Interview with Sensei Carol Middleton of DCSDKA
After studying martial arts with acclaimed Masters Jack Hwang in Oklahoma (under whom she opened her first school), Sang Kee Paik in Wisconsin and Ki Whang Kim in Maryland, Sensei Carol Middleton opened her school in Washington, DC in 1976. From the beginning, she was committed to sharing the skills and challenges of traditional ma rtial arts plus realistic, practical safety strategies and the emotional skills and philosophy that can last a lifetime. She primarily does this throu gh the children’s classes and traditional Tae Kwon Do of DCSDKA.
fb: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got involved with the martial arts?
CM: It was 1968, and I was in college at a campus being built in St. Louis, which was then the murder capital of the US. It was a mile to the parking lot, and there were no lights! I knew I needed self defense and, though martial arts schools were quite rare and women in them even rarer, I found an instructor.
I had some great instructors after that who really inspired me to seek excellence and be the best I could be. I wasn’t very athletic, but that didn’t matter. The martial arts is about becoming the best person you can be – over a lifetime. Training wasn’t easy for me at first, but I worked hard and consistently to make progress, and it paid off.
fb: DSDKA is located in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of DC. Can you talk about the communities you serve?
CM: Our school serves a very broad range of students from the Mount Pleasant and surrounding communities. They speak Spanish, Italian, French, Russian and many other languages – we’re very diverse. DC Self Defense Karate Association is a non-profit school within Bancroft Elementary, a D.C. Public School, which itself has a population that is 70% Hispanic. Our motto, “Discipline—Respect-- Positive Expectancy,” translates across every culture.
fb: You divide your kids’ training into four age groups – 4-7, 8-10, 11-13 and 14-16. Can you talk briefly about the unique focus with each of these age groups? Regarding teenagers, is it ok if they haven’t had previous martial arts experience?
CM: Nobody needs previous martial arts experience to train with us. Our curricula are age-appropriate. With our youngest students, ages 4-7 (“Turtle Tots”), we first teach them the discipline to cooperate and pay attention. We focus on basic skills like balance, coordination and control, as well as mental skills like focus, intensity and memory. The self-defense role plays include what to do if you are lost, how to handle a stranger and social skills. At all levels, we train for fitness, positive communication and safety.
For our 8-10-year old students (“Ninjas”), we emphasize working together as partners while developing even greater balance, strength and coordination. Our self-defense skills at this level include physical and verbal tactics, falling and ground fighting. Verbal self defense focuses on dealing with peer pressure and with bullies. Ninjas also work to improve their physical Tae Kwon Do skills, including the basic blocks, strikes and kicks of our style.
Into the tween and teen years, our students work to develop good form and technique, strong stances, speed, power, flexibility and pin-point accuracy. They take on more challenging self-defense work, and are encouraged to show spirit, determination and tenacity. We work to build confidence, eye focus, intensity, loud voice and strong body language, while maintaining safety consciousness and good etiquette.
CM: Every student is encouraged to expect to do well, and then take personal responsibility to make it happen. We don’t compare one student to the next. Belts and stripes are not awarded to only the “best” student in the class. When you make personal progress, that is recognized and rewarded.
The martial arts is, on the one side, very much a personal journey – you learn skills that no one can ever take away from you. We encourage every student to seek out a positive and rewarding way forward – in their training and in their lives outside the dojo.
On the other side, we train as part of a community and are taught to have positive expectations of our fellow students. We help and appreciate each other and learn the joy and support we give and get in that community.
fb: Can you elaborate on DSDKA’s emphasis on “self defense” and how it will serve kids at different ages?
CM: From day one, we teach the emotional skills needed for everyday life, as well as physical skills for all types of emergency. Martial arts are renowned for building focus and discipline. The confidence we build from our successes is unconsciously projected, making us much less likely to be chosen for violence and less prone ourselves to aggressive behaviors, thus keeping us safer.
We build intuition and awareness, allowing us to avoid danger. We specifically learn to interact more safely and effectively with others. The internal mindsets also prevent self-destructive thinking and behaviors. Self defense is all of that, and is a big focus in our school.
fb: So much of martial arts seem to emphasize “life skills,” much more than other kids’ sports (e.g., tennis, basketball, etc.). Can you provide more insight into why this is the case and how you incorporate the themes into your program?
CM: We’re not really a sports program, but rather an educational institution. We teach leadership, interpersonal and internal mindset and focus skills. We work on discipline and concentration, goal setting and planning, honesty and integrity, loyalty and teamwork, courtesy, respect and honor, responsibility and decision-making, building good habits, and being physically and emotionally tough but yet kind. And not just for a three-month sports season, but for the long-term.
At its core, our training is not about kicking and punching. Instead, it’s really about building strong individuals – mentally, physically and spiritually. For example, we learn in self defense to say “No.” This is just one of the options you might use on the playground against bullying. But it also applies in life, when someone tries to tell you that you aren’t smart. Or they want you to join a gang. Or you grow up and your boss badgers you or asks you to do something that is not your responsibility.
We teach how to be successful and to be positive. There are so many opportunities in life to be told something negative. Successful people know how to ignore the negative influences and make positive choices for themselves.
fb: Is there anything about martial arts that is particularly good or challenging for girls?
CM: The fact that we encourage all our students to use their voices, to be strong and to be confident is particularly useful for girls. Boys tend to be socialized to do this anyway, and it makes them less vulnerable to manipulation or attack. Girls are more willing to pick up these new behaviors when they are in an atmosphere where a strong response is prized and rewarded, and then they too become better at avoiding or stopping a bad situation. Plus, in spite of other socialization, they learn to fight back fiercely when needed.
Also, they get over being “too helpful.” We do numerous role plays to help them learn to choose when it is not safe to be helpful or compliant, and we give them the language and physical skills to deal with threats or attacks. This helps them keep themselves – and often their friends – more safe.
fb: What advice do you have for parents in terms of navigating their children through the various phases of martial arts?
CM: Martial arts can be intimidating at first, and parents can provide reassurance and support, especially if they watch the classes or participate themselves. We ask that parents NOT chastise their children for not doing it perfectly. It takes time, and we are very patient, which leads to a high rate of success if parents can help their children be patient as well. Also, we ask that parents not expect their children to suddenly behave like adults. The classes are serious, but fun, too, and “kid behavior” is gently redirected to more impressive behavior over time.
Martial arts also provides an opportunity for children and adults to learn perseverance. I guarantee everyone will have a moment when they think this is just too hard, and they will want to quit. If parents can stand firm and use this as a time to teach their children how to stick with something, that urge to quit will pass and children will have learned a valuable lesson--nothing worth attaining in life comes without effort, commitment and perseverance! Commitment also requires time and focus, so we ask parents not to overbook their children with an impossible schedule of activities for every spare minute. This causes stress for all concerned and rarely gives a child enough depth in any one thing to feel successful.
fb: You have been teaching for more than 35 years. Can you comment on changes you have observed in the attitudes and capabilities of the kids you have seen? Is there anything significantly different than it was 15-20 years ago?
CM: Yes, parenting and technology are significantly different, and so the kids are different. For one thing, kids didn’t used to be the ones in charge! Nowadays, parents too often seem afraid to “be the parent” and make decisions on how their children should be brought up. Children need love and direction, choices and limits.
Martial arts teaches life skills, and I love seeing the transformation in our children from sometimes tantrum-throwing, unruly, or just stressed and unhappy to strong, confident and contributing members of their family and community. This can only happen if parents work with us and model discipline and commitment themselves, and also give support and appropriate choices.
The biggest change I’ve seen in kids over the last twenty years is in their ability to focus, and the second biggest is in their self control. They are stuffed into too many activities done at a fairly shallow level, and cannot maintain focus on one thing for long, especially if it gets hard. Screen time and less physical activity contribute to focus problems, too. We at DCSDKA are going against the tide now in expecting kids to focus, behave, treat parents and others with respect, and stick with things, especially when it gets hard.
Another trend is this: too often now, kids are rewarded with certificates or trophies or praise regardless if they did well or earned it. I think this teaches the wrong lesson. It seems to me that children appreciate what they achieved a lot more when it was hard, required effort and nobody lied to them. They like to know they really earned it!
For more information about DCSDKA programs, please contact them directly at 202-258-3778.