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Becoming a Karate Sensei

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

By: Sensei Lily Tomasic

My own journey with karate has involved many different facets of the sport.

It’s more than just exercising. It’s a lifestyle.

A tradition to maintain, and a discipline to commit to.

Personally, I have had over 10 years of Tournaments, Gradings, and most recently, teaching.

Starting at age 16, I started teaching classes on my own.

Before that, I had been deshi-ing. 

Our deshi program at the Missouri Karate Association, takes aspiring kids and puts them in leadership positions.

At first, it is leading katas or being sensei’s punching bag. :-)

Even at this beginning level, students are able to start developing what to look for and what the correct technique looks and feels like.

Once they become more experienced, they get to help correct kata and are asked questions about another student’s kata.

With these questions, they have to be paying attention and developing the eye of what to look for when correcting others. These levels can start usually at green and purple belt.

Looking towards brown belt, students need to be able to understand body dynamics and good stances.

Observing others, they can see what looks right versus wrong.

What do they want to see in other students?  How does the body work, or not work?

It’s just like developing an artist’s eye.

Additionally, being given the opportunity to have that opinion, that voice is empowering to students.

Now, instead of just having to sit and watch, (which is very boring to any fourth grader) they are actively looking for good and bad things, and then conveying back what they see.

Validation, included. 

There are many students that burn out around 5th kyu (Purple Belt) just because they are older and a higher rank than the majority of the class, and it’s boring to do the same thing.

Starting to teach kids what to look for, is a new way to engage them, and make them aware of the basic concepts, even if they don’t quite get it. 

Although telling them that “Some of the things that you see you need to work on too,'' they don’t quite get it until brown belt.

However, upon achieving 3rd kyu (Brown Belt), students are being forced to really work on body dynamics and using their bodies efficiently.

By seeing their peers being able to do these things (or unable), they can be conscious of their own techniques and start applying it for themselves.

Given this opportunity they get to explore new katas with new techniques, movements.

They have to learn to use their bodies to create power, and adapt to these new ideas. Knowing what not to do is a great building block to work off of. 

Once students officially start deshi-ing, it becomes a matter of balancing what to help the teacher with, and what to do with the students.

Sometimes it will be leading the katas or Kihon, or sometimes it is checking the posture of the younger students.

It’s really up to the Sensei, and it should be the Sensei to chose what that particular deshi should do.

There are some kids that know what to look for and how to fix it.

However, there are also others that will just manhandle a kid: moving his feet, pushing back and forth to “check their stance”, but not really knowing how much pressure is needed to check proper stances.

An easy thing for deshis to do is planning and organizing the warm-ups.

It’s a start for learning to control a large group of kids and balancing that role between the other student’s peers versus their teachers. 

That’s a hard gap to cross too.

Even attending the adult classes rather than the other kids classes, there will still be that difference between having authority versus just being with friends.

That is something that aspiring student teachers need to accomplish to keep some semblance of order in class.

In my personal experience, it was much harder at the beginning to teach the more advanced kids.

While I hadn’t trained with them for a long time, however, even when I was the deshi for those classes, I had maintained that peer relationship with students. Rather than taking the more superior role, causing more disorder when I was trying to actually teach.

Starting with leading warm ups is the first step to learning how to teach a class. It makes the deshi assert their authority, as well as planning what to do. 

Once students start teaching, which should be much after they earn their 1st dan (black belt) they are almost thrown into the deep end.

While they had gotten experience as a deshi, it is still a large jump between deshi and sensei.

Yet for students, it’s a needed jump to take training to a higher level.

When I started teaching, I wasn’t quite sure of what I wanted to teach and was really just grateful for when grading came around, because I knew what I could work on with the kids.

As I got further into it, however, I became much more aware of how to get through to the younger kids and how to keep them engaged.

Also because I needed to find other ways to talk to the kids, I ended up finding new ways to use my own body.

Where to engage hamstrings and how much, as well as posture and the importance of it. 

Through the deshi program, students are able to learn more about their own karate as well as gain confidence and control in their own techniques.

By observing other students, both younger and older, they are able to take in more information and thus what to transfer into their own karate.

Being put in a position of power forces students take responsibility of their own training.


Sensei Lily Tomasic currently teaches once a week at the Missouri Karate Association. Shes has been training for over 10 years and has competed and placed in multiple National Competitions. She received her Adult Black Belt from Sensei Toru Shimoji.

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