Martial Art Talks: Sensei Darrin Johnson

Welcome to Martial Art Talks! The MAT is an interview blog series where I speak with the best and brightest the martial arts industry has to offer.

This week on the MAT, we speak with Koryu Uchinadi Shidoin, Sensei Darrin Johnson. Sensei Darrin has 35 years of martial arts experience, a 6th dan in KU, is an avid researcher, and has pursued other martial arts such as, Muay Thai, Aikido, Kobudo and holds rank in various styles of karate.

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In our chat he shares his controversial opinions about martial arts today and how he integrates KU and Muay Thai into his weekly practice. Feel free to watch our interview or read below!

 

JT: How did you get introduced to Koryu Uchinadi and Hanshi Patrick McCarthy?

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DJ: When I was growing up in Spokane. Sensei McCarthy would come to tournaments and I would see him in the divisions and he would always win! And, as I was growing up through the martial arts my instructors would always have a Patrick McCarthy story, so I knew him before I even knew him!

JT: What about KU made you want to stick with it?

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DJ: Well, for me, it was the answer! I had spent my entire martial arts career looking for a style, a technique or a kata that would give me the answer. I couldn’t tell you how much I spent on videos of kata that I thought would give me that.

Then, I get with Sensei McCarthy and started looking at these things called tegumi and two person drills; they were so realistic. For me, KU had everything I needed and there was no reason for me to look any further.

That being said, there are things that aren’t really in KU right now that I like in Silat, Kali or Bagua, but I can bring it in because KU isn’t a style, it’s a methodology. I can bring anything I want into that methodology that works for me. I like impact, so I bring in Muay Thai, which is already similar to what we have with our Heishu Waza. For me, there’s just nowhere else to go. If I want to grapple, I grapple. I don’t need to go out and become a BJJ Master. I can just work that within my Koryu Uchinadi practice.

JT: Based on your experience as a martial arts business owner, what is the most important thing you have learned? 

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DJ: Don’t go into business. If you want to run a daycare, then yes, own a business. For me, I enjoyed myself much more when I was a club or a community centre or practicing at home. The market right now is just little kids. That’s why I started teaching Muay Thai, because that’s what people wanted. People would come in and ask “You don’t wear gis, do you?” and I’d say “No.” Then, they’d say “Good! Because, we wouldn’t want to come here if you did.” They don’t want the gi. They don’t want the belt. They don’t want the ranking system. They just want to train, like cross fit or tennis, just train.

If you want to do it as a business, you’ve got to have your ducks in a row, and you’ve got to make sure the kid market is there. If you don’t want to teach kids, you’ve got to have something else that’s going to bring in adults on a regular basis.

JT: You mentioned that you don’t use the gi, could you elaborate on that?

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DJ: I wouldn’t wear a kilt or a suit of armor to workout in; it’s irrelevant. That type of uniform and training methodology was meant for the 1890’s and early 1900’s Japanese because that’s what they wore. People today wear hoodies and t-shirts. If you go down to Florida, they wear flip flops and tank tops. Your training methodology should match the culture you’re in.

JT: How would you describe your teaching style?

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DJ: My teaching style is stern, but fun. I’m not going to spend a lot of time fixing everything, every second. I’ll mention it and move on. I’ll come back, fix it again, and move on. I might skip it for a few weeks and then come back to it.  If you just focus on correcting the entire time, than the student won’t get the overall lesson plan.

JT: Take me through the step-by-step process you go through teaching or assessing your students.

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DJ: There’s no step-by-step process; it’s a feeling. Every student is different. There’s no cookie cutter method for me. Sensei McCarthy uses the term mitari geiko “to watch and learn,” but sometimes I’ll have them do a technique and if I see a pause, I’ll just pull it out and work it until it doesn’t pause anymore, so it becomes functional spontaneity.

JT: What do you think is the most frustrating part for you as an instructor? 

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DJ: It’s time, meaning that I wish I had more time to teach. I wish the student’s had more time to learn. People don’t practice at home like I used to, but most people don’t have that type of time or dedication to it. There’s always so much to teach. I wish I could do more grappling, more throws, more chokes and strangulations; I just don’t have the time.

JT: What is the most rewarding aspect for you as an instructor?

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DJ: It’s not money. It usually costs me more than I make on it, that’s for sure! It’s rewarding when you have somebody come in that’s timid, shy and not very athletic, then six months to two year later, they start to look good and they feel the difference and that’s the most important thing.

Having someone train with me, it inspires me. They want so much knowledge and I have so much stuff to give. It’s fun to give that knowledge and watch people accept it and enjoy it, it makes you feel worth something.

JT: What do you plan on teaching at the Koryu Uchinadi North American Gasshuku?

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DJ: I am an impact guys. I love to smash! I make jokes about being “hulk smash” or “smash mouth”. We’re going to work on impact drills. If somebody grabs me by the throat, I’m not going to try a joint lock, because that’s hard, they don’t stand still for you. Smacking them in the face is quick and easy, that’s what I’m going to teach.

JT: How do you plan on going about teaching it?

 

 

 

DJ: Usually, you start with the HAPV or a mutual confrontation situation where you square off. In this case, I like to use focus mitts, Muay Thai pads and boxing gloves, because it allows the person to really extend their power through and get the idea of what it’s like to hit something. As well, the person holding the pads gets to feel what it’s like to get hit, without getting hit. It’s safe, yet they’re learning what it feels like to get smashed with fists, kicks and knees.

JT: What do you think is the best part about the Gasshuku experience?

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DJ: The gathering is always nice and to get like-minded people together, to see old friends again and meet new friends.

JT: If you have one piece of advice to give, what would it be?

 

 

DJ: Whether you’re a beginner or if you’ve been around for seventeen years, the idea is you don’t know it all, never think you know it all.

JT: Thank you so much Sensei Darrin Johnson for taking the time to speak with me. I look forward to working with  you at the Gasshuku!

Want to learn more? Check out the Koryu Uchinadi North American Gasshuku Facebook Page!

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Guest Post: “The Instructor-Student Gap: Why Your Students Still Suck” by Josh Stewart

Any good instructor’s process is always under scrutiny. The instructor looks at the students and wonders, “Why aren’t they doing what I asked?” or “Is that really what I showed them?”

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Self-doubt is a valuable tool in martial arts both as a student and as an instructor. As a student, when the instructor makes a correction or provides feedback, there should always be the assumption that you are the one doing it wrong. If that’s the baseline assumption, then if it’s not true, you have reminded yourself of something you are doing correctly, and if true, then you have found an area to fix.

As an instructor, this can be somewhat more difficult. The reality is that there will always be a gap between what you teach and what somebody else learns. It could be physiological differences, miscommunication, or varying learning styles that cause this discrepancy to exist.

Physiological Differences:

Age and injury account for a number of physical limitations that may prevent students from doing exactly what the instructor does, but there are also a number of other biological factors that affect how an individual performs a particular technique.

Flexibility, or lack thereof, has a vast effect on how the body moves. Stances and kicks are obvious areas where flexibility provides a greater range and may limit a student from copying exactly how an instructor executes a movement. Grappling is another area where strategy or technique selection can be largely determined by flexibility. For example, Eddie Bravo’s 10th Planet system is designed with the assumption of a certain range of motion, and someone without that capacity may struggle to emulate those exact sequences.

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However, I have also noticed that double-jointed students often have difficulty limiting their flexibility by contracting muscular groups effectively at the right times. Even a simple straight punch, executed by someone with a lot of flexibility, sometimes gives the appearance and feeling of being floppy when joints hyperextend without suitable muscular contraction to support the energy transfer.

Stature is another contributing factor. Bigger, more muscular people may rely on their size and strength advantage when working with a smaller partner, leading to neglect of correct footwork, positioning, or body mechanics because they can “get away with” doing the technique incorrectly—until they encounter a training partner their own size. Conversely, smaller students may have to supplement their techniques with extra kicks, knees, or groin slaps to help bring larger partners down to their own level. Otherwise, they may struggle to achieve the intended outcome because they simply can’t reach the targets designed in the training exercise.

Miscommunication:

As the word suggests, this occurs when one or both parties involved are not on the same page in regards to what is being asked. Any martial arts instructor who teaches kids knows that lack of listening or focus has a vast impact on this process, but it is certainly not limited to children.

Adults, especially advanced ones, tend to experience miscommunication because they believe that they already know the message being delivered. Again, the correct default for a student should be to assume they know nothing and are doing it all wrong, but naturally after several years of training, the ego may want us to assume otherwise.

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Of course, it takes two to tango. Instructors sometimes give vague or contradictory pieces of information about how a technique or strategy should be applied. Another source of miscommunication that can be blamed solely on the instructor is talking over the students’ heads. At times there may be too much technical jargon that learners will not be familiar with, in which case the verbal instruction may not transfer any useful information to the group. Instructors always need to remember who their audience is to ensure that the right level of detail is being provided at the right time in the learning process.

To limit miscommunication, creating an environment where it is safe to ask questions is vital. If a student asks for clarification and gets an abrupt, rude response, that will be the end of the process. Unfortunately an instructor’s ego is also involved in this process, often leading to the conclusion: “Well, I explained it clearly . . . What’s wrong with these students for not getting it right?” Just like the student, the instructor’s baseline assumption should be the opposite. If the students aren’t getting it, the onus should first be on the instructor to try again to deliver the lesson clearly and effectively.

Learning Styles:

Of course, there has been a lot of research into kinesthetic, auditory, and visual learning. The established reality is that, while we may rely more heavily on one rather than the other, each is a spectrum, and depending on what we are learning, we use each to varying degrees. In martial arts, we virtually always rely on them all: we listen and watch as the instructor presents the material, then we practice it physically.

Learning style also affects how an instructor delivers lessons in terms of how much context to give. Some learners are “big picture” oriented—they won’t understand the piece of a puzzle unless they know what the entire scope of the puzzle is. However, others are happy just to take one piece and practice it, and worry about the next step in the process when they get there. While one learner might be confused by being asked to deliver a technique without knowing what came before and what will come after it, another will be bored by the teacher’s long, unnecessary rant about the history and functionality of a certain sequence that they haven’t had the chance to practice yet.

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Body language is a key to understanding a student’s learning style. An auditory learner stands closely to the instructor and leans in to hang on every word; a visual learner re-positions to get the best angle to see what’s happening; a kinesthetic learner mimics the instructor as the movement is being demonstrated. Global learners may walk back to their partner shaking their heads or linger longer than others, hoping for more explanation. Analytic learners may look restless when the big picture is explained and will be the first one back to their partners.

In any group of students, there will typically be a standard distribution of students who will learn faster than average with less practice, those who will achieve proportionally to the amount of effort they expend, and those who are ultimately destined for failure despite their best efforts. The instructor’s role dictates catering to those in the second category. If students are struggling to perform the technique as being explained and demonstrated, the instructor should first look at the potential of his or her own failure before moving to the conclusion (although sometimes correct) that the student is the one responsible for missing the mark.

Author Bio Josh Stewart

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