Sunday, November 25, 2007

Alpha dogs, Sempai, and psychology

I wonder how much of our inner subconscious might be influenced by our animal selves without our knowing it. I once compared the sempai of a dojo to the lead dogs of a sled dog team during one of my blog postings, I'm surprised at how this comparison is seeming to become more and more valid as I experience training in Martial Arts.

A dojo class seems to flow by the effort, and example of the higher belts with the lower kyu ranks taking example from what is happening among the senior students.

In this posting I will attempt to study about the Alpha dog position, how it is established, and it's importance, and attempt to compare it with Sensei/Sempai positions in the dojo.

Using a website dedicated to learning how to control a pet dog, I have found these guidelines for establishing human "lead dog" position.

1. Never tolerate growling. This is a threat and it means your dog sees you as a subordinate meant to be dominated by him.

In the dojo, I have noticed that "growling", or territorial behaviour is not tolerated either. A Sensei will not accept defiance from his/her students. It will be addressed, and usually compliance will be demanded and expected to establish the student/teacher roles, or the student will be asked to leave the group. Allowing a student to defy, reject, or correct the commands of the leader, whether it is a lead belt or an instructor, creates confusion in the mind as to whom is in charge.

2.Do not let your dog walk through the door first.

It has been my experience that the Sensei, and higher belt's position is naturally respected when entering, or exiting the dojo. I have seen a whole group of karate students stand, and wait patiently for their Sensei to enter the room first, or to serve himself first at the buffet table. This was done without verbal communication between us. We just all pulled aside to show respect for the rank of that person. When Sensei enters the room ( in a traditional dojo) all students stop what they are doing, and greet him/her by bowing, and saying "Osu". This tradition might be extremely important in keeping the "animal" part of us aware of which person is leader.

3.Do not let your dog sleep in the same bed as you. This is a definite Alpha position.

O.K... This is a strange comparison, but I'm seeing it as not allowing yourself as a Sensei to become too friendly with your students during class to the point where the role of teacher/student becomes hazy. To be able to teach, the student has to see value in what you have to offer. You cannot do this by being their best buddy, especially when you need to challenge them and expand what they believe is their limitations. At this point, they need a coach, and a motivator, not a friend.

4. Socialize, socialize, socialize. I cannot stress enough the importance of introducing your dog to different places and people.

I have noticed that really effective Sensei bring a feeling of "what is he/she going to do next?" to the class. The students are always being challenged to learn, and improve in various ways even with the same techniques being studied. Tournaments, seminars, and other events have always been a high point for me as a student as I was able to see what other dojo students do, and how other Sensei teach, and I have found that I appreciate my own Sensei even more.

5. Do not baby your dog too much. He needs to learn to be a dog. Do not over-protect him. He needs to explore and learn to be independent. You do not want to raise a flighty, paranoid dog. When he acts afraid of something that he should not be afraid of, do not pick him up and ooh and ahh over him. Simply tell him it is okay, and show him the object, person, etc. Your confidence will make him a confident and dependable dog. If you feed his imaginary fears, he will become a snappy and untrustworthy dog. He may develop fear aggression.

If we apply this to karate, we can see the co-relation. It is important to respect the level of each person's training when correcting as a Sensei/ Sempai. The student has to explore, experience, and learn to be independent. It is important to guide them into a better expression of their karate, but also, the Sensei has to know when to allow the student to struggle with a concept. Also, Sempai are very important in this respect. They need to be sensitive to understanding the things that the Sensei has asked the lower kyu students to work upon, and to not place more expectations upon others. For example, perhaps the Sensei has asked the lower kyu students to work upon their stances, and to focus on the position of their feet. It would be more helpful for the Sempai to reinforce this expectation, than to change direction and to insist that the student's punch be more centered. A Sempai, like a lead dog of a sled dog team, has to be intuitive to the desires expressed by the Sensei, and to put forth effort running in that direction. They help remind the other students, by their own energy, and behaviour, that the Sensei wants the focus to be on good stances right now. There should only be one leader of that class, and then the higher belts support the direction of the commands being offered. How many times have I turned my head to look at the higher belts to see what was expected from me when I was learning as a white belt? Countless number of times. If the higher belts were confused as to the commands, then I knew that there was no hope that I'd be able to make anything up.

Also, a Sensei needs to feel out the emotional level of their students, and to work within that environment to create confidence to replace interior imagined fears of failure, rejection, and abandonment. Helping the student to realize that the thing that they are fearing is not as immovable, nor as impossible as they picture, the Sensei changes the student's perspective to bring them to a state where they see this as a challenge, and an opportunity rather than an impossibility.

Truly, I can see that our baser animal driven part of our brains does influence some of our behaviour, but that we are more than capable of accepting this, and even using it to our advantage. In fact, I believe that all of the traditional dojo etiquette has been designed to meet the needs of our animal selves, and to establish an environment wherein we can work together as a team with a leader.

(Quoted material comes from Written by
Dawn Littlefield
Littlefield Kennels


Sarah said...

Truly excellent post. I agree with everything. Haven't you seen how well a sled dog team works together? I enjoyed reading this. :)

supergroup7 said...

Thanks for the kind words, Sarah. :-)

Colin Wee said...

That model doesn't work for my dojo, Mir.

But, yes. It is accurate.


supergroup7 said...

How is your dojo different, Colin?

Colin Wee said...

Think of my dojo as more ... relaxed. My students don't have to follow me if they don't want to. Colin

Colin Wee said...

But the reality is that they are really excited to follow me. Colin

supergroup7 said...

Colin, perhaps you are so good at taking leadership position that your students just naturally feel comfortable at following your lead. There is no need for you to "assert" dominance because everything just falls into place, so you can relax, and just guide the others.

I've felt that kind of moment more than once in my life. Those school teachers that just walk into the room, and all of the kids just instantly fall into line. It's like they give off a calm, controlled energy that tells you that things will be great if everyone works together.

Silverstar said...

Very interesting comparison between canine behavior and culture of a dojo. I volunteer with dogs and am learning training techniques.:)

supergroup7 said...

Please tell me, Silverstar, if you see some similarities between your experiences volunteering with dogs, and your dojo. It would be interesting to see if my comparison works.

Sarah said...

I think that Colin and you are very right about those points. I think that that is also a key thing about a good dojo. That it's not exactly dominance being asserted - though I have seen that happen a few times - but more often then not it is a relaxed, easy leadership - but still leadership. No one challenges the leader (Sensei) because why would they want to? They want to learn from them, and its a respect rather than a dominance. But it works out much the same way, doesn't it? I guess if it were a true dominance/alpha-dog model, the dojo wouldn't be as FUN though. Regardless, the students follow the leader, the class responds eagerly and respectfully, and it works together for the good of all. The behaviors you pointed out - entering and exiting the dojo, nuturing students properly - all of these things happen naturally from respect. No one would dream of disrespecting, but from admiration rather than fear. But, like I said, the effect is much the same as a sled dog team - everything ends up flowing together seemlessly if it's done right. Excellent points, all.

supergroup7 said...

Thanks for that added comment Sarah. I think that most people enter a dojo already respecting the Sensei, and almost "fearing" his/her disapproval. I guess that "fear" isn't the right word for it. I think that it's more like anxiety of not meeting the expectations. I've noticed that the first three months of a karate ka's experience as a white belt is to become aware that they can do this activity.

There are some students, however, that come into a dojo with an all-knowing attitude. They seem to reject the idea that they need to pay attention, and learn from the teacher. I find that the youth have much of this kind of focus. Perhaps a "domineering environment" works best with youth?

Sarah said...

Oh, great point. I still 'fear' my Sensei's disapproval. Even at the black belt level - perhaps moreso, I wouldn't know - they fear disappointing their teacher. I know my Sempai's worry just as much as I do about showing things to Sensei. They get just as upset - well, kind of, just in a different way - when they make a mistake. Any new dojo I've been to - I enter with respect and, like you said, fear. Respect because of the years of training the instructor has, and the type of person they are - I'm sure 'bad' teachers exist, but my Sensei's have always been true character models. I will work as hard as possible to meet their expectations and do what I can - like a dog, getting a compliment makes my day, and if you tell me enough, I might stop peeing on the rug. :) You might have to tell me a few times, I'm a slow learner.
And as far as the youth classes go - I think you might be right. I've only seen a few kids classes, but we did have a few young kids in our dojo - and sometimes the growling had to be reasoned with - or at least the energy dampened. But yeah. My last note, I promise! :D Well, unless you write something interesting again.

Silverstar said...

I definitely see some similarities between the two environments, supergroup. (Though my "status" is slightly different in the two contexts) At the shelter, I work hard to try and get the dogs to accept their new "subordinate" position and try to undo any bad habits that they may have acquired.
Likewise in the dojo, the hierarchy with the Head and Chief Instructors at the top is usually respected. (If not, those guilty are encouraged to leave as you mentioned)