A change of pace can be one of the absolute best tools for teaching, especially when the students have no idea that you’re showing them one technique but are secretly teaching them something completely different. Mr. Miyagi did it for Daniel in the Karate Kid, and I love doing it to the students I teach.
Getting students to just relax and loosen up during training is one of the most difficult problems a martial arts instructor can face (the only thing more difficult is getting the kids to stop looking at themselves in the mirrors while practicing kata, but that’s an issue for another day!). To amplify the problem, telling a student to “relax” almost always makes them tense up even more because they become focused on relaxing.
While this is something I face during my regular color-belt classes, it was something reinforced in a recent session I was doing with the other black belts at Red Dragon Karate (Go, Team San Dimas!!). There are two students in class who are incredibly stiff in their movements, especially their strikes. They tense up during kata, and even during sparring: their movement tends to be staccato in nature. When we do partner drills for various techniques, their punches are tight, with all muscles clenched, and their elbows lock out.
Upon seeing this, the first thing an instructor will do is yell “Relax!”, causing them to tense up even more.
Seeing the problem, I decided I would address it during the “Mat-Attack” portion of our black belt training (that’s a short period in the middle of class where Sensei Alex lets me free form a bit with the other black belts, teaching them some of the non-curriculum material I know – Wing Chun, Kali/Silat, and Aikido). For the past few weeks, I had been teaching the class various Kali and Wing Chun upper body techniques – strikes, blocks, and entries. Seeing the need for some loosening up, I showed the group some very basic Hubud work from Kali. For those who don’t know, Hubud is a structured combat flow that gets martial artists used to blocking and striking in close through repetition. It’s great when used as a tool, especially as it turns into free-flowing sparring when you’re more experience.
I partnered up with one of the tense students and began working on the first Hubud set…and it was a disaster! He blocks/strikes were slow and incredibly tight. He looked and felt either stressed or constipated, I couldn’t decide which. Of course, I told him to loosen up and relax. Upon uttering those words, the black belt became so tense I was pretty sure his rectum could squeeze a lump of coal into a diamond…something that would do wonders for my bank account, but didn’t help the drill at all.
So what did I do? I smiled.
That was it.
I let a smile creep onto my face. And do you know what he did? He smiled back…and loosened up. His blocks and strikes because more fluid, less like an iron bar and more like a whip. The best part was he didn’t even realize it.
This fellow student and I wound up being the fastest in class with the first few sets of Hubuds and all it took was me grinning like an idiot. I generally look like an idiot anyway so it was a very small price to pay.
That’s my biggest recommendation: try something a little different and then smile. It’s hard to be tense when you’re smiling.
Oh, Ralph Macchio, you were so dreamy
Here are 4 more ways to get a student (or yourself!) to loosen up while they train.
1. Breathe! I need to listen to this tip more while I perform at tournaments, as well. Breathing, good, deep breathing from down in your diaphragm will cause your entire body to relax.
2. Open your mouth! In through your nose, out through your mouth. Opening your mouth just a little allows you to keep your jaws from clenching, something that causes shoulders to stiffen.
3. Stretch your shoulders before a session and don’t tighten your chest muscles during punching. Loose shoulders allow you to stay relaxed during the first part of your punch, which is a good thing! If you clench your chest during a punch, it locks your joints and slows down your punching speed.
4. Focus on speed as much as power. While all of us want to be able to deliver the strongest, most devastating punches around, having speed is just as important.
That’s it from the Dojo today. To paraphrase the great Dalton (from Roadhouse), “Relax…until it’s time to not relax.”
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