Karate Thoughts Blog

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How Many Students... Ha!

When I meet a Karate instructor, eventually we talk about our students.  The first thing someone might ask a Karate instructor is, "How many students do you have?"   There is almost a presumption that a "good" instructor will have more students than a "poor" instructor.

Ha!  The opposite is often true!

Would you think that a man with 6 children is a better father than a man with 1 child?  Parenting skills certainly are not measured by volume!  Neither is Karate skill.

Over the years, I have meet more and more Karate instructors who have decided to teach smaller and smaller groups of students -- sometimes only one, two or three.  These are very advanced instructors, most of whom have already produced students who have become instructors.

For such instructors, teaching is not a numbers game.  They are trying to pass on the art.  They are not trying to teach 100, 1000, or even 10,000 students who know a little, they are trying to teach one student (maybe two) who will know the entire system thoroughly.

Rather than ask an instructor how many students he has, I would rather ask if he is able to teach the way that he wants to.  Is he accomplishing his goal?  Does he have a special student who might carry on the tradition of his art?

With big schools, there must be a certain emphasis on rank, titles, position, organization, finances, politics, etc.  In a very small school, the attention can be focused on training and developing the skill and character of the student.  The early Karate instructors in Okinawa came from extremely small schools, if you could even call them that.  Actually, students usually learned one-on-one from the instructor at his home, the family grave, or some other private location.  There were no ranks or titles.  Masters where known for what they could do, for their abilities.  There usually was no tuition or fee.  The relationship between Sensei and student was a personal one.

After Word War II, and particularly beginning in the 1960s, Karate transformed into a group thing, into a sport or activity taught to large groups of casual, money paying students.  For some people, Karate became a business -- something it never was in old Okinawa and the Ryukyu Kingdom.

I am not impressed by sheer numbers of students -- I have met too many students who have trained for 10 or 20 years and have no clue about what they are doing.  I am impressed by quality.  I am very happy when I meet an instructor who can teach the way that he wants to, and has a dedicated student or two who is willing to undertake a lifetime of training.

And in my personal experience, some of the most skilled -- and happy -- Karate instructors have the fewest number of students.  In fact, when I meet an instructor who emphasizes the large number of his students, it makes me question his skill -- certainly his choice of emphasis.

My respect and gratitude goes out to all instructors who have taught quietly and not sought attention, who have arranged their lives and schedules around teaching, who have paid the expenses so that students could afford to learn, who have maintained and passed on the true art.  When we do this, we are getting back to the way Karate was originally taught, and perhaps we are becoming more like the Karate experts and Sensei of old.


Charles C. Goodin