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.

Don’t Save: Teach

“We rescue because it feels good,” Lahey says.

Parents want to rescue their kids from everything, and so do instructors, sometimes. In this clear-eyed article about the gift of failure, we are reminded that “we seem to be more worried about raising happy children than competent or autonomous ones.”

Go ask your instructor if failing a student has ever bought them joy. For all that we may be a bunch of crazy people who do martial arts for a living, it is rare (and perhaps cruel) to take pleasure in failing a student.

We are the first to complain about helicopter parenting – how dare this parent question my teaching, we fume — but when it comes to our students and protecting them, we can be just as terrible. There are some students that we just shouldn’t be protecting anymore. Kids that we know that other instructors would never pass at a panel grading. There are some students that really do need to fail, and to fail hard. You know the one. The talented kid who coasts. The sloppy kid with patchy attendance. The know-it-all who needs to be taught the first line of the dojo kun: be humble and polite.

Of course, we worry. Most students quit when they fail, because they’re not accustomed to setbacks. That’s not just a dojo thing – that is a societal fear driven by our punishing treatment of those who don’t make an immediate success of things. Because success is made so obvious with so many ranking systems (Twitter followers, Grammy awards, Forbes Lists, bullshit internet “40 Under 40” lists) , failure seems an unacceptable outcome.

We’re surrounded by stories of success that conspire to make success seem easier than it in fact is – and therefore that unwittingly destroy the confidence we can muster in the face of our obstacles….We see our early failures as proof of conclusive ineptness – rather than as the inevitable stages on every path to mastery. Without an accurate developmental map, we can’t position ourselves properly vis-à-vis our defeats. We have not seen enough of the rough drafts of those we admire – and therefore cannot forgive ourselves the horror of our early attempts. – “How Knowledge of Difficulties Lends Confidence”, The Book of Life

(Remember when you were a yellow belt, and you thought you were never going to learn that kata? Like that, but for everything.)

We have a habit of praising outcomes, not effort. We focus on gradings, not the day to day grind of just showing up, the persistence and participation that makes for great adults. We laud talented kids, we set them up as the examples, and then when the talent fails to make up for hard work, we have left them without the tools to learn.

It is our job to be the instructors, not the saviours. It is hard to look a kid in the eye and say “not this time, buddy.” Especially when you think that the kid will quit, because the short-term pain is not worth the lesson, and you’ve seen it happen dozens of times before. Sensei Pain is a great teacher, but no one wants to take his classes. It is hard to not have a bit of a saviour complex when so many seek the wisdom and guidance of their sensei. It makes it hard to be the teacher, who simply teaches without offering salvation as well. We always wish some parents would try be parents instead of best friends to their kids – we need to remind ourselves that we are instructors first, and that means doing what needs to be done, even when it makes us uncomfortable. Especially when it makes us squirm.

When we choose to protect our students from their own shortcomings, we fail them completely. Like when we don’t force them to finish doing the boring, BORING drills that will fix their problems. Yes, it sucks, but eat your karate veggies, kid. But we worry that they’ll get bored and leave, and so maybe this time, we don’t drill basics (like we meant to) and instead we teach that cool bunkai that they don’t need to know just yet.

When we grade them and let them scrape by, we teach them (and the rest of the dojo) that the bare minimum will do. We lower our standards and theirs, out of fear and misplaced compassion. No one wants to be the reason a kid quit martial arts forever. No one wants to hear that a student cried all the way home in the car.

Then we worry about pushback from parents. How dare we, this karate bum who doesn’t have a ‘real’ job, dare fail their child? Can’t we see how amazingly special they are?

“Teaching has become a push and pull between opposing forces in which parents want teachers to educate their children with increasing rigor, but reject those rigorous lessons as ‘too hard’ or ‘too frustrating’ for their children to endure” Parents, Let Your Kids Fail

Or, and this is much worse, seeing a parent pile on the abuse – “see, even Sensei knows how bloody lazy you are,” and then an unwanted conspiratorial wink as they drag the child out the dojo. What was meant to be a lesson in hard work and growth was turned into a humiliation no one asked for.

Of course we want to rescue them, sometimes. There are some kids that we wish to plead a case for: they have problems at home, or they have lots of homework. But if they’re not doing the work, and if there’s nothing physically challenging them, it does a disservice to the kids who do do the work and make the effort, but who are rewarded equally to the lazy kids. In saving one kid from themselves, we may be discouraging the ones who do the work and put in the time. Why make the effort, when Sloppy Joe still gets graded?

If you think they don’t notice, then you haven’t figured out that kids will spot the laws you’ve broken and call you out on it. It is the core root of why kids tattle and snitch. (That article, by the way, offers the best advice for ending the scourge of mini karate police officers in your dojo.)

I know I’m guilty of making excuses, usually because they’re a sweet kid who loves karate but not the hard work. I would miss them if they quit. But after all, it is my happy duty to forge better character through karate. Giving them a free pass creates the exact kind of spoilt brat (and useless adult) that we all dread. And if they quit, then maybe this journey just wasn’t for them, just as it isn’t for so many thousands of others.

But if they fail, and come back? Well, then that’s a job well done.

A Day in the Life of a Sensei

Morning:
“Ah! What a beautiful day! I think I’ll go and train and -”
*phone starts vibrating*

And then pour in the Whatsapps.

What time is the grading next week? When are the dojo shirts arriving? Suzy Q has gymnastics/maths/chess trials today and will miss karate later. My account looks wrong – are you sure you can add properly? Have you spoken to my child yet about the bullying at school? What time is the training seminar? I know its for black belts, but maybe my kid can come anyway? Is it holiday hours yet? What’s happening with the tournament? Any chance you could do private classes, but for like, free?

Ping, ping, ping. Then various whatsapp groups for parents and students start blowing up because someone shared something utterly idiotic they saw on Facebook, which is usually kind of racist and awkward. Apologies are made, rebukes issued and with a sigh, the phone is set aside for the moment.

Day adequately derailed, the Sensei decides to check in on email, sees four million emails regarding team selections, federation meetings, gashuku arrangements and offers from shady martial arts gear companies promising good prices. There’s an email chain with far too many people CC’d in, and some people still haven’t learned basic email etiquette despite being old enough to pay tax. There isn’t enough coffee to deal with this inbox right now, so the Sensei decides to catch up on old school paperwork.

But where to start? Updating the student database? Filing the medical info cards? Sending out accounts? Then chasing accounts that remain unpaid for no clear reason? There’s newsletters to be printed, grading certificates to be signed, testimonial letters to be written. There’s events to organise, forms to collate, merchandise to be ordered, and and and and and — oh god, is that a sneeze, but I got my flu vaccination and and and —

Well, at least, that’s how it feels.

Every dojo is different. Every dojo has its own challenges and offerings. The bigger the dojo, the greater the admin. Some instructors have to work full time jobs and then still teach at night. Those of us who are lucky enough to do it on a full-time basis sometimes miss out on the normal things other people take for granted. Weekends, for example. Some of us are studying, working and teaching. I’ve juggled a counselling course, freelance writing and teaching this year. I know instructors who work at schools, hopping from one to the other, driving all day. Some are just trying to get a foot in the door, just starting out in a tiny dojo with no equipment but with so much heart and passion that they don’t charge a fee that’s fair to them as well. The starving artist trope extends to martial artists as well, as unfair and unnecessary as it is.

And it can be a good kind of busy, when you’re doing it right, and for the right kind of reasons. I love being a daywalker – my day is flexible, until roughly 3pm, when it’s time to prep for class, have that last cup of coffee (and a chocolate) and then teach for four to five hours. I sleep in a bit (because I hate mornings) and at least when I do admin at my desk, no one can tell me that a unicorn onesie is inappropriate workwear.

Of course it’s stressful – we are always worrying about litigious parents, bills, this student’s progress, that one’s troubles at home. We try to keep our qualifications current, and pay huge money to go train with our seniors to keep our skills honed. Never mind the cost of a grading in whichever home dojo we belong to overseas, which can easily cost a couple hundred dollars a pop, just for the certification. Never mind the plane trip and somewhere to sleep that isn’t a bench.

A Sensei is so many things – janitor, nurse, counsellor, accountant, career guidance coach, wailing wall, mentor, caterer, event manager, teacher and role model. Even when we don’t want to be, we are always in a gi. We are always aware of our actions, for the smallest misconstrued comment can blow up, and any lapse in judgement can bring the mobs down upon our dojo. Whatsapp statuses must be carefully written, personal Facebook posts reconsidered. It becomes a habit after a while, this careful self-policing, but there are days when I really would like to use that sweary image as my whatsapp avatar.

Our students often look to us for a good example, and there are days when I sometimes lie on the couch and see if I can catch popcorn with my mouth forty times in a row, and I’ll do this for an hour. I’m not always the shining example of adulthood that my students perceive me to be (although I’m not sure anyone is).

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But when the kids come barrelling into the dojo, so excited to train and be on the mat, shouting over each other and basically carrying on like labrador puppies on a sugar high, it all melts away. The drama, the politics, the admin, the fears, the anxieties. I could be in the blackest, foulest mood, (and I often am when I am hangry around 3pm) but the minute they arrive, it all makes sense.  

It’s amazing, when you think about all the things an instructor has to do, just to be able keep teaching your little one how to do a face block. After all, that which gives light must endure burning, and everything I do is for the students, because without them then I really am just a karate bum.

So, please be patient with us when we don’t respond to your text at 11:30pm about something that really could wait until tomorrow morning. It might seem like we have easy lives, because “you only teach for four hours”, but there are mountains and mountains of invisible work that go into what we do, and yes, we do lie awake at night and worry about our students too.

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Real Futureproofing

We get it, parents: you are trying to make sure your child, the centre of your universe, your precious genetic legacy, is going to handle whatever the future can throw at them. We see it in the extra classes they do, the vast number of extra-curricular activities. We see it in their burdensome homework schedules, in their weekends packed with events and commitments. You are doing everything in your power to make sure that they can meet whatever challenges the future holds. We don’t blame you.

Of course, it doesn’t help that schools are adding the burden, promising to grant access to the most exclusive universities through a punishing regime of academics, sports and extracurriculars. Everyone with the means is trying to make their kid futureproof.

But honestly? How do you know what the future looks like? Does anybody?

I used to be a social media manager, a job unheard of when I matriculated. I tried to explain digital content marketing to my Yiayia, and eventually gave up, because how do you explain something that only makes sense to annoying power-yuppies who work in advertising? When I chose my subjects at school, at university, I never thought for a moment that I’d end up being a karate instructor. I just stuck with what I loved, and it worked out for me.

There are jobs that are being invented right now that will be antiquated in 15, 20 years. Some are predicting that humans need not apply, as many jobs will be outsourced to robots and drones. While it should free us to pursue our dreams and enjoy leisure, capitalism ensures that it will not. (Booo, capitalism!)

However, this isn’t really a discussion about AI and job replacement. My point is (and I do have one) is that by overloading our kids with stress, accolade-chasing and a shallow knowledge of many things but no time to develop true passion, we are only burning them out before they can find out who they are. Which brings me around to the reason I wrote this.

Kids get put in a dojo “because they need discipline”, or “because [vomit] a black belt will get them into university”. While we cannot do all the discipline work, and yes, a black belt looks nice on a university application, this isn’t the point. Dojos are being pushed to become grading mills, lest they lose students to the other activities competing for their time. We lose students because parents are not seeing ‘progress’ fast enough. Kids complain its too hard, and parents let them quit just when they were starting to show progress. (If I had ten bucks for every time I’ve heard ‘I wish I hadn’t quit karate when I was a kid’…) When they don’t see their child cracking a shodan in five years, they pack up and go. And yes, there are dojos who will hand out gradings like birdseed and devalue the entire point of it all.

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They know who they are

But if you really want to futureproof your child, maybe teaching them that good things come to those who work is a better bet. By letting them quit as soon as the going gets tough, they don’t learn to stick anything out. The dojo should teach them patience, resilience, humility, confidence and compassion. We try to teach kids to learn to work on their own, and to work with others. We teach them the value of listening, of doing the boring grunt work that is part of any achievement. When everything around them tells them that success is glamorous and easy and sexy, the dojo reminds them that progress is often boring and success is not guaranteed. That they will fail, and they will have to learn to dig themselves out of the dirt repeatedly.

And yes, sometimes training will be so tedious. Oh my god, there are days when I want to die from boredom because it’s drill after drill on my own of the same stepping sequence. But like any subject, there will be boring days. Like any career, or ambition, there will be many times when the glorious achievements and progress will be preceded by doing stuff you don’t want to do. Just as there will be days where something bright and precious is uncovered, and becomes your own, forever.

Skills wax and wane in their demand and value. Now we have too many lawyers, and not enough nurses. Accountants will soon be replaced by a few lines of code. What is fashionable to study now will be the white elephant degree of the future. Think of all the MBAs who couldn’t become CEOs. But some things are eternal: hard work, ethical conduct, courage, humility and determination.

These are the things machines cannot replace.

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Vygotsky and the Sempai

In one of my many gchats with an old friend, the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) came up, and I went squirreling off in search of this fascinating education theory. In it, Lev Vygotsky offers a way for us to understand the value of peer teaching, which appears in all good dojos around the world: the sempai-kouhai relationship.

What is the Zone of Proximal Development? 

Basically it is a system that puts students within the orbits of those who are best placed to help them depending on the subject material and their learning styles.

Lev Vygotsky views interaction with peers as an effective way of developing skills and strategies. He suggests that teachers use cooperative learning exercises where less competent children develop with help from more skillful peers – within the zone of proximal development.

Vygotsky believed that when a student is in the ZPD for a particular task, providing the appropriate assistance will give the student enough of a “boost” to achieve the task. – Saul McLeod (emphasis mine)

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Or, as Vygotsky himself wrote,

“the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p86).

It is a far less top-down method of teaching, instead employing the collective to help scaffold a learner until they can solve the problem themselves. While the term ‘scaffolding’ was not used by Vygotsky himself, scholars after him created it as a tidy term to explain the way others can build a support structure for another learner until they can solve the problem themselves.

Wood et al. (1976, p. 90) offer the following definition of scaffolding:

‘Those elements of the task that are initially beyond the learner’s capacity, thus permitting him to concentrate upon and complete only those elements that are within his range of competence’.

Basically, put people with others who are best placed to help them – teachers, students, parents. But for our purposes, let’s stick to peers.

Okay, that’s nice, but what does it have to do with martial arts? 

Have you ever been in the dojo, or at a gashuku, or just sitting with dojo mates, and memstylessomeone just explains something in a way that clicks?

We know that there are 7 different styles of learning, and a good instructor tries their best
to cover as many of these as possible. We tend to use visual, verb and logical cues.

But in a class with many students of different abilities and understandings, sometimes it helps to crowdsource a better explanation. 

Within the classroom, the person who is more knowledgeable is not always the teacher; students can also be placed in collaborative groups with others who have demonstrated mastery of tasks and concepts.- Heather Coffey

I myself am a more social, verbal learner, and sometimes someone just says something that explains one problem beautifully. But others might need just that one physical correction – a touch to a floating elbow, maybe – and the problem is highlighted and therefore solvable.

In your dojo, you have a variety of intelligences, and while we shouldn’t expect our little champs to be good teachers, this is vital to introduce into your dojo from about the age of ten. I have an orange belt, who is ten years old and an exceptional fixer of stances. I have never seen someone so dedicated to working with his peers to fix their footwork. When it comes time to pair them off, I know who I can rely on to spot that issue and fix it in another student.

What are the benefits of the Sempai-Kouhai relationship? 

Briefly,  Sempai-Kouhai is basically a mentor/student relationship. It has overtones of big sibling, little sibling – a gentle way to teach students to take responsibility and pride in the success of their classmates. Once in awhile, pairing seniors with juniors can yield many fruitful results.

The Sempai-Kouhai relationships uses scaffolding as a way for a more junior student to learn from the higher student. Perhaps it is the first 10 moves of a kata that the sempai knows well. By letting them work with a junior, you teach them how to improve their own kata along the way.

To teach is to learn twice – this is one of the major advantages of a Sempai-Kouhai pairing. Below, some benefits that I have gleaned over the course of my uchi-deshi course and in the dojo over a decade:

  • Building esprit de corps
  • Leadership through gentle mentorship
  • Learning to give and receive criticism – feed forward, not back
  • The sempai realises that teaching isn’t as easy as it looks
  • By being able to sit out and watch for a bit, it is an excellent way for the instructor to pick up on problems – whether something was inadequately explained, or there’s a general problem preventing further progress
  • Likewise, it also gives instructors a tool to manage the need to micromanage students. An instructor is a gardener, not a carpenter. 
  • Building confidence for both sempai and kouhai
  • More rank, more responsibility – teaching the value of dojo hierarchy
  • Engendering patience and kindness towards fellow students
  • Learning to use different pieces of dojo equipment to fix or explain a problem
  • Taking pride in the dojo through teaching juniors
  • Awareness of the depth of understanding required to be a good teacher
  • Responsibility is more important than technical perfection: we can always fix the technique later, because we are building people, not robots
  • Humility
  • It helps splits up the syllabus on those occasions when there is a wide split in abilities in the class

Over the years I have been immensely fortunate to have seniors along the way that have been integral to my martial arts journey. From my first Sempai, who ignited my love of kata and general martial arts studies (thanks for all those wonderful Sunday training sessions, by the way) to all the seniors I have now from whom I learn each day. In South Africa, we have a term for this: ubuntuI am, because you are. The idea of collective growth, love and support is beautifully encapsulated in this phrase, and I love to pair it with ZPD.

Of course, our instructors will always be important, but we can learn from everyone in the dojo. To sum it all up: I am, because you are, to teach is to learn twice, and so we can scaffold each other to greater heights.

Do you have a sempai that has hugely affected your martial arts journey? A kouhai you’re proud of? Please share your stories in the comments below.

Further Reading: 

An Introduction to Vygotsky edited by Harry Daniels

The Zone of Proximal Development by Heather Coffey

The Zone of Proximal Development – Some Conceptual Issues

Simply Psychology: The Zone of Proximal Development

Shu-Ha-Ri – The Martial Recipe

In studying, practising and teaching karate, I have come across the concept of Shu Ha Ri a few times. Of course my mind latched right on to it, because it is a neat way to explain vast concepts. Anything that offers an elegant shorthand is basically catnip to the instructor-in-training. Of course, Karate by Jesse has already expanded on this concept, and it is a worthy read indeed. In writing this, I’d like to explore ways to understand Shu-ha-ri, both as a student and instructor. Let’s look at the concept and get down with some metaphors.

Shu – Keep | Obey | Protect

Anyone beginning their martial arts journey would be advised to stick to what their instructor offers. Of course, the value of this depends entirely on the instructor, but it is generally advised that for the first ten years (I know, a long time indeed), the budo practitioner should listen, imitate and study the basics intently. This is the foundation of a great martial journey, and the student that closely studies the principles, ideas and history of their school/style will build an immensely strong base on which to expand their understanding.

How to explain it, exactly?

Think about learning to cook. No one starts with deconstructed sushi served on a foam of chocolate with smatterings of mermaid’s tail. It starts with boiling an egg. Making white sauce. Macaroni and cheese. A grilled cheese. It’s not particularly exciting, but it takes repetition to not burn the cheese, or leave the sauce standing too long. We learn by watching our parents, sitting on the counter and staring at the pot as they stir.

Ha – Break | Let Go

Some say that this stage starts at shodan, but I feel that only once one has settled into being a black belt and a solid foundation that it’s possible to start bending the rules. Now we look into our kata and bunkai, breaking things down by understanding the constituent parts of every block, every strike. A face block, for example contains a strike, a punch , a reverse elbow strike, a cross-block and a grab – but only to the trained eye. To a white belt, it’s just a face block. To a ni-dan, it is an elegant compilation of techniques that can be tweaked to solve several problems. This is what happens when a student absorbs more than just the words of their instructor – this is the result of immersive training and study.

How to explain it exactly? 

Remember that macaroni and cheese? When you first started making it, it was just some grated cheese on some macaroni. Curbed your hunger, sure, but you’ve had maths classes more thrilling than that. But now that you’ve watched it being made and looked up a few recipes, you can make some delicious white sauce to go with it. Throw in some bacon bits, or  crumble in some pedano while you make the white sauce. Now, you’re starting to get it, and you’re making it your own.

Ri – Leave | Transcend

This is beyond fourth and fifth dan – this is when you get your own school of thought – this is the realm of Chojun Miyagi, who created Goju Ryu out of karate, or naha-te. This is the place where the storied legends live – Higaonna Morio, Yagi Meitoku, Yamaguchi Gogen. Each took Goju Ryu in a new direction, pouring in their knowledge and creating a distinct look and feel that is clear in their students’ work. A style like a signature, a whorled thumbprint that is unmistakable to the trained eye. It’s still karate, still Goju Ryu, but each school is entirely theirs.

How to explain it, exactly? 

Heston Blumenthal makes food. But what he does with ingredients, science and creativity is a culinary explosion that can only be achieved with vast, relentless study, exploration and practice. His food is a work of art, the peak of culinary science. He also started with learning to make a white sauce. No one gets to three michelin stars without burning a few dishes along the way.

Shu-ha-ri applies to all aspects of life – there are some areas in life where we are at the shu stage, or ri. When it comes to writing, I’m getting closer to ri. But with my training, I’m just starting to edge into ha, and even then only in certain areas. Don’t be disheartened by the seeming length of this journey – the time will pass anyway. And as it does, you’ll deepen your knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of your training.