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Finding A Sensei -- Part 1

This will be a multi-part post. I am sometimes asked about how a student should pick a Sensei, or how a parent should pick a Sensei for his or her child. This is an extremely important question. It is a bit of an irony that a person with no martial arts experience is expected to make such a monumental decision.

Let me put it this way -- some people practice a martial art longer than a marriage (or even several marriages). There is a saying that if it takes ten years or even twenty years to find a Sensei, it is well worth it. I couldn't agree more.

The first thing I would advise is to conduct research before joining any class. Do not simply join a class because it is convenient or inexpensive. Would you select a spouse this way?

There are many factors to consider. I will qualify this by stating that I am discussing how to find a Sensei. To me, a Sensei is much more than a mere instructor. While it is true that a Sensei instructs, he also does and represents much more. A Sensei can become as close as an uncle, even a father, to some students. Karate is a lifelong pursuit, and you might have a Sensei for a good part of your life.

Character is the most important consideration. You might have thought that I would have said that the instructor's skill is the most important consideration. It is not. A skilled instructor with a poor character should be avoided. You would not want to train with an instructor who has a poor character, nor would a parent want his or her child to do so.

Would you want your child to learn from an instructor who curses, gets angry, acts unfairly, takes advantage of students, or worse? Of course not!

So you must judge the Sensei's character when deciding whether or not you want to learn from him. Ideally, you might ask a student of the class about his impressions. In a perfect world, your own relative would have been a student. Referrals are very important. In fact, a Sensei will usually give consideration to the referral of a student by his own students or other instructors. You do not only select your Sensei -- he selects you.

You cannot judge a Sensei based upon advertisements, signs, the size of his dojo, how many students he has, how many trophies are in his window, his rank, titles, fame, or any such things. These are all considerations, but do not address the character issue. The only way to judge character is to meet with the Sensei and talk to him. How does he act? Does he pay attention to you? Does he answer your questions? Does he show concern for the students?

I heard a very interesting thing. A very senior Sensei was deaf -- until the subject turned to money. Then he could hear just fine!

Is the Sensei interested in you as a person or as a customer?

Don't get me wrong. A Sensei usually needs to charge tuition to pay for expenses and to earn a living. Of course he needs to! But he should be interested in you first and foremost as a student.

Karate is a lifelong lesson in character. For good -- or for bad -- your Sensei will influence your character. You want to find a Sensei of whom you can one day be proud -- of whom your students can be proud.

Character is a very subjective thing. There is a saying that you do not really know someone until you have known him for 7 years. Some issues are more relevant than others. Is it relevant that the instructor has been convicted of a crime? What! You mean that there are instructors with a criminal record? Well, you might want to inquire about this, especially if you are selecting an instructor for your child.

The point is that you should think about you want and expect in a Sensei. If you don't inquire, how will you know?


Charles C. Goodin