Include A Lot Of Variety
Every once in a while the question, “What makes a good sensei?” comes up for discussion. There are many valid answers for this question but this post is going to take a different approach to the standard responses. This month will continue the series looking at what makes a good training session. Since the sensei runs the session, a good training session requires a good sensei. The inference being that if you do these things then you will improve as a sensei. This post will be considering that the session should include a lot of variety.
Before we get too far into this it’s important to have some background. Studies have been carried out into elite athletes to discover what, precisely, they look for in an effective coach. Rushall (1995, Think And Act Like a Champion) observed that, “There is a group of overt and covert behaviours that are common to sporting champions”. Of particular interest is that he claimed this list was unchanging. Rushall researched the behaviours of 155 champions and record-holders over a 20 year period. What he discovered was that there were no differences between the old champions and today’s. The basic core values remained the same. Of the items identified by Rushall as being the habits of champions, 10 of them are under the direct control of the coach. The fifth of these is that excellent coaching sessions include a lot of variety.
Every sensei was at one point a student, and many of us still are. Every student out there knows one thing for certain, doing the same technique for a long time gets super boring. Your brain turns off and you start to phone it in.
The good news is that there are plenty of ways to combat this boredom from setting in. The most obvious is to include a lot of variety. There are some limits on how you can go about introducing that variety and still have a productive training session though.
Back in the first post of this series I noted that I break my training sessions down into 15 minute chunks. 5 minutes to teach the technique (including the ukemi), and 10 minutes for them to practice it. That’s a very specific timing and it was chosen for a reason. Neuroscience has revealed some fascinating things about the human brain. The first is that we have 10 minute attention spans. Given a topic that isn’t too boring that’s about how long you get before people start clock watching. You can reset that clock by breaking the pattern of what you’re doing. In a presentation you’d need to inject some humour, in an aikido session it’s time to change the technique.
It’s a very simple thing, but sticking to that 10 minute practice window keeps students engaged through the entire session. Allowing 5 minutes to teach provides plenty of time to get across all the points you need to make at a range of levels. 5th kyus don’t need to know the same things as 3rd dans, but they all need to know something. If you are teaching the ukemi as well, which you should be, then there’s time to do that too.
The final benefit of this system is that it makes planning the session much easier. In most dojos sessions run to full hours or half hours. 15 minute chunks divide into this very easily.
Variety Does Not Mean Random
When introducing variety into a training session it still needs to be constructive. This is less of a danger if the session is planned in advance, but could still occur. When planning out a session most sensei will want to have an overall theme to it. The teachings and techniques are then chosen and taught in a way to promote that theme.
Creating variety does not mean having 10 different themes. It means structuring the lesson to keep it interesting while pursuing a single theme. Consider a class where the theme was shomen uchi ikkyo. There is not a lot of obvious variety there. Most people may think there’s only omote and ura. That may be true but there’s also the strike. Shomen uchi with a bokken, and shomen uchi with an empty hand. If you adopt the 15 minute time frame that’s just filled up an hour long class.
You might think that having 15 minutes of empty hand shomen uchi striking is not feasible, but it is. Again, you simply have to consider the variety. If it were my class it would look like this:
- 2 minutes to demonstrate shomen uchi (= 2 mins)
- 5 minutes to practice striking shomen uchi on a pad (= 7 mins)
- 3 minutes to demonstrate shomen uchi strike dodging (= 10 mins)
- 5 minutes to practice shomen uchi strike dodging (= 15 mins)
There’s a lot of variety there and it fills 15 minutes of the class while providing real value to future lessons.
Not only should the variety be relevant to the theme of the session, it should also be relevant to the general training goals. If the overall purpose of training in your dojo is to develop flow then a drill that requires heavy static resistance may not be the best idea. If it’s self-defence then most things should really promote the behaviours needed for self-defence.
Having a lot of variety in the training sessions means that we need to frequently assess the results of that variety. Individual students, and the dojo as a whole, should all make progress and improvement. If there are no gains in performance then the training methods need to be assessed to discover potential flaws.
For instance, in my own dojos I noticed that there is a lack of flow among some students. The methods I’m using to promote this are working, but not fast enough. A deeper consideration of how to promote that will need to take place, and soon. After implementing any method it must be examined at a later date. In my case, a simple metric would be, ‘There should be an increase in flow in >66% of students within a month’. Obviously it could get much more complicated than that, but as an initial assessment that should suffice. If that test fails then it’s back to the drawing board.
Why do this though, when you include a lot of variety what are the benefits to your training sessions? The first and most obvious is that neither you nor your students will become bored. When someone is bored they tune out of what they’re doing and go into autopilot. Variety, if added correctly, will eliminate that. The overall engagement from the students will go up and they’ll start to learn more, and learn faster.
As the quality of our students and sessions go up, so too will student retention. This is something that will help you grow your dojo in the long term.
Including a lot of variety will also make us better as sensei. Adding it to a session requires planning and thought. To make it work we have to put in more effort, look at things in a different way, and perhaps find new ways to teach the techniques.
Ultimately, adding variety to the sessions will be a good thing. As long as we follow the key principles outlined above there should be no issues, only improvements.
If you can afford it, and would like to help out,
consider donating some brain fuel!
Also, if you enjoyed this post you can find further insights in this book.