“Time to Learn Something from the Kids,” by Dave Goldberg

“In our older kids’ class (8-13) it’s not uncommon for some after-school slack, slop, and goofiness to occasionally visit some of the children during training (imagine that). I have discovered a great line that works almost every time. It goes like this… ‘That failed to express your greatness.'”

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  1. The euphemism statements work better with children, although I am surprised they work with twelve and thirteen year olds as much as younger kids. Most kids will look up to a clearly skilled sensei who is kind to them, and not be able to or choose to see through your “benevolently deceitful” language.

    Adults will see through it immediately as condescension. Even if they generally respect you, so many people have some level of insecurity. Such comments that communicate with the children so well, will not be tolerated by an adult who lacks the luxury of simply accepting your plays on words with little analysis. For the most part, with adults (maybe more like 12 and up), they must be there because they want to try hard and learn Aikido. Then there is no need for this type of sensei intervention. As for the kids who really don’t want to be there, they and their parents should look for a different activity, as there are many beneficial options.

  2. Tom Fox says:

    The few 12-year olds I know aren’t as insecure as an adults. They are making the big shift from kid to teenager, but when you bust them for goofing around when they should be trying harder, it’s definitely best to try a humorous approach, as there is generally Somebody trying to get them to focus on Something most of their waking hours.

    In the class context that Dave is talking about, I would view the comment more like gentle teasing and an expression of belief in the student, rather than being deceitful or condescending. For the type of kids I’m familiar with, greatness isn’t something they’re worrying about — if they succeed in doing something or feel like they’re getting better it’s “great.”

    The kids I know are pretty lucky though. They are surviving the sometimes merciless teasing kids go through, giving it back when necessary and usually able to laugh it off.

    To your “average” adult aikido student, to an insecure child, or a less fortunate kid facing some of the greater life stresses that adults face, such a comment could be taken as deceitful or condescending, and is far more likely to leave the student frustrated.

    Someone facing adult responsibilities is likely to have a much more pessimistic view of greatness relative to what they have accomplished or can hope to accomplish. In that case, as Drew points out, the comment is likely to cause frustration and resentment. Greatness may be viewed as something impossibly distant or requiring exceptional efforts, instead of letting strength flow naturally as happens in our fleeting best moments in aikido.

    But in a class like Dave is taking about, the purpose of studying aikido or any other art is to lift the kids up, to give them a sense that they can blend and be strong and confident in the face of what life throws at them.

    There is no one-size-fits-all comment to bring a student out of a rut, but it’s interesting to look at what’s worked in what situations, and then at situations where the same approach didn’t work.

  3. I love this line! Properly delivered to a group that has been fully educated on what constitutes “greatness” it can be very powerful.

    I teach Physics and Calculus to high school seniors, and I use these kinds of lines all the time. These kids are smart (typically the top 50 kids in the class) and see through the surface of these kinds of remarks just as Tom and Drew mention above. However, if they have been repeatedly educated about what the expectation for success is, these kinds of statements get them back on track. When done properly, it makes (and allows) the person to laugh at themselves and get back on track. I’m going to steal this line for my classroom (thanks Goldberg Sensei).

    On a deeper level, I think this statement reinforces the attitude in the dojo that everyone has greatness within them, but it is the choices they make as to how much of it is expressed. So many martial artists look at their sensei’s (and O-Sensei) as persons of exceptional skill that they can never hope to match.

    To me this is the most destructive and limiting attitude I can imagine. If it was impossible for me to ever reach the level of proficiency of my sensei, why bother training? If students could never reach this level, then by definition the quality of practitioners would continuously decrease over generations. It can be argued that this has occurred in some instances and not in others… I would argue that when degeneration occurs, it is because of a culture that promotes this attitude that you can never get as good as your sensei.

    One of my favorite quotes (I don’t remember who said it) is:

    “What one man can do, another man can do”

    This shapes how my Physics/Calculus and Aikido classes are taught.

    Bravo Goldberg Sensei

  4. Well, Jim’s comments are difficult to dispute, since physics, not to mention calculus, is taught only to the more academically pursuant students in a school. A young child and a studious student who is 17 or 18 may both react positively to encouraging wording of a statement. The child will react without picking up on the euphemism, while the high school junior or senior will see through it transparently, laugh to himself or herself, and understand and accept why it was said in that way. It becomes an attitude situation with Jim’s students. Students who get good vibes from a teacher will often welcome anything positive he says, and take some things with a grain of salt.

    The reason I use 12 and up as adult is because that is when eminent psychologist Jean Piaget, through his research, discovered that people are capable of abstract thought usually at 12 years old. This means, theoretically, most of the 12-year-olds and older in the Aikido class have the mental ability to see through such games. Whether this hurts a young individual’s morale, I suppose that depends on the young man or woman individually.

  5. I live, breathe, and apply Piaget’s work in the classroom everyday. I am well aware of how this affects a person’s experience with new concepts. (Also, how it can be used as an excuse for low achievment…)

    The key is in preparing the students’ (Aikido or Physics) brain with smaller steps and a class culture so that comments such as Goldberg Sensei’s fall on fertile ground and not on a rocky hardpack. It’s all about laying the groundwork.

    There are many things that work for others but would not work in my classroom because my climate is different. They might work great somewhere else but fall flat with my delivery. (My use of “classroom” applies to the dojo as well, of course.) So in the end, if you think it will work for you, use it. If not, don’t. Just don’t try to deliver “it” (comment, technique, atemi) to unprepared ground.


  6. Teaching as a career in both school and Aikido must be challenging, often stressful, and intrinsically rewarding. Many people with sky-high paychecks could have gone the education route, but some only understand extrinsic reward. I thank you for pursuing these more meaningful though less lucrative careers, Jim. The slope of a line tangent to a point on a graph can be slippery, so it’s good to hear that you’re working hard to keep your center.

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