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  • Writer's pictureMatt Powell

Sweet Powerline .. To Lead or to Guide?

I wonder if anyone ever starts Karate because they wish to become a Sensei?

When I started karate as a child it was certainly not my goal. Nor was it when I returned aged 21 after a seven year ‘break’. I quite simply wanted to train, learn, improve, and develop.

Yet here I am in the year 2021, the lead Sensei of our club since my inauguration in 2009.

How did that happen?

As a child my teacher would often encourage me to help new starters or junior students. But I cannot remember aspiring to be ‘THE’ teacher myself, in fact I started teaching formally by accident.

When I was at University I used to train in the junior classes as well as the Adult classes, as I had to work on Wednesday evenings. One Friday my teacher was held up at a hospital appointment and I was quite simply ‘there’.

Keri the Club Secretary looked at me and I went out the front and started leading the class. From that evening I taught the junior classes twice weekly with and for my teacher for around nine years. This was a fantastic learning experience for me, and I developed my own teaching style and confidence while being trusted with the students of a successful and established dojo.

What a privilege.

As well as being a karate teacher I am also now a Parent, Uncle and Godparent. Children are an important and cherished part of my life.

One of our Niece’s has a particularly strong character and a wicked Sensei of humour. She is three foot tall of ‘funny’. I love her a great deal.

Before lockdown my Mum sent a text message quoting my Niece’s lyrical interpretation of Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond. The video was hilarious and featured the five-year-old passionately belting out….

‘Sweet POWERLINE, bah, bah bah!’

I had a few text exchanges with my Mum commenting on the hilarity of the performance and Mum went on to state that despite everyone’s encouragement, my Niece refused to accept that the lyrics are in fact Sweet Caroline.

She ‘knows what she heard’!

This example of investment in interpretation has stuck with me ever since. It is clear to me that her interpretation is more enjoyable to my Niece than the actual ‘correct’ lyrics. As a karate teacher I see parallels with interpretations in my students and peers.

Many years ago, I remember being on a course studying the advanced kata Gankaku. One of my fellow students on the day questioned a technicality in the kata. The instructor passionately expressed that he was taught a specific detail by Tanaka Sensei at a Special Course at Crystal Palace back in the 1970’s. He was therefore certain he (and the point he was making) were correct. My colleague who had asked the question had trained for a period at the JKA Hombu dojo in Tokyo. He was equally resolute that he had been taught a different emphasis during his stay in Japan and therefore he was certain that he was in fact ‘correct’.

As a Sensei myself I now appreciate how challenging a moment that was for all involved. It was extremely uncomfortable being there at the time. But I can understand why it happened. Both Karate-ka passionately believed they knew ‘the truth’.

I heard a saying recently and it goes something like this.

‘There is your opinion of what happened and then there is theirs. Somewhere in the middle of them both is the truth’.

Everything is about perspective, opinion, interpretation, and point of view. Add to the mix the risk of misunderstanding, misinterpretation or quite simply mishearing and we are all running the risk of a ‘Sweet Powerline’ moment.

I wonder how many of us, students, and teachers alike, have become so invested in our misinterpretations that when corrected we struggle with ‘the truth’. (I hope my wife does not read this as she may pick me up on all the occasions when I have been wrong).

As I developed as a karate student, I craved a voice at our dojo. I felt I had something to offer and the students would really benefit from what I had to say.

I now realise how incredibly arrogant that was.

My teacher was vastly more experienced than me and I had failed to realise that he had been through the same development curve. He was further along the path with his understanding and thought process.

I now realise that what I was actually seeking was an opportunity to perform!

I cringe when I reflect on the arrogance of my youth!

Between Lockdowns I met with one of my mentors and we shared a wonderful four hours catching up and discussing karate. During our chat one point he made stuck with me. He explained that he had come to realise that to be a successful Sensei you had to mix

‘Technical capacity, knowledge, charisma and the ability to perform’.

I think that is the perfect sentence to describe the ideal Sensei, but it is also a daunting aspiration. I have realised that Sensei’s (Like all wise teachers) are not born, they are made. This description and therefore the abilities it describes are formed by experience. LOTS of experience, both good and bad. Successes and Failures alike.

I have written before of my appreciation of the Law of Attraction.

The perception that ‘Like attracts Like!’

With our dojo approaching twelve years old my inspiration for this blog is born from my observations that some of my Senior students exhibit similar characteristics to myself at earlier periods in my career.

I now find myself appreciating how disruptive I must have been at times for my Sensei when I felt I had something to offer to his classes. But equally I am appreciative of where some of my students are coming from. They Care. They want to be involved. They want to help. And often, they want to make me proud or seek my approval.

I get it! I have been there.

The problem is that we tread a tight walk of misinterpretation. The students desire to interject can be misunderstood and equally some training may be confused by what they perceive as a conflicting point or perspective.

When I was solely training in karate, I was very-happy to be Led. But as I started to assist my teachers and then teach in my own right, I increasingly sought guidance. I grew happy to Lead myself.

I was extremely fortunate that my teacher recognised this in me and did not shackle me or undermine my confidence. When I started my own dojo, I did so with his blessing. I now realise that some of my belief that ‘I would create something vastly different’ was naive.

I simply created and grew organically.

Now as my dojo matures, I understand better how my Sensei had to empower me at this time.

He empowered me so I could grow.

Over time he had relinquished the role of leader and instead and guided me forwards. (Often this was more subtle than I realised at the time).

I make no secret of the fact that I love my late Father deeply. He is my Hero. But that said we could not live together in the same house once I became my own man. I once moved briefly home when I was about 28 years old and my house was having central heating installed.

I soon remembered that at Mum and Dads only one person got the remote for the TV and it was not me. (lol 😊).

When I return to my Karate home now I do so happily as a guest and am happy just to be there. I do not seek the limelight. I enjoy being drilled, taught, and ultimately led. When you run your own dojo’s this makes a refreshing change.

Our foremost priority as Martial Artists should be to train!

With all the forced segregation we have experienced over the last year my principle goal on our return is to reunite our karate community. Herein lies my next significant challenge as a Sensei.

Not the navigation of the COVID universe and the return to play stipulations and guidelines.

But more the clear communication of intention, support, and appreciation. Some members need me to be crystal clear and Lead them forward, while others desire a voice and seek my guidance more freely as they develop as senior students and teachers themselves.

The bigger challenge is

when to Lead and when to Guide…… Clear Communication will be key!

But I fear the risk of misinterpretations …….

‘Sweet Powerline….. bah bah bah!’

That one is rather catchy after all…..

See you in the dojo. Osu.

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