“When Should I Leave My Sensei And Start My Own Dojo?”

An e-mail was received.

From a ridiculously handsome man named Gary, with an impeccable taste in blogs.


He wrote:

Jesse-san, first and foremost, I’m a huge fan of this site and I never miss an article because they’re ALL great.

Okay, you can tell right now that this guy is good.

A while back, I asked you what your thoughts were on training with a mirror vs training without, and you came through for me, posting a fantabulous article and putting things into perspective.

Really good.

My latest idea for a good article for you to post has to deal with this: how long should a student train with their sensei before they truly can grasp the concept of the basics, therefore opening up their own martial arts school.

I’m constantly viewing traditional karate school websites and when I go their head sensei’s bio page, a lot of the time I become very confused. Sometimes they’ll skip the part of who their instructor is/was and jump right to the awards, promotions, how long the school has been in business, etc. Okay, getting to the main idea, how long do you think a good, hungry for knowledge, martial artist should train with their instructor before branching off to spread their style?

I would think that in most cases, once somebody opens a school, they would have little or no time to train with their sensei because they’re way too busy focusing on their own school. Me personally, even if the day comes where I do decide to open a school of my own, I will train with my sensei until he’s no longer here. Perhaps the sensei would know best when their student is ready but then again, should their student/teacher relationship end there as far as the physical training?

Maybe I’m looking too much into this and maybe there’s not even a definitive answer. Maybe there’s no right or wrong. Ah, the curse of the minds of us karate nerds 😉

Keep up the GREAT work…… Gary

Okay. You had me at Jesse-san.

(Note: Many people can’t even spell Jess…i?…y?… ie? Needless to say, I can never delete those e-mails fast enough)

First of all, young Gary-san, this is a complicated matter.

Let’s put that on the table.

Cuz I’m about to go all new-agey on your ass.

It’s like: What should you eat for breakfast? When should you brush your teeth? Should you have milk or sugar in your coffee? How many times should you reuse your dirty underwear? These are the sort of questions only you can answer, and if you’re true to yourself, I believe the answer will never be hard.

Because, no matter how much I try, I can’t really smell your underwear through the internet. Sometimes you just gotta do stuff for yourself, and see where it takes you!

Indeed, my underwear probably don’t smell like yours (okay, this analogy is going too far), right?

Yet, general guidelines can always be given, and with the help of those guidelines one can only hope that smart, educated Karate nerds like you lot out there can make the decision on your own.

When are you ready to leave your sensei and do your own thang?

Here’s what I’m thinking.

Look into a mirror.

No, don’t just sit there imagining looking into a mirror. That’s not the idea. Seriously, go and really look into a mirror, and tell me what you see. Or do it the next time you go to the bathroom. The above pic doesn’t count.

Then ask yourself this: Can you look into your eyes and see yourself?

Do you see you?

Not somebody else, not who you want to be, not who you wanted to be, not who you could have been, not who your parents/friends/sensei/girl/boyfriend want you to be, or thinks you are… but… you?

Do you?

If you do, you are lucky.

Because that means you are real.

If you do see your true self in the mirror, then you can set sail in whichever direction you wish. Because you are real. From the heart. Genuine. And everything you do will be recognized precisely because of that.

History has taught us that if it is one thing that’s universally respected in a person, then it is realness. Revolutionaries, pioneers, heroes… villains. No matter what language you speak, job you have, culture you represent or neighborhood you grew up in, realness is there for everyone to see because it shines through in everything you do.

That’s what I’m thinking.

So therefore, I think it’s safe to say that if you feel the need to e-mail a carrot cake loving, Karate nerd blogging, self-centered, comment-moderating-like-the-communist-party jerk like me, for advice on when to leave your sensei and start up something on your own… then you are perhaps not ready.

Does this make sense?

Which isn’t to say that you can’t.

On the contrary, I believe history is full of people who have done exactly that, which has led us to where we are today – both in terms of quality and quantity. Additionally, people keep e-mailing me on what gi to buy, what books to read, what tournaments to go to, what styles to practise and everything else between heaven and earth, so sure, go ahead, you’re not alone in your fear on being on you own.

But until you get that realness, that swagger, you will always have some fear in the back of your mind.

Because in the end it all boils down to that. Fear.

Fear of letting your sensei down, fear of letting your “old” dojo friends down, fear of letting your style down, fear of letting your organization down, fear of letting your family (or other people who are proud/depend on you) down, and last but not least, the fear of letting yourself down.

But here’s the trillion yen question: Are we afraid of heights… or are we really afraid of falling from a great height? Are we afraid of the dark, or are we really afraid of what evil might hide in the darkness? Are we afraid of falling in love, or are we really afraid of being dumped? Are we afraid of sparring, or are we really afraid of getting our nose busted in sparring?

Isn’t it obvious?

“Can I really do it? Will I even get any students? What if they ask me something I don’t know? “What is the history of Karate?” I don’t know! Kobudo? What’s that? I’ll just tell them they are not ready for such things yet! Membership fees, insurances, organizations, bribes (?) paperwork… gaah!”

If you can look into the mirror and see your true self… then nothing will be frightening.

Because everything you do will be from your heart. It will be you, 110%. You, you, you, you and you only. And “you” can never be wrong, unless you are pretending something else. You need to know yourself.

“Whatever”, I hear you going. “Jesse is booooriiiing! Hey, Oprah called, she wants her show back!”

Okay. I am boring. Sorry. So let’s screw what I just wrote. If you read the above, and still think “Truck this, I’m going for that dough, boooy! Realness or not!” then I won’t stand in your way. Be my guest.

Join the rest.

I’ll give you three general pieces of advice instead:

1. Get to the “golden point” before you leave.

In all professions and skills, there’s a certain point you reach after many years of dedicated training. It’s that “magical” point just below that step to becoming an elite practitioner. After this point, you will have to train 5000 times as long and hard, to become 1,5 times better.

And that’s just what the best in the world have done.

But you don’t need to. You’re not aiming for best in the world. Most sensei aren’t. You needn’t.

You’re just aiming for “better than 95% of the random people that stumble into my new dojo.”

So get there.

2. Stuff some theory into that head.

Okay, you can do the 720 dragon flip kick of doom, but can you explain it?

Flashing your skills is not worth much if you can’t convey a message beyond “this hurts like crap” as you turn your newest recruits’ nose bone to mush with the aforementioned kick.

You see, there are people who are great athletes, but can’t explain how they do stuff. Then there are crappy athletes who can teach you some really advanced stuff.

You need to be in between.

In other words, if you can’t explain to me why I need to have my hikite lower or higher, why punching with a horizontal fist is better than a vertical fist, why I need to squeeze together my butt cheeks in sanchin dachi, why I need to look at the ceiling when I lift somebody to toss them, or why I must always keep my heel down in a gyakuzuki… [insert other random Karate gospel here]… and then show me exactly why/what you mean… then you’re not ready.

It’s just so simpo’.

3. Read some books.

If you are a kanchô (dojo head), then you need to know the history of what you teach. The history of Karate. And Okinawa. And Japan. And Kobudo. And the different sensei and styles, how they differ, why they differ, why your style obviously is superior, and…

So read.

Because people will ask.

Oh, and get some DVD’s too while you’re at it. And subscribe to great blogs.

But stay away from online (free) forums. They might just end up taking more energy than they give, and we have no use for that. Lurking is fine though.


And that’s what I could come to think of at the moment.

Leaving your dojo to start up something new is not easy, and especially not if you don’t know why you’re doing it in the first place. I mean, is it for monetary reasons? For personal reasons? Political? A spiritual journey? Why do you need to leave your dojo in the first place?

Are you simply bored?

(If yes, then Hokama sensei has a thing or two to teach you in The Karate Code!)

When you’ve figured that out, the rest will pretty much take care of itself. There’s a time and place for everything.

Sensitive, touchy stuff, indeed.

Perhaps it’s just easier to be real with it.

Confront the mirror tonight.

Good luck Gary-san!


  • Oliver
    Jesse-san, this is my first time replying to your site, but I have been lurking for a while now. I think this article is brilliantly done, and wonderfully informative. Thank you for posting it. I will share it and this site with my dojo mates because, while we do more than Karate (I am the main guy who does Karate at our eclectic school) the subjects you touch in your blog are useful for a variety of styles. Thank you again. Oliver
  • gary
    I am pleased to say that you've come thru for me once again. The reason for the idea of the article wasn't necessarily because I have any current intentions of opening up a school but merely, for those who have done so, I don't want to see traditional styles to eventually turn non traditional because someone felt that they were ready and left a little too early. As you mentioned, if someone can't explain something as minor as why the heel must stay planted during a gyaku tsuki and they're teaching a traditional style, then it does the style no justice and they aren't teaching the true concept and application of the technique. I agree with you 100% with everything you mentioned. I just don't want to see somebody open a school when apparently they're not ready and eventually the style turns in to another McDojo. Sorry if this doesn't make sense. I'm typing on my cell phone on a bus :( Thanks again for sharing your wisdom!!
    • Andrew
      Hey, An illiterate Ju-jutsu Nerd invading the forums here... Just curious; why _do_ you have to plant that heel during gyaku tski?? Power transmission through the entire chain or something else? Genuinely curious.
  • Viking
    Some say love is holding on and some say letting go. Most Karate Sensei believe the former and when you set up your own club club they will probably sulk and ban you.
    • Dojorat
      Starting a dojo does not necessarily imply breaking away from your sensei or style. Neither does it mean you are finished learning. A good sensei must always try to learn more to increase the depth and scope of what he knows. Dan level is also an issue if you consider the level of knowledge a shodan should have in a particular style. In Okinawa and Japan it is virtually impossible to start a dojo unless you have 5th or 6th dan. Elsewhere it is more common for lower ranks to have dojos but in both cases it is usually a branch dojo. Look at all the good dojos in your area and I guarantee that in none of them the sensei has lower than 3rd dan.
  • Szilard
    I would have asked the opposite question: how long can I stall before I obey my sensei and start my own dojo. I am doing it since a long while, and you know there are some blackbelts who could help me, but there are alarming events in the area: I know 4 martial arts workshops that went out of business just last year. And they operated successfully for years. One of them was American Karate with home brew katas, but still, that kind of counts too. Which also means there must be some people who don't get their weekly shot of workout. I don't know, I don't feel ready. If there are 3 other black belts from my dojo in the area to help me, why don't they get in the financial doom of opening a dojo? I will help them...
  • Francis Duguay
    Communist-party-member-swedish-viking-karate/kobudo/History/Anthropology-nerd that you are, I LOVE your blog.
  • Kevin
    Sho-Ha-Ri, nothing more need be said.
  • Sam
    There are a few things you must think about before starting your own dojo. Why am I starting my own dojo? Is it for the organization or style's benefit, or for my own, am I doing something valuable for others or for myself? Do I have enough skill and polish in my art? Do I look like and perform like an excellent representative for my respective style? Can I actually teach well? Do you have experience successfully teaching on the frontlines, have you started to put together your own on the fly class plans and exercises? Can I run my own dojo while recieving continued training? You will always need correction and peer review. It will also strengthen organizational ties between dojos. Do I have enough mental fortitude to run the dojo? Has my life experience prepared me successfully for many varied interpersonal situations? How much help will I have in the beginning? Ideally in addition to yourself being at least a yondan you should have another person who is a capable yudansha who you have trained with ready to help you demonstrate. Do I have enough money or support so as to not wreck myself trying to keep the dojo afloat? Financing is a pain in the arse, and can wreck you mentally and emotionally through sheer stress. It is good to have a large stockpile of cash available, and to not try to finance a huge facility but a small and cozy one. The visual effect of a smaller facility makes it seem like enrollment for your dojo is fine even though there are only maybe 5-10 people showing up every night. The space is more effectively filled in a visual sense, and you can look after the facility better while paying lower costs in order to do so. Now bear in mind I consider myself about 15 years away from even asking permission to open a dojo. But I asked myself these questions based on things I have seen from my 6 year tenure in the martial arts. I have determined that there is no need to rush in trying to open your own dojo and be sensei. Rushed training and plans are sloppy training and plans.
  • Jim Takeda
  • Jim Takeda
    Why would anyone ask? When you ask, you become competition. It is really really silly to think that another person can tell you when it is your time! This is not magical and not a movie! You can simply know the moves and why...YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE AN EXPERT TO TEACH! You do need to know how to teach and I have seen multiple dojos with senseis that can not teach...some are very bad with some of the highest ranking senseis in them! They do not know how to teach. SO, if you think you can handle teaching, go give it a shot. There is NO magic to this and your sensei is just a normal person. Don tget brainwashed about all of this! Also, the rank you have above Shodan is meaningless or carrys little weight. How does anyone know if you got your rank slowly or very fast? As for myself, I was intentionally haeld back by my sensei in rank. He thought he must have the most solid ranking dojo. I was fighting and won nationals agaist our olympian as a brown belt because of him. I finally decided I was through being held back. I did this respectfully and once he knew I was leaving, he banned me and called me disrespectful for leaving. He wanted someone to help him for years to come. Interesting...I found out, he did the same thing with his sensei. So...rank means not much... I shoudl be two ranks above where I am now beacuase of him and not promoting. Go and do your own dojo..Give it a shot... I am a sensei and a teacher.
  • Rico Bloxom
    I like the valuable information you provide in your articles. I’ll bookmark your blog and check again here frequently. I am quite sure I will learn many new stuff right here! Good luck for the next!
  • Ian
    Let me throw the other option out there, too: stay. I don't mean "static", no growth, just another student ... I mean stay with your sensei's dojo, and take on more responsibilities. Let me guess that for most people in this situation, your sensei is going to be a decade or two older than you, and he'd probably love an energetic assistant to teach kumite and such. Heck, assuming that you are good enough at karate, and a good enough teacher, to open a dojo, you staying in his dojo makes it a stronger dojo ... the greater concentration of talent and teaching skill gets the ball rolling and draws more and more students, who feed off each other and their senseis, and the whole thing gets better and better. And let's not forget, your sensei may be looking to retire one day, or semi-retire much earlier, and is hoping to have a "succession plan" in place (turning the place over to a guy like you.) So talk to your sensei, and see if it will be a good fit for you to continue growing within his dojo. Oh ... ... and if you feel like Jim Takeda in his post above, this advice probably isn't for you. But that's cool. It all depends on who *you* and and your specific situation.
  • CJ Rivera.
    Awesome advice I am about to leave my teacher Sensi so start my own journey I have fear but I know who I am in the end I know I can do this.
  • An amazing article on the advantages of martial arts and how to maintain your sports. Thanks for sharing this inspiring article.
  • Ben
    Imagine starting a dojo next door to the one which taught you and nurtured you from your first day until the day you were awarded a black belt. Your website would extol your positive attributes and how beginners should train under your guidance, skill and expertise. Then imagine how betrayed you will feel when your best student someday does that to you. You might feel as betrayed as I did when it happened to me.

Leave a comment