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The Dojo Ghosts We Need

A friend of mine graduated high school with grades that were faultless. Perfect scores, perfect attendance, and scholarships to boot. We entered university together at the same time and he flunked out.

In our rather small high school, his modest, quiet, and introverted demeanor didn’t matter. The teacher-to-student ratio was such that he didn’t need to ask for help or look for direction: it was offered automatically. They understood his way of learning and taught him at his own level.

Reese accepts her Green Belt from Sensei Barry and Brian Power

In university, he became a victim of his own quietness. Classes were large and intimidating. The thought was that the strong survived and the modest didn’t have what it took to make it.

What happens to individuals like my friend who enter the Karate dojo?

To simplify it, I believe we get three types of individuals taking up karate: the extrovert who is seen and heard plenty in every class; the quietly confident who chooses a place and time to ask questions or for help, and then there are the ghosts – those who come and go without wanting to draw attention to themselves.

The ghosts can be easily missed.

Once in a while at Power Karate, the conversation comes around to the ghosts, and I think this conversation is one of the most important we have as Dojo leaders. As extra Sensei or Senpai, we sometimes watch the class from a different perspective and identify those who may need a helping hand – knowing they may not ask.

It is a reminder to all of us that we can get caught up in reigning in the over-confident and addressing the issues of the quietly confident. We can unintentionally overlook those who prefer to fly under the radar.

Reese is a young practitioner who would rather not bring attention to herself or to her karate. Reese is good – really good, but she probably isn’t going to ask for clarification on a kata technique or for help with her kihon. She is super respectful and knows Dojo etiquette and is a pleasure to teach. She quietly listens intently, and in her own way applies what she is hearing. She typically finds a spot at the rear of the class or toward a corner in an attempt not to stand out too much.

Sensei Power asked me to do some work with the green belts Weds evening and Reese was among them. Even in that smaller group, she was able to ask questions about Heian Yondan and demonstrate her translation of the movements. Her comfort level of learning is to demonstrate a movement and then ask if it is right – but only in the right setting. In the session with Reese and two others, I was reminded of her positive energy and her desire to get even better.

Our approach with students like Reese is not only important in karate terms, I believe, but also in terms of building out her confidence. My father put me in Karate at the age of 12 because I wasn’t bold, and he didn’t want me to get lost in the shadows. The intention is not to change personalities, but rather to help individuals come into their own. Sometimes you'd never reach the top shelf without a hand up.

Toren accepts his Brown Belt from Sensei Barry and Brian Power

Toren – a brown belt - is quietly confident. He is funny in his own way and brings with him the kind of energy that every Dojo needs. When working with him, it’s impossible not to enjoy teaching Karate. He shows up to train and, though he is growing like a weed, is doing an excellent job of developing Kime and body connection. Toren will pick his opportunity to ask for assistance, and even though his karate is solid and strong, he sometimes needs a little prodding to demonstrate his skills. A good teaching method for Toren seems to be verbal and tactile feedback. Sensei Power often pulls him up to help demonstrate a partner drill or to introduce a new technique.

I think that as part of Karate’s evolution, teaching is changing. I think we are learning that if Karate is to be in the best interest of everyone, we must meet individuals at their level. Thank god we have gotten past the old thinking that you drill everyone up and down the floor until the strong ones rise to the top and the others fall away. It took us a painfully long time to get rid of the discriminative ‘one size fits all’ mentality. No, we can't overlook the eager ones to drag the less-eager ones along, but we need to establish a training atmosphere where we learn by association, and where everyone helps.

The students in our Dojo may never need to apply their karate on the street, but inversely, they must interact with people, face challenges, and find strength within themselves, every single day. Karate should be a vehicle for inner confidence that we encourage in every type of person that walks through the Dojos doors.

Dojos that put time and effort into meeting every individual at their own level are reaching into the heart of what Budo is, I believe. It takes a lot more time and effort, but like Power Karate, if you teach as a team, it all gets done.

When we put the time in to help students who are reluctant or shy, we help them shine. There’s no intention to change who they are as individuals, but there should be one to help them stand apart from the shadows. A talent unseen is a talent lost.

A Dojo is a community where everyone has a place, a value, and something to teach the rest of us. We just need to make sure we step back occasionally and see a group of individuals, not just a class of karate students.

What’s in it for us as teachers? Personally, I am a better teacher because I’ve gotten to work with Toren and Reese, and the Dojo is a better place because we have them.

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