What can L&D learn from a World Kenpo Karate Champion?


June 10, 2024

That’s probably not the title of an L&D blog you were expecting. Some might even describe it as clickbait! It isn’t, at least, that wasn’t our intention!


You may already know a little about martial arts. It uses hierarchical structures and spaced repetition to teach techniques and discipline. But the right school also teaches confidence, community, and well-being. It can also transform complete novices into European Gold medallists, or at least a family club in Gloucester can. And that is where this story starts!


Nine years ago, I took my son, then five, to this small Kenpo club in Gloucester. Kenpo combines Japanese martial arts, such as karate and judo, with some Chinese martial arts influences. A little fun fact… Elvis Presley was a black belt in Kenpo. Ok, back to the story.


It wasn’t love at first sight for the sport, but he had fun and steadily improved. At the age of seven, he went to what we thought was going to be a small competition, only to find out it was the British Championships. He won, and the fire was lit! Since then, he’s pushed his way up through the belt system to become the youngest brown belt in the club. He’s won cups and medals, but more importantly, he’s found a place where he can be himself in a world that doesn’t always make that easy. But this story isn’t about him, it’s about his amazing Sensei Sinead.


An eight-time World Kenpo Karate Champion, Sinead holds an impressive 6th Dan Black Belt in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu and 2nd Dan black belt in Kenpo Karate. But that still isn’t the point of this post.


No, we are going to explore, in a series of three blog posts, ten things she incorporates into her teaching to see what we, in the L&D world, can learn from her. Some of these may be new to you; if not, we hope they will remind you that they can have a massive impact when put into practice in a systematic and integrated way. Because if Sinead can create European Gold medallists in 12 months using these techniques, imagine what you could do for your charity!


What you will read in these blog posts is based on a lengthy interview we carried out with Sinead and years of observations watching her teach and nurture students.


We’ve highlighted these in purple to help you find the nuggets of L&D wisdom.


Let’s start at the beginning with Buddying…


1. Buddying


The buddying system starts from the moment a child or young person first walks into the Dojo. Sinead knows that most of them are terrified. It’s a new space, people all know each other, and everyone is wearing funny clothes. They have no idea what to expect and what’s going to happen. Setting aside the funny clothes, does that sound like the first few days in a new job?


Sinead knows they don’t want a scary adult telling them what to do in front of others. So, the first thing that happens is they are paired up with someone (who’s maybe only one belt higher) tasked with showing them how to complete a basic move.


As Sinead describes it:

“It won’t be good and it won’t be correct, and it won’t be what you want it to be. But what it does is it just gives them a little grounding that they feel like they’ve done an amazing job straight off the bat.”


So, the new student can interact with someone of a similar age who isn’t an expert and who becomes a familiar face. It also starts the supporting student on a path to developing mentoring skills they will be required to use throughout their martial arts journey.


L&D takeaway: Can we replicate this by using buddy systems when people first start? Pairing people, not with really experienced staff, but those who have only been in the organisation for six months. They will be close enough to the new starter’s perspective to support and inspire them. It helps them reflect on what they know and still need help with. It also allows them both to build a new friendship without your interference.


The ability to teach and support others is integral to a good martial arts club and moving up the belt system. Seasoned students are required to complete a number of teaching hours to gain higher belts, and this process starts early. This has a range of benefits. It creates a sense of community where younger children can be inspired by more experienced students, provides the opportunity for lessons to be tailored to the needs of the individual (more teachers, smaller groups) and builds life skills for students interacting and teaching others.


These types of activities build in responsibility from one-on-one peer support to leading a warm-up at the start of a class, designing a new warm-up session, and designing and delivering a whole lesson. This progressive approach allows them to slowly build both confidence and skills. Before they know it, they are warming up 200 other athletes at an international event (true story).


L&D takeaway: It’s basically the 70:20:10 model in action! The students are being taught things by Sinead (the 10),  learning from peers with more experience (the 20) and then applying what they have learnt by practising the skills (the 70). Only in this model the 20 is mandatory (for most students) and built into the structure of the club.


2. Inclusion

I used the term ‘most students’ in the last paragraph because although martial arts are built around structure and consistency (in forms, clothes, etc.), it is also a place where everyone is included. As Sinead explains:

“I have a deep passion for celebrating individuality. I don’t want a club full of people that do everything the same. I want them all to realise that the next person that walks in the door, they may look different, but they get treated the same as everyone else.”


L&D takeaway: I would like to think that L&D understands the importance of inclusion. However, this was a powerful reminder that if we celebrate the individual, we create a culture that includes everyone.


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