Hai, Sensei!

“Geez, won’t somebody tell that kid to be quiet?” Almost a decade ago now, I sat watching my six-year -old’s karate class thinking this about a junior brown belt who kept shouting “Hai Sensei” every five seconds while the Sensei spoke. Now a student myself, and a little less ignorant, I understand the power and importance these two little words hold.

Meant to reflect respectful acknowledgement of the teacher’s statements, students respond “hai Sensei” during group announcements, individual instruction, and private conversations. Proper protocol in the dojo reinforces accepted and expected ways to show one’s respect to others with the goal of having such respect become an important part of one’s character. The danger, and subject of this blog, is the remarkably ironic and massively disrespectful phenomena that occurs when expectations, and not one’s developing belief system, drive adherence to protocol.

Huh? Consider an example. As I practiced a bo (staff) technique a few months ago, I caught the tip of my bo on an overhead steel I-beam that runs the length of our dojo. Given that structural steel tends to have a more solid block than my typical opponent, the sudden and complete deceleration of my bo caused me to lose my grip and drop it. Clank! Every member of our dojo knows the sound of a dropped weapon and its consequences — twenty-five push-ups on the knuckles (regular pushups for youth). I dropped and did them. I did not complain. I did not make excuses. I did not ask for a free pass. I just did them. Own your actions, accept the consequences, learn from the experience, and move on. I expect this approach of myself. Some days I am more successful than others.

A few weeks later, a youth student dropped a sai while practicing. At the end of class, the Sensei asked the student if he had done his pushups. Out it came – “hai, Sensei!” The problem – he hadn’t. Our Sensei used the event like any other. He made it a positive learning experience through a quiet discussion with the student about honesty and integrity. The student erred, not in failing to do the pushups, but in being untruthful.

Lessons in the importance of sincerity in “hai Sensei” are often more subtle. For example, partner exercises usually involve our Sensei moving around the dojo and offering individualized corrections while the students practice technique in pairs. Through my training in karate-do, I have developed a much healthier view of correction as a gift representing respect a teacher shows by valuing my development and sharing his or her knowledge. Reframing failing as a natural part of learning makes accepting criticism a much more positive experience. Several years ago, my partner and I were practicing a particular kick -block and grab technique. Wham – great block … whoops – epic fail in trying to capture the leg. As our Sensei wandered by, he suggested a more circular, scooping block. Even though he moved on, I signaled my acknowledgement and understanding with a loud “hai Sensei.” I prepared for the next attack. Our Sensei, now actively engaged helping another student, stood several feet away with his back to me. The attacker’s kick came and, one scooping motion block later, I effortlessly blocked the kick and controlled the leg. With his back still to me, Sensei reacted with an enthusiastic, “See Shawn! Good job!” Our Sensei simultaneously helped another student AND monitored my progress in one of the dojo mirrors.

The moral of the story here is not that I accepted feedback, implemented it, and experienced success (although that is a good moral). The moral of the story lies in backing up one’s words with actions. Whether the Sensei, your boss, your school teacher, your spouse, or whoever is there to witness your actions, to strive to be a person of your word is an admirable pursuit in character development. In the dojo, EVERY TIME you declare “hai Sensei” to acknowledge that you heard and understood feedback, you need to mean it as a commitment to, and respect towards, your teacher and yourself. Imagine the monumental disrespect shown in acknowledging your Sensei’s feedback and then ignoring it completely. To say the words without the accompanying resolve is the definition of lip service. Repeated engagement in lip service makes it a habit. Habits come to define who we are.

What?! Think about it. EVERY TIME you respond “hai Sensei,” you not only are saying “yes I heard you and think I understand” but you are also saying “I will do my best to improve myself through the knowledge being shared.” Listen, acknowledge, try, fail, try again – completely acceptable. Listen, think you understand, try, fail, realize you do not understand, ask for clarification – undeniably honorable. Character is developed and shown in the process not the result. Every time you wholeheartedly attempt what you have said you would do, you reinforce that behavior as something important to you. Repeatedly attempting to do what you have agreed to try to do makes it a habit. Habits come to define who we are.

Hmm … Who knew that a two word phrase could be so important in development of who we are? I imagine our Sensei did.

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