Our tournament competition team, Kenpo Freestyle Sydney, is one of the best in the history of martial arts competition in Australia. Winning the top-ranked team in ISKA (International Sports Karate Association) for six years straight is a record-setting achievement that will stand for some time. People sometimes ask me how we did it. At the risk of giving our secrets away, I am going to tell you how to motivate kids to be their best. A team of motivated individuals produces championships.
Recognition is the key to motivating people, especially in front of their peers. We all have a need to be recognised for our hard work and effort. I recognise all tournament competitors, regardless of whether they won a trophy or not. I point out in front of the other kids that this boy or girl must have been courageous enough to go into a competition. This is a real confidence-booster for a child that might have missed out on a trophy. A student who attends two tournaments a year gets a special badge, regardless of their perfomance in competition. The kids are very proud of these badges.
Don’t let them dwell on mistakes. I asked a girl to come up front and demonstrate a kata because she had a pretty good one. She tried it three or four times and kept making mistakes—the pressure of performing it in front of the class got to her. She started to cry. So I took her aside later and said, “Listen, the reason I had you come up front was you had the best kata in the class, and I wanted to show the others how it should be done. Despite your mistakes, your stances were superb and I am sure the class now knows how do do them. Well done”. She walked away with a smile on her face and a look of pride. The lesson here—find something a child does well, and focus on that.
Disguise repetition. Repetition is the key to skill, but mix it up enough to achieve the same result by doing different drills and exercises. This will ensure that your students stay motivated enough to attend regularly. When you can, make a game out of any activity. Kids love games. We play games that leave the kids huffing and puffing, just like running wind sprints, but they don’t feel it, because it’s so much fun.
Emphasise that hard work wins the race. Point out that some students will naturally be more gifted than others, but there is no substitute for hard work. There are plenty of examples in every club of students who, although originally lacking the athleticism, made up for it by sheer hard work and became champions. Use these examples to motivate students with less ability.
Use positive coaching to those who did their best but came up short. If a child performs below par at a tournament, I might say “That was a pretty good kata, especially for your first tournament. Let me show you how to do it better next time. Before I walk away I say, “You know, you are very brave to even come out here in front of all these people and perform. Good job.” False praise, on the other hand, is counterproductive. Saying that they “were great” when they were obviously not is dishonest and the student will surely know his efforts did not warrant the praise.
Make sure each student’s goals are achievable. Getting a first place in a child’s first tournament is not a reasonable goal, and he will get discouraged if he doesn’t “meet your standards”. If the goal is reachable, the student will be highly motivated to achieve it.
Fear or threats do not work. Having a child do push-ups or any other type of punishment for failing to perform at his expected level has no place in sports. In addition, it does not work, as the child will get discouraged and will lose interest in the activity.
Provide a training hall where everyone is made to feel welcome. We all thrive in environments where we feel safe and are accepted for who we are. Your example is followed by everyone in the organisation, so make it one worth following.
Be passionate about what you are coaching. It will most definitely rub off on your students. They will respond accordingly.
Coaches, parents, and students out there, I welcome your own examples of ways to motivate children in martial arts.