Martial arts instructor teaches best offense is a good defense

Life has been quite the ride for retired mechanical engineer Walter Knapp — from a successful stint with Northrop Grummen to a healthy obsession with fly fishing. His true calling, however, seems to be his passion for martial arts. And now, through the Indian River Community Education program, he has the opportunity to share his knowledge and infatuation with others.
Coastal Point • JESSE PRYOR: Walter Knapp, black belt, teaches an adult self defense class at Frankford Elementary School on Tuesday evenings.Coastal Point • JESSE PRYOR:
Walter Knapp, black belt, teaches an adult self defense class at Frankford Elementary School on Tuesday evenings.

As a member of the Wing Dragon Karate Club, based in Anne Arundel County, Md., and a black belt, Knapp has been a martial arts instructor for 10 years, teaching countless students — some as young as 8 years old. He considers himself a disciplinarian, and being the only instructor in the Indian River program, finds he works better with students at a more mature level.

Knapp currently teaches an adult self-defense and karate class at Frankford Elementary on Tuesday evenings. The 12-session course, which began in early January, will continue through the third of April. A second self-defense and karate course will be held starting in mid-March, coinciding with the other, and continuing through early June.

“It’s great when we have both classes going,” said Knapp. “I don’t mind the overlap, because everybody is moving at their own pace. The students really work well together.”

Kempo (or kenpo) and chin na are the styles he teaches in these classes. Chin na, which means “seize and control,” is a defensive style, and deals with overpowering and grappling an opponent. Kempo literally means “law of the fist” and is both a defensive and offensive technique.

Throughout these practices, Knapp said that he has a different outlook than many students expect when beginning the course. “I don’t emphasize the fighting aspect,” he said. “In fact, I teach my students that walking away from situations is always the best thing to do. I help people built character strong enough to not let many things get to them.”

Knapp, who said karate is both a sport and almost a lifestyle to him, has found it to be a great way to develop and maintain flexibility, balance and coordination. He reminds students that they must remain within the boundaries of the law at all times, too. That is not what all of his students have anticipated when starting the course.

“If there’s a person in the class who I feel is using what he learns to push people around,” Knapp added, “there’s no second chance. That’s just not what I teach.”

On Thursday, Feb. 15, Knapp began another class, Self-Defense and Awareness for Women and Daughters. The six-session class, offered at Indian River High School on Thursday evenings, teaches women how to handle themselves in various situations.

“The name of the class is not just ‘women’s self-defense,’” emphasized Knapp. “In my view, 98 percent is awareness. If a woman is aware of what is going on around her, she’ll be able to avoid any problems.”

In the course, Knapp explains to women what they need to look for in everyday situations to assure the safest environment, such as shopping at a mall. Where they park, how they position their bags, and who they notice can all reflect how a potential intruder may perceive them.

“A lot of the time,” said Knapp, “a person that’s a mugger or a person who is going to try to rob you in the parking lot, is someone who’s already picked you out in the mall.” Knapp said he’s not trying to scare people, but rather instruct them on what to notice and what to look for to help avoid these confrontations. “It’s mostly simple things, and a lot of it is common sense,” he added, “but people just don’t anticipate it. That’s why I offer this course.”

In addition to these observation skills, women are taught basic defensive skills, such as blocks and break-away techniques. “There are simple maneuvers,” said Knapp, “that women should know how to use and perform. Most of the students I teach are never going to have to use any of the defensive moves they learn, but it’s something that they’ll remember now and 10 years from now.”

Knapp said his love for teaching martial arts, as well as the feedback from his students, is more than enough to keep him going. “Everybody who comes out really enjoys it,” he said. “A lot of the time, the excitement you get comes from learning a new technique and a new maneuver.”

And although every one of his students displays improvement as classes advance, he said he sees the same thing when it comes to men and women.

“Women have less trouble in the beginning of martial arts classes,” he said. “They come in with no preconceived notion as to how they’re going to do. Men, on the other hand, have this big problem called an ego. We think, right away, that we’re athletically inclined, therefore, there’s nothing we can’t do. Then they grow frustrated when they see someone do something that they find difficult.”

The important thing to remember, Knapp added, is that in martial arts, they’re training the body to move in a manner that it’s not used to moving.

Martial arts is something that people can learn, and then come back to, as well, he said.

“I know people who will have taken classes, and then they have other obligations and don’t do anything else for months or years at a time,” said Knapp. “Then they return, and after just a little bit of time, they pick back up where they left off. They become comfortable with the blocks and the moves and are able to go from there.”

It’s that conditioning that allows people to really enjoy martial arts, added Knapp, who has witnessed a growing number of students and seen a developing interest in the sport. “I encourage people to bring their friends and family out, too, just to see if it’s something they’d be interested in.”

For more information about Walter Knapp’s courses, call the Indian River adult education program at (302) 436-1010 or visit their Web site at