“Wow, that was so awesome when those blue belts went like this,” a little white-belt (no rank) boy enthused, imitating the movement in the intermediate kata (form) that had most impressed him.
I chuckled, smiled, and agreed, “Yes, it was. Someday you’ll learn that kata too.”
Of course the blue belts (a low rank in our system) were not performing that movement at black belt level, not by a long shot. I’ve seen that kata performed by patient yudansha (black belts) as they were teaching me and others. It is definitely so awesome when those yudansha go like this… But in that moment when the little boy praised the other kids, I agreed wholeheartedly that it was awesome when those blue belts went like this… Of course there are several reasons for me to agree with the boy, but I really don’t want to go off on a tangent right now. Let’s look at the little boy who loved what he saw.
That little boy’s “Sense of Wonder” (a term coined by Rachel Carson) is fully operational. I’ve seen his sense of wonder kick in at other times too. I have to admit it’s flattering when he’s in awe of what this slightly-lumpy middle-aged matron can do. But it’s even more gratifying when he compels me to take a closer look at something, to see it through his eyes, and to feel my own heart swell with the joy of witnessing something amazing.
Karate, with its endless drills, its plethora of kata to be memorized, and its demands for more and more repetitions of each and every movement, would seem to be a murderer of the sense of wonder. However, Karate’s demands won’t kill anyone’s sense of wonder if the leaders in the dojo (school) are constantly cultivating their own sense of wonder, letting their joy spill out for everyone to see. Nurturing a sense of wonder is the job of everyone in the dojo, of course, but there’s an extra burden on the sensei(s) (instructors) and the senior students. Wonder is a powerful motivator.
The dojo should be a place where people are tuned in to the amazing things that they can do and to the amazing things that everyone around them can do (no matter what their rank). Yes, improving in the art of Karate takes a lot of repetition, gallons of sweat, and a smattering of pain and tears. Students will start to value the tough process of growth if those in leadership are constantly pointing out specific ways in which each person is improving, if the leaders exult in those “aha” moments, and, most importantly, if they are constantly feeding their students’ sense of wonder.
I’m sure there are many teachers – and not just martial arts teachers – who have loads of practical ideas for maintaining that curiosity, that thirst to learn, that constant recognition of everyday miracles. Some of their ideas might work for your dojo and for your teaching style, some may not. Research what’s out there. Bounce ideas off your peers. Experiment on your students (I’ve been a lab rat loads of times).
Most of all, cultivate your own sense of wonder. Watch videos of karateka who you admire. Think back on how far you yourself have come. Remember when your own sensei showed you something and you were amazed. Here’s a hint: you’re not limited to Karate when it comes to nurturing your own sense of wonder! Take the time to do these things and your students will reap the rewards. We are awesome – all of us – from first-day beginner to seasoned master.