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Awarding Ranks To Your Students
In today’s installment, I advise instructors on how they can put some extra time and effort into planning and executing something that most Karate instructors have never given any thought to: Awarding promotions to club members. Awarding promotions can be turned into a community-building experience that deepens the relationship between you and your students, strengthens their commitment to their membership in the club, and leverages the full power of the incentive that Karate ranks are designed to represent. If you meet this challenge, you will have another technique in your arsenal of Karate club management.
Passing Out New Karate Belts
An instructor I know has a lot of students, and when his students pass a Karate test, he waits about a month before mailing them their results to their homes. I guess he feels as though there will be less blowback from giving out negative results if he waits for everyone to calm down and find their happy place again so many weeks after their test. He gives them their belts the next time he visits their club, bringing the belts in his gym bag, and then handing them out to the students during the course of a training session. To make this more personal, he walks up to each person, stops them in mid-training, and pulls their old belt off, and he ties the new one on them.
This might seem like a very personal way to award Karate ranks, but this guy is missing the boat. In fact, when he arrived, the ship had sailed and left him standing on the docks.
Here’s another example.
One man I know recycles Karate belts in his club. At the end of the test, right after everyone has finished and after a brief recess during which he and his senior students retire to an office to supposedly discuss test results, which they do not truly discuss, by the way, he comes out and promotes the highest ranking students first, tying a belt that he or a more senior student owned around their waists. Each successive promotion results in a member tying their own belt on the next lower person in the food chain until everyone has received a recycled belt.
His strategy is to create a sense of community through having everyone wear each other’s hand me downs. He’s missed the boat, too. Maybe he and the other instructor can stand on the docks watching the ship drop below the horizon and argue with one another whether or not instant or late results provide better feedback to students.
We instructors generally make earning Karate ranks a trial. The student shows up for class regularly, amasses a number of hours of training, or months of membership, if you make the mistake of using that as your measurement of tenure, and they sweat, strain, and push themselves until they reach a new level of ability. We recognize their efforts by examining them and providing them with feedback as to how well they are doing.
That’s all great, but it’s just part of the examination process, and it’s not really the best way to make the most that having new belts to hand out offers you.
Giving out awards is something that the military has been doing for centuries longer than any Karate organization. And, most military units know how to build a sense of community, tradition, history, and esprit de corps, leveraging every opportunity to instill in every team member’s mind the conviction that they are part of something bigger than they are.
Another group that is very skilled and has documented recommendations for how to hand out promotions to students is the Boy Scouts. With 100 years of rank awards behind them and more members than any Karate organization will ever hope to have, the Boy Scouts have perfected the art of rank awards down to a science.
I believe that by combining the best practices of these sorts of organizations with some of the better things that we are already doing, we can help ourselves out greatly.
So, how do I recommend that you award Karate ranks? I recommend that you have a separate, planned awards ceremony that is prescheduled ahead of time to follow the examination by about a week, and that this ceremony be turned into an event that brings in family, friends, and your club members.
How To Hold A Promotion Event
You can do better than handing down someone else’s dirty, stinky, sweaty, probably unwashed belt (due to belief in some imaginary tradition) to your students and then clapping for them briefly before beginning a new training class. Taking five minutes at the beginning or end of a training session or examination to award ranks wastes this chance to round up your club and have an evening of relationship building.
This is not like some of my other advice. This requires coordination, delegation, planning, and it will be a lot of work. But I believe it is worth it.
The following steps might help a lot:Schedule and announce the awards ceremony at least two weeks in advance. Send invitations home with the students and be sure to invite, spouses, parents, siblings, and others. Remind the students continually of the ceremony during the days leading up to it. Begin the ceremony at 7:30pm at night. At 7:20 pm, the instructor is standing at the entrance greeting everyone as they arrive. Have a volunteer coordinate where dishes go and where to sit. At 7:30 pm, the instructor stands in the front and gives a welcome speech. At 7:40 pm, the instructor begins awarding belts Invite your guests to line up for food and grab an empty plate. Club members either serve food and help in kitchen or go to the end of the line. The instructor goes last, and when he arrives at the table, he should make a toast.
The results of this kind of regular event are pretty difficult to ignore. Your students will feel more appreciated, and their Karate rank will mean more to them because you showed how important it is to you. Making something obviously important to you as the instructor is how to give something value in your club. If you do it, it is important. If you don’t, it’s not. If you say you don’t care about something, then don’t expect your students to respond to it either.
Your member’s families will become more interested in what they are doing, and you might win some points instead of being discussed around their dinner table in negative tones. Meeting and greeting with parents and spouses builds your reputation, your business network, and it vaccinates you against paranoia and suspicion based on idle speculation.
During my many years of Karate training, no one ever did any of this in any club I was ever a member of. Nor did any organization in which I participated. The conclusion I draw from that experience is that spouses and parents come to regard the Karate club as some group of chuckle heads they have never met. They don’t understand why you go there, and often, they never even see you do anything. Despite my long years of training, my parents have not seen me publicly perform a kata or spar since I was 13 years old. Thus, they have never been totally supportive of my interest in Karate.
Do you want to be the instructor who is supported by friends and family of members, or resented? It’s your choice to make the effort or not.
Let’s talk about the steps to accomplishing this.
1. Schedule and announce the awards ceremony at least two weeks in advance.
If you want people to attend, you have to let them know, in writing, two weeks in advance. The nicer the invitations, the more likely people are to attend. A more formal event should be announced with more formal invitations. If you plan on everyone just showing up after work, which I recommend, then the invitations should be casual, not embossed on print paper.
There is also the very good point that the more elaborate your invitations, the more difficult it will be to repeat this process three or four times a year. Hopefully during the dinner you will meet a spouse or parent in the printing business, and you will can cut a deal right there at the table.
The awards ceremony should be the week following the examination. Give students their ranks in a timely fashion, or the “pop” of receiving it is diminished and the rank is shown to be less than important.
2. Send invitations home
Be sure to invite people to the awards ceremony, which the Boy Scouts call a “Court of Honor,” who are the spouses, family, and friends of your students. Be clear as to what the agenda for the ceremony will be. I would suggest that you offer as an agenda something like this:
Invitation to Karate Awards Banquet
You are cordially invited to attend a banquet in honor of our club members who have worked hard to receive rank promotions due to their dedication and increasing skill. Please join us for a casual evening of entertainment and dinner.
All are invited to bring a dish to be served during dinner. Please coordinate through RSVP number below.
Day, Date, Time
Location (map attached)
7:30 pm Socializing
7:45 pm Invocation
7:50 pm Awards Presented (to include by recipients)
8:30 pm Dinner
RSVP – (phone number)
It is vital that you get the spouses, families, and any friends they wish to have attend to visit. This is your best, most appropriate opportunity to present yourself in a positive light and be seen showing pride in your students who are so important to these people.
But stay positive. Sometimes you have to do this kind of thing once or twice before the students really believe it is a good idea to have their families there. It will take off after you do it a few times.
3. Remind the students continually of the ceremony during the days leading up to it.
If you don’t say something seven times, no one will hear you. Repeat the reminder that everyone have their families attend with them, and welcome their friends to come with them.
If you don’t have the spare cash to cater the event, or if you think bringing in pizza and soft drinks will cost a fortune, have families each bring a dish. This is usually referred to as a “covered dish dinner,” and some people really get a kick out of being asked to bring something they cook. If you have a volunteer parent or spouse you have made a connection with during a previous meet and greet, this is the time to call in a favor and ask them to help coordinate what everyone is bringing, and you can put their number for the RSVP.
This gives the ambitious and power-hungry parents and spouses who resent your total control of all events and issues related to your club a great task that they will enjoy. It puts them in charge, but it doesn’t put them in charge of your club’s operations or in any way put you at risk from their involvement.
4. Begin the ceremony at 7:30pm at night.
These days, people have long commutes in terrible traffic, and trying to have dinner at 6pm is really not reasonable any longer. I don’t know about you, but my family generally doesn’t eat until 7:30 or 8:00 at night these days because it takes us so long to get everyone home.
7:30 seems to be the universal time when everyone is available to attend an event like this. But, if you use this time, keep in mind that the food is getting cold and your audience is tired an hungry. Speeches must be brief, and the entire awards ceremony is best ended within 30 minutes or so after you begin if possible. Limit the content if you have a lot of ranks to present.
5. At 7:20 pm, the instructor is standing at the entrance greeting everyone as they arrive. Have a volunteer coordinate where dishes go and where to sit.
Greet your students and their families as they arrive. Do not “osu!” and bow to the families. You will confuse and annoy them, and you will present as a nut-job who needs therapy. Welcome them just like they were coming to your home, and shake hands firmly and briefly. Two shakes of the hand, please, make eye contact, and no double-handed grips, shoulder slaps, or punching at anyone. Think like a businessman in a board room, not a Karate instructor.
6. At 7:30 pm, the instructor stands in the front and gives a welcome speech.
Make a nice speech, and direct it to your students’ families and friends. Thank them for coming, and tell them how important their support is to not only the success of the Karate club, but also to the success of the students in life. Tell them that they are welcome to contact you at any time with any concern, and that your club has an open door for them, whether they are interested in lessons or simply inspecting your operation. Finally, address your students and inform them of how lucky they are to have people in their lives who care so much for them as to attend such an event as this one. Five minute speech, tops. If it won’t fit on one sheet of paper on one side, you’re jabbering uncontrollably and have to be stopped for the sake of all who are hungry and tired.
7. At 7:40 pm, the instructor begins awarding belts
I have a particular recommendation for how to do this. When I have seen it done elsewhere in other fields, it has been very effective. Follow these steps:Call out the student’s name, and ask them to come forward. Tell the audience two positive behaviors and any special obstacles this student had to overcome. Turn to the student, and say, “Through hard work and dedication, you have earned the rank of ______. You are now entitled to wear this belt. Congratulations, and well done. If the student is comfortable with this idea, have them perform a single kata for the attending audience, if you have room.
Don’t push the exhibition on your students. If they choke or freeze up in front of everyone, you will never see them again, and they will feel humiliated. However, your black belt members will probably love being asked to take everyone to school after receiving a promotion. Discuss this with the students in advance, DON’T AMBUSH THEM.
If you don’t have many takers, save the demonstration for the end of the awards, and let a few students do a pre-arranged demonstration of self-defense or perform a team kata to minimize the potential for a disaster. Limit the content to a few minutes, and ensure the room will support it in advance. If it won’t, forget it.
8. Invite your guests to line up for food and grab an empty plate. Club members either serve food and help in kitchen or go to the end of the line.
Your club members should do the serving, and you should be helping them. Your guests are guests, and you should never forget that they are your guests and that you are the host. Be sure that they are treated with the courtesy a guest is due. Pompous Sensei sitting at the head of the table is absolutely not what you are going for here. Have your guests meet one another. This will prove to them that other “normal” people have family members in your club. You need that connection between the families and friends of your students to help your reputation. They can share stories about how irritated they are with all of the training with one another.
Your students should help themselves after every guest has a plate, and they can sit wherever there are seats left.
9. The instructor goes last, and when he arrives at the table, he should make a toast.
Do not sit at the head of the table. Do not let a student push the guests around so that they show “proper respect.” The goal of this dinner is for you, the instructor, to show humility, not respect. Humble people don’t take the head of the table. They sit off to one side somewhere in the crowd. Also, try to make sure you don’t sit with your students. Sit with the families and meet them.
Some networking advice: Spend your time writing down names. Remember those names. Remember the children’s names. Remember their businesses. Write it all down. Get contact information from them if you strike up a good conversation. Do not leave the dinner without having learned all about at least two people you never met before. You can get to know your students later. Besides, they are somewhere else complaining about unfair promotions and talking about the next coming tournament.
How to make a toast: Stand up. Clear your throat. Stare at everyone while smiling until they grow quiet. If some are still talking, simply begin. Here’s a template: “I would like everyone to join me in a toast. To our patient friends and families. We thank you for your support, and we wish for health, wealth, and happiness always. To my students, know that I am very proud of you today, and that you should be proud of yourselves.”
Everyone can then continue dining, and some will begin to drift out. The students should clean up, and you should ensure that you personally escort anyone leaving to the door and thank them for coming.
Here are the steps again:Schedule and announce the awards ceremony at least two weeks in advance. Send invitations home with the students and be sure to invite, spouses, parents, siblings, and others. Remind the students continually of the ceremony during the days leading up to it. Begin the ceremony at 7:30pm at night. At 7:20 pm, the instructor is standing at the entrance greeting everyone as they arrive. Have a volunteer coordinate where dishes go and where to sit. At 7:30 pm, the instructor stands in the front and gives a welcome speech. At 7:40 pm, the instructor begins awarding belts Invite your guests to line up for food and grab an empty plate. Club members either serve food and help in kitchen or go to the end of the line. The instructor goes last, and when he arrives at the table, he should make a toast.
The power of this sort of event is quite astounding. You will connect with the people who have the most influence over your students. When you and a student have a disagreement in the future, these people you connect with during this dinner can either be there ranting about what a silly joke Karate is, or they can influence the student to go back and talk things over with you. They can either be your worst enemies or your allies – people who work in businesses you can use – people who know things you need to know. And most of all, they could be volunteers to reduce your workload down to almost nothing for the next awards banquet.
Your students will benefit from this as well. Their rank is obviously important to you, they have achieved something in your eyes, and you are proud of them, and you have said so in front of others. This sort of gesture is grand and very rewarding. So many Karate instructors have an existence based on constant criticism and negativity with their students, and they believe, mistakenly, that it is the hard training that causes students to drop out. But the real reason they leave, more than any other, is that they have no connection between them and the Karate school.
Humans are social animals, and ceremonies and formalities exist to lubricate the social activities we go through to build new relationships and interact with one another in a positive way. I believe you will find that this kind of event can provide the structure and setting for you to say things to your students that you think you have said, but that they will be shocked to hear come out of your mouth.
The only question now is whether or not you choose to do the work and make the effort, and your decision will be based entirely on how important your students are to you.
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