up?

Well, let’s take a look — an honest look — at how some of us are still teaching. We all know the drill: The instructor tells the class to spread out on the mat. Then he or she demonstrates a specific technique and counts out repetitions while the class performs that technique. Students oblige the instructor and repeat the techniques as is expected, and class goes on as usual.

Although the repetition of basic techniques is necessary, it gets tedious and boring for students who are used to a quick fix. And while we aren’t really here to cater to every little boredom complaint, we have to recognize that bored students are less likely to do their best and more likely to think twice about returning to class if there doesn’t seem to be relief from repetition.

We want our students to do their best and we certainly hope that they look forward to their next class. So, instead of falling into the rut of teaching basics the same old way, inject the following fun, competitive activities into your classes every once in a while and watch your students come alive. You’ll not only infuse your students with energy, but you will find yourself more excited to get on the mat with the anticipation of a successful class is about to come together right in front of you.

Here’s Where It All Comes Together

Start out by asking your class to line up for basics and count out two or three different techniques to warm them up. Now, it’s time to tell them you have a great idea. Really pump it up and get them excited for something new. Once you have got your class ready for this powerful new alternative to basics boredom, you’re ready to get moving!

You will need to divide your class up into teams, making sure that they are evenly distributed with a mixture of ranks and ages. You’ll need team captains or leaders for each team.

I like to choose team leaders by asking the class questions like, “Who made their bed today?” Or, “Who used good manners today?” If you have an older group of students, change the criteria for choosing team leaders to something like, “Who decided to be polite in traffic today?” Or, “Who helped someone at work feel appreciated today?”

Feel free to use your own ideas; these are just some suggestions to get you started.

Once I’ve chosen a few leaders, I have them pick their teams. However, I steer clear of the normal way of picking teams, where kids pick their friends and their favorites and then the same kids get picked last. I try to even up the teams by asking the team leader to pick someone who is older than them, taller than them, a higher rank than them, etc.

This way, in my head, I’m creating teams that each have equally varied skill levels, ranks and ages.

Next, you need to set up your Century Wavemaster bags or arm students with Century Body Shields and have each team line up in front of their team’s bag. After you’ve got them lined up, let them decide who is going to first, second, third and so on.

If you choose a Body Shield, decide ahead of time if you’re going to rotate students to hold the shield or if one person is going to hold the shield during the entire exercise. If you choose the same person to be the pad holder, be careful to ensure that they are up to the task.

Now, it’s time to instruct your teams that, one at a time, each student is going to step up to the bag and perform a roundhouse kick. Then, without putting their kicking leg back on the floor, repeat the kick over and over while the rest of the team counts out the kicks.

I chose roundhouse kicks as an example technique. Of course, you can tailor this “game” to any technique you feel that your students need to practice more.

Once their kicking leg touches the floor, or the technique doesn’t measure up to standards, that student’s turn is over and he or she moves to the back of the line. This is a good time to demonstrate what you consider good technique and what would disqualify a kick, so that everyone is on board with the rules. You won’t have to stop the competition to answer questions about whether something is allowed.

It’s always best to give a good, clear idea about expectations beforehand. Tell your team that the next student in line does the same thing until time is up. I have found that five minutes is a good amount of time for each student to have at least a few turns at kicking the bag before the game is over. You should also ask for a few parent volunteers to write down how many consecutive kicks each member of the team has performed.

Students waiting in line are instructed to stand in a horse/front/back stance or do push-ups or some other stationary task to keep them active while cheering on their teammates.

At the end of five minutes, the parent-volunteers tally up the individual kicks into a combined team score. Each of the volunteers announces the grand total for their team, emitting a round of applause on each team’s score.

Finally, the winning team receives a round of applause and bragging rights for the highest number of kicks! The excitement in the room will be something that everyone will remember.

A Few More Tips

A little tip to keep the energy level high during this exercise is to announce when each minute has gone by. Then begin to let everyone know when there is one minute left, 30 seconds left, and, finally, when only 10 seconds remain. At this point, everyone starts counting down: “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one!”

Make sure that you keep an eye on students who aren’t doing well and stand by them to encourage them. You can even help them with balance if you think it will boost their confidence. Just make sure you help each team equally to keep the playing field fair.

The Bottom Line Is Newly Motivated Students

Disguising repetition as a challenge between students, or teams of students, is the perfect way to infuse new energy into a technique that students have been practicing for years. In keeping with the sidebar story about the manufacturing plant (see “Where Inspiration Began”), I created a competition between students to see how many roundhouse kicks a group of students can perform compared to another group of students.

After realizing how very motivated and pumped up the winning team was, I decided to put that number up on the bulletin board for the next time we have a roundhouse-kick competition. This drill not only gets repetition done in a fun way, but also fosters teamwork. Students who would normally complain that they are too tired to do 25 kicks are now begging to have just 30 more seconds to see how many times they can roundhouse kick the bag.

Adding Future Competition

You can further this competition by adding up the total amount of kicks by all teams and telling the next class that the previous class performed 413 round kicks today. Then tell them that you think that this class just might be able to beat that number. Would they like a chance to say that they outkicked the 5:00 p.m. Thursday class?

I guarantee that you will create a renewed passion for whatever technique you choose. This drill will become a highly requested activity in your martial arts school. If you’re looking to increase attendance in a certain class, announce that it’s going to be “Team Kick Day” next week during the 6:00 p.m. class on Wednesday. Tell students to come hydrated and ready to out-kick their classmates. It’s a good camaraderie-builder for everyone involved.

Use Variety to Spice Things Up

Start to trust and use your own creativity for the next variations. Next time around, you could choose a different technique, or ask for combos. Make sure that you consider your class demographic while coming up with variations. If you choose a class with higher ranks and really want to ramp up the workout and the energy, choose a switch-kick combination.

For example, have students warm up with basic round, side, front and hook kicks. Then have them perform and repeat a front to side kick using the same criteria as the original game. You can then move on to any combination that makes sense for your style of martial arts.

Of course, in a lower-ranked or younger class, you want to stick with something simpler, that students actually have the ability to perform well. What you don’t want to end up with is a bunch of unprepared students who now feel humiliated; that’s the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve here!

You want to encourage, not discourage, with this fun activity. Keep it simple at first. But then, as its popularity grows, continue to branch out into new ways of re-inventing this game. You’ll always have something to fall back on when it comes to practicing the same old thing.

What Inspires You?

I’ve shared a little anecdote in my sidebar about what inspired me to create something new for my students. It was a story about determination and perseverance and how one person’s idea can make all the difference.

You should take a few minutes to think about what you did to turn yourself around when you “hit the wall” the last time you were training. Was there a story behind it? Was there a mentor who helped to give you some extra encouragement? Maybe there was something in your past that helped you to persevere through the monotonous, but critical, training that you needed to get to the next level.

Uncover creativity through your own personal successes. It doesn’t have to be a complex idea. In fact, it should start with something very simple, like kicking a bag over and over again and turning it into a competition. There’s some creativity hiding in there somewhere; you just have to dig around to find it.

While these ideas come easy to me, I know that not everyone is able to come up with new ways to teach. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Talk with your instructors, parents, friends, peers and ask them how they find their inspiration. You never know where your next idea will come from and the excitement that it might bring to your classroom.


Deb Cupples, 4th-degree black belt, is the founder and chief instructor of Community Karate and Fitness in Colorado Springs, CO. Her inspiration to infuse enthusiasm in teaching martial arts is endless. She can be reached at: [email protected]

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