The following is an essay I created for a scholarship during my graduate career conveying an experience I had with mentorship. I related my first real experience with a shodan candidate and the process I underwent to best prepare the candidate for the test.
Mentoring can occur in almost any situation, be it professional or recreational. For me, the opportunity to mentor someone else appears in what would be considered my personal development time. When I am not working or researching the next paper for college, I train and assist teaching in the Japanese martial arts of aikido and judo. Both of these arts are empty hand, grappling-based arts, where joint locks, pins, throws, and falling/rolling are commonplace and, at times, require nuanced timing and feeling of movements and the energy that surrounds the techniques. While it takes a short time to understand the basic movements and simple techniques of each art, becoming proficient in stringing those movements and techniques together while maintaining proper posture, balance, and center is a difficult hurdle to overcome. It is a challenging pursuit that requires as much focus as it does self awareness.
Therefore, my role as an assistant instructor is to help break down and/or further explain what the head/lead instructor taught and discussed in the short lessons throughout the class period. My actions may include clarifying a specific point, provide the student(s) a different way to physically and/or mentally perform or think about the movement, technique, or principle, as well, offer the students a chance to perform the technique in question on me for further understanding and experience. These actions are related to what the Japanese call the senpai-kohai connection, or the senior student-junior student relationship. In this type of relationship, while the head/lead instructor provides the content and outline of the class’ lesson, the senior students are the ones who disseminate the information to the junior students in a one-on-one capacity, helping them understand and implement what the instructor demonstrated and discussed. In Japanese culture and tradition, the relationship is vital not only for the information to be better grasped by both sempai and kohai, but it also lends itself to both the legacy and the longevity of the art.
One of the major methods of taking part in the senpai-kohai relationship is assisting a candidate in preparing for their rank examination and demonstration. While the lead instructor may review the testing requirements for the testee sporadically in class, it is the senior student who generally works with the candidate to study the prerequisites. In the many instances I assisted junior students in their exam preparation, I have a special affinity for the experience with one shodan (first degree black belt) candidate. She had been training with us for a number of years, and it was a joyous occasion to have someone test for black belt, especially someone who knew everyone at the studio. To help prepare for her test, we would stay later after every class, drilling various testing requirements and other principles while discussing various points or issues she may have had with different facets of the techniques and principal philosophies. These practice sessions provided an opportunity for both of us to learn and grow as we worked together for a common goal. In these extracurricular training sessions with the testing candidate, I shared advice and different ways of performing technique based on my experience. Though shodan is the first “black belt” rank, it is also considered the beginning of a new way of thinking and performing the art.
With my advice and suggestions, we would sometimes go back and forth until an explanation was achieved that would best assist her in better understanding and answering her questions adequately. From these sessions, I began to piece together my personal training, and construct and convey my own explanations parallel to what I had been taught and based on my understanding into shorter and simpler pieces of information. While a certain level of complexity may make sense to me, a similar statement often times does not help another practitioner or student in the same way. It was a slow process on my part, but I soon found my own voice to share knowledge and experience with others.
Moreover, I slowly began to understand how I performed the techniques and why I did the things I did. It was surprising to see how many inconsistencies I had, but it was equally surprising to see how much I did do that was effective. From her inquiries, I began to compile a mental list of what I was doing with specific movements and charged myself to fixing them. While I was mentoring and assisting this testing candidate, I was ultimately working at bettering myself. At the end of the testing preparation, the shodan candidate went on to take her exam and passed after a rigorous hour and a half of demonstrating her knowledge of the curriculum up to that level. During our last session, I was nervous about how she would perform at the exam, not because I did not have confidence in her, but rather, I was concerned that I may have not done enough in my role to prepare her. I felt responsible, as this was my first time truly mentoring someone in this capacity for an exam. As the senpai-kohai relationship is regarded a sacred connection, I did not want to jeopardize it in any way as well as any possible similar relationships in the future.
When she passed, I felt proud of her and of myself. I gained a level of confidence I otherwise might not have achieved; it was a reassurance to me that both my training and my time were not in vain. It also made me realize that I do have something to offer; I knew the information and curriculum well enough to assist another for shodan. In the time that has followed, I have had multiple opportunities to work with a number of individuals helping them on their journey as well. In turn, my confidence and abilities have also grown. We often find that by helping others, we are helping ourselves. Helping and, therefore, mentoring is for the betterment of all.