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Build a positive dojo culture with this one easy thing.

Positive Dojo culture. Is that even a thing? It should be if you want to provide the best experience for your students and enjoy your role as a teacher or coach. Since I started teaching karate I think a lot about the people who have entrusted their time to learning and growing at the dojo. A positive culture is not an easy thing to achieve. After all, a martial arts school operates on interactions with humans (presently at a distance thanks to COVID 19) and we are all flawed. Our egos are big and most of our thoughts are self-centered, myself included. Your students are spending their free time and money to not just learn a skill but also to enjoy the experience. We owe it to our students to provide them with the best possible classes. I'll explain why we started mat chats at our school, how we implemented them, and the changes it brought to our dojo culture. This idea of a mat chat or a team meeting can be used in your kids' classes and adapted for your adult classes.

Why bother with a mat chat?

What is the goal of the mat chat you may be asking? Think about a favorite teacher of yours. My guess is you don't remember the facts your teacher actually taught you, but you most likely remember the way that teacher made you feel. I had an Earth Science teacher, Mr. Henry, my freshman year in high school that was kind and genuinely cared for all his students. I felt comfortable in his class even though I definitely was not his top-performing student by any stretch. He created an atmosphere that was welcoming and friendly to all of his students.

As instructors, we want to build a community and a positive culture, and to do this we realized we had to take the time to get to know our students and their families. Our mindset is how can we help our students be better people, not just awesome tournament winning martial artists. There is so little time between classes to actually have a conversation with kids and parents. So we worked in time after our warm-up but before instruction to have our mat chats. We also use the mat chat to communicate about tournaments, special events, and rank exams so that everyone feels vested and connected to their karate school.

Another reason to set aside time for a mat chat is that it offers a chance to practice respect and discipline. One of the main reasons parents sign their kids up for karate is to have them learn respect and discipline. Through vigorous physical karate training, most people do learn respect but we feel that it is through talking and hearing different points of view, that we can show examples of respect. It also takes discipline for youths to sit and empathetically listen to each other. We have found that the time we sit and engage with our students has helped create and strengthen our bonds with them. We learn something about them and they learn something about us. We aren't just the people correcting their technique.

How to Start

We use our 5-minute mat chats at the beginning of our classes to discuss certain character virtues in addition to making announcements. We have found the book Martial Arts Character Lesson Plans for Children by Mike Massie very helpful. He gives the reader 14 different virtues, their definitions, and frames each virtue in a discussion format. We usually supplement our mat chats using his virtue discussion topics. And here is a list of mat chat discussion topics that you may want to use at your school:

1. Your dojo kun- why do we say the creed and what does it mean? We usually pull out one of the statements from the dojo kun to discuss.

2. Dojo announcements- tournaments, summer camps, special events.

3. Different virtues such as humility, patience, honesty, valor, and loyalty.

4. Reflections on a recent tournament.

As you do more mat chats, you'll get different ideas for new discussions. Make sure to have an outline of specific points you want to make and allow for a free and open discussion. The last thing you want to do is use the mat chat for a lecture from you. Your students will want to hear your stories but keep it less about you and more about them.

You'll also want to keep your mat chats new and fresh and try not to be too repetitive. To keep things interesting, I like to have them guess who said a particular quote in multiple question formats. For example:

"Who said this: "Karate is like boiling water; without heat, it returns to its tepid state."

A. Kung Fu Panda

B. Bruce Lee

C. Master Funakoshi

D. Sensei Bobby

I always put in silly choices and this usually keeps things fun and lively.

Avoid this mistake I made!

I quickly found out that a mat chat was a huge time sucker for our younger kids' classes. They were having a hard time sitting still so I changed the format. Now, I do a quick 2-minute talk while they are sitting in the kneeling position. Little ones have a lot to say and they just want to be heard- so give them that chance. Let them know you care by giving them time to tell you about their lives outside of karate. Here is an example of a mat chat topic and I always start with a question. What does it mean to be sincere and honest? Or, Can you give me an example of when someone wasn't honest with you- how did it make you feel? You will get a story from just about everyone. Beware! Before you know it, half of your class time will be gone.

Changes we have seen

The truth is it takes time to see positive change from your efforts. One measure that may help determine if your mat chats are proving useful is to ask your students! I always make sure I ask our youth classes what they think about the mat chats. Expect them to give you rave reviews, after all, you ARE their Sensei, however, some children are brutally honest. So go ahead and ask them what they think. If you feel like the majority of kids benefit from it than definitely keep putting effort into your discussions. An added bonus is this: you may notice your adult students become interested in the mat chats. We allow our adult students that are there to help teach join in- they get to have a peek at what we expect from the children which also translates to what we expect from them as well. Another way I like to measure the health of our culture is the feel of our waiting room. Our waiting room is usually full of parents trying to get their kids home who don't want to stop talking with their karate friends. What is the waiting area like at your school? Hopefully lots of happy faces- from parents too!

I hope you got some ideas for building a better and positive dojo culture. The mat chat idea can be applied to adult classes as well in the form of a "team meeting". All anyone whether they are an adult or a child wants is to be noticed and heard. I think your students can only benefit from devoting time during class for them to be noticed and heard. I'd love to hear from you. Let me know if you have a version of the mat chat and how you maintain a positive dojo culture.

Be well!


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