No Master


One of my students who comes to the class also trains in kick-boxing 3 times a week. It’s how she found the class actually; the kick-boxing takes place in the same dojo. After a few sessions, she asked if she should refer to me as ‘sensei’. This is a Japanese term which basically means ‘teacher’ and is the title they use to address the instructor of her kick-boxing class. Sensei is also a word often translated in the martial arts world as ‘master’.

After shuddering at the thought of having the guys all bow to me and call me sensei or Master Sharif, I explained my thoughts on the subject…

To refer to somebody in such a way basically implies that this person is the best at what the group are doing as a whole. And so within a sports or tradition-based martial art, this is actually quite plausible. The idea is that the person teaching could beat any of his students within the context of what they do; kick-boxing, tournament karate, muay thai, judo or whatever. This is usually provable by their background in tournament fighting which is supported by belts and trophies and the like.

This does not and can not apply to what we do, however. When you lift constricting rules and regulations that govern how one should win at a particular ‘art’ or sport, you are left with an almost unlimited amount of factors that will determine ‘who would win’. And by winning, what we are basically talking about is some form of physical domination of another person (an attacker in our case).

The only physical way to end a physically violent assault is by using a greater level of violence. And bearing in mind that there are no rules for the type of ‘fight’ that we are training for, this greater amount of violence could come in any form.

We have a guy in our class who is 6’4” and naturally as strong as an ox. I often use him as an example of how the size, weight and strength of an attacker can make the job of defending that much more difficult. I will often point out while demonstrating a particular technique that its effects may be diminished or even rendered useless by this man’s physicality alone. Simply put, I make no bones about the fact that if this student of mine one day decided he didn’t like me, there’s a good chance he could physically dominate me quite easily.

I’ve also got students who have experienced various forms of violence that I have not. After all, it’s not like I’m the ex street fighting champion of North London. And so, how could I ever seriously look these people in the eye while they bow to me or call me sensei?

The day I think of myself as a master (of anything) is the day I stop learning. And if I stop learning, I stop growing. And in nature when something is not in a state of growth, it is in fact dying.

At this point I’m a just normal person who has seen and experienced a certain amount of violence, human aggression and threat and have invested a hell of a lot of time and effort into researching and training defensive techniques, tactics and strategies based on those experiences (and the experiences of others too – instructors who have trodden this path long before I stepped onto it)

I feel this puts me in a position to teach, so long as I am always completely honest in the way that I teach and the way that I continue to learn/train myself… I’m certainly no master!