Last night, two of my fellow Shodan(s) – first degree black belts – came to the dojo. Unfortunately my dojo sensei (head instructor of a school) missed them. Of the three of us, I am the lowest in seniority but my dojo sensei left me in charge so I didn’t quite know about the etiquette of the situation. We all managed just fine.
There were more sensei(s) than students. We traded off teaching duties. I multi-tasked like crazy. I worked one on one with a student while listening to my peers give feedback to the other student. If I overheard feedback on something that the other student was doing I looked for it in whoever I was working with. And for awhile I put myself out there.
We dismiss our new beginner after an hour and then for the final half hour of class we focus on a student who’s been with us awhile. At that point last night it was three yudansha (“black belts”) to one student. I became a student for awhile. I had already told my fellow Shodan(s) that I needed them to look for any blind spots that I might have. After that first hour my peers had a side by side comparison – a student who I’ve taught for the last three weeks and myself. There are things I need to work on for myself, things the students need to work on that I have been blind to, and yes, things that both the students and I need to work on.
I’ve drifted away from our style’s standard in a couple of techniques. I was blind to a few things that the students need to improve in. Those two students are happy and doing well for their respective ranks, so obviously I’m not a complete failure. It’s just that having another pair of eyes (or two other pairs of eyes) helps tremendously. Ideally we’d have the dojo sensei there, but for a season that’s going to be intermittent. But in the meantime, I know who I can count on to point out what I’m missing. Yes, my peers who came last night, but even more than that – all of us yudansha know we can count on those who are higher ranked than we are.
If our organization’s chief instructor for our state had visited my dojo last night he’d have seen everything my peers did and more. This is not a bad thing. Feedback means everyone will improve. An outside pair of eyes brings a different perspective, and it’s even better when those eyes have seen decades’ worth of students come and go. Not to mention those who are more senior to me, including my dojo sensei, are quite familiar with everything that goes along with being a newly-fledged sensei. Is it any surprise that some of our yudansha are managers in their professional lives? They have the “soft skills” in spades, and believe me when I need to pick their brains about that I do.
It would be the height of arrogance for me to think that now that I have that pretty belt tied around my waist I know everything and can start my own dojo (school). I have my foundation, yes, but until I build more on that foundation I’m not equipped to take someone to Shodan. I’m still wet behind the ears.
A couple of days ago I watched two videos of myself presenting the same kata. The earlier video was taken at my test for 2nd kyu (2 ranks below 1st black). The other was taken at my Shodan test a few months ago. I had to pause the earlier video two or three times because I was rushing the kata back then. On the flip side I saw a couple of things in the later video that I need to work on in the weeks to come. My overall impression was that I didn’t really understand that kata all that well back then. I suspect that if, five years from now, I take another video of myself doing the same kata I’ll see just as big a gap, if not bigger.
Even videoing myself has its limits. I know some things to watch out for, I know some of my habits. But I’m lacking experience and I will need help along the way. There is absolutely no substitute for someone who has years more training on me being right there in real life, 3 dimensions, telling me exactly what it is I need to do to improve, learn, and grow.
We all have blind spots as teachers and students. Those blind spots exist to allow others to share their experiences. We need people who see things through a different lens, especially mentors. I need that input to keep going on this journey. Shodan to me means my bags are packed and I’ve taken the first step on the path outside my door. I don’t want to be stuck there, never seeing what’s down the road, never picking up souvenirs, and never being able to help a fellow traveler because I haven’t the foggiest idea of what lies beyond what little I can see from my doorstep.