What is the Best Age for Children to Start Martial Arts?

What is the best age to start a child in martial arts?  Age 5? 10? 3?

This is actually a hard question with no exact answer.  There are a few factors that need to be considered for each child.

When a parent comes to me with a very young child (3-6) I try to assess how verbal they are. Can they provide me with answers to simple questions? That is very important in conveying ideas and instructions.  I also look at their level of interest.  Is this something that they want or something that mommy and daddy wants?

senseikamaHow well coordinated is the child?  Is the child playful or reserved? The answers to these questions can help me to provide a program that is challenging and interesting but not frustrating.

I also have to make the program fun.  I take into account whether there are other students about their same age. Even a two year gap can be daunting to a young child. Sometimes the most important factor is the expectations of the parents. Some parents want their child to be a black belt but are not aware of what goes into making a black belt. Nor are they aware of the responsibilities a black belt has in the dojo.

I was one of those parents when my 4-year old son started out.  His karate school had a 5-year program to black belt, my son was almost 5, so in my mind I envisioned him becoming a black belt by 10! I did not factor in mental and emotional maturity, and his instructor did not make me aware of that, either.

In our dojo, I make sure that every parent of a child under the age of 7 understands that under the best of conditions I do not test for black belt level before a student reaches the age of 12.  Currently I have a young man who started with me on his 4th birthday (give or take a day) and in a month we will celebrate his 5th year in the program.  He is on track to test for black belt 3 years later (8 years after he started).  It is a joy watching him grow and mature as a student and as a person. I have no doubt that he is developing into a fine martial artist.  Hats off to his parents!

Some parents and students won’t want to invest as much time. This is especially the case when the “McDojo” down the street will promote students in 36 months regardless of age and maturity. By the time one of our students tests for shodan (first level of black belt) at age 12, many of his McDojo peers will be nidan (second level black belt) or higher! That can be difficult for a young child, and perhaps their parents, to understand.

What is the best age for a child to start in martial arts? It depends on the child, the parents, and the assessment of the instructor.

Starting the Year on the Right Foot… and Punch… and Block

It’s a tradition to make resolutions about what we want to do or accomplish in a new year. Karate students and teachers are no different. What are your resolutions as a karateka for 2017?

Sadly many resolutions fall by the wayside just a few weeks into the new year. That’s not good! As students of the arts, we should strive to get better every year.


How do we do that? We do it a class at a time, and especially every time we practice.

Practice is essential, whether it’s in the dojo or at home. Practice at home might be the most important.

In a previous article I wrote about the 3-, 5-, and 10- repetition approach. I invite you to revisit that article for more information. After picking the repetition model that fits best, you need to decide how often you will use this practice model.


This is the tricky part: if you don’t plan when you will practice, then your resolution to improve your karate may not be met. That can spell the end of your new resolution. Think about your plan in a realistic way.

Generally young school age children and retired adults will have more time than those with full time jobs or who have very demanding academic schedules. As a rule of thumb I tell my students that they should practice at least three days a week in addition to their class attendance.

Our other obligations determine the days and hours we practice.Sometimes practicing three times a week is not always possible. The key is to make every effort to stay the course as much as possible and not to give up.

senseikamaSometimes we can practice a few minutes at a time. We often tell the younger students who like watching television that they have a perfect opportunity to practice when a commercial comes on. In every hour of television, there are almost 20 minutes of commercials! That’s a perfect time to work on stances, punches, kicks and blocks. Each of the kata we do are usually a minute long, with some of them less! Finding time to practice might actually be easier than it seems. Look for times in schedules where there are times where even a few minutes can be of great practice value.

Practice leads to progress. That resolution to improve our karate is done a little at a time. Students can sense their own progress in the same way their instructor can. This is one resolution that we must try very hard to keep.  Remember, you must work your karate if you want your karate to work for you!

Dojo, Academy, Club, School… What Do These Names Really Mean?

Karate is taught under many different banners. Some of these are “schools” or “academies,”  while others are called “dojos” or “clubs.”

I am sure that there are other names, too. Is there really a difference?

bb at nakazato dojo croppedI’ve delivered karate instructions under two of these names, and I believe the answer is “no.”

Someone once told me that unless you teach in a place that you pay rent or a mortgage, pay utilities, and all of the other expenses, you are only a club. Not only that, you’re not really a professional teacher.

When I began teaching karate, it was at my church.  Because the church was happy to have a new activity in their facility, I was lucky and was not charged rent for use of the space. I decided to call what I was doing a “club” as the name of my business.

When I moved into my own rented store, I dropped “club” from the name. Did I become a better teacher by renting a space and dropping club from the name? I don’t think so. Was I more professional in how I ran my dojo because I rented space? No, not that either.

The traits that formed me as a professional teacher are not that I paid rent or utilities or other expenses. I became a professional teacher by adopting best practices given to me by those whom I respect in the martial arts, by continuing my own training, by attending workshops and seminars. I have always been willing to modify my teaching methods as my student population changed while still keeping a high standard of excellence. And of course, by caring deeply for my students.

Over the course of the last 20+ years I have come to know many martial arts instructors from around the USA, and the world.  I learned something from all of them, even the bad instructors. Some of the teachers that I hold in the highest regard teach in recreation centers, churches, and other non-traditional settings. They consistently produce outstanding martial artists. These are not just students who can kick and punch, but who become fine citizens.

To me, that is the definition of a quality and professional martial arts program. The name is just that… a name.

I look forward to continuing to teach everyone in our new arrangement, and to enjoy the mutual progress we all make, and the striving to be better and to learn more in each and every class. Our new space is… spacious!… compared to the the retail space we just left. That means we can have students do a wider variety of things in the class, and it also means that students have a place to gather before class to warm up or practice without interrupting the class that’s in progress.

We’re still a dojo no matter where we are at the time. Any time or place where we learn “the way” of karate (that’s what dojo means) is our dojo. Let’s make the most of our new location, and be the best karateka we can be!

Farewell to Our Founder!

It was just last month when we mentioned the birthday of our founder Shugoro Nakazato. Sadly, we were informed of his passing roughly two weeks after his 97th birthday.  This issue is dedicated to him.

Shugoro Nakazato was born in Naha city, Okinawa, on August 14, 1919. In 1935, at the age of 16, while attending normal school in Osaka, Japan, he began his lifelong karate study under the direction of Ishu Seiichi. Nakazato studied under Sensei Ishu for six years.

nakazato-10thDuring World War II, he was in the Japanese cavalry. Following the surrender of Japan, Nakazato returned to his home in Okinawa to find his family a casualty of the war. In June 1946, he began his study of karate under Chosin Chibana, who was the Menkyo inheritor of Anko Itotsu. In 1948, Chibana’s Shuri Dojo closed, but Nakazato continued his study with Master Chibana, being personally tutored for over a year in Chibana’s own home. In 1951, Nakazato was instrumental in helping Chibana open his new Dai Ichi Dojo in Naha city at Matsuo.

Chibana continued his personal teaching of Nakazato at the Dai Ichi Dojo until January 10, 1954, when Nakazato received his Shihan Menkyojo and became Master Chibana’s Shihan Dai (Main Assistant). After working as the Shihan Dai in the Matsuo Dojo under Chibana’s direction for one and a half years, Nakazato was commissioned by Chibana to found the Shorin-Ryu Shorin Kan Nakazato Dojo in Naha city at Aza.

Nakazato was appointed as one of the directors of the Okinawan Karate Federation when it was formed in 1956, associating the four major (shiryuha) systems of karate in Okinawa (Goju-Ryu, Ueichi-Ryu, Shorin-Ryu (Ko), and Shorin-Ryu (Matsuo). During this time, Nakazato devoted all of his time and energy to teaching and perfecting Shorin-Ryu karate.

nakazato-awardIn 1960, the Okinawan Karate Federation promoted him to Eighth Degree Black Belt and titled him “Kyoshi.” Seven years later, Nakazato continued his progress in karate when Master Chibana and the Okinawan Shorin-Ryu Karate Do Kyokai promoted him to Ninth Degree Black Belt and bestowed the title “Hanshi” on him.

Nakazato was designated as an “intangible cultural asset holder” by Okinawa Prefecture in 2000. He was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, 5th Class with Gold and Silver Rays on November 4, 2007.

I had the privilege and honor of meeting Hanshi Nakazato during my trip to his dojo in 2013. The respect and loyalty for him among his students there and the visiting students with me was an inspiration to continue my studies in this system. We know our system will continue as it is in the good hands of Hanshi’s son Minoru Nakazato, a transition that was planned and underway in recent years.

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You Were Just Promoted to Shodan. Now What?

Some students, mainly youth students, believe that reaching shodan (1st degree black belt) is the end of their studies.

They could not be more wrong.  Shodan is where your most important studies begin.

Reaching shodan level is like graduating from high school. Like that educational milestone, it is a great accomplishment but you really don’t know as much as you might think. High school graduation means that you are ready for advanced learning, whether that’s college or some other training. High school education is a foundation, not an end.

senseikamaIn martial arts, to get this higher learning you must remain active in the dojo!

It is common for some new black belts to reduce their dojo attendance. Where as an under belt they might have attended 2-3 classes per week they now only come maybe once a week. Some schools, like ours, provide a special intensive monthly back belt class where students are trusted with high-level material. This three-hour class explores what we know in more detail, and discover for ourselves new ways and new applications.

Regardless of how many days you come to the dojo it is important that you do continue to come.  True growth comes through learning and learning occurs in the dojo. This is why we practice on our own, so we can make the most of our time on the dojo floor.

Attending seminars and assisting your Sensei by teaching classes are also great ways to increase one’s knowledge of technique application, not to mention sharing what you have learned with those you are following in your steps.

So you are a shodan! Now what?

Don’t stop learning!

Come to the dojo as often as you can. Help your teachers and the other students striving for a shodan understanding of their art. Your interest in generously sharing what you learned, your setbacks, and your experience, gives others students great encouragement and also helps you understand your karate studies with a fresh new perspective.

Brown Belt. Close, but not Close Enough!

Some students think that they have “made it” because they reached brown belt level. They believe that black belt promotion is so close they can taste it, and because it’s that close, it will automatically happen.

Don’t fall prey to that thinking!senseikama

As I like to say, “close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades but neither are used in black belt tests.” In many traditional karate styles it takes 4, 5 or more years to prepare for a shodan (1st dan) test, which is much different than many of the “McDojos” that seem to be on almost every corner.

While working through brown belt requirements in the quest for shodan, some students, especially young students, can feel a little burned out. This is the time when parents, friends, fellow classmates, and their instructors must find ways to encourage them and keep them going.

I have seen many students reach brown belt and lose the desire to continue. That is like dropping out of high school in the 11th grade. There is no GED in karate (well, perhaps at the McDojos, but I digress).

I encourage all advanced students and black belt candidates to dig deep and practice.

Don’t just go through the motions but practice with a purpose (read the How to Practice article in the January issue). Put in all of the extra time that you can. Ask your sensei and the other black belts to work with you. You might be surprised that the same ones who work you so hard in class will bend over backwards to help you to join “their” club.

Parents and students should stop thinking that shodan rank is the end of the journey. On the contrary, it is the beginning. I know of students, usually young students, who stop training as soon as they receive their black belt.  This is a big mistake!

The door to advanced knowledge is about to open and they are not there to take advantage of it. A week or two off to recoup from the test might be in order but it is important to get back into the dojo as soon as possible. A black belt’s relationship to martial arts should last a lifetime. A change in dojo might be a necessity because of moving, going away to college, or other reasons, but quitting should never be an option. Brown belts need to push on to Black and Black belts should never stop their quest for learning! They should always keep practicing, but when they’re not near a dojo, they can add to their knowledge in other ways. There are many excellent and highly readable books about martial arts techniques and the history of the arts that will expand their horizons and deepen their interest, which will improve their skills.

Why Do We Test?

This is great question and has many answers. Cynics say that testing is just a means for instructors to make more money in fees and by selling belts. It should be a way to gauge student progress. Others say it showcases talents, and shows student progress for parents.

Student progress can always be measured during classes, but the test is a different environment with focused scrutiny on one student’s performance. The ability to perform alone is very important in the event a student may need to execute self-defense techniques in a real-life situation. A test may seem stressful, but that is an important experience for all students to have, a step that increases their senssenseikamae of accomplishment and their confidence in their techniques. It is important to direct stress, where the body creates and releases a great amount of energy, into greater focus and concentration. Under these circumstances, executing the pattern of a kata or a defensive technique. We have had two recent black belt tests where despite physical exhaustion and the stress of the test, the students performed far better than they usually did in class. Testing brings the best out of our students, it seems.

Every test allows us to gauge progress and showcase those increased abilities and knowledge to parents. They need to be assured that their sacrifice of time and their investment in classes are worthwhile.

Fees cover various expenses of the tests, but those are actually small in relation to their actual costs, and the volunteered time of advance students in the dojo, and our occasional visitors from other dojos, who evaluate our testing students.

Students, nor parents, should ask when they are going to test. Instead, students should consistently demonstrate their skills and abilities in class.

Trust me, Sensei is watching. Other black belts are watching too. Sensei and the other black belt instructors use class time to determine when students are ready for a test. Demonstrated skills and abilities in class should be the determining factor. It’s always obvious who is practicing at home and who is using their class time most effectively.

I have seen students be promoted all the way to Shodan even though they did not test well. Consistently performing at a high level in class helped the instructors to justify the promotions. Belt tests are very important. Consistently working hard in class is even more so.