by Les Bubka

Martial arts are often perceived as being a very athletic activity that is reserved for very fit and fully abled people, mostly men aged between 16 to 30 something.  This seems to be where most clubs are focussing in terms of their potential client base.  Within Karate there tends to be more of an emphasis on children and so the image of Karate has been distorted into being a martial art that is ineffective, but is a great pastime with awesome coordination and discipline building features.  This weak image is far from true and luckily there is a growing movement of pragmatic martial artists who are promoting the practical application of this great art, which I am happy to be a part of.  I am also a strong advocate of the benefits of Karate in improving not only physical health but also mental wellbeing and as such I organise seminars and classes for organisations helping people who suffer with ill mental health.  Being involved in this type of application of Karate has led me to focus on inclusion and developing Karate as an art that is accessible for all students, no matter what their physical ability, age or struggles may be.  Everyone is welcome in my dojo (place of training) and I can see that this approach is increasing in popularity as more and more dojos are incorporating changes to enable all students to participate. terms of their potential client base. reserved for very fit and fullyabled

If we think that there are over 11 million people with a disability in the UK, this is a considerable proportion of the population that could be excluded from enjoying the benefits of Karate.  In my club we have two types of groups:

  • Practical Karate where we train with contact; sparring and throwing is a usual part of a session.
  • Meditation Karate where we focus on a softer approach and enjoy the benefits of Karate forms.
Shinaido Karate

In both of these groups we place an emphasis on adapting the training programme to accommodate all kinds of students.  Most of the exercises within Karate can be appropriately modified.  It just takes some knowledge and imagination.  By doing this we can achieve astonishing results, empowering students and giving them the confidence to take part in activities from which they are usually excluded.  For example, when working with seniors I have modified our kata (forms) to take into consideration the fact that most of my clients experience problems with joint mobility, arthritis, balance and back pain.  My programme is designed to remove stances that are not so kind on joints and includes additional movements that help to improve balance. 

What is important is to focus on an individual’s abilities and make appropriate modifications as we teach.  A good example would be the kata, Naihanchi, where we have a movement that involves crossing our legs to step.  People with poor balance struggle to complete this move and so we have a few options on how to make this easier.  First, we can abandon the step altogether and instead put in place a side shuffle.  A second option is to place a chair in front of the person, which can be used as a support.  In this way we can allow them to keep exercising without being discouraged and in time they can build up their confidence to try the cross step.

Another simple modification is to exclude some parts of a workout or drill.  Just a few weeks ago we had two students who had acquired minor injuries to the ankle and calf.  As we were working on pad drills that involved punches and kicks they were struggling with the kicking element and from the perspective of a coach it was too risky to allow them to kick.  My responsibility as an instructor is to make sure that we can avoid obtaining injuries and do not worsen any existing ones and so the logical answer is to modify the drill to leave out kicks for those individuals.  Having watched many classes at different clubs I had come across the practice that pushes students to train through an injury with the mantra that “it will make you stronger”.  In my experience this does not make you stronger and in fact is more likely to result in you having to take a longer break from training to enable recovery.  At many clubs this mistake can be easily made, where a technique has been excluded for a particular individual, but the other students have not been made aware that the drill has been modified for that person and so the effected individual is pressurised by others to perform the whole drill.

An adaptation that I have found very useful is to modify sparring conditions to appropriately consider individuals.  Some of my students are hard of hearing whilst others have mild autism and so I have changed the way that they are pressure tested.  In consultation with the given student we come up with a plan for their involvement in sparring, from engaging in sparring but with no hitting to the head to doing forms on the side instead.  It is also important that my other students take into consideration their partners’ ability.  For instance, after a few years of training an autistic student decided that he would like to try full sparring with punches and kicks to the head (with protective headgear).  This was not a problem as all of the students were made aware that they need to control themselves and not punch 100%.  In this way everyone can enjoy the same activity whilst remaining safe.

We all associate Karate with strict discipline, lines of students and a loud “Osu!” (acknowledgement).  This is a reflection of Japanese Karate.   Okinawans have a more family oriented approach that is much more relaxed and I was always drawn to this sort of club.  Many instructors have disagreed with my approach whereby students can drink during a session and ask questions freely. However, having stuck to my beliefs and run my club in this relaxed way for a few years I can happily say that it has been beneficial to my students.  They care about the club and each other and the process of learning is much faster, especially for the more age-advanced students.  Put simply, without stress we can enjoy training and as we all know it is much easier to learn a subject if it is enjoyable.

A fundamental element when teaching anything is communication.  If there is no communication then it is very hard to learn anything.  That is why it is very important to establish a sufficient and individual connection with students, in order to communicate clearly.  What do I mean by this?  If we have a group of students with different abilities we have to consider how we can effectively communicate with each of them without losing detailed instructions.  For example, in our club we have a student that is deaf and in order to know what I am saying she has to be able to see my face (for lip reading), so I make sure that she can see my face whenever I explain something.  In addition to ensuring that students can ‘hear’ you, it is also important to appropriately adjust the language that we use to enable us to be understood.  People with learning difficulties or non-native English speakers might struggle to understand certain words or phrases and so we need to adjust our speech so as to be clear.  For instance, people with autism might take our metaphors literally and so misinterpret what has been said leading to misunderstandings and potential injuries.

The examples that I have discussed here represent only a small subset of the adaptations that we can use to make the sharing of Karate with others successful.  We need a personal approach that considers the needs of each student in order to provide the best possible instruction in a safe and friendly environment.  If these changes can be more widely incorporated into teaching methods then we will hopefully see more people from all walks of life taking up and enjoying Karate in the future.  In our dojo we have a saying that “strong and caring people are the pillars of society and Karate helps to cultivate them”.  If people are strong both mentally and physically they are much more willing to support others and so the practice of Karate does not just help the individual that trains, but also the whole community within which that individual is a part of.

“About the author: Les Bubka is an experienced martial artist, personal trainer and therapist who specialises in posture, mobility and Karate. Les works with a wide variety of clients including martial artists and athletes as well as those suffering with postural dysfunction or those who wish to improve their fitness and wellbeing”

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