In 1991 I began an adventure into teaching Karate. Just like being a white belt everything, and I mean everything, was new to me. Paying rent, utilities, taxes and more things were nothing I understood but I was set on making my dojo work and teaching what I knew. The first three years was a daily struggle just to keep the doors open and I was working three other jobs, plus going to college full time, just to pay for my personal bills and make sure the bills at the dojo were covered too. It was an experience that I learned many things from but it also helped shaped the way I would run my dojo for the last 26 years…not to mention shape me into the person I am today.
Back when I began I was young, full of piss and vinegar and loved to Kumite. Classes were long, tough and I was a very unforgiving teacher demanding only the absolute best everyday on my mats…wait, mats? Really…I should say the small, left over piece of nasty smelling carpet on the floor LOL. We didn’t have a/c, no toilet and I didn’t care…we were there to train. Today I have learned many things that I did in error and have grown into what I feel is much better teacher than I was in those first few years I ran my dojo. That being said I sat and reflected on what I feel about my dojo over the past few weeks and jotted down some notes…
First I reflected on the way I teach now. When I was younger I was not very patient nor very understanding. I was a young 3rd degree black belt who forgot what it was like to be a white belt I believe. Today I remember very well the struggles new students face and try to help them through it. I have realized that making mistakes is part of the learning process and no one can be perfect. I have also become much more understanding and patient as a Sensei, knowing that people often are not as hard core as I am in their Karate training. I understand the art I teach much better and can relate the skill set to students much easier than I used to. I also focus more on practical self defense rather than sport Karate since I am a Sensei more than I am a competitor but we still do just fine in tournaments.
Next I reflected on where my dojo is today versus where it was when I began teaching…and the 10 years that followed opening the doors. My first building was a nice, tiny location with heat but no running water, no bathroom and no a/c. When classes would get about 1/2 way through the floor was so slippery that I took some junk carpet and put in the middle so we wouldn’t have people falling all the time during practice. The next building was a downtown building with a bathroom but still no a/c. It was very hot in there during the summer. We had a good two years there and grew the dojo a bit. Then I moved my dojo to a garage my students and I reconditioned to train in at my house. Thinking this would cut on expenses and help me get more students it had the opposite effect where I lost students. Then I moved to Bryan and began teaching in my basement. It wasn’t bad but after a minor flood I decided to rent a building. In 2005 I opened my first “modern” dojo with toilets, heat, a/c and a matted floor space. We grew there quickly and expanded into the bigger part of the building. Today I own the building we are in and it is a bit smaller but I have three training floors, one down and two upstairs. We have all the nice things like A/C too. It is a great location and we have grown very well here. When I walk around the dojo I see all the photos, certificates, trophies, books and things I have collected over the years and it always humbles me since I realize this is not the end but just part of the journey….and I have a long way to go. Hopefully, with God’s help and blessing, I will be around another 40 or more years teaching. (I am 47 now).
Finally I reflected on the culture of my dojo. This is, perhaps, what has changed the most drastically since I began teaching. In the beginning it was me, some of my friends and a few kids. We would train, go to tournaments and just work hard on our Karate. In the middle years it was me and a lot of students but I made many mistakes and lost quite a few of them…all things that I learned from. Things like being friends with my students and not being the Sensei first and foremost. Other things like fighting my beginners like they were black belts thus scaring them away from training. One of the biggest mistakes I made was throwing new students right into their first class with no pre-class prep. I watched many a potential student get frustrated, quit and give up because they were “expected” to perform instead of us teaching them to do so. Over the last 8 years I have solidified what I want my dojo to be. The next few paragraphs will explain a few things about my dojo, as well as me, as to what I want in our Karate training.
In my dojo I do not care what religion a person is. I am a Christian but I do not judge others on what they believe. We are in the dojo to share in the journey of training in Karate, not get into religious debates or push what I believe on my students. I am here to teach them Karate and that is what I do. I have trained Christians, Jewish, Atheist, Hindus and more…all the same. To me the dojo is an area where we all share a combined interest, to learn the art of Karate, so that is the focus.
Students in my dojo come from all walks of life. Some are poor, some are wealthy. Some are introvert and others extrovert. Some are young, some are old. None of the labels placed on people in modern society exist in my dojo at any time. My students always laugh as I refer to myself as the “ultimate Karate nerd” in the dojo. I don’t mind being called something because it has no true reflection on who I am, how I teach Karate or what I am here to do in my dojo. In my dojo everyone works with everyone. I don’t allow people to pick favorites or just train with their buddies. We are all here to train, together, so that it is how it will always be. It is also true that I have students who pay me what they can, when they can. Long ago I learned that I need to charge adequately to provide a nice dojo to my students but I also swore that I would never turn away a good student. When a student is struggling financially but is very dedicated to their Karate I make it a point to help them out. They don’t get to train for free because I have plenty of projects, cleaning and other things they will do in the dojo but I will not turn away a dedicated student just because they are not financially blessed.
Everything, and I mean everything, is earned in my dojo. No one demands respect. They earn it from the Sensei by working hard, being dedicated and improving in their Karate. No one gets a belt they don’t deserve and you cannot buy rank from me. Every test is a true test…which is a major feat in today’s “you’re kid is great here’s a new belt for $50” economy. We train the students, teaching them what they need to know, but they TRAIN it. We have a program where they must get curriculum signed off to complete their belt progress chart. We will not sign off on anything if they can’t perform it to the next level of belt they are going for, nor if they make a lot of mistakes. No one gets special treatment in my dojo…including the black belts. I actually expect more from my black belts than I do my lower rank students.
In terms of competition, well I enjoy competing but I don’t force it down my student’s throats. We compete in tournaments, and we do well, but we focus on Okinawan Karate in my dojo, not trophies. I have competed all over the USA and internationally in my journey which has given me insights into what competitive Karate is and, as one of most famous Sensei in the world once stated, “Karate competition is good for the student but it should not take up more than 10% at most in their training” (Fumio Demura Sensei). I teach my students that tournaments are a testing ground to improve one’s skills. The trophies are not the goal. 1st place is not the goal. Improving your understanding of your Karate is the goal…nothing more. We go to a tournament at least once a month and it always amazes me that my students who do compete progress a bit faster because their skill, understanding and ability seems to grow quicker due to the environment at events but I don’t give competing students in my dojo any perks or special treatment at any time…regardless of the number of titles or trophies they may win. I have lost some students over this but I am fine with that. If all one cares about is winning a trophy then they have lost the true purpose of training as I see it.
Finally I take very good care of my dojos. They are clean, safe and maintained. I do this because I am proud of my hard work to build them and want my students to see this. I have been to a lot of dojo over the years and seen many that were just nasty. My first few dojo were not very well taken care of. They stunk, there was stuff laying around all the time but today that is not the case. I want my students to be very proud of the dojo they train in and if I don’t show that pride by making them beautiful and clean then I have failed that aspect of our training.
It is amazing to think of the small, humble place I began teaching back in 1991 and where I am today but one thing is for certain…I’ve learned just as much about teaching Karate from every single student that has walked through my doors as I ever did from being the Sensei heading up the class as well as my own training with my Sensei. I also know that I have been very blessed to be able to do what I do for a living so I will not squander that blessing. I may not be wealthy or rich but I know, in my heart, that I am teaching the best Karate available and helping people…to me that is priceless.
Shorin Ryu Shorinkan