Damian Ross with David Ellis, Carl Cestari and Yoshisada Yonezuka

When I first started martial arts, the term “sensei” had a mystique and a reverence that was held in the highest esteem…but for all the wrong reasons.

When I was a kid a sensei was someone who could “do anything”, had all the answers and was never…ever wrong. I was young, impressionable and thanks to the movies and Bruce Lee – I thought to earn a black belt meant you had super-human powers.

I later came to realize that “sensei” meant something completely different and much more than just physical abilities. .

In Japanese, sensei simply means “teacher” and it’s used the same way we use it here in the U.S.  A sensei, or a teacher is someone who knows a little bit about something you don’t. The term literally means  “born before”. Now that doesn’t mean older…it just means they started something before you did or they were “born” in the endeavor before you were.

But in the martial arts…it does mean something more.

Traditionally in Japanese Martial arts, you’re not officially a “sensei” until you’re a 4th degree black belt, which is several years after your shodan promotion. Typically your first 3 blackbelt degrees are competition years spent focused on the physical. You’re fighting and training until, well you can’t or don’t want to any more. After you’re done being physical, now it’s time to start teaching…to start giving back, and that’s what those advanced black belt degrees are all about.

So by the time you’re a 4th degree, you’ve gone through some stuff. Not just on the tatami, but in life. You’re older, you’ve lived a bit and with that you should have gained some perspective and understanding. This is not an accident. As a teacher you need this to be seasoning to be patient and calm.

When I was younger and still competing – it was hard for me to understand why someone would not want to be the best. My thought was “why bother” if you’re only doing it half way. Later I came to realize that most people want more than trophies and titles and that the competition years are but a brief moment in time. The rest of your life is spent dealing with loss, change, injury, success and failure.

At some point realize that someone missing class or quitting…isn’t such a big deal…in fact it’s no deal at all because they’re not you and you’re not them. You understand that everyone has problems and different ways of dealing. Their experience isn’t your experience. And that’s OK. It’s all OK – all of the time.

As a sensei you’re not all knowing – you’re all understanding. You’re not super-human, only super-compassionate and you don’t have all the answers, but you know how to start the process to find the answers.

You are a sensei is when your life experience exceeds your physical skill. 

My Judo Sensei Yoshisada Yoneuka was cool. After I congratulated him on his 9th degree promotion he said, “Yes, that’s because they think I’m going to die soon.”

Train Honestly,


Published by theselfdefenseco

Founder, The Self Defense Company

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  1. Great comments Damian. The main reason why I became an instructor with SDC is to give back, and SDC is the best opportunity for me to do that in the world of self defense training.

  2. Spot on, on point, e, all of the above, in a Nutshell! Thank you Sensei.
    Except I’m 67, so I’m Sensei to you…. “To have gone before”…..
    This post is one of your best! Thank you for bringing out the simple Truth in a precise, succinct way.
    You are a Sensei!

  3. You’ve made some excellent points about the business *training, competition, hurt, etc.) and ART (All Respected Teacher) of life.

  4. Let’s see. I just turned 70. That makes me . . .?

    Every time I speak to High School seniors I talk about black belts. In The US, “Black Belt” means “expert.” I was taught by my Senseis that it meant “student.” I told the graduates they have spent 12 years learning the basics. Now they can read, write, do math problems, know about people, know a language or more than one, have skills, and now, not earlier, they are equipt to BEGIN learning, The high school diploma is not a”goal” per se. It is not a laurel meant to be rested upon. It is a way- stop toward being whatever you want to be.

    I am still a student. My 36+ years as LEO don’t make me an “expert.” My years of martial arts and actual combat don’t make me an “expert.” My years as a teacher or a preacher don’t make me an “expert.” My various degrees don’t make me an “expert.” Recently, someone on the 3+ message board was impressed by one of our “senseis” still learning different combatives. The true “experts” are those that will never rest or stop learning. The experts are the ones that are still students. Thank you, Sensei One and Sensei Two for being true experts. My friends and I could not be here if you had forgotten to keep driving forward. -shine-

    1. Excellent response Mr. Neal. There is always another step to take. It’s why I call myself a student/teacher. Quite often I learn more from my students than they do from me at leadership that’s how it feels….. ~The mind is like a parachute, it only works when it’s open~ Thank you for your words of Wisdom Mr. Neal and Mr. Ross. Respect…..

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