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. 

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