Mean Sensei Part 2: Bushi No Kokoro

I recently wrote about an experience helping with promotion testing at my sensei's dojo, where I had to work with a student who wasn't fully prepared. I had to find the path between challenging her and discouraging her when she could not remember her kata.

To continue the story: the next week, Jane's [not her real name] test continued. She still owed me the kata she'd been unable to show me, but first there was kumite -- sparring. After a couple a matches with other young, kyu-level students, our sensei sent Jane to line up against me.

In Seido Karate, students do not start jiyu kumite (free sparring, as distinguished from the drills of yakusoku kumite where attacks and defenses are pre-arranged) until they achieve the rank of green belt, 4th kyu. So, the test for advanced green, 3rd kyu, is the first time that kumite is part of the test. This was the level that Jane was testing for.

The kumite portion of the test is a bit intimidating to start with, especially when it is the first time that it's part of one's test. Just to face it without giving up is an important rite of passage. Of course the objective for a young, fairly novice student is not to defeat a larger and more experienced opponent in a match; the idea is to give the candidate a chance to show their fighting spirit and demonstrate their technique.

But in addition to that, Jane had to face some who had already given her the Mean Sensei look. I imagine that at that moment, in her eyes I was about the most intimidating person on the planet. As the match started, I advanced; she retreated. I advanced some more; she retreated some more, throwing a few half-hearted techniques.

This wasn't good.

If I really was Mean Sensei, I'd just keep throwing punches and kicks and let her panic. But instead, what I had to do was figure out how to ignite her fighting spirit. There's a Japanese expression I've heard, bushi no kokoro -- warrior's heart. That's what this test was about: helping Jane to find within herself, the seed of the warrior's heart.

Being an inveterate Trekker, when I think of that "warrior's heart" I think of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where Worf undergoes a difficult initiation ritual that includes him declaring, "Today, I am a warrior. I must show you my heart!" While we don't hit people with pain sticks, the idea is similar. This isn't just a test, it's an initiation of sorts. Students prove their own strength to themselves, and are changed by the experience

So I had to encourage Jane, even as I challenged her. "Come on, this is your promotion. Strong spirit!" Our sensei cheered her on: "Don't let him push you around, hit him!" (Normally I'm not a fan of someone yelling to someone else to hit me, but here it was ok.)

Finally, she threw a flurry of good strong techiques. "Oh ho! Yes! Where has this fighter been?" She stopping backing up, started slipping to the side and countering more effectively. She had found something within herself, a strength she didn't know she had, and finished the match strong.

As we went back into line to bow to our opponents and rotate to new partners, I told her, "Don't be scared of me. Make me scared of you." She nodded, a firmer expression on her face. "Osu," she answered -- "I understand, I will try, I will persevere." ("Osu" is complex idea, I'll have to write more about it some other time.)

She finished the kumite portion of her test fine.

Then it was time for her to show us the kata she'd missed last week. And here, even though I'd seen her doing the kata before class, we hit a problem. She froze. But I recognized the difficulty: simple stage fright. As hard as kumite and the tests of physical conditioning and learning the Japanese vocabulary can be, for some students the most frightening part of promotion testing is dong kata in front of an auidence.

I've found that you can usually get someone through stage fright by getting them started, by "priming the pump". So I led Jane though a kata, doing it together with her. Then I had her show us that kata by herself; then show us the kata she had missed. A few rough spots, but she passed.

There is a Japanese proverb that we quote a lot: "Nana korobi ya oki" -- "If you fall down seven times, get up eight times." Success lies not in never falling short, but in getting back up each time that you do. In this promotion, Jane got to experience that, and probably learned much more than she would have if things had gone well from the start.

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