Karate programs can bring in a fair chunk of change to a community center, but from a manager’s standpoint, a good Karate program can be a bit “high maintenance.” Karate doesn’t fit into a neat little box like Zumba or even swim lessons. I suppose if one wanted a Karate program that caters specifically to the students who try it for a few months and then quit, one could smoosh Karate into a box. After all, there’s a lot of money to be made from those students. Such a class doesn’t need much accommodation – just a time slot and some floor space same as any other class. In contrast, a strong rec-center Karate program (the kind that could possibly produce a world champion) needs a whole lot more from its host facility. Because a good, solid Karate program is different from familiar programs such as Zumba and swim lessons, facility managers need to know how to support serious Karate students. Serious students are in it for the long haul and they need a lot of support.
Karate doesn’t fit into the “get in, get out” mold very well like Zumba or swim lessons. In Zumba, you can learn the moves pretty quickly – or not! Anyone is perfectly welcome to just go through the motions without putting much effort into improving – and that’s all right in my book. Most Karate instructors would like to see students apply themselves to increasing their skills and a few students are quite serious about doing so. Swim lessons are a little bit closer to what we do in Karate. There are different levels – guppy/white belt, minnow/orange belt – you get the picture. There are incentives to progress – the more comfortable you are in the water the more fun you can have and your risk of drowning decreases. Same with Karate – you have more fun as you increase your skill and your chances of surviving an attack increase. Here’s where the difference lies – six months of swim lessons and I became a “mermaid” for life. A year and a quarter into my Karate studies I’m still taking baby steps in understanding, applying, and performing the most basic movements – and that is perfectly normal. With our organization, it takes 8-10 years before a student might be invited to test for black belt. Five to ten years is pretty standard across the board for most Karate organizations. Karate is not an “everybody gets a trophy” deal – it is a challenging skill that takes boatloads of time to develop!
In a perfect world every Karate school would be open 24/7. Obviously this is unrealistic for a rec center. That said, every bit of extra time that a facility can give helps. Across the board, ten to fifteen minutes to bring in and set up equipment before class is crucial. Kids who arrive early sweep the floor, help with setup, and practice. Most rec centers appreciate not having to deal with kids bouncing around the halls while waiting for class to begin! Before-class time is also time for students to report any injuries or other medical considerations that the instructor needs to be aware of. Of course after class equipment needs to be put away and students need to gather their belongings (which include fist pads and mouth guards used during sparring). Even more extra time after class should be made for students to ask questions and receive feedback on their performance. This is crucial to their progress. Not everyone takes advantage of this time, so an extra fifteen to thirty minutes should suffice. Even better – the facility and the instructor could agree to have two or more small classes so that everyone gets some attention. Not everyone has a back yard, driveway, or garage to practice in, so it’s good to have three or more classes per week if possible. Serious students practice daily, so it’s a nice gesture if a rec center will allow a student to use a studio after the last group exercise class of the day.
Once a facility has given the Karate program a time slot, this time needs to be respected. I don’t know of a single rec center staff member who would make it a habit of barging into a yoga class during meditation to go in and out repeatedly in order to fetch exercise equipment stored in the room. Karate meditation might look like it involves more wiggling than yoga (because of the kids), but there’s really no difference in how that time should be treated by outsiders. Likewise, coming and going repeatedly while someone performs kata by himself in front of the class is a bit rude. I admit it’s probably a good opportunity for that person to learn to maintain focus. However, I can’t help but think that if someone were playing a clarinet solo in front of a music class no one would just barge right onto the stage – they’d wait out of respect for the performer. I’d hate to think of what could happen if someone tried to go in and out repeatedly in during sparring. At the very least it would be disruptive because the class would have to halt immediately. At worst, someone could get hurt. I’d think even Zumba participants might be annoyed at having to dance around staff members going in and out for whatever reason. Good manners and respect are taught in Karate, so what does it say to the kids if the facility has no regard for the class?
Hand in hand with respect is trust. Karate teaches self control, respect, and leadership. That reduces the risks of injuries, thefts, and out-of-control children. If the facility doesn’t have someone on staff whose job it is to set out the Karate equipment and monitor children who arrive early (where are the parents?), the facility needs to allow at least two or three adult or teen participants to access the storage areas and open the door to the room the class will use. It is also important for a facility to acknowledge the built-in hierarchy that comes with any Karate program. Just like in the military, every rank has authority and responsibility over the lower ranks. If the instructor(s) are stuck in traffic, wrangling the kids is the job of the highest-ranked student even if that student is only twelve years old. It is also that student’s job to start class and to lead warm-ups. Even the lowest ranks are capable of calling out basic movements for the class to practice. Developing leadership, especially among young people, is a wonderful process. Slapping down restrictions on who can do what because of the fear of a lawsuit sends the wrong message to these young people. Young people don’t always understand liability – all they see is the facility doesn’t trust them and disapproves of the Karate traditions they’ve been taught. I realize there are numerous liability issues involved in all this, but what it boils down to is does the facility trust its Karate participants or does it not?
A facility hosting a Karate program needs to be aware of many things. Karate doesn’t fit into the standard box of most activities. Creating time and space for students to excel will result in long-term commitment, i.e. a steady, long-term source of income for the facility that will last longer than the latest fad (for example, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” or “Karate cures ADHD”). Karate teaches respect and leadership, and a host facility would be wise to trust that. Accordingly, existing policies might have to be revised to accommodate the Karate class. The impact of new policies on a Karate program need to be taken into consideration before the policies are put into place. The rewards for all this are many. Children learn hard work and self discipline – such people are always a blessing for the community at large. Students commit to years of practice and excellence. And who knows? If Karate becomes part of the Olympics, the next world champion could very well be in your rec center. Are you going to stifle that child’s Karate program, or are you going to help her instructor nurture her talents?