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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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The Role of Target Setting in the Dojo

By Emma Robins


Emma Robins teaching at the Cowbridge Shotokan Karate Club (www.cowbridgeshotokankarate.com)



I have been a karate instructor for over twelve years, and a secondary school teacher for almost six. I, by no means, am an expert teacher. I make mistakes and have challenging days like any other professional, but I do have boundless enthusiasm and an adaptability that is essential when you work in an environment such as mine. I have seen for myself the ups and downs of the education system, and have seen the implementation of many processes and systems that have both improved and made absolutely no difference to effective delivery, both in education and karate terms.


One of the most valuable systems for the development and progression of learners is actually one of the simplest. Target setting in any environment is effective at increasing and maintaining enthusiasm and effort in learners of all ages and abilities. Becoming a qualified teacher taught me a lot and changed my approach to teaching karate. It made me become far more structured in my efforts to improve learners’ abilities and in attempting to forge the next generation of karateka and instructors. Target setting was a real light bulb moment for me. When my lecturer explained the concept, my immediate reaction was not of how this would affect my classroom, but how it would affect my dojo. I immediately attempted to implement target setting for my learners, admittedly verbally initially, but especially lately, I have been attempting to put in place far more efficient examples of target setting, as now I have a booming class of enthusiastic young learners, and like any good instructor I am aiming to do whatever possible to keep this enthusiasm present and building.


I spend time with my learners setting what I hope will be effective and helpful targets.  Whilst setting any type of target in itself is good practice, setting SMART targets will make a very real and evident difference.


S – Specific

M – Measurable

A – Achievable

R – Realistic

T – Time-Bound


The whole point of using the SMART system is to make the targets as valuable as possible for each individual. Let’s take a common target that I have set umpteen times in my classes:


Improve your Mae Geri


Whilst this target is a good start, it is definitely not SMART. It is very general; there are no specific instructions on how to achieve a mae geri improvement. Is it measurable? How would you or your learner measure explicitly whether this target was reached when there are no boundaries or definitions for improvement? Without being measurable it can’t really be achievable, as we don’t know what it is we are looking for! It isn’t a very realistic target, as it will either be perceived as too easily achieved, as the smallest of improvements would technically mean is has been completed. It could also be seen as too difficult, as we are not specifying what an improvement would consist of. Time bound is usually the easiest element to set, and yet the easiest to forget. Setting a simple completion date and sticking to it in my experience makes a huge difference. Consistency within target setting is immensely important for development and for highlighting to the learner themselves the importance we as instructors place on these targets. If we forget about them, or change the goal posts, how can we expect the learner to place any kind of importance on their own target achievements? There is nothing worse than spending time setting a good target to then never review it, or worse, never acknowledge that it has been completed. Imagine a learner knowing they have reached their target set by you, and after putting in the hard work, never having the outcome acknowledged?


Let’s think about the target set and make it SMART. How can we make it more specific? Think about giving the learner, particularly younger learners, smaller goals, such as raising the knee higher during mae geri, or keeping the knee centred on the raise.

Being more explicit in what you are expecting immediately makes the target more specific, and gives the learner very easily recognised boundaries within this target. Now they know exactly what you expect of them.


 Making a target measurable is usually the hardest one to get right. Particularly in a physical target, how can we measure progress? It’s about setting a situation for the target, so instead of simply asking them to raise their knee higher, you develop an exercise that would determine whether this is actually happening, such as kicking over an obstacle, or contacting a target with their knee before extension. With keeping the knee centralised, an exercise as simple as kicking a target or pad can be invaluable in measuring improvement.


Achievable and realistic work hand in hand. When we consider setting an achievable target it isn’t as simple as picking something so easy it can be achieved almost immediately. Being achievable and realistic should involve an element of challenge, otherwise setting targets in the first place is a pointless exercise.  If I ask a learner who can already demonstrate consistently that they can raise their knee centrally to raise it a bit higher is not likely to pose a challenge to them, making the target unrealistic as it is too easily achieved, negating the need for a target in the first place.


By making the target more specific we are also making it achievable and realistic, but the key to making targets achievable and realistic is to keep it learner centred. Don’t be generic, make the target challenging for that individual learner. It’s about not aiming too high by expecting them to develop a perfect mae geri, it’s about expecting improvements consistently. By making the target too simple, then it certainly does not become realistic and definitely won’t be engaging.


As I have already said, making a target time-bound is the simplest. It’s as easy as letting your learner know how long they have to meet the target, and sticking to it. For example, on a lesson by lesson basis, asking them to focus on bringing their knee central on the raise can be achieved by the end of a lesson, but the target then develops into asking them to consistently raise their knee centrally. This way they have made a small achievement within the lesson, but will continue to develop towards the target on a more long term scale.


When I was studying for my A’ Levels my school had a big push for targets written in the back of our English books. My target for the first term was to ‘develop effective use of punctuation’. My second term target was to ‘Use a range of correct terms when discussing poetry’ and my third was to ‘Revise a range of Othello quotes for exam’. Very generic and not helpful targets. It was clear to me even as a student that this was just a nod to what the school had requested. It was clear that these targets had been set to every person in my class. I was actually already pretty good at punctuation (a skill hammered into me by my dad from a young age) and knew Othello inside out as I had performed it in a drama production the year previous. There was nothing about these targets that would challenge me or make me work particularly well. Within a few lessons, it would have become very clear that one of my targets should have been to be a little more clinical in my approach to essay writing (I had a very flowery sense of description, as I’m sure you could have already guessed). This would have set a more realistic and specific target for me, and would have encouraged me to think more actively about my skills in this area. The same can be said of setting targets in the dojo. Simply telling the whole class that they need to develop better stances is not enough. If we truly want to develop those elusive SMART targets then obviously they must be individualised. I am sure that most red belts need to develop their stances, but one may need to increase the speed of the step and another to ensure correct placement of the back foot upon landing. By considering each learner for an individualised target then the efficacy will increase, as each target becomes special to each learner, and will challenge their development as karateka far more effectively.


By bearing this avenue of target setting in mind, it can most certainly help in increasing the progress and development of your learners, both on a short term scale, and long term over their karate career.


Particularly for younger learners the idea of using Target Cards and Merit Awards can be very helpful. I will admit that until recently, I wasn’t the most avid supporter of merit systems in karate. I thought it was unnecessary and a little overdone. That is until I saw one of my tiny tigers get incredibly excited over a small merit badge that they had won for exceptional effort. I was manhandled into introducing these awards for under eight year olds by a friend who swore I would never look back. He was right, which kills me to admit. These youngsters wont compete, and certainly wont grade at the same rate as older learners so setting smaller targets and offering merit awards has most certainly increased their engagement and I have no doubt I have now increased my chances of retaining them as members on a more long term scale.


I am now implementing the use of target cards with my younger learners, giving targets and allowing learners to gain stamps when they achieve a set number if targets. This increases the level of consistency on my part and gives them a visual reminder of the reasons for their hard work. This has absolutely no impact on their gradings, (with the target cards being a separate merit system) other than the carrot for consistent hard work, which obviously leads to improved technique and attitude. A win-win situation really.


As for the amount of time I spend on these, it is minutes. I found I was setting targets verbally anyway, so taking an extra 30 seconds to write the target on a card is a minimal effort from you as an instructor but makes maximum difference to the learner. It can be a simple case of ticking a box when a target has been completed, or if you have available time, providing verbal feedback as well as ticking the box. When your designated number of targets is reached, then more detailed feedback is helpful, before possibly awarding a Merit Award or badge. This praise system is massively successful in almost every school young people attend, so we should at least be considering using it to our best advantage in the dojo.


These physical targets or hard targets are invaluable in encouraging your learners to achieve regularly and in keeping enthusiasm and effort consistent within your learners. Allowing a learner to coast is a death sentence to their karate. It will either give them an inflated sense of self, and then when the hardships of being a dan grade settle in they will be overwhelmed or intimidated and then leave, or they simply won’t maintain their enthusiasm much past a few gradings.


I have been a teacher for many years now, and when I went for my interview to gain a place on my PGCE course they asked some very difficult questions. I was applying for a place to train as a drama teacher, and the final question they asked was ‘what function do drama lessons have within a curriculum?’ Most people in the interviews explained how the lessons would build confidence, develop social skills, build empathy and improve interpersonal skills. Most applicants failed to mention the fact that drama lessons would build drama skills in their own right. It was so obvious it wasn’t even considered a factor. Developing subject specific skills is obviously essential, otherwise the whole curriculum could be made up of group discussion sessions with no actual content!


When we consider karate sessions, I find the opposite is true. So many people extol the virtues of developing a super sharp gyaku, or lightning kicks that sometimes, the less obvious differences we make can go unnoticed, or at least uncelebrated.


Working in a school environment, the development of soft targets for your learners is a huge priority at the moment. As teachers we are working hard to develop confidence, social skills, self-awareness, and skills that employers recognise a need for. It has been clearly covered in recent media that employers are finding young people with excellent subject knowledge, but when it comes to working as part of an effective team, they have little or no skill. Expressing themselves clearly, or working as an integral cog in a team is sometimes nigh on impossible for those who have had little exposure to the relevance of these skills previously.


This has made me sit and consider my karate teaching of late. I quite often find myself setting explicit targets, particularly with younger learners. “Squeeze your knees closer together when stepping in Zenkutsu Dachi”, “get your hands and feet finishing at the same time”, but I never find myself saying “Show more confidence when working in a group” or “Try not to speak over people when they are speaking”. The importance of our skills base can often overshadow everything that we can, and very often do, effectively develop. And more often that not, these skills are being developed, just not explicitly.


When I was eighteen I applied for a job as an attendant in a local community centre. It had a notorious reputation for having difficult young people coming in to the centre and causing trouble. As a young school leaver, it was my first employment post. I didn’t get the job because I was a black belt, or because I was just so talented at stock checking boxes of Walkers crisps, I got the job because under the pressure of an interview, the skills I had developed as a young karate instructor came into their own. I was confident speaking to older people, as every day I had dealt with the parents of my young charges in the club. When it came to speaking to and dealing with these difficult youngsters that would frequent the centre, my ability to build a rapport quickly (an ability I developed when I was thrown into karate teaching at fifteen) placed me in good stead, as did, I’m sure, the unspoken threat of a swift mawashi if they got too close…!


Harking back to these days made me think of my current young charges. I have a ten year old who, when she began her training was shy and a little self conscious. She is now one of the strongest characters in the group, helping the younger children regularly and holding conversations with me that would have you convinced she has the brain of a forty year old. Karate hasn’t done that. She had those skills all along, what karate has done is given her the self confidence to be able to express herself, and to feel she is a responsible person, who can help those younger and less experienced than herself. It has placed her in situations where she has had to explain her ideas and reasonings to those older and more experienced than her. In such a safe environment she has learned that being wrong is often more helpful than being right, and this has built her confidence to try most daunting tasks ten fold.


Emma Robins teaching at the Cowbridge Shotokan Karate Club (www.cowbridgeshotokankarate.com)




Using karate to develop self confidence is a given. The fact that the learners take part in high-pressured gradings and nerve-wracking competitions develop confidence quite easily, but by improving our teaching skills and developing our role as facilitators we can help develop even more of these soft targets with very little effort. By using effective questioning we can encourage even the youngest of learners to take ownership over much of their learning, and can encourage an inquisitive mind, a very positive trait (unless they want to know why your yoko geri isn’t very high lately…). The confidence to ask questions of you, the instructor, and more importantly, of themselves can change their approach to so many elements of life, and the confidence to answer questions can facilitate not only more effective learning, but a significant change in how young people see themselves.


Interpersonal Skills


Using partner work is not enough in itself to develop interpersonal skills. The focus should be on effective partner work. And I’m not talking about whether the gyaku scores or not. We are all guilty of planning our partner work so that learners work with those who will develop them most physically, but what about interpersonally? Placing quieter learners with those who struggle with silence can be very effective for both learners.  Placing your learners in unfamiliar circumstances (partnering with adults, those younger than them, lower or higher grades) doesn’t only advance their karate training. It helps them to gain a sense of their strengths and weaknesses and can encourage them to identify their role in any situation. Having strong interpersonal skills can make for very effective team players, but can give a strong sense of leadership skills and abilities.


Social Skills


Most people will think of youngsters with this in mind, but actually training in the dojo can be very helpful for adults’ social skills (and I’m not talking about going for a pint after training). Only recently I realised that I have a terrible habit of finishing people’s sentences for them. It began as a subconscious effort to prove I was listening and to establish that I was on the same wavelength as the person I was speaking to. Now it’s just an annoying habit that I have to work hard to rid myself of. The structure and focus on respect in the dojo helps me to eliminate this habit, certainly when I am being taught, but also when teaching, as listening to the youngsters and giving them time to answer is absolutely essential. Asking a learner a question and then answering it yourself when they take longer to answer is a teaching faux paus, and something that should never happen. Having this focus in my teaching will hopefully carry over to my every day life and I can rid myself of this habit.


Working with younger learners and focusing on their social skills helps me with mine. Even something as simple as making them wait their turn for an exercise will develop these all important social skills. We all have that over-eager learner who wants to go first for everything. Whilst this in itself is admirable, developing the respect to wait your turn is also very important and should not be ignored. Even entrusting learners to decide upon their own task order can be effective, if facilitated well by an overseeing instructor.


Communication Skills


When you really consider your lessons, we are actively encouraging the development of communication skills all the time. We encourage youngsters to speak to explain the processes their bodies undergo during certain movements, to explain what they have learned from an exercise, and to answer open and closed questions. We even encourage them to gain a basic understanding of their body language through eyeline and focus during kata performance. We explain the importance of maintaining an eyeline during training, and to make eye contact with your opponent. All this is aiding them in understanding not only how to communicate verbally, but what effects basic body language can have when communicating. 


Self Awareness


This is particularly important for us karateka. It is very easy, especially with grading and competition success and failure to have a very unrealistic image of ourselves. Particular successes can lead to an inflated sense of self and can then lead to complacency or even laziness. As a karate instructor it is sometimes harder to deal with those who are successful than those who suffer criticism and apparent failures. Encouraging learners to stay positive in the face of difficulties is something we are all very well developed in. What we need to build skills in is keeping those successful learners with their feet on the ground. This can be done through constant challenges and through praising the achievements of all, not just those who are successful. It’s also about continually setting more challenging targets for those who are successful, so that they are never tempted to rest on their laurels. If you have a learner who is winning lots of competitions, take the winning away as their goal. Tell them you want a higher score by point one next time, or that you will be taking photographs to analyse their stance transitions under pressure. I am sure I am teaching 90% of you to suck eggs at the moment, but if we are completely honest with ourselves, sometimes it’s the most obvious things we neglect.


Of course the other skills that karate develops come into play. When hearing a young person talking about their successes I heard another youngster say how proud they were to be on a team with this successful youngster, because “if people see we are on the same team they might think I’m good too.” This is a classic example of a fish wanting to climb a tree. Whilst the second youngster may not have immediate competition successes, she will one day be an incredible instructor, and could show an incredible attitude and effort within her training. And it is my job for her to see this in herself and to not focus on her self perceived failures. Encouraging her to focus on her strengths with a simple awareness of her areas for development will help. Don’t get me wrong, as a youngster, most will be pre-occupied with competitions and grading accomplishments but as long as we place importance in other areas of development, long term, they will develop into very positive young people.


Setting targets is an over-looked art. It can be incredibly rewarding, but most of us have been guilty of relying too heavily on competition or grading successes as targets and rewards. If you approach target setting in a more creative manner, development can happen far more quickly and your young charges will find themselves morphing into very confident and successful young people, not just young karateka. Giving individualised and personally designed targets will give every learner a sense of importance, discouraging negative comparisons. Good targets will encourage learners to work towards these goals when they can see that it is a target that belongs only to them, and is not a generic aim.


In its most effective form, target setting can build and develop a skills base that can be used everywhere, and will show that skills and confidence that are nurtured in a dojo setting are most certainly transferable to every day life.