Podcast 4: Growing up with Karate with Mr Joel Thompson

Podcast 4: Growing up with Karate with Mr Joel Thompson

How did you start training the martial arts?

I was five years old and started training at the Mile High Karate school in Thornton, Colorado. My mom signed me up (and joined up with me) to help me with focus, concentration, respect. The classic motivating factors.

I was hooked on martial arts from the beginning. I wanted to be an instructor. I wasn’t quite good yet, if I’m honest. But I wanted to teach.

What made you feel like you wanted to teach martial arts right from the beginning?

I gave a talk on positive self-direction yesterday to kids in karate class. That was one of the first things I vividly remember and refer back to, the idea of martial arts and self-direction. The instructors made me have a lot of fun, and taught me skills, but also broadened the scope of what I could do.

To me positive self-direction means always having a flare that you’re following. It’s a direction that you focus on. For me, that meant being a martial arts instructor. Now I want to teach English, and music as well. Teaching is my directional flare.

Black Belt is a directional beacon, don’t you think? It keeps you from straying off course.

Yes. I was 12 when I earned my 2nd-degree Black Belt. That was a very big peak for me. I realized who I was, who I’d become. I was only 12, but I knew what I wanted to do. That was super important to me. My passion for teaching, for taking classes in teaching, came about right then.

Do you feel like further training in the martial arts has furthered your teaching ability? Has it matured alongside your training?

Yes, absolutely. When you start [martial arts] when you’re five, it’s like a second nature. I know how to teach more effectively because of martial arts, and my [college] training in education has helped me learn new skills to make my martial arts teaching more effective.

How does being a drummer and a musician relate to your training in the martial arts?

Playing drums is something that I care deeply about, and something that I’ve learned to get good at. Martial arts taught me to perfect skills, and drumming is a different set of skills that I want to perfect.

Because of my martial arts ability, I knew I could get the extra set of skills required to play the drums well. I was able to sit down at a drum kit for a year and teach myself. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the time and commitment that I’ve put into developing my mind and my body through the martial arts.

Has martial arts helped you collaborate with other musicians? How?

I always use the example of sparring and fighting when it comes to communication with other people. Sparring is a human connection. It’s a form of communication, just like a form of language [including musical language]. It’s the best way to learn about someone. You’re putting each other in harm’s way to get better.

That’s a connection I’ve been making for myself; language, music, martial arts all have deep roots. Even people who don’t speak the same language, if you train and spar together, by the end, you’re going to be hugging. Where else do you find that.

Do you remember your first tournament competition?

I do. I was six or seven years old. It was an intramural Mile High Karate tournament. It was scary for me. I struggle with anxiety, and when I was really young, I would cry at the slightest drop of pressure. So when I went up to the judges for my presentation, I burst into tears immediately.

What did the judges say? What happened?

The culture back then was a little bit different. It was a little more harsh, strict. That was what I needed, back then.

How is it different for you as an instructor now? How would you help encourage a crying karate kid?

My education classes have helped instill this idea of the “warm enforcer.” So you have this line that you want to establish. As a teacher I have this line that I need you to meet, and that line is different for every student. It works for parents, too.

I know, for example, that younger Joel [Thompson] cries. So his line is going to be different from a student who doesn’t break down immediately. I give them a place to reset, a goal to reach. It might involve taking them aside and talking to them about what they want to accomplish. But I set a level that I need them to reach, and that level is specific to them.

That reminds me of how instructors talk about reaching Black Belt level, what it means to achieve the goal of Black Belt. There are objective standards that every student needs to meet, like knowing your karate curriculum (forms, combos) fully. But then there are subjective standards.

I think to really get that level well established, you need a strong relationship with students. With a five-year-old white belt, you can start making that relationship. It’s like a piggy bank. Every interaction between a kid and an instructor, that’s filling up their piggy bank. Asking things like, “How’s your day? How’s it going in school? What instruments do you play?” Or saying “Way to go! That was awesome!” That’s filling up the piggy bank.

When you need the kid to correct back to their standard, or to reach a new goal, that’s withdrawing from their piggy back. It’s asking something of them. But I try to fill that piggy bank up so that the kid feels secure in making that withdrawal.

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