Friday, November 28, 2014

Earning the blue belt - "Don't muscle it"

A friend of mine asked me why I hadn't been writing posts over the past few months. Here's why:

It was hard not to smile
I started training in martial arts (formal training, not the "Kickboxing for Dummies" variety) in January 2007. At that time, and for many years to follow, I had a list of goals I wanted to achieve. I was 17 at the time, but my list wasn't much different than a list I would have made ten years earlier: Breaking 4 boards with a single kick, beating someone twice my size, beating five someones twice my size, learning lightsab- er, swordsmanship and weapon defenses, etc. Imagine my skepticism if someone had told me that, years later, the achievement I would be most proud of was earning a blue belt in a grappling martial art I poked fun at through most of college. Last Wednesday, when the newly promoted Professor Haris (far right) gave me my blue belt, it was clear what the proudest moment of my martial art career had been so far.

So, why the lack of posts? When I started this blog, it was with the affect of a teacher and instructor. My goal was to dispel myths, illustrate techniques, analyze self-defense, and generally teach martial arts to an audience. Of course, I still knew I was a learner in a variety of contexts, but with respect to the blog I was also very much mingling that lifelong-learning with my instructional intent. As I worked towards my blue belt in the past year, however, I realized exactly how much I still had to learn. It wasn't that all my previous knowledge and instruction had been invalidated (relieving news to anyone who took my classes!). Indeed, much of it was ultimately confirmed or sharpened. Rather, in practicing BJJ, I saw that all that knowledge was just a tiny piece of a larger martial horizon. Because of that, I wanted to step back and approach the martial art from a student's standpoint, not just that of a teacher. That meant trying to learn, not trying to instruct, which in turn meant owning my mistakes on the mat and not trying to profess any mastery on a blog.

It's actually even more
awful than it looks here.
Speaking of mistakes, nothing exposes them like a 305 lb. training partner mounting your chest. Rounds like that make it hard to write a meaningful blogpost on self-defense groundfighting tactics.  Those are the situations that make you set aside the confidence that goes into instructional writing, replacing it with the humility that comes from getting armbarred or triangled five times in a five minute round.

Now, it's time to come back to writing. Same posts, new experiences. Same attempts to share knowledge, renewed humility as a martial artist. I want to start my return to posting with probably the most important thing I learned along my journey so far. Hopefully, this reflection will speak to readers from a variety of backgrounds, whether those practicing an art like Tae Kwon Do or jujitsu, interested in learning/starting such an art, or just having a general interest in anything martial.

"Don't muscle it"
Jujitsu attracts practitioners from every profession, culture, body type, and background. Despite that diversity, almost every beginner (myself definitely included) has one strategy that they invariably resort to when all else fails: Strength. Armbar not working? Use more bicep curl action! Can't sweep them to their back?  Push harder!! Having trouble getting the guy off your chest? BENCH PRESS HIM OFF!!! These reaction types are universal responses that I have seen across the martial arts, ones that I have personally tried to address in my own training. Because when strength becomes a substitute for technique, you don't learn the moves, can't execute them properly, and you will eventually encounter that opponent who has trained their whole life to overcome raw muscle. After all, BJJ was initially founded as an art for small guys to beat big ones. If you enter a match with the big guy mentality you are probably in for a bad time and definitely in for a sore elbow/throat. 
150 lbs on the left.
250 lbs on the right.
Place your bets!

The funny thing about the "Don't muscle it" principle? It's absolutely not a secret. Every higher-belt student tells it to the lower-belt students. Every coach and professor (jujitsu term for black belt) says it too. Endlessly. Heck, every student says it to themselves when they are drilling. But like 95% of the advice your mom or dad gave you, it's often in one ear and out the other, especially when you shake hands and fist bump before a spar.

So, how do you stop muscling things and start developing your technique? Hmm... Good question! If someone has a solution to that timeless problem, please let me know. Or write a book on it; you'd make millions. But if not, here's a little method I have been trying with some success.

Don't treat the principle like a chalkboard repetition you have to write out a hundred times ("I won't muscle my technique, I won't muscle my technique..."). That cognitive process lasts right up until your opponent has taken your back and is opening up your collar for a choke. Once you enter survival mode, the academic "I won't muscle my technique" gets replaced by the caveman "RAWR!". Here's a different method that has worked for me: Drill your moves without strength before you spar. Don't just tell yourself not to muscle things. Actually practice without muscle. You fight how you train, and if you sneak strength into your repetitions, it will be waiting there to take over in the real thing. Can't land the reversal at half speed without a gym-bro grunt? Slow it down and focus on your technique. Do your arms feel like you just did a 2 hour upper body day? Try and think of where those muscles were compensating for something else. If you do this before the sparring or fighting starts, you will have a much better chance of doing it when it matters. And hey, if you are like me, this will probably just help you muscle it in eight out of ten times instead of all ten. But that's a good start, and if you can get that start as a white belt, you will be ahead of everyone else at your rank.

Spoiler alert: Those biceps
weren't that helpful
Ultimately, jujitsu (like any other martial art) is about using technique to supplement and beat strength. When you substitute strength for technique, you are not just learning improper versions of your moves, you are learning an improper version of the art itself. That is as true of jujitsu as it as of most technical disciplines, martial or otherwise. Of course, none of that is to say that strength isn't needed in technique application, or that you won't ever use strength in a confrontation. Muscles undoubtedly generate the power necessary to execute a maneuver. In an otherwise even contest, they can also be a tipping point for one of the combatants. But using strength as an added edge does not mean using them as a crutch, or as your main gameplan.

As I continue my martial journey, I will continue to try and work this principle more seamlessly into my practice. Whether you practice a martial art, or any other technical trade or craft, I hope that this concept proves beneficial to you as well. I also hope you take that principle of "Don't muscle it" and expand it. Learn to flow with an opponent's energy. Know when to change tactics instead of forcing something. Understand how to change a technique that isn't working to preserve its technicality and not give in to the muscling urge. These derived concepts have helped me in both my martial and non-martial pursuits, and I believe they can be similarly helpful to any of you.

I initially wanted to end with a list of thank yous to all the different people who supported me and trained with me, but it was too long even for my historically lengthy articles. So I'll close with this picture of my second family. To everyone, keep training and keep on your journey!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Summer clothing, summer crowds, and self-defense

South Side crime happens here
If the endless street fairs, endless heat/humidity, and endless violence are any indication, summertime is finally
here in Chicago. For anyone who was tired of our equally endless winter, that's good news for all those beach volleyball and downtown shopping plans. But it also means an uptick in crime, both in the shootings and gang-related violence that harry the city's poorest neighborhoods, and for crimes that affect the average reader of this blog. Summertime often sees increased robberies, snatch-and-grab thefts, random batteries, and other violent interpersonal crime that happens even in Chicago's "safest" areas. That said, it is unlikely that any individual will be a victim of these crimes (there's less than a 1% chance of being robbed in any given year, and it's a lot less if you don't live in neighborhoods similar to Englewood or East Garfield Park). But as I tell my self-defense classes, those numbers won't matter to you if you are a victim.

North Side crime happens here
To kick off the summer in chicagowarrior style, I want to talk about two safety tips that should be at the forefront of your mind this summer. Instead of giving the usual generalized tips (e.g. stay off of those damn phones, don't be afraid to "cross the street", etc.), I want to focus on martial advice. Here are two concepts that are often on my mind in the warm Chicago months, concepts that you should at least be thinking of when considering self-defense situations.

  1. Self-defense in your summer street/beach/outing clothes is different from self-defense in your gym clothes.
  2. Defending yourself while in a crowd is much harder than defending yourself when you are alone.
These tips will be most useful for those with some kind of martial training, but even a general reader will be able to appreciate the advice and see its application in defending yourself or a loved one.

As with all posts, a quick disclaimer. Don't break laws. Don't be stupid. Don't do something that you aren't trained to do (and by "training" I mean sweaty, heart-pounding repetitions under stress, not watching YouTube videos). Ultimately, you are responsible for knowing your own limitations, whether those are legal (it's probably not okay to choke out that guy who just called you a punk), personal (you might be morally adverse to choking anyone period), or technical (chokes are hard to perform correctly). Know those limitations and act around them.


When I was a little younger and a lot stupider, I walked a bad route to get to a Red Line station. This was partially because I didn't know my bus route (forgivable) and partially because I thought I was a serious dojo-dancing badass (less forgivable). I passed a pair of teens in front of a house, impolite words were exchanged, and a scuffle started. Some details of that incident are a bit fuzzy and others are quite vivid, as if they happened only yesterday. One of those details is how it feels to break a fall when wearing shorts and a t-shirt. If you've ever fallen off of a bike, it's like that. With a 160 pound bike on top of you. A bike that is trying to punch you and tear your shirt off. Between your unprotected elbows and knees, and the shirt ripping under your back, there's a lot of scrapes/cuts/bruises involved. And that's all because of the clothes you chose to wear.

Warriors of the dojo
When you execute techniques in the gym, you probably wear clothes that are designed for training. This could be a hefty gi for Jujitsu or a thinner dobak for Tae Kwon Do. It could be the latest in rashguard technology or an underarmor supporter complete with cup. Add in a mouthguard, headgear, knee braces, wraps on your toes and fingers, and you are fully prepped for in-gym combat. All of that equipment feeds into the way you train, the techniques you choose to perform, and the way in which you execute those techniques.

Warriors of North Avenue Beach
Fast forward to your weekend trip to Navy Pier to catch the latest IMAX flick and spend too much money on bad pizza. For whatever reason, a physical confrontation starts. Pack your gi? Rashguard? Headgear? Flexible dobak pants? Chances are that you are wearing board shorts, flip flops, and a t-shirt. Whatever wardrobe you brought to your day on the Pier, it's almost assuredly not the same clothes you wore back in the gym when you trained. That is going to have a big effect on the way you defend yourself.

So if you ever need think you might need to use self-defense training over the summer, be mindful of your attire. Here are some points to consider when thinking about your clothes and their effect on your martial art. Notice how these all work both ways, applying both to your clothes and to your attacker's.
  • Padding
    How much protection do summer clothes offer? If you are on your back, is that bro-tank going to offer additional padding or just guarantee your shoulder get scraped along with your elbows? If you take a punch or kick to the stomach, will your clothes absorb it at all? If you stomp on an opponent's foot and they are wearing sandals, how much more damage would that cause than if they had on boots?
  • Running
    Can you flee a pair of muggers while wearing nice summer heels? Could you pursue a purse snatcher (of course, observing all relevant laws) in your hip leather Tommy Bahama sandals? What about the attackers? Would they be able to chase you barefoot if you ran down the sidewalk in your sneakers?
  • Ripping
    When you perform your collar choke on an opponent, is it going to cut off their air or just tear their collar? If you go for a tackle and your opponent holds onto your shirt, will the material just rip away or will it support their weight? Would it be smarter to try and grab their thin cotton tank-top or their durable surfing shorts?
  • Provocation
    Do you look more or less threatening in that TapOut cap without a shirt? If cops look at a fight and need to quickly assess who is the defender or attacker, do your clothes make you look more like one or the other? Is a potential aggressor going to give you the benefit of the doubt if you have no shirt on and he's with all his pals? Is that going to appear more or less aggressive than just wearing a neutral t-shirt?
Except the TapOut tank.
You can leave that at home
To be clear, I'm not advising anyone to throw out all their "impractical" (for a self-defense scenario) clothes. That would be totally contrary to the art; an important tenet of self-defense is that its practitioners shouldn't have to substantially change the way they go through the world. Self-defense is about making you comfortable, not making you paranoid. But self-defense is also about making smart decisions, both defensively (maybe wearing sneakers downtown instead of sandals) and offensively (stomping an opponent's uncovered toes instead of just kicking at their leg).

Instead of donating all your summer tanks, instead think of how those clothes affect your techniques. How will those work in summer clothes? How will your technical limitations play into a scenario? Whether you are going to the beach, heading downtown, or taking stupid routes from bus stops, be aware of what you are wearing and how it might affect your overall self-defense strategy. And even before you leave for those trips, make sure you know how your attire will give you different benefits and drawbacks if an incident should occur.


Most winter self-defense incidents happen late in the day when there are few bystanders. There just aren't as many people out and about when it's -20 and your eyeballs are freezing shut.

Good luck finding your favorite food station at the Taste
let alone the guy that just grabbed your purse
Outdoor violence in the summer can look a lot different. Sure, you still have your isolated after-hours muggings, your indoors crime (which are pretty similar regardless of what season you are in), and your random encounters on evening streets. But you also have incidents that occur in massive crowds, with multiple attackers and/or multiple victims and/or multiple bystanders. Operating in that environment has its own unique challenges and, in many respects, is much harder and more demanding than operating alone.

A quick scenario can help you appreciate these differences. You are downtown on a Saturday night. It's 8:30 PM and you are leaving the Red Line station at Chicago. As you come out of the station, someone grabs your phone (which, grumpy old man Sheridan would remind you, you shouldn't have been staring at anyway!). If it's the middle of February, chances are good that you can race down the mostly empty street in pursuit of the thief, grab him without causing much disturbance, and subdue him without a massive scene. Or just hail a cop or bystander to get help. But if it's mid-July, try following him for more than 10 feet without knocking over someone's daughter, American Girl Doll and all, and starting a whole new fight with the dad. Even if you do catch up to the assailant, you better not knock down anyone else as you get him to the ground. And don't forget that some of the hundreds of bystanders probably think that YOU are actually the attacker.

Self-defense situation or otherwise, crowds are confusing. Hell, I get anxious in grocery store lines, let alone the tourist hordes swarming up and down Michigan Avenue on a June weekend. There's a lot of noise, a lot of heat, a lot of people in your way, and a lot of variables to consider. If violence arises in a crowd, or near a crowd, then you need to execute your self-defense plan in a way that respects both the danger and the crowd itself.

Here are some of the challenges when trying to defend yourself near a crowd. In presenting these difficulties, I walk through the different stages of self-defense and see how summer crowds interact with them:

  • Identifying a threat
    • Can you actually identify a threat in a crowd? With so many people around, it is hard to even focus on any one person, let alone determine that they might be a danger. 
    • If you can identify an threat (say, someone menacing you: "Hey asshole, you lookin' at my girl?"), can you also identify if he has friends or accomplices? 
    • Once you identify the threats, can you alert your friends/loved ones nearby that a threat exists? Will you be able to point out the threat(s) in a timely manner?
  • Avoiding a conflict
  • Your mission: Evade the assailant 
    with this lady. Don't forget her bags
    which are apparently so heavy
    they have to be dragged
    • Having identified a threat, how can you escape in a crowd? You don't want to knock other people over. You also don't want to lose track of your attacker in a rushed evasion attempt. 
    • Can you lose a threat if you also need to help your friends/loved ones navigate the crowd? Will they be nimble enough? What if you are with your young daughter, girlfriend in heels, or husband dragging his cooler?
    • Will too much alarm create a general panic? It's almost always a good idea to scream in an isolated street, but could be dangerous in a large crowd. You could be liable for a stampede or disturbance, especially if it was unfounded.
  • Deescalating a conflict
    • Can your potential attacker(s) hear your verbal deescalations? The crowd might be noisy and your carefully selected phrases might not be audible. Even worse, they might be misinterpreted if he can't hear you clearly, which might only escalate the situation.
    • Will your gestures be clear in a bustling crowd? If you stop moving and confront a threat in a Michigan Avenue crowd, people will probably be walking around you and bumping you and your potential threat. If you raise up your hands and someone bumps you, your hands might turn towards the threat who might perceive it as an attack.
  • Executing techniques
    • If physical force is needed, there will be dozens of bystanders in the way that can't be hurt by either you or your attacker. Consider the following examples of techniques and their challenges in a crowd:
    • First, I saw a knife disarm. Then I saw
      a bystander cut from the knife, a child
      crushed by the falling attacker and an
      old lady knocked over by the defender
      • Kicks: Front kick to create space? Watch out for knocking your attacker into someone else, like a child or senior citizen. Roundhouse kick to chop out their leg? Be careful that you don't clip someone as the kick flies. 
      • Grappling: Whether standing or on the ground, wrestling takes up a lot of space. Flailing limbs can knock others down into the dogpile or just cause injury. You also don't want to get stepped on and don't want others to fall on you.  
      • Knives: Blade can cut nearby pedestrians. Even if you are controlling the weapon, the struggling attacker might stumble into a bystander. Disarmed weapon can fly into crowd and cause injury. 
      • Firearms: Missed shots will hit bystanders. Rounds may pass through target and hit something behind target. If you disarm a weapon quickly and take it in your hands, bystanders might only notice afterwards and assume you are the attacker.
  • Interacting with law-enforcement
    • What will witnesses say? Some may have seen the entire incident. Others may only think they saw the whole thing and have a lot of false information. Some will be on your side. Others will not. The less ambiguous your actions were, the better off you will be here. 
    • When police arrive on the scene, they will probably be just as on edge as you. They might be particularly aggressive or prone to suspicion, and might treat you (and innocents) as attackers, at least until they can sort out the truth. Be prepared for lots of questioning and detainment. 
    • Can you identify when law enforcement is on the scene? In a mid-crowd melee, if someone grabs you from behind, you might want to fight back. But that person might be a police recently arrived on the scene.
When I first started writing this section, I envisioned it as having fewer challenges. But the more I thought about the Michigan Avenue crowds, the more difficulties I identified. This just underscores the complications that can arise when you engage in self-defense in summer crowds. To some extent, these tips aren't exactly summer specific. Popular bars or clubs, packed theaters or venues, parties, and a variety of other locations would have similar challenges for you to consider. That said, given the high level of downtown foot traffic we see in the summer months, it's particularly important to remember them when you are taking your pals out for a Mag Mile stroll. 


But don't take it too far...
The most important thing to remember with these tips is something I have stated before, both in this post and in others. Don't confuse preparedness with paranoia. Don't believe that being mindful of self-defense is the same as living in constant fear. No one should finish this article, martial artist or otherwise, and think I am advising you to stay at home all summer wearing your headgear and mouthguard at all times. That defeats the entire purpose of self-defense, which is to enable you to move freely (albeit smartly) through the world with reduced fear of victimization. Indeed, the whole point of these tips is to empower you to go out this summer, armed with more knowledge of how self-defense might play out in the July crowds. 

So as you take to Chicago's parks, malls, sidewalks, and lakefront this summer, remember to think like a martial artist. Don't let it interfere with your enjoyment of the day, but do make sure that the mindframe is there if you need it. Wear smart clothes and/or understand how your clothes will affect your martial arts. Be smart in crowds. And overall stay safe. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Girl World Martial Arts - Week 8

The winter Girl World session wrapped up two weeks ago, and Girl World martial arts ended with it. Although it is possible that our agency will offer more martial art programming in the future, Alternatives will not see any young women kicking or punching for at least 6+ months. It took far too long to finish this last post on the subject, which had nothing to do with the final session or the group and everything to do with that special species of procrastination that all college graduates are familiar with.

During that final Girl World meeting, there was no boxing, no wrestling, and no board breaking. Program staff and I agreed that we should use the final hour to reflect on our shared experiences from the semester; it is rare that young people actually have a space in which to meaningfully reflect on their programs, especially given that those programs are often designed and launched without their input. I don't have any photos from the session but hopefully by describing their reactions (and those of program staff), I can give an accurate picture of our last meeting. Twelve of us, 9 girls and 3 staff, sat in a circle in the youth center and talked for the hour while eating quesadillas. What we lacked in physical energy we made up for in the honesty of our interactions and the comfort of the space.

All of the girls enjoyed the martial art focus of winter Girl World. We know this because they told us so and if you need to know anything about Girl World girls it is that they always speak their mind. If they had not liked it (as happened during some individual sessions over the semester), program staff would be the first to know. This isn't to suggest that they all liked it for the same reasons. One girl enjoyed the novelty of an activity that girls did not traditionally do in her experience. Another said that she liked the feeling of confidence from hitting the pads. Another still just said that it was fun to hit things and let out some aggression. A larger girl pulled me aside after the circle and said she enjoyed the grappling because it was the first time she had viewed her size as an asset. One of the smallest girls in the class told me the same thing, explaining how it was fun to be so quick and agile. It was a testament to the martial arts that all of these girls could participate in the same classes and enjoy them for so vastly different reasons.

In all of this, we asked the girls how they would use their experience in Girl World in the months and years to come. At least three girls told me that they were seriously considering signing up for classes and wanted some advice on what to look for in a gym. Even for those who didn't want to commit time (and money) to martial training, they said they would remember the basic lessons of the class about technique, mindframe, and the value of physical fitness. Of course, we can't know how these classes will affect these girls in one, two, or ten years. The girls don't know either. So I don't reflect on this point to provide testimonial to how awesome martial arts are at improving the lives of young people. Rather, I mention it as an entry point to discuss the relationship between youth program curricula and the lives of the youth that they teach.

Young people engage in a lot of activities. Those with higher income and more resources tend to engage in more activities, but even disadvantaged youth from Chicago's public schools tend to have ample opportunities to join programs like those run through Alternatives. As program staff, we are often teaching our passion to these young people. Some of us teach painting, drawing, dance, or spoken word. Others teach computers, filmmaking, and programming. Those like me teach a sport or physical activity. Many of us teach multiple passions. In all these cases, we have taken a lifelong hobby of ours and packaged it for youth that we will only see for a few months. And in all those cases, our intentions are often unclear. Do we want every youth in our program to adopt our own pursuits? Do we just want to expose them to different opportunities that they don't know? If so, are we okay with their disinterest? Are we teaching them for their sakes or are we teaching the curriculum for ourselves?

These are challenging questions that every youth worker must ask. In the case of Girl World, there was certainly a "selfish" element in my martial art emphasis. There were countless other physical activities the girls could have done (football, gymnastics, weightlifting, archery, etc.), and I focused on one that was dearest to my own heart. The girls ultimately approved of the choice, but it wasn't as if someone had polled them to figure out what activity they wanted to do. They gave general guidance about doing non-traditionally female activities and I picked combat sports. So in that sense, my own bias definitely weighed heavily in the decision, even if it was not ill-intentioned.

On the other hand, at least for our program, our objective was very much to expand the girls' horizons. This was both about exposing them to martial arts as a hobby, but also about exposing them to the warrior mentality as a way of living their lives. Courage, honesty, respect, confidence, independence; these are all values that we want our girls to know, if not to adopt. By emphasizing these different concepts to them, not to mention the techniques, we certainly wanted them to incorporate some piece of it in their lives. We wanted Girl World to be more than just a one-shot program. We wanted it to open a path that they had neither traveled nor even known about.

Ultimately, I believe that the key is to let the youth choose what they want to do with your program. As a program leader, your only responsibility is to create an atmosphere where they have that choice. We had every intention of expanding their horizons and I personally would have been thrilled if everyone enrolled in karate or tae kwon do or jujitsu classes on the spot. We were also aware that the activity was not a good fit for every girl, so we encouraged them to identify concepts that they could take away from the class, even if they didn't actually want to wrestle or box. That openness is what made the semester successful, and it is something I intend on keeping in all future iterations of this program and other martial lesson plans.

About a week after Girl World ended, I was biking to lunch down Lawrence when I heard a shriek of "HI SHERIDAN!!" from the sidewalk. Because I was at the intersection of Lawrence and Sheridan (working on Sheridan road has its benefits and drawbacks), I wasn't sure if this was someone talking to me or one of Uptown's many mentally ill residents talking directly to the street; I have heard even stranger comments at that intersection so this wouldn't be unexpected. But when I turned to look, it was actually one of the girls from Girl World walking back from school with her friend. We chatted briefly and parted ways, and although I wouldn't categorize our talk as high conversation, she smiled the whole time. This was one of the girls with the best kicks, best punches, and overall best martial sensibilities in the program, and I restated my honest opinion that she should stick with one of the arts and develop her talents.

What is most interesting about this interaction is not that she remembered me or that we ran into each other near my office. Youth often remember the adults who work with them, especially only a week out from programming, and it was quite probable for me to run into at least one Girl World participant in the neighborhood. It is very interesting, however, to think about how these relationships work and what they mean in the long term.

For all its emphasis on cultivating relationships and building communities, social workers often engage in fleeting interactions. We meet with a kid a few times before his family moves, his schedule changes, or he simply loses interest. We run a program for a few months before everyone graduates or moves on and then we do it all over again. In all these cases, we like to think that we are making lasting impressions on our clients, but that is often not commensurate with the time we spend with them. And even when we do clearly leave some kind of impression, as with the girl I encountered on the street, we always wonder how it could have been better if we had more time, more money, and generally more resources for the program. For the staff, however, every interaction is often powerful and long lasting, and even when we are so overcome with fatigue from our programs and ready to just switch careers and go back to school, we tend to remain invested in all our clients, past and present.

These past blog posts are a great illustration of this principle. For many of the girls, Girl World was just another program in the unbroken chain of predominantly middle class (or higher) caucasian do-gooders helping out poor kids of color. For us do-gooders, however, each session is so powerful and enduring as to warrant its own blog post. I don't think it's unethical, but I do think that the girls would find it somewhat odd (perhaps a bit flattering but mostly very strange) that I have dedicated so many words to a session that was at most 45 minutes. At its best, that's a testament to our commitment and care. At its worst, it highlights the imbalance between the youth worker and the youth themselves. It also highlights the systemic imbalances that give rise to this impermanent way of offering youth programming.

This is a critical point when designing programs, and it is one I will remember in the future. For every youth that says "HI SHERIDAN!!" there are probably a half dozen more who I'd be lucky to have remember me as the dude with the too-tight t-shirt who did wrestling and stuff. Observations like that help us avoid the dreaded savior complex that so many in our profession fall into, and it helps us remain humble as program leaders and designers. Because ultimately, we are just one passing character in their lives, and we need to be mindful of that role. Then again, as anyone who has read a good book knows, it is often a passing character who leaves the most enduring impression, which gives us something to strive for.

Hopefully these reflections have been helpful for my colleagues and entertaining for the average reader, despite their rambling tendency. I hope to revisit this topic in the years to come as opportunities arise to teach more classes. Although those subsequent sessions are sure to be better organized and better designed than those I have written about, I will certainly not forget the warriors of Girl World 2014 anytime soon.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Girl World Martial Arts - Week 7

Sidekick to break a board
"Thot" is derogatory slang for a ho, slut, or whore. Demonstrating how they have overcome that word and those who say it, the Girl World girls painted it and other words like it on white pine boards and planned to snap them all with kicks and karate chops. Even if you know nothing about martial arts, you have probably heard of breaking boards and can envision the feeling of power that comes from cracking through a thick piece of wood with your bare hand/foot. Although technical difficulties with the board forced me to do the kicking and snapping, in the end, the words and their implications still fell broken to the ground in a symbolic Girl World victory.

Week 7 was the last week of martial activities for Girl World. And as with every other week, it brought a mix of unexpected delights and challenges, some of which threatened to outright ruin the entire class. Thankfully, our session ended with an awesome board break, a very excited group of youth, and an overall great atmosphere. Here are some general reflections on the class. Specifically, I want to talk about the planning that goes into youth development work and the bigger issues of female empowerment that underlay our session.

It's one of the first things you learn both in school and on the job, but you still need to experience it dozens of times to believe it. When planning youth programs, expect all of your plans to fall apart. If you are lucky, you can hastily cobble something together from the pieces. If you are unlucky, you just have to sweep them out of sight and start from scratch. To some extent, this was present in every Girl World class, but Week 7 offered the most compelling example of careful plans that rapidly came undone.

Here was the plan for Week 7: Girls would paint a stereotype on a piece of wood, let the paint dry while practicing board breaking techniques, and then they would break them. We planned this weeks in advance, bought the boards and the paint, and were setup and ready to go almost an hour before the girls even arrived at the building. Because we knew that the class depended on materials as much as curriculum, program staff followed strict specifications for the boards (the right length, height, and thickness) and the paint (quick-drying, not too messy).

Girl World starts at 4:00 PM. At around 3:45 PM, the program leader came up to me to show me the boards that she had bought, having followed all of my guidelines for which pieces to buy. It looked great at first glance, at least until I noticed something that I had completely forgotten to mention. The wood was up to muster in every respect except for one, and that last quality was probably the most important one to get right.

Breaking boards!
Used to demonstrate your strength and martial technique!

Here's the thing: Board breaking is mostly an illusion of strength and power. That's not to say that it doesn't take strong technique to break boards, and a stack of even the shoddiest pieces of wood still represents a formidable target for even a strong practitioner. But board breaking has a few tricks that make it work. You hold the board on the edges so it can bend in. You hit dead center. You avoid boards with knots in the wood, and you use softer woods like white pine instead of sturdy oak or elm.

Most importantly, and this is what we messed up, you hit PARALLEL to the grain of the wood. For those who don't go around breaking boards or building stuff on a daily basis, a wood's grain is the lining on the surface. If you hit parallel to the grain, it splits along the little fissures. That's how everyone from 6 year-olds to 60 year-olds break boards. But if you hit perpendicular to the grain, the only thing you tend to split is your fist; that's the grain used in construction, not in martial arts. It turns out that construction boards are meant to withstand forces a lot stronger than a 24 year-old martial artists' sidekick (or mallet swing).

Building boards.
Used for building shit. Like, houses.
At 3:50 PM, we realized that we had a stack of boards with the grain running the wrong way. We couldn't just rotate the boards because they were thin planks, and the grain was running lengthwise from top to bottom, not widthwise from side to side like it should have. I went outside to see if the board was breakable. After kicking it, stomping it, jumping on it, and smashing it with a mallet, it became clear that the only thing that was about to break was my foot.

There was no way that the girls were going to split any of their boards without either a chainsaw or a sudden Hulk transformation. That was a serious problem, given that we had set up 15 stations with paints and boards, and that they were already walking through the door at the end of my failed tests. This forced program staff to immediately rethink the entire session, both so it would still convey our underlying message, and so it wouldn't be a disappointment for the girls.

Thankfully, I happened to have some boards in the trunk of my car (add that to the list of odd things you find in martial artist's car), only one of which was usable for a break. So the girls painted one word on that board and I ended up performing the break; the board was too big for them to get without previous experience, and we didn't want anyone to hurt themselves.

There are a few morals of this story. The first, returning to my opening sentence, is that youthwork is as much about improvisation as it is about careful planning. Something always goes wrong in every session, and your success as a youth worker depends on your ability to rebound and recover from those situations. That can be very difficult when the failure was in your own carefully executed plans. Indeed, it almost feels like a personal failure, not a program one. In this case, we had planned the session for weeks and built up to it amongst ourselves and the girls, so we were quite reluctant to admit the failure.

The second moral touches on another point I have discussed in the past: Don't take yourself or your work too seriously. That's as true for martial artists as it is for youth workers. When I couldn't break the board, my initial instinct was to drill down on my technique and figure out why my sidekick was so weak that it couldn't beat an inanimate splinter from a dead tree. Instead of despairing or self-criticizing, I realized it was much better to laugh about it; as said before, it turns out that it's hard to break wood designed to hold up an entire house. The same goes for the session design itself. Instead of making it about a failed idea, we turned it into a demonstration of an experienced martial artist as a way to show the girls "you can do this too with training!". In hindsight, I am a bit disappointed in the underlying implications of my breaking the board instead of them. It felt a bit misogynistic, even if by accident and not design, and I vastly preferred our initial plan to the revision. But the girls still loved the class and had a great time, so I try and avoid becoming too academic or analytical about it.

One of the aims of winter Girl World was to give a positive and encouraging introduction to exercise. As I mentioned in one of my first posts on the program, many Girl World girls were tired of being automatically assigned to traditionally feminine exercise options. Some wanted to play football. Others wanted to wrestle. Others still just wanted to be able to get stronger without a friend or family member telling them that lifting makes your arms and legs look gross. To finish the winter semester, girls and staff wanted an empowering activity that would serve as a culmination of all their talks and training. From a martial perspective, there's nothing better than board breaking to fill that goal, even if they didn't get to break the board themselves (more on that later).

When thinking about Girl World, it is important to think about the issues at its foundation. Engaging in physical activity, martial or otherwise, is inherently a process of overcoming barriers. This includes mental barriers ("This exercise is too hard"), physical barriers (your heart rate hits 150 when you walk up stairs, let alone go for a jog), and logistical barriers (gyms are expensive and schedules are busy). For young women, however, there is an added obstacle that they must negotiate: popular perceptions. We have either heard them or said them, perhaps jokingly, and everyone is familiar with them from an early age: "Girls don't sweat". "Too much muscle looks ugly". "Contact sports are for boys". "Women are weak". Although it is possible to overcome these hurdles, they are a challenge that every prospective female athlete or casual exerciser will consider. And the younger you are the more powerful these stereotypes feel, even if they are no truer of a Girl World teenager than an Olympic competitor.

Our initial form of the board breaking activity was clearly a protest against these barriers. The girls would not only break boards themselves, a clear personal statement of strength, but would also break the harmful words painted on them. Moreover, they could take the shards home as a trophy to remind them of their success.

The girls still enjoyed the revised form of the exercises in which I broke the board myself, but it wasn't as satisfying for me. I won't speak for other program staff. The problem was that I, an experienced martial artist and male, was breaking the board they had painted. The girls were just watching. It was much more non participatory than our first activity idea, although it was clear that the girls were quite excited and anything but disengaged. Even so, the symbolism wasn't as meaningful with me as the breaker, even if we didn't really have another option.

This brings it back to the underlying purpose of the winter Girl World program, which was, in essence, female empowerment through exercise and physical activity. The board break may not have been the most exemplary instance of this objective, but as a culminating activity to the semester, it still drove home our point. After all, even though they didn't break the board, they had already kicked, punched, and wrestled for 5 weeks, and the growth they went through in even that small amount of time was clear to anyone who watched them.

In the end, I would not say that Girl World "succeeded" at defeating gender stereotypes and overcoming harmful perceptions, but the program certainly empowered the girls to fight against those in the future. And with any luck, this will not be the last time that we see boards broken in Girl World.

The paint wasn't quick-drying after all

Monday, February 24, 2014

Girl World Martial Arts - Week 5

When working with young people, classes can have a wide range of energies. Week 4 saw a high energy session with kicks and punches even fiercer than in my adult classes. Week 2 saw a low energy session with confused participants and a confusing technique. Week 5 offered a different energy entirely, what I will term a "strange energy". A more appropriate term might be "mixed energy", which would capture the different levels of different girls in the program. But when you mix too many different energy levels in a class it is not unlike mixing too many different flavors in a meal; although individual flavors may be fine on their own, the combined result is just plain odd.

During the week 5 class, some girls boxed with heightened intensity while others sat on the mats and threw sandals at each other. One girl refused to do anything but wrestle. Another gave a headlock to every girl she saw before throwing them on the mats. A few of the girls went for 20 minutes of nonstop boxing rounds and wouldn't stop jumping around in between sets. Meanwhile, others did wobbly cartwheels and unsafe handstands while singing radio hits. At first glance, this sort of behavior appears to reflect poorly on the class in which it was arising. But on further consideration, I actually think it is a testament to the safety of the space that this behavior could arise at all. Although there is certainly room for instructor growth (it occurs to me that it's probably not okay to allow a girl to headlock her peers while tickling them), week 5's strange energy worked out in the end.

"Safe space" is one of the more palatable examples of social work jargon. It isn't aggrandizingly academic, unlike "evidence-based practice" or "organizational theory". It also isn't inaccessibly technical, unlike "psychosocial development" or "social return on investment." There is not too much more to "Safe space" than the term suggests; it is a nonjudgemental environment where participants identify that safety and are comfortable being themselves. Of course, actually creating a safe space is a challenge, as is defining all the nuances of "safety" as a concept for youth. But even non-social workers can probably appreciate the value of a safe space to a young man or woman.

One of the most important goals of Girl World as a program, let alone Girl World martial arts, is to create a safe space for the participants. This arises through candid discussion, respectful interactions, and constant encouragement and moderation from the program staff. On that last bit, I add this qualification: The safe space of Girl World is more about giving youth the skillset to have effective interpersonal interactions and less about disciplining them for bad behavior. When engaging in martial arts, there is an added layer of physicality that is both absent from normal programming, and uniquely enabling of conflict. Some girls can joke about other body types or fitness levels. Others can be too aggressive or even too passive. For a safe space to be effective in this context, girls should know how to navigate these situations as they arise, and to grow as they confront them.

All of that sounds pretty neat and tidy, as if giving a succinct definition as part of a grad school exam. And as anyone who works with youth knows, or anyone who can imagine, there is little that is neat and tidy about actually engaging with young people. The idea of "safe space" is included in that. Here's the issue: Program staff define safe space in these social work terms with social work justifications. Program participants, however, define it in their own way. Those two definitions almost never align in terms of wording (13 year old girls tend to lack academic social work vocabulary) and rarely align even in terms of intent (girls don't take classes that teach them how to resolve conflicts; they take a class because it's "fun") .

How does this relate to the strange energy of week 5? As an attempted creator of a safe space, I don't actually have much say in how that safe space plays out with the young women in class. I don't get to define their comfort zone and how that comfort manifests with their peers. To some girls, "safe space" means a place where they can lie down on the mats and throw their sandals at other girls without an adult giving them a detention. To other girls, "safe space" means they can get sweaty and tired without a parent calling them ugly for putting on too much muscle. And to others still, the space isn't safe enough for them to be too open with their peers. For instructors, it is challenging to assess whether strange energy is a function of different responses to safe space, or whether it is evidence of unsafe space that a girl can't feel comfortable in.

Ultimately, my sense of week 5 was that most of the behavior came from comfort, not from unease. All but one girl was still listening to staff when we gave instructions, and when girls wanted to do something else, they approached staff about it and framed it constructively ("Mr. Sheridan, can you teach us some cart wheels?") instead of defiantly ("I don't want to do this!"). A group of girls kickboxed so much that a bystander would think they were in serious training for the next UFC talent search. But when asked about it, they just talked about how relieving it was to let out stress and not be stuck in a chair all day, even if it felt too aggressive and even violent at times. For those girls, however, that was probably what "safe space" looked like to them, especially in a martial art context.

In my teaching experience, I have found that it is easy to interpret every occurrence in class as evidence of the class's failure. That one girl is looking away; I bet she's bored senseless. Those two students over there refuse to participate this week, probably because they have realized how bad this class is. Although these observations can, at times, be very astute, they are often just absurd doomsaying ("It's 3 minutes into the class and none of the students have called me by my name. They probably all forgot! Because they hate me!"). And once you start thinking this way, your interactions with your youth suffer, as does your general class management.

Especially when working with youth, instructors should always think about the other events that are happening in their students' lives. Those effects of those events will arise in programming, and it is inaccurate, and even arrogant, to think that the reactions of young people revolve around your session. Maybe they had a bad day at school or a bad weekend at home. Maybe a tragedy just occurred. Maybe they are just plain tired. Also, as a warning, this doesn't even need to include the usual pathologizing that we attribute to low-income youth. Not every disengaged youth just had a relative shot or a physical altercation with their parent; it is easy to assume that disengagement in low-income youth is a function of a stereotypical list of low-income woes.

There is another way to think about this issue. Your class is about your students/clients/youth. When you get mired in negative self-criticism, you make the class about you and not about those you are trying to work with. This leads to a class that is no fun for anyone; youth have Jedi-like attunement to how adults are really feeling. So just have fun. Have a fun class, enjoy yourself, enjoy your students, and the sessions and program will be successful. Indeed, I try (try and fail, sometimes) to not even think of "successful" and "failed" classes. Rather, I just think of classes that are exciting, enjoyable, engaging, and all around fun. If you work towards that, chances are good that your youth will have as much fun as you are.

Week 6's class got cancelled because the Girl World group had another plan for that Tuesday, but Week 7 will happen tomorrow. Whether the class has high, low, or strange energy, the key will be to just make it as fun as I can. Given that we are working on board breaking tomorrow (I challenge you to find the person who doesn't like breaking pieces of wood with their body) this should not be too difficult.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Girl World Martial Arts - Week 4

Bowing before class
Owing to weather and public school closures, the week 3 class had been somewhat exceptional. The session had fewer girls than usual, and a different energy owing to the lack of school that day. Fortunately, this led to a successful class for those who did show up, but it set a high (and perhaps unrealistic) expectation for the following class. Unlike the previous session, week 4 would have normal weather, a normal schedule, and normal attendance. So if the successes of week 3 were circumstantial, they would be likely be exposed during week 4.

The biggest issue with week 4 was class size. There were a lot of girls and not nearly enough staff to give the individualized attention that the students all deserved. That said, the session maintained the fun, energetic environment of the previous week. Given that it maintained this dynamic in spite of the larger class size, it was overall a very successful session.

Sticking with kickboxing, as opposed to self-defense scenarios or grappling, was definitely an important decision. Girl World does not have a lot of staff. That's bad enough for normal programming but much worse when doing physical activity with high injury potential. It's important to pick class content that accounts for the program limitations, and kickboxing does just that. Kickboxing (pad work, not sparring) lends itself towards individual training without too much need for teacher oversight. So long as basic safety protocols are instated and observed, this makes it the perfect martial activity for larger classes with minimal staff.

Kickboxing drills also address another important issue of youth development work: Attention span. It's almost unfair to expect young people to keep focused during after-school programs. Many of them have been in school since 8 AM. Some have had lunch as early as 10 AM and haven't eaten more than a bag of chips (if anything) since then. To some extent, kicking and punching is enough of a fun activity that it mitigates the natural effects of wandering attentions. But that's only true if you are actually punching and kicking. Some drills require one person to work while the others just stand around and watch. That's probably fine for experienced martial artists, who can use the time to shadowbox, work on their forms/patterns, stretch, do bodyweight exercises, etc. But for young women who have been trapped in desks all day who have zero previous martial art experience, that's an unreasonable expectation.

The Girl World program head had warned me about this before, so I tried to create drills that would engage as many girls as possible. The result: 3 girls stand in a triangle around the pad holder who bounces from girl to girl with the pads. The martial artists must always be ready to block a strike, throw a punch, or fire a kick; it is never anyone's "turn" because you are always part of the action. The disadvantage of this type of drill is that it doesn't allow for as many technique repetitions as I might like. The advantage? It's a ton of fun. The girls were laughing and smiling more than usual as the pad holder darted from girl to girl. When a youth was caught unaware and tapped in the face with a pad, everyone (flatfooted girl included) erupted into laughter. The end result was a drill that improved technique, heightened awareness, engaged everyone, and was overall a blast to participate in. Some girls who had historically been less engaged (to the extent that 4 weeks can constitute a history) were as focused on the exercise as a professional boxer is on fight night.

Punches, kicks, knees, and elbows look like simple techniques. Anyone can do them. Those who use these techniques outside of gyms and arenas aren't always the brightest fellows; nothing says genius like a bar room brawl. Despite their outward simplicity, these moves are all highly technical and take years of training to get right. Mastering them is a lifelong journey, and that's as much a matter of technical fact as it is martial wisdom.

The vast majority of Girl World girls don't care too much about the precise pivot angle needed to execute a good cross. They understand the difference between roundhouse, front, and side kicks, but once you give them a pad to hit, the techniques are all just folded into one fierce strike with the leg. It's true that some girls are more interested in the technical nuance, and when working with those girls I try to point out areas where they can improve. But the difficulty is in not doing this for everyone. For many girls in the program, the victory is not a flawlessly executed combination. It's the fact that they are punching and doing physical activity at all. That's not to call them lazy or to classify the martial art as too hard/masculine/technical for them. Rather, it's to highlight the cultural challenges that young women, especially low-income minority females, face when trying to engage in this sort of activity.

My objective is not to train the next Ronda Rousey, even if any of these girls could pursue that course with success and ignoring the fact that I couldn't train her. Rather, it's to show girls that they are powerful. They are stronger than they think, they have more power than they think, and they are much more "warriors" than many of the so-called "warriors" that we martial artists train with. It's not about the technique, which anyone can learn with enough hours. It's about the attitude, which many of us don't learn no matter how many hours we spend. Attitude, mentality, and mindset makes the martial artist. Technique is an important element for perfecting your martial art, but you can learn technique from good attitude. The reverse, however, is not true.

To some extent, I feel a little disingenuous when I praise techniques that have obvious mistakes. But the key is to remember that I am not praising the technique itself. Indeed, if pressed by a girl or a staff about whether or not the technique looked good, I would say (and definitely have said in the past) that it needs work in a number of areas. Instead, the praise is directed at the mindframe that underlies the technique. In future classes, especially with ground-fighting moves that are often highly technical, I need to always consider the goal of Girl World martial arts when working with the girls. The job is not just to fabricate robotic fighters. Our job is to expose them to what it means to be a martial artist and to show them that they can do it.

It might surprise some of you, as it often surprises me, to learn that my job at Alternatives is actually not "martial art instructor". My work is in data and program evaluation, and although that sounds as far removed from martial arts as a spreadsheet is from the data it captures, there are a number of interesting overlaps between the roles. The most important of these is my understanding that feedback is important. We don't just evaluate programs and survey youth to confirm how successful and impactful we are. Some agencies do that, but we always try to avoid it. Rather, we evaluate in no small part to identify whether or not our programs are as successful as we think.

There are some conflict of interest questions that probably arise with me evaluating my own program, but that's not really the point of all this. The idea is just to improve the program for the girls themselves, not for our agency to get more funding (that's definitely a good thing, though) or for me to get a raise (also definitely not a bad goal). To that end, the other Girl Wold staff and I asked the girls about what they enjoyed and what they struggled with in the class. 

Overall, the reactions were very positive. They wanted to do martial arts in place of other activities, and they wanted to do more of it than just the 45 minutes that the program allows. One of their issues (too much standing around) will hopefully be solved by drills like the kickboxing exercise I tried last week. Surprisingly, many of the girls wanted to do more of a mix between wrestling and kickboxing; I was convinced that the grappling component had been an unqualified disaster and was willing to give it up for the rest of the quarter. But following from the feedback, we will be doing a joint grappling/striking unit for week 5. 

This, in particular, goes to show that your assumptions as an instructor are not always accurate. Indeed, it shows that the instructor or staff position isn't nearly as omniscient as we might believe. The temptation in all youth programs is to avoid soliciting youth feedback, whether for fear of criticism or for fear of looking like you don't know what you are doing with your own curriculum. The evaluator in me, not to mention the martial artist, cautions against this. Outside opinions are important, whether they come from third-party observers or from the participants themselves. From a martial perspective, it would be like shadowboxing in front of a mirror and thinking that made you an unstoppable fighter; you need the real life opponent to check your technique. From an evaluation perspective, you always want an impartial, or even partial, second opinion. I will continue to check in with the girls to know how they think programming is going and to see if there are any changes that can be made. This will be particularly important after we revisit grappling tomorrow, a class that promises to challenge the successes of weeks 3 and 4. But so long as the girls are smiling and their martial spirit remains strong, then it is likely to be just as successful as the previous ones. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Girl World Martial Arts - Week 3

Week 3 (kickboxing) class photo
(Martial artists: Check out her roundhouse kick pivot!)
One of the worst feelings as a teacher is when you organize an uninspiring, and uninspired, session. That was my week 2 experience in the Girl World martial arts program, although as some of my friends and colleagues pointed out to me, it probably wasn't as bad as I judged. That said, perhaps the best feeling as a teacher is when your curriculum is the opposite: Inspiring, engaging, and generally fun. Week 3 was such a class. It's difficult, and not particularly humble, to gauge such success just by reviewing the lesson plan. But when your students are getting almost every technique, laughing even as they are too tired to stand, and smiling with every move, it's hard not to feel like something has gone very well.

If week 2 was so challenging as to make me question my ability to teach martial arts, week 3 served as an affirmation that I am probably in the right field (even if there remains room for growth and improvement). Whether because the girls didn't remember or didn't care, there was no trace of the disengagement and diminished energy that characterized the week 2 class. The girls had fun. They got the techniques. They connected with each other and with the staff. This isn't to suggest that the class was perfect (it wasn't) or that I can accurately divine the feelings of these youth (I can't). But all things considered, the session serves as a model for future meetings, and I want to reflect on the many factors that contributed to its success: Different content (kickboxing), a smaller class (easier to manage), higher energy (no school that day), etc. On the heels of a victory, the temptation is towards excessive self-congratulation and not towards preparing for the next battle. Girl World classes aren't exactly a "battle", even if the metaphor is not entirely inaccurate, but I want to build on the gains from last week and not rest on them.

When the Chicago Tribune lists its top buzzwords and terms of 2014, "polar vortex" is likely to be at the top of its list. For those that do not know about this weather phenomenon, it is a marauding stream of arctic air that descends from the north to bring havoc to the fair southern lands; the "stark" Chicago weather has taken on a new dimension as we all now know that winter truly is coming. How did this impact Girl World? Public schools closed, most after school programs were officially cancelled, and many girls chose to stay home rather than brave the cutting cold. This meant that the class was much smaller. Only 7 girls came to programming, one or two of whom weren't even technically registered for Girl World (they had come for another program and found it cancelled; they stayed to kickbox instead).

My optimal class size is around 10 students assuming no other experienced co-instructors. With another facilitator, we can go up to 15-20. Although the Girl World staff is highly trained, an MSW doesn't exactly prepare you to teach a jab/cross combination or a roundhouse kick. My colleagues are invaluable for managing the group but, understandably, less helpful when it comes to troubleshooting a technique that they themselves have learned 5 minutes ago. This issue is compounded by the age and experience of the students themselves, many of whom know as much about martial arts as they learned from Jackie Chan in Rush Hour 2.

When the class size shrinks from 12-14 down to 7, my ability to give individual attention rises in proportion. I worked with every girl there last week, whether as a pad holder, improving their technique, offering praise, and in almost every case, a combination of all three. Moreover, because of the smaller class size, I knew all of them by name, which made the class more familiar and comfortable. All of this helped the girls to work much harder than they might have if they thought an audience was judging them, or if they thought the instructor wasn't paying attention.

There's a broader point to make here. In a world, not to mention state, of shrinking budgets and service cuts, the student-to-teacher ratio has become increasingly important. Instructors are pressed to offer the same individualized attentions to students in a class of 10 as they are to students in a class of 30. That's unfair to student and teacher alike. I'm not saying that Girl World or Alternatives has a staffing issue, although like every social work agency in Chicago, we could use both more money and more help. Rather, the girls themselves, and other young people like them, would benefit from the additional attention and focus that is allowed in smaller classes. From a martial arts perspective, that's as true of a professional heavyweight with a personal trainer as it is for a teenage girl who just wants to get fit, learn self-defense, and/or have fun.

This is not a very academic or profound observation, but its simplicity captures the energy of the class and of the girls who participated. Kickboxing rocks. As many of us know, it's fun to just hit something (something, not someone). Wacking a pad or bag gives a sense of power that running, lifting weights, stretching, throwing a ball, and a variety of other physical activities just doesn't produce. For one, there is such a direct connection between your agency and your power. You hit the bag hard and it flies away. The room echoes with the slap of your foot on leather. Your partner says "Ow! Why you hit so hard!?" In all cases, you were the one who generated that strength, controlled it, and then used it. Other physical activities call on athletes to use their power in similar ways, but it's often less direct than a strike with your own body. There are no tools involved, no mediating agents that deliver or show the power. When you kick a ball far, the focus is often on the flying object, not on the powerful kick. In kickboxing, the first thing you see is the kick that sent the bag flying. It also doesn't take any special training or understanding to appreciate the meaning of a "kick" or a "punch". Those are biologically ingrained movements, or at least culturally ingrained ones, and we all respect their meaning. Harnessing that power is vitalizing, especially for young women who may have either never had it before, or had it used against them in the past.

Previous weeks focused on grappling. Self-defense often combines aspects of ground fighting with striking, and both are necessary for an effective system. Both martial aspects are also fun on their own for different and overlapping reasons. That said, for martial artists who are just starting their training, particularly those who have never done it before, it is immediately gratifying to punch and strike. Grappling certainly appeals to some, but for many it is daunting. Unaccustomed to physical contact? Self-conscious about your skills, image, or body? Worried about working at close quarters with others? Those are all good reasons to eventually wrestle and overcome your hesitation, but they are also hefty obstacles when first starting. Kickboxing dodges all that. You don't need to spar to throw some strikes. It can be you and a pad holder. Or just you and a bag! In that sense, kickboxing can be much more inviting for new and prospective martial artists.

From a more sociological perspective, many of the young women of Girl World are probably familiar with striking. It either shows up more commonly in popular culture (movies, games, television shows, etc.) or, unfortunately, in their own lives. There is something a bit too intimate and familiar about wrestling that can be unwelcoming to someone who has never been on a mat before. This is less of an issue for young men, many of whom roughhoused and scrapped their way through childhood. Even if they didn't, their cultural experience was less anti-contact as it often is with young women. Of course, this cultural suggestion doesn't mean that girls and women should avoid contact martial arts. Quite the contrary: They should be encouraged to do it, if for no other reason than to allow them the option of defeating that cultural stereotype. But it also makes it harder for some women to take those first steps onto the mat, let alone into an opponent's guard or mount. For that reason, kickboxing can be a much more enticing invitation to martial arts.

The success of a martial arts class is not entirely in the instructor's hands. It is a collaboration between the teacher, the students, and countless external factors that are not entirely in your control. Indeed, those factors may be entirely out of your control. Just as I cannot take the full blame for a subpar week 2 class, so too can I not take all the credit for a successful week 3 class. The weather, the schools, the other staff, the girls, and many other agents were all equally responsible for making the hour fun. That observation, if internalized, will as much insulate you from classes that fail as it will keep you humble during classes that succeed. I don't think I have fully internalized it yet, but in identifying the principle here I am more likely to remember it in the future.

All of this applies just as much to martial arts as it does to any other subject, whether organized with youth, adults, or another audience. Social work education was as much about individuals as it was about their environments, and it is our job as professionals, teachers, martial artists, and readers to always consider the context of an issue. In this case, the context of my class made it successful. I played a part in that, but only a part. In the case of week 2, the context of the class made it fall short. I also have some responsibility for those failings, but again, only some. It will be better for me as a martial artist, and better for the Girl World girls as students, if I remember that in the coming meetings.

For the week 4 class, to be held tomorrow, we will probably stick with kickboxing and add in some additional techniques. I expect the girls will love elbows and knees. So whether the class is big or small and whether another polar vortex rampages across the midwest, I am optimistic that we can build on the successes of last weeks class and add some more smiles to these girls' lives.