Every once in awhile I get to train with karateka who are, essentially, my peers. Maybe not my exact rank – some a little lower, some a little higher. But all have more or less the same abilities. I absolutely love those sessions, but I recognize that if I trained exclusively with my peers I would be missing out on a lot of other learning.
Because of the way modern American elementary schools are run, we Americans assume that segregating students by age is the best model, and, accordingly, some of us might think that dividing karate classes by belt rank is ideal. We forget that, out of necessity, the norm in American education used to be one-room schoolhouses (my grandfather attended such a school). And one-room schoolhouses worked quite well. Most dojo(s) are one-room schoolhouses. Some might have the luxury of having two or three classes divided according to certain ranges of belt ranks. But even in those dojo(s), there’s usually considerable variation in ability among the students in each class. One might have only two or three true peers, if even that.
In American culture, a lot of emphasis is put on one’s peer group during one’s formative years. We’re with kids born within six months of our own birthday, who live in our own neighborhood, and who are in school with us year after year. Then suddenly we’re released into a diverse world and we have to adjust. In the dojo, us Americans are introduced to senpai/kohai relationships somewhat similar to those found in Japanese culture. It’s a bit jarring, and often there’s a learning curve for us American students. Within myself, this culture shock manifests when I am training with my peers. It takes the form of a little wistful longing for all classes to always be like this. But I know better.
Yes, there are advantages to training with a peer group. It’s nice to be able to work on material that is at one’s own level. Exploring difficult new material that would not be presented if there were kohai in class is always a lot of fun. It’s good to be pushed and pushed hard over and over with at least a few different fighters who are close to your own ability. Training with one’s peers can mean you finally have time to focus on the kata you’re learning and explore bunkai specific to that kata. It’s hard for a sensei to juggle this with different belt groups working in the same room. Not to mention, it’s great to see other students of one’s own rank making the same mistakes as oneself! All this is fantastic, it’s wonderful to have some time with peers, but one’s Karate roots grow deep when one mainly trains in a mixed group.
The higher you go, the fewer people will be in your peer group. You will get used to fighting one another. In a mixed group, new fighters are developing all the time. It’s really fun to realize, “She’s a lot better than she was last year. She really made me work hard during our match!” One’s foundational skills always need refreshment, and the lower ranks need to see what they’re aiming for. In a mixed group, all students see the progression in performance – 10th kyu (lowest rank) look like this, 5th kyu can do that, and the 2nd kyu are simply amazing (hahahaha – that’s my current belt rank). Ni-kyu like me get familiar with the expectations for reaching each rank and learn to gauge a student’s readiness for their next belt. This is a skill a sensei must have. Teaching or helping to teach benefits you. You learn how to be a sensei from being in a mixed group.
I need not spell out the advantages of training with one’s seniors. Here’s the thing, though – it won’t be long before any given karateka will be senior to others. Then it is time to do for your kohai what your senpai did for you. A dojo is a community, and all must help out. Of course, like a lot of things we learn in Karate, this can be applied to one’s life outside the dojo. You’ll more easily spot new opportunities to help, to make a difference in the world. It’s called personal growth, and that’s what training and discipline are all about.