UNDERSTANDING YOUR YOUNGER STUDENTS
By Mark V. Lonsdale
In past articles we have discussed the importance of age appropriateness in training, and in understanding the expectations of your students. Just as training children differs from training teens or young adults, each age group also has different expectations from judo training. In this article we will look at the character traits of one particular age group – six-year olds.
One of the great joys of teaching judo is seeing young children learn, develop, and gain confidence through judo. While this can be a frustrating process at times, often compared to “herding cats,” it can also be extremely rewarding, especially when they begin developing levels of agility, balance, and coordination (ABC) not seen previously. Kids that came to you unable to do a simple forward roll or somersault suddenly have the confidence to do dive rolls into the crash pads, cartwheels across the mat, and forward rolling breakfalls.
But more important than the physical development, it is immensely satisfying to see them develop character traits such as confidence, tenacity, and fighting spirit. However, by understanding the development of children at various ages, it is possible to better structure the training sessions and to anticipate behavioral issues. As experienced judo sensei, many of you will recognize and appreciate the following points, but for others it will be like the proverbial light coming on. Suddenly, by appreciating the uniqueness of your youngest students, you will be able to optimize their experiences with judo.
While some clubs take students as young as three or four years old, these programs are generally centered round fun and games, designed for exercise and socialization, as opposed to structured judo training. But by six years these students begin to grasp concepts, can follow instruction, and are able to execute judo techniques, provided the training is fun, challenging and dynamic.
As most parents will know, a six-year old can often go to extremes with little to no moderation in play. They will throw caution to the wind if they feel they are in a safe environment. This can be seen when they begin climbing and find themselves in precarious and sometimes dangerous situations. In judo the danger is that they can be too rough with smaller or weaker students without even realizing they are doing it. This is neither intentional nor bullying. The advantage we have as judo instructors is that we can pair the more aggressive students with other students who are slightly bigger or stronger. We can also pair a student who lacks confidence with a slightly weaker student so that both benefit from the experience.
Six-year olds like to be first and are not above cheating to be the first. They also revel in attention so will try harder or show-off to win the approval of others. Children are also affected by the pressure put on them by their parents to win. This periodically drives them to be violent in games. The problem is not the child but the parents’ misunderstanding of the principles of judo. The parents see throwing and randori as a “win or lose” contest, while, in reality, judo is about cooperating with a partner and trying hard. We value effort, persistence and tenacity over winning, so should constantly stress this in the dojo. Do not allow the parents to cheer on their kids during randori sessions. In fact, don’t allow the parents to interact with the children at all — unless there is a serious injury.
Six-year olds are high energy, very animated, and often talk constantly. Rather than disciplining the child or punishing this behavior, the judo instructor should channel these character traits. A judo training session for children should be almost non-stop games, exercises, and judo drills with a minimum of rest periods. The use of judo games is a good way to trim some of the energy off the class at the beginning of a session. I routinely open the mat a half-hour before class for the kids to practice their breakfalls into the big crash pads or play judo related games. This makes them quieter and more attentive at the formal bow-in. If you have a young student who is constantly talking, invite them out in front of the class to explain the last technique they learned, or repeat back what you just said. That will often cure the talking within a few weeks.
On the subject of undesirable behavior, six-year olds respond better to isolation than punishment. While using exercises such as push-ups has a beneficial side affect, in that they get stronger, being sent to sit quietly at the other end of the mat is more effective. Children fear being separated from the group, but when I use this I give the student an out. I tell them that they can come to me and ask to rejoin the group when they feel they have learned their lesson. This usually takes no more than a minute or two.
Oddly enough, kids appreciate social habits and like rituals and conventions. This is one reason children respond well to judo and other well structured martial arts. From the first day on the mat they see the other children conforming to the traditions and rituals of the dojo and want to be a part of that. Something as simple as tying the belt correctly becomes an important part of the process.
This learning of rituals is not unlike the small child being permitted to serve the guests at a family gathering or learning the rules of a board game. They feel grown up when they learn these social conventions and take pride in doing them well. With martial arts, the Japanese traditions and conventions also conjure up images of Power Rangers, samurai, and ninja warriors – all useful in maintaining the child’s interest and imagination.
Small children are amazed by magic so to be an effective instructor it helps if you can amaze and entertain the younger students from time to time. Something as simple as a well executed foot sweep (ashi-waza) or a big Ippon into the crash pads are seen as “cool tricks” that will amaze the little ones. Six-year olds are also enthusiastic about learning new things, but easily bored if they do not achieve quick success. This is why it is necessary to teach and practice in small increments with readily attainable goals.
As with most young cubs in the animal kingdom, kids love to wrestle and roll around. In child development this is known as “rough & tumble play” and is a sub-set of Socialization in Play found in the related sciences. One problem with this, as stated earlier, is that the six-year old may not know when to stop. While some will be careful not to hurt the other person, others will be swept up in the moment and inadvertently apply full force. They may also not see the difference between wrestling on the mats and the dangers of wrestling on concrete. It is therefore incumbent on the instructor or responsible adult to moderate the play. While in judo we praise effort and fighting spirit, we must also ensure the welfare and safety of both partners.
One tool that the judo instructor can use is introducing young students to randori through newaza. By spending a few weeks on ground fighting and newaza randori, the instructor is able to introduce the students to low intensity judo without the risk of big throws and hard landings. The instructor can also take this a step further by starting the newaza randori sessions with the bigger and stronger students being held by the weaker students.
On the subject of randori, do not expect an excited six-year old to hear your first command. At this age children need three or four chances to comply with a command, so right from day one the students must be conditioned to respond to Matte! and Stop! immediately. These commands are critical safety mechanisms built into judo training, especially when the mats run up to the walls in the dojo.
When it comes to motivating six-year olds, it is well known that young children do not like criticism but they enjoy praise. This goes back to the age-old principle of coaching which encourages saying two positive things before offering criticism. For example, “Your balance breaking was excellent and your commitment to the attack was much better, but your feet are in the wrong position. Let’s try it again with both feet together and in front of Uke’s feet. Remember the pyramid we showed you?” Or, “You are attacking much more in randori and I liked that throw, but then you left Uke lying on the mat and did not follow into newaza. What hold would have worked well as a transition from that throw?”
Finally, and more important than all the notes above, the judo instructor or coach must take the time to get to know the strengths, weaknesses, and personalities of all his or her students. Each child is different so learns in different ways. Some are thinkers while others are doers. The thinkers must be given time and encouragement to think a problem through, while the doers must be encouraged to keep doing an exercise until they get it right. Similarly, the less confident students will need to be encouraged while the overly confident students may need to learn elements of humility. But through all this, keep it fun, interesting, and dynamic, and let your students know that you are there for them.