Thoughts on Teaching: Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance, Part 5

After having [established the need for proper class preparation] and giving an [example of real-life planning], I’ll continue this series by giving some additional hints for successful class planning. Also, I’ll point out some pitfalls and hopefully offer ways to avoid them.

I believe that any plan can be judged by at least three critical criteria:

  1. Efficiency
  2. Adaptability / Flexibility
  3. Sensibility

In the following paragraphs, I’ll briefly cover each of them in the context of planning a martial arts class.

Efficiency, aka ‚Your day only has so many hours‘

As a trainer, it’s easy to adopt a lifestyle where pretty much everything revolves around your field of expertise – whether that be martial arts, football or whatever else. Before you know it, you’re spending every waking moment planning future classes or reflecting on the drills you’ve employed recently, making them more time efficient and user-friendly. You’re analyzing fights so you can come up with specific drills and strategies for your fighters. To build better S&C plans, you spend the nights in front of the PC, scanning PubMed or some [S&C journal] for the latest in dynamic neuromuscular stabilization, proprioceptive neurological facilitation, , or some other geeky stuff.

Now while all of that is good and important, the martial arts are all about balance. As an instructor/trainer, this also means finding balance in your daily pursuits. The deeper you’re involved in a certain topic, the more important it becomes to do something completely different, totally unrelated every now and then. [Darius], a friend and mentor of mine, once told me the story of the lumberjack who was so busy chopping wood all day that he forgot to sharpen his ax from time to time. Needless to say, efficiency goes down once the tools get blunt. Even if you’re constantly on the edge, always learning something new (i.e., sharpening that ax of yours all the time), you might still be better of taking it easy every now and then. It’s really hard to motivate people if you’re permanently at the border of a burnout.

Am I suggesting you cut your research time and do a more sloppy job with planning those classes? Absolutely not. Just trying to show you some optimizations regarding time management.

One of the most important tools I have for planning everyday classes (as opposed to special workshops, seminars, etc) is a template. This might just be my academic background in computer science showing up, but I believe that having some standard, based on [best practice], that you can modify and adapt to your needs is a great way to keep class quality up and save you a lot of time. Let me offer you an example here. When I teach family classes, I know that I only have a total of 60 minutes. This includes meditation, coordination training, warm up, technique training and padwork. Therefore, I decided to focus on a different technique each class. That’s a premise, though, no template yet. Here comes the template. Each class needs to include the following:

  • The basic technique (duh)
  • How to use that technique to counter an attack (indirect counter)
  • If applicable: How to use that technique to counter an attack (direct counter)
  • How to defend against the technique
  • How to use the technique as an attack
  • How to use the technique as part of a combination

Now that’s a start. Note that I’m not limiting the class to a single technique – that’s just the main focus.  Here comes the template:

  • 2′ Meditation
  • 5′ Coordination training
  • 10’Warmup
  • 3′ Basic technique
  • 3′ Indirect counter
  • 3′ Direct counter
  • 3′ Defense against technique
  • 3′ Attack
  • 3′ Combination
  • 8′ Padwork
  • 3′ Core training

That’s a total of 46 minutes. The remaining 14 minutes are needed for explanations, a short water break, etc. All I have to do before a class is fill the above grid with actual drills and combinations. That still takes quite a while, but at least I know exactly what kind of drill I’m looking for. No need to spend time on organizational issues.

You could design whatever template suits your style and situation (e.g., I use different templates for family classes, adult classes and combat classes). Just make sure that the template is structured enough to make your job easier yet flexible enough to give you room for all the stuff that needs to be done.

A different aspect to consider is re-usability. Now I’m not suggesting you should repeat complete classes over and over again. That’d be lame, to say the least. Still, it makes sense to remember which drills worked out well. Definitely use those again. After all, drilling is all about repetition anyways… You can also take this recycling approach to other domains, i.e. the organizational. Basically this leaves you with a new template. Whole sequences of drills can work better in a certain order and worse in a different one. Keep the order that works best, use the sequence again in future classes.

If you’re using multiple disjunct groups, don’t feel bad about reusing a whole class. Just like a kick gets better with practice, so do your classes. Again, let me give you an example. In [a school] where I teach 14 hours a week, I have 7 different groups. With each group, I’m basically doing the same stuff. Of course, every thing was planned well in advance. Still, every time I held a particular class, say, class #1 (blocks and evasion), I noticed some nuance that could be improved. After teaching the same stuff for a couple times, I could already anticipate most of the errors the students were going to make and intervene without delay. Of course, since this was the seventh time I taught the very same class (with some minor improvements, just as I said), it was a bit tiresome as well, but that’s ok.  Being a trainer is a job, after all, not a hobby, so it’s alright if a trainer has hard days every now and then. Everyone has, right?

Bottom line: make use of a sensible feedback system. If multiple groups can benefit from the same class, resist the urge to re-invent the wheel every time. Set up a plan, implement it, learn from your mistakes and refine your approach.

Adaptability / Flexibility, aka ’no plan survives contact with the enemy‘
The term ’no plan survives contact with the enemy‘ was coined by [Helmuth von Moltke the Elder]. If you’re interested in history, just follow the link. In this context, however, this just means keeping your options open. 
If you remember [the example] I gave in the last post, you might remember that I planned for two injured (and thus, handicapped) students to attend that class. Hence, I limited the amount of high-impact drills such as kicks (especially of the flying kind) and jumps. Long story short: neither of them showed up. That’s fine, though, because not doing something doesn’t exclude anyone. The other way around, it’s a bit harder. You see, if I had planned a hard session of flying and spinning kicks, the two of them wouldn’t be able to take the class. Just having them stand around in some corner, doing something completely different than everyone else, ain’t an option. At least not in my book. Hence, I’d have to plan ahead and create alternatives.

Let’s go back to the example I’ve outlined for you. In the original plan, it included spinning back kicks as a direct counter against the lead roundhouse kick. Nice thing, just not all too knee-friendly. For a knee-damaged person, a rear push-kick or knee might be the better option. Serves the same purpose (which is to counter a lead roundhouse kick), follows the same principles (i.e., a direct counter on the inside lane against an attack on the outside lane) and spares the knees. Might even go for a spinning elbow or the like. Doesn’t really matter which technique is chosen, as long as it’s accounted for in advance. You can’t cover every scenario, but you have to at least consider the obvious ones.

Before you ask: yes, this might effectively double (or even triple) the amount of work you have to put into class preparation. Pays off, though. Also, once you have a sound concept laid out, switching drills and exercises isn’t that hard.

Now as I said, you can’t cover every scenario, so it makes sense to always have something to fall back onto in case your original plan just won’t work out. That fall-back plan needs to be planned, mind you. For me, this is a kind of specific circuit. Last Tuesday, for example, I had a class planned that dealt with setting up combinations with the lead roundhouse kick. Nice stuff. Usually, the family class on Tuesday is pretty full. Therefore, I have a second instructor to ensure the best possible quality. This time, though, it was only four students. That makes a instructor:student ratio of 1:2. Awesome. Now it’d be a waste to do the planned class, for two reasons:

  1. I want all my students to know that stuff. Hence, the class is effectively postponed until saturday.
  2. A ratio like that offers endless one-to-one time. Not seizing the opportunity to do as much individually tailored padwork as possible would be a shame.

As mentioned, my fall-back class is a specific circuit training, usually consisting of the following stations:

  • Strength exercise
  • Competitive games
  • Shadow sparring
  • One-to-one padwork

That’s an easy template (see above) that can be customized in no time. So, in the blink of an eye, I reduced that template down to the following implementation:

  • Two people work one-to-one with the instructors, doing one round of padwork for each of the following skills
    • Boxing
    • Kicking
    • Kickboxing
    • Muay Thai
    • Self defense (including sprawls, falls, kicking from the ground, etc)
  • The two other people work at a strength station, where the following exercises are performed in a I-go-you-go fashion (alternating ladders from 1 to 5)
    • Push-Up
    • Inverted Row
    • Overhead Squat with broomstick
    • Power Clean with sandbag
    • 1 armed 1 legged deadlift with sandbag

That makes 1 rounds á 2 minutes for every student, five of them one-to-one padwork, the other five strength exercise. Not too bad for a class. Wish I could do that more often. The thing is, though, that this was a rather simple adaptation of a pre-planned template. 

Bottom line: while improvisation might prove necessary, a lot can be done up ahead. Always having a fall-back plan at hand – even if it’s just a standard template that you know well enough to adapt on the spot – is a good thing.

Sensibility
Ok, in a nutshell: the stuff you plan should actually make sense. This one might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s more important than you think.

I believe that probably the most important question you can ask regarding sensibility is: am I abandoning the basics or do I stick to the long-term plan? Of course you can do a class where you don’t practice the basics every once in a while. But no, you can’t always teach new exciting stuff – at least not in my dojo.However, since I’ve covered this in detail in the first part of the series, I won’t bother to elaborate on that one again. That’d be like beating a dead horse. Instead, let’s look at a sensible way to structure a class.

Certain guidelines for exercise progression are well known: simple before complex, known before unknown, etc. Those guidelines must be adhered to in order to achieve maximum teaching results. For example, consider the case where you want to teach your students a 720° kick. Of course, you can’t do this just once and then expect everyone to have mastered that skill. On the other hand, you probably shouldn’t do this very often, either, as it will take up valuable training time that could have been used to master the basics… but that’s long term planning, i.e., a different story. I covered this in the [strategic considerations]. So, for short term planning (i.e., class layout), you could contemplate the following things:

  • For a 720° kick, the students need to know the 540° kick (duh)
  • For the 540° kick, the students need to know the 360° kick (aka tornado kick)
  • For the 360° kick, the students need to know the roundhouse kick
  • On top of the 540° kick, the students need to be able to pull off a spinning hook kick

So this already gives you a framework in which you can operate. The two basic techniques that need to be trained are certainly the roundhouse kick and the spinning hook kick. Following the ’simple to complex‘ line of thought, you should probably start the class by drilling the two of those. From there, you can work up. For example, the following progression has worked quite well in the past:

  • 2′ roundhouse / spinning hook kick combination
  • 2′ roundhouse / spinning hook kick combination w/o setting the kicking leg to the ground
  • 2′ tornado / spinning hook kick combination
  • 2′ tornado / spinning hook kick combination w/o setting the kicking leg to the ground 
  • 2′ 540° kick
  • 2′ 720° kick 

In the above layout, you have to calculate 2 x 6 rounds of 2 minutes each, with say 1 minute rest in between rounds for explanations (2 x 6 x (2 + 1) = 36, round up to 45). In each round, only one aspect is made harder. In round 2, ground contact is limited. After that, ground contact stays limited, only with a different technique (a tornado is pretty much a turn-step/roundhouse kick combination w/o setting the stepping leg to the ground). Round 4 limits ground contact in two moments. You can see where this is going.

Another advantage of going from simple to complex is  that you have safe exit points. That means that at any point, students who can’t progress to the next drill can just stick to whatever stage they’re struggling with. (Perfect) Practice makes perfect, so if someone can’t do round #4, they just stick to that and practice until they can’t. No point in approaching drill #5 without that functional base. Without a progressive approach to things, students can be overwhelmed with the first or second exercise and basically just lose a class (i.e., make no progress whatsoever). That’s undesirable, to say the least.

As calculated above, the 12 rounds needed to build up the 720° take roughly 45 minutes. Remember to always round up when scheduling for time. After at least 30 minutes of warmup (do I need to emphasize the meaning of a proper warmup before practicing something as high-impact as a 720° kick?), this leaves you with 15 minutes of class time (that is, if your classes are 01:30:00 in duration, as mine are). You have to ask yourself ‚what makes sense?‚ when filling that time slot. For me, two things make sense:
  1. Spend even more time on the warm-up. Do  some [prehab] and stability drills, but nothing exhausting. Drill some basic steps such as the turn-step to avoid technical failure at the lowest level.
  2. Finish the class with some [prehab] and stability drills, this time really going all-out with planks, [Pallof presses] (if you can do them at the Dojo) and similar stuff. This will help prepare the students for the next time you practice high-impact stuff.

Sparring, plyometrics, heavy bag or pad work aren’t viable options to finish this kind of class, at least in my book. Too much joint stress in a state where the ability to focus and really pay attention to details has already declined. Also, trying to squeeze in another new technique is insane. Too much information.


Of course, the long term sensibility needs to be taken into consideration as well. The question you need to ask yourself is ‚what actually suits my concept?‚. For example, the above mentioned 720° kick could actually make sense in a combat-centered kickboxing curriculum. Not as a technique to actually score points / win fights with, of course, but rather as a means of practicing technique at a higher difficulty. That’s basic progression. Just imagine how simple a standard roundhouse kick or spinning hook kick feel once you’ve mastered the 720° kick. Doing the same class in a [BJJ] school won’t make much sense. Likewise, practicing takedowns and sprawls probably isn’t what you should be doing if your students focus on tournament kickboxing. Basically, all of this was addressed in the [strategic considerations] before, so I won’t elaborate on the topic again. Just keep in mind that what you do in a single class does indeed bear a meaning on your student’s overall development.

Take away message: Reuse parts of your classes after you refine them, make strong plans that fit the overall concept but stay flexible to a certain degree. As a rule of thumb, don’t do stupid things and don’t waste your student’s time. After all, it’s valuable.

For the moment, this concludes my series on class preparation. I might be expanding on this in the future, but now it’s time to move on to different topics. What are your takes on the issue? I’d love to read about your ideas, so feel free to comment!

So long,

take care

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