Monday, March 14, 2011

Kids Like Armbars & Other Things I Learned from Teaching

The judo class at Gompers Middle School is the opposite of everything you have heard about inner-city schools in general, or Watts or  Gompers .

The students are polite, funny and hard-working. The teacher who supervises the judo program, the chair of the social studies department, is dedicated and caring as any teacher you'll find anywhere.

It's a lot of fun teaching there. It's also educational, for me as well as the students. I've taught every age from preschool to doctoral students, but I'd have to say that I've always found teenagers the most fun to teach. (Now, parenting , that's a whole different topic you don't want to get me started on.) It's even more fun than usual teaching at the middle school because these are kids who are not likely to be competing any time soon, if at all, except within their own class, so we can do whatever we want in whatever order we want.

I was thinking about this the other day after observing a coach having a terrible time at a practice getting the students to pay attention, be respectful and work hard - kind of basic requirements for a good practice. Another spectator said to me,
"You can't blame the coach. Everyone knows that middle school is the absolute worst age to have to do anything."

I told him that I disagreed. When I watched the same coach, who was new and inexperienced, I have to add, there were major differences in how I would have run practice. Both of us had a "lesson plan", with specific ideas of what would be covered that day. Neither of us was willing to tolerate much time off task while the students were just goofing off. Both of us had a group of energetic students who had been sitting at desks all day and just got out of school. We both had students who were inclined to yell out questions, both relevant and irrelevant.

There the similarities ended. The other coach had a very strict schedule. The students were going to do this drill to warm up, then this other drill for 15 minutes and so on, for the whole practice. There was no explanation at the beginning of what was going to happen during practice or why. When students asked questions, the answer was, "Because I said so."

I started practice on Friday by asking the students what they had learned the previous practice when they had a guest instructor while I was out of town. (Thanks to Richard Elizalde, by the way, for covering for me.)  Of course, I knew what he had taught them, but what students are taught and what they remember can be two very different things. I was pleased to see that they remembered the name of the throw (uchi mata), and they even showed me how to do it, with different students adding their piece, like how to grip, how to use your hand when you come in to kind of punch the person in the jaw.

Now, I'm sure there are purists who would say that's a terrible way to teach uchi mata, and you should never punch someone in the jaw. If it makes you feel any better, one young lady told me she didn't appreciate getting hit in the jaw, so she had to throw the instructor to teach him a lesson.

I told them since they had learned a forward throw from one grip we were going to do a different forward throw, ippon seoi nage. I explained to them that this was used in movies if you watch closely, you'll see someone throwing a punch and getting thrown with a shoulder throw. I asked how many were in 7th grade or 8th grade. I happen to know, since my second daughter teaches middle school history, that they all learned about medieval Japan in seventh grade. We talked about what they learned about samurai and armor, with everyone jumping in to contribute what they remembered. I explained that in a real fight that no one really punches you like in kata, but that it's good to learn because in a tournament people will actually come in to get a high grip and you can block it then. Besides, we live in Los Angeles and you never know, there are jobs doing stunt work out there and most of them involve fight scenes.

What kid in middle school doesn't like the idea of himself or herself being in a movie? Well, not me, actually, but a lot of kids do.

So, we started out with what they knew. I explained what we were going to do next. I related it to some other stuff they knew outside of judo. They all did a fine job doing ippon seoi. Next, we did tani otoshi, in part because I just like that throw, but I explained to them that in real life, people often grab you in a head lock try to punch you in the face. Just go with it, then, throw your head into the person's chest (literally using your head) while you lock one arm around their waist and slide your foot behind.

So much for movie fight scenes and self-defense. Half the class time had passed and I said it was time for matwork. I do have my rigid class schedule in that I try to do exactly half matwork and half standing. I explained to the students that I always did that because you can win three ways on the mat, but you start standing, so you know that every match will have standing techniques in it. On the other hand, most people don't do enough matwork, so if you make that half of your practice, it will be an advantage for you.

Since these students are all very new, they equally need pins, chokes and armbars. I told them that and then asked which they would like to learn. Most of them shouted out immediately,
"Arm bars !"

I am sure there is a manual some place that says you shouldn't do that and in the U.S. we don't allow kids to do armbars in competition until they are 17, except for high school nationals. In northern California, they don't let anyone below a black belt do arm bars. However, as Gary Butts and Sam Garcia, fellow instructors at the West Coast Judo Training Center, never tire of pointing out to me, little kids are allowed to do arm bars in jiu-jitsu and it doesn't make sense that the same kids are all of a sudden too delicate when they go to judo class the next day. So, armbars it was.

We did juji gatame from ippon seoi - where you throw the person and then just step over with your right foot (assuming it was a right-handed shoulder throw), sit down as close to the shoulder as you can and arch. We worked on locking the arm tight against your body and using your body to exert pressure, rather than using your arms. Then we did a second variation of juji gatame from when you are on your back being attacked.

This was about the time someone yelled,
"Can we play a game?"
All coaches hear this all the time, and I said, "Yes!" Because I know that kids always want to play a game so in my sneaky coach playbook I had a particular game I wanted to do that led into the next thing (a choke).

We played the game Crocodiles, where you get a point every time you crawl over someone's back. (The game is played with everyone on their stomachs on the mat.)

After we played for a few minutes, I called everyone together and explained that the game was useful for learning to keep people off your back and be aware of where your opponent is on the mat. Then, I explained that one reason it was bad if a person got on your back was that you could be choked. I taught a choke from behind, we all practiced it, then played another game of Crocodiles, this time, trying to get on people's backs and choke them. By then, no one could believe practice was over and it was time to go home.

So, what did I learn? What I suggested for the other coach was this:
  1. LISTEN to your students. Let them talk. This is particularly true for after-school programs where they are wound up from being at a desk all day. Start off by asking them something that will be relevant to the practice and get it all out (or, at least some of it) at the beginning. Maybe it will give you an idea about the day's practice. 
  2. LET THE STUDENTS HAVE A SAY. I had decided in advance we were going to do half groundwork and half standing but what techniques we did in matwork were up to them. The first time a student asked to play a game we were doing arm bars, but the second time someone asked, I said, okay, and we played the game I had planned. (I knew someone would ask because someone ALWAYS asks.)
  3. HAVE A PLAN but even when you have a plan, modify that to the class and to the students. I had planned to cover the choke and play that particular game as a lead in to it. The order we did it in was not important. We could have done the choke before the armbar. We could have not done armbars at all if the students had just wanted to do chokes.
I have seen young coaches get in a vicious cycle where they feel that the students don't respect them so they crack down more, are more rigid, so the students resent them more and try to get away with more and it just gets worse and worse. In my experience, if you let students have some time to talk, when it is appropriate to do so without disrupting your class, then they are more likely to be quiet when you need them to listen. If you listen to them, they'll listen to you more. If you answer questions respectfully and consider their preferences, they're more likely to do the same to you.

Oh, and kids like armbars.


Zacky Chan said...

As someone who volunteered to help out with middle school football, and is now an assistant English teacher in a Japanese high school, I couldn't agree more. As I read this, I went over oh-so many failures of mine, especially with football, where I ended up yelling instead of communicating, and answering questions with "Because I said so" instead of ANYTHING ELSE but that. I'm not sure if I've started having more success than failure yet, but I've found communication and cooperation are absolutley key. Now I'm trying to figure out how to do it with some Japanese high school students who could care less about learning English.

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