Maybe You Shouldn’t Be a Sensei

We’ve done two videos on opening and running a dojo, but there’s also something to be said for whether this is the right path for everyone. Oh, it looks great in the movies, and Cobra Kai actually does have a beautiful tribute to what it means to be a real Sensei:

Ali, you’re right. It’s crazy how things change. For a long time, I didn’t have much direction in my life. But then things got better. I met a kid who needed some help. So I got back into karate and became a sensei. There were ups and downs. I even gave up for a while. But I can’t give up anymore. I have a long way to be a better man, a better father, a better teacher. But I can make a difference in these kids’ lives. It’s a tough world out there, and I can help them be ready for it. That’s what I’ve been up to. That’s who I am. I’m a sensei.

– Johnny Lawrence, season 3 of Cobra Kai

And you know what? It is great. It is amazing, and I would have to lose everything before I crawled back to corporate and dealing exclusively with adults and their agendas. And meetings. So many meetings.

(For now, let’s set aside the etiquette and challenges of who gets to call themselves a Sensei, what the word means etc etc. I know some big karate Youtubers have discussed this recently – we’ll get to that another day.)

But this life isn’t easy. And I was warned, no doubt, by those who have gone before me. But maybe it needs to be written down somewhere, where everyone who is thinking about quitting their day job, opening a scrappy underdog dojo and becoming a full-time karate bum, can see it.

These kids are going to break your heart.

95% of the kids that walk in aren’t going to stay. Let’s rip off that particular band-aid first. Because no matter how much you may throw yourself wholly into the work, into being the most committed, caring and invested instructor you can possibly be, these kids, these teens, and even adults, are going to quit. They’re going to move away. They’re going to emigrate. They’ll get bored. Their parents will run out of money. Or the parents will get divorced and karate falls by the wayside when the kid needs it most. Parents will ghost you when you follow up. They and their kids will disappear without a goodbye, even if you have spent years getting to know them. Students get injured. They might get ill. They might be so talented that they get in their own way, and end up quitting anyway. You might have the next Miyagi walk into your dojo, train for three or four years, and then scream out of frustration when they quit because “karate isn’t cool, Sensei.”

That no matter how much you try, the nature of this beast dictates that most of them aren’t going to make it. Most of them won’t want to. And that’s okay.

Good karate, real karate, is hard. Damned hard. It is sweat, and repetition, and showing up over and over and over again. It is slow progress and constant feedback. It is a years-long marathon of effort that requires dedication and time and money, and the willingness to be humble, take that constructive criticism, and to keep coming back. To go to the dojo when it’s cold, when it’s too hot, when there’s a couch and Netflix and no one telling you to pull your hand back into chamber.

Nothing great is easy. Karate is the best thing that happened to my young adult self, and saved me from my worst impulses. I genuinely believe that karate has many answers to various questions, but they must be worked for. The answers will reveal themselves, in time.

But these kids are going to quit on you. A blessed, beloved handful will stick with you, and they really do go a long way to making it worth it. My husband has some students who have been with him since they were knee-high to a meerkat, and they’re young adults now. I dream of the same. But now, 5 years into this journey, I’ve come to realize that no matter how much you try, most of them go. You get used to it. Mostly. When you stop caring, then maybe it is time to quit.

You can only hope that the best of what you said made it through, and they take it with them. You hope that they remember how much you believed in them, and wanted the best for them, and that some of the lessons stick with them. If you do your job right, they might not stay with you in the dojo, but maybe a little part of you stays with them.

(And if you are reading this and you are thinking of your Sensei? Reach out to them. I promise they will be glad to hear from you.)

Your Own Training Will Slide

I thought I would get in SO MUCH training when I started teaching. Doing all that karate, all the time? Yeehah! Effortless kata, here I come. I am going to be a karate goddess.

And as the Yiddish saying goes: we plan, God laughs.

Yes, you will do the most basic kata three hundred times a month. Those will be your better kata – you’ll know them inside out, you can spot the wrong hand/wrong foot from the other side of the room using the mirror – but your senior kata? Your actual grading kata? Not so much. I am not on speaking terms with Seipai; that poor kata is so neglected. I have to make a serious, concerted effort to train by myself to work on everything I need to work on. I can’t do that when teaching, because it is absolutely not about me, but about everything from correcting foot placement to fielding a thousand questions to managing the “SENSAAAYYYYYY HE ISN’T DOING THE KATA RIGHT” tattle-tailing to barking constant reminders about wearing masks correctly.

(I can’t wait until we can be free of masks. If you are reading this in 2022, 2023, I hope we don’t need masks anymore.)

However, one of my favourite teaching aphorisms is “to teach is to learn twice”, so that does help somewhat. And one day, I will become one of those people that gets up at 5am to train. One day is one day.

Karate Wife, Hard Life

I can’t even remember where this came from – it has been said of every patient wife of an instructor, dutifully managing the rest of his life so that he can be a great sensei. Taking care of the minutia of daily life, so that he need never think about finding a clean gi, paying bills or making a meal.

For the most part, I think those days are increasingly behind us, and for good reasons. But being a karate spouse is still hard, even when you are both in the dojo, all the time, together. And just as there are many schools and dojo that are run by spouses, there are many more that are being run by a single instructor. And that instructor is not just teaching all the classes, but they are also taking care of the accounts, running all the marketing, doing repairs and lesson planning, managing a website and fielding calls and whatsapps from dojo parents. I’ve written before about a day in the life of an instructor, but I didn’t add the strain it can put on a relationship. Especially if that instructor can and does travel to compete, or coach, or improve their own karate. If you are both in it, then the sacrifice makes sense and can be shared. When Che used to travel as team coach, I would miss him but I was also proud of him, and knew what he was doing and the extent of it. But if I were a civilian, and didn’t get this karate life? I’m not sure I could be patient for years and years.

We have weird hours, and often lose weekends to seminars, morning classes, gradings and away camps. There are so many unwritten rules and expectations and habits that we don’t even realize we have, and that can be hard on someone who isn’t immersed in this world. (I know its not specific to karate, but this is me staying in my lane and writing what I know.)

Props to those who love their karate wives, and boyfriends, and girlfriends, and husbands, without being karate people themselves. The friends that don’t get half of what we do, but wait for us to get to the braai as soon as our Saturday seminar is finished. (My merchants – I love you for this.)
We see you and appreciate you.

But still, no regrets

I used to work in corporate. It was neat and tidy; 8am to 4pm, dedicated lunch breaks, lots of colleagues to go to lunch with. Paycheck regular as clockwork. I had no real power, so no real responsibility. Just a copywriting and marketing minion. I had my evenings and weekends uninterrupted, and while I have done karate my whole adult life, I got the fun part of just showing up to train and then going home. I didn’t have to worry about liability insurance, or affiliation money, or whether I was going to get another WhatsApp telling me a dear student was quitting.

Would I go back?

Absolutely not. I love being an instructor, and I hope that I have done enough to earn the title of Sensei. It isn’t one you can claim for yourself – it can only be given. And it is only given meaning when someone calls you that freely and without hesitation. When they see you as the one who has gone before, and has something worth teaching, worth imparting.

Otherwise, you’re just some chop in angry white pajamas.

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