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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Laughter in the Dojo

Emma Robins


When I am a student within a karate class, I tend to sometimes (and I mean only occasionally) do something stupid. Inevitably, I then get laughed at, and then in turn I laugh. This generally only occurs around people I am comfortable with. If I don’t know people very well, I am quite reluctant to advertise my fleeting stupidity, and do my best to disguise it! It does make me wonder how, if something funny has happened, why I can laugh in certain situations, but not in others? Is it because I believe laughter to be inappropriate? Or is it simple embarrassment? Either way it got me to thinking, is there a place for laughter in the dojo?

When I first became a teacher a number of experienced teachers would offer me the same piece of advice, a hidden gem, emphatically telling me that this one single piece of counsel would place me in good stead with the students, as well as staff. I was vigorously told “Don’t smile until Christmas.” This is a long standing piece of guidance offered to any shiny new NQT embarking upon a life of teaching.  And usually as an NQT, you nod and smile, grateful for the advice, grateful that anyone has actually made the effort to speak to you, as you sit in the staff room wondering how you’ll ever get to be a ‘real teacher’.

Now it’s not that this advice isn’t good, and it’s certainly been tried and tested over the years, but I think that’s the exact problem. It’s very outdated, but even now, there are thousands of teachers across the UK that don’t have a place for laughter, silliness and childishness in their classrooms, particularly during the first term of the year. I understand that establishing an atmosphere of respect is essential when you’re a teacher, but is this banning of laughter going to establish an environment of mutual respect? I’m not so sure. I remember from my days as a student, I always responded best to the teachers who were approachable, friendly and human. I had one lecturer in university who believed that if we were laughing then we weren’t taking our studies seriously, and therefore not learning as we should be. This got me thinking about the dojo? If laughing equates to unseriousness (and yes, that is a new word) then does it have a place in the dojo? A place where respect, concentration and focus are essential. A place where, if you don’t take things seriously, then accidents can happen, and worse than that, if you are put in a dangerous situation, instead of remembering the technique you need to save yourself, you remember how much you laughed when you ‘accidentally’ punched your dojo mate in the face as you tried this in class?

How does laughter affect the atmosphere in the dojo, and more than that, how does it affect the learning?

It is a given, that if you enjoy something, then you are far more likely to continue to do this ‘thing’ and that you will respond when challenges arise, simply because you ‘enjoy’. This is particularly true with younger people. Enjoyment is a huge part of the drive to continue any activity, be it studying for GCSE’s, learning to drive, or training in the dojo. Without enjoyment, each of these activities would become a chore, a difficult, unwanted task. As teachers that would be one of the worst things to encourage in your student, and if we were to argue that laughter does not belong in the dojo, then this is precisely what we would be doing. We would be reinforcing the belief that karate is not an enjoyable activity, it is a serious activity, where you will focus on life or death skills and situations, in every lesson. Fantastic, and I’m sure we would all be amazingly able, and confident with our skills, but honestly, without a little let up, how many of us would still be training? If training was completely serious, and heavy every lesson, we would struggle, particularly in those lessons where we do not grasp what is asked of us immediately. See, laughter isn’t just about enjoyment, it’s also about relaxation. Quite often, I will laugh when I am getting everything wrong , (and there’s the fleeting stupidity) to take a little pressure off myself. If I got annoyed every time I couldn’t do something, then I would be a very miserable person! Laughter relaxes us, and allows us a fresh slate. I’ve laughed, so now if it goes wrong it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t seem quite so funny though, after five attempts and suddenly it works! Now I don’t need to laugh, I’m not messing it up, I’m getting it right!!

Laughter in the Dojo

Laughter has many places in the dojo, but I’m not advocating a stand up routine in every session.

 If you requested that senior students in your class attempted to perfect the jump in Unsu, and they laughed continuously at their own attempts, would you laugh along, or hurry them along? You only have –usually – 90 minutes to teach a class, and you have things to get through. Laugh along or hurry along? What if the class were white belts, and laughing at their own attempts at mae geri? Or even a class of Dan grades, laughing at their attempts to get off the floor when being pinned down by four other people, representing those who would wish to hurt them in a real life situation? Hopefully, not all of these situations would have the same answer.

As useful as laughter can be, there are times in the dojo where it is not needed, and shouldn’t be encouraged. As I stated, when I can’t do something, my initial reaction is to laugh, but if I’m being pinned down by people who want to hurt me, then laughter isn’t something that is required. Sometimes the only way to teach something is with a completely serious approach. I want to know that if I ever get into this situation, no matter how uncomfortable it felt to not laugh at myself in the dojo, I would be able to defend myself effectively, because the sensei stopped my laughter, and allowed me to break down my barriers, and to just get it right.

I firmly believe that laughter has a place, and if you can’t laugh at yourself, then you may as well stop training, because when everything is going wrong, what else is there left? But on the same hand seriousness needs to be always present. How do we ensure that we have a good balance of the two?

This is where a good teacher is essential. A good teacher will use teaching persona and personality to guide the emotions of a class. A good teacher will allow laughter when it is required, and ‘hurry along’ when it is not. A good teacher can travel a broad spectrum of emotions during any class. That is why a good teacher will be exhausted at the end of a session, because they have laughed, yelled, displayed aggression, smiled, joked, enthused, encouraged, guided, told off, shouted, stayed silent, stared, closed their eyes, and all with a specific intention. A good teacher will have a reason behind every action, every emotion and every word. Laughter will never occur in a dojo, unless it is allowed, or required. A teacher will never get angry, but will use displayed aggression to enthuse, to encourage, to demonstrate. A teacher will yell when you are not getting it, and stay quiet when you are not getting it. A good teacher will use whatever is needed to help you get it. And laughter is a mere single thing in their range of allowed strategies. There is a time and a place for every emotion in the dojo, and laughter allows us to enjoy, to bond, to gain confidence, to develop, but having that laughter stopped allows us to focus, to control, to gain confidence and to develop.

Does laughter have a place in the dojo? It’s up to you, the teacher.


Emma Robins