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‘You Can Do It!’: Talking to the Instructor From That Viral Karate Video

Erik Gianini, the sensei in the viral board-kick video, is excited his student is having a moment. He's more excited that the supportive atmosphere of his studio is, too.

RM Videos/YouTube

It was the board break seen around the Internet: Earlier this week a video surfaced of a teary-eyed 5-year-old boy named Phoenix in a karate dojo trying to kick through a wooden board at the Bobby Dixon Martial Arts Academy in Orlando Florida. It was as adorable as it was inspirational.

In the video, Phoenix stands in front of his instructor. He’s visibly upset. He’s frustrated. He looks exhausted. He tries to kick the board, but fails and starts to cry. It looks like he’s going to quit. But his sensei, who’s crouched down holding the board, won’t let him. He offers support. Phoenix tries again but his kicks are half-hearted. The sensei guides still. He helps him square his hips. He says “You can do it.” Soon, the other children in the dojo begin to chant and offer their support. At this, Phoenix musters courage. He is determined. His next kick is harder. Much harder. He brings his leg down a second time breaks the board clean in half. The dojo erupts in celebration. Phoenix is tackled by enthusiastic students.

It’s a beautiful clip and easy to understand why it’s been shared roughly 250,000 times on Facebook. No one was more psyched about this than Erik Gianini, the sensei teaching and encouraging Phoenix. While the 31-year-old has been an instructor at the Bobby Dixon Martial Arts Academy for 12 years, he’s been associated with it for nearly his entire life. His dad owns the academy. His mom works there. So does his brother. It’s a family business that prides itself on teaching kids martial arts but also fostering an atmosphere of diversity and support. Erik is psyched that the video of Phoenix’s big moment is brightening people’s days — but he’s far more excited that people are witnessing the inclusivity and support demonstrated in the clip.

Fatherly spoke to Gianini about the video, his go-to technique for teaching little kids, and why hopes people will take a cue from the supportive atmosphere of his dojo.

You’ve had a big week. Were you shocked to see this video take off?

I’m not going to lie. While I was shocked it went viral, I was confident and telling everyone that it was going to go viral once I saw it that night after the belt test. I actually sent it to the Ellen Degeneres Show hoping that they’d call us to be on. That’s how much I loved the clip when I saw it, and how much I thought people would enjoy seeing it. So I’ve been hashtagging the video on every social media outlet I have. We’re going to do a video here on Monday with signs and stuff and have little Phoenix say “Pick me to be on your show!” and send that to her.

It’s definitely a video that people love. So, walk me through what was going on that day. I’m sure there’s a lot it doesn’t show.

Well, first off, Phoenix just a white belt. He wasn’t supposed to break. But he saw all the other kids breaking and he really wanted to do it. He’s very persistent. He’s only 5 years old but once he gets his mind on something he wants to do it and accomplish it. So, I was like alright, come on up. He tried and actually failed about seven or eight times and ended up hurting his foot a little.

I ended up giving him the board and telling him to go sit down. He failed the test, pretty much. At our dojo, if you don’t pass the breaking section, that means you don’t pass the entire test. You could be doing great up until the breaking, which is the last section of our test. But if you don’t break, you don’t pass.

But Phoenix ended up sitting back down and we had another little girl named Chloe who went up and did the same thing, but she couldn’t break the board. We ended up calling her back up later and had her do it. She ended up breaking. So, I thought, let me give Phoenix another try.

And that’s where the video picks up.

Yeah. He was nervous. He was scared. It took him a lot of motivating to get him up there and even try. I was telling him ‘C’mon buddy, you can do this’ and he was like ‘No, my foot hurts’. And then his mom started motivating him and his dad started motivating him. Then, he got back up.

But it wasn’t an easy restart for the little guy.

He needed some time. He did his first axe kick and fell. That’s demoralizing. You got up already feeling like you didn’t want to do it and then the first kick you do you fall immediately? He lost his heart a little bit.

But then his buddy Amari — in the video he’s the little kid in the yellow shorts — picked him up by his gi and encouraged him. He told him ‘You got this!’ And that’s when everybody started getting behind him. I started doing it. He started crying. But I kept telling him. His mom said it, then his dad said it. Then all the other kids said it.

At that point, he started kicking hard. And that’s when I think he knew he could break it. The second time that he put a lot of effort behind it is when he broke that thing. Now, he could’ve done it the first time. That was obviously in him. But it’s all in their head sometimes.

As the instructor, you do such a wonderful job of keeping him focused, guiding him through what he needs to do, correcting his mistakes, and encouraging him. At one point, you helped him square his hips. You kept his head in the right place. How do you find it best to help little kids in those situations?

I feel like with little ones, especially in that four, five, and six-year-old range, it’s tough to teach them because their attention span is really maybe 10 or 15 minutes and you have to keep them focused. So self-motivating with the little ones is huge. If they’re motivated, then it’s going to be really easy for me to teach them and motivate them even more and push them to the next level to make them really start seeing improvement in their technique. But they have to want to do it. And the only way to have them do that is by putting an atmosphere around them that’s nothing but supportive.

One of the biggest take aways from the video is how genuinely supportive all the kids are.

Yeah, everyone was behind him. To us? That’s normal, brother. A lot of kids don’t get that. But for our kids that’s the norm in our dojo. There’s no kid laughing. If any kid’s laughing, they’re doing burpees right away. There’s no degrading kids in here. We don’t tolerate bullying. Our atmosphere is a very good atmosphere, especially for little kids to bloom into the martial arts.

Our academy is all family owned and operated. My dad owns the place. I’ve been teaching here for 12 years. My mom is one of the drivers here. My brother works here, too. Most of the families have been with us for several years now. And then all the new parents that come to us, we throw them right into that family atmosphere. Who doesn’t love that? Who doesn’t want to see their kid being loved by and treated respectfully by every kid in here?

We’re also very proud of our diversity here. I’ve got kids from all sorts of backgrounds. And we all get along and all support one another. That’s the atmosphere we’ve wanted to create and one that we’ve created. It’s our family running the business and it’s those family values translate into the martial arts we teach here.

Do you have kids yourself?

I have 75 kids (laughs). But no, I don’t have any kids of my own.

Well you’re extremely good with kids.

I’ve been teaching for over 12 years. I’ve been two Africa twice on mission trips and I’ve been a lot of places teaching karate. I’ve traveled all over the country and taught in many places.

What do you hope people take away from this clip?

I feel like nowadays there’s a lot of negativity in this world. Anytime you turn the news on, there’s something negative happening. And then you see a video like this and it’s nothing but love and positivity and that’s what I really want people to pull from it.

It’s great that Phoenix broke the board, believe me. That was an awesome moment. But the fact that we were all behind him, and supporting him and it was all the different kids and parent of different backgrounds in there together to support one another, I want people to take notice of that. That’s what’s most important to me.