Sensei says, 'Slow down'

Sat, Nov 20, 2021       3-minute read

In my twenties, I spent a lot of time studying Aikido, a martial art rooted in defending oneself during a sword fight. Much of the attacks we would learn to defend against were based on someone grabbing your wrist—something your enemy might do to prevent you from drawing your sword.

It was a lot of fun, and I trained relentlessly, several times a week. I never quite got to the point of being an expert, but I knew a reasonable amount; I had enough grace in my movements that I could showcase what the art should look like to outsiders.

The basics are deceptively complicated

In our particular style of Aikido, there was a series of five basic defences against a wrist grab that we taught beginners. But although they were the most basic techniques in our arsenal, they were actually deceptively complicated. Even after a few years of exhaustive practice, I would still struggle to apply the techniques against larger or stronger individuals. But those with decades of experience were able to apply the techniques effortlessly against anyone.

Every now and again, a more experienced training partner would give me a little nugget of wisdom that completely changed how I thought about those simple techniques. It took a long time, but once I learned to apply those micro-lessons, it became easier and easier to bring down larger and larger opponents.

I often failed to convert prospective students

At our dojo, a new member’s first session was free, so they could get a taste for the art without any pressure or obligation. This meant that, on any given training session, there would normally be one or two new faces. And someone had to show them the ropes. Because I was a regular fixture at the dojo, quite often that job fell to me.

And I went all in. I would go out of my way to show them all Aikido had to offer. I wanted them to love it as much as I did.

I taught them the basic techniques, and also threw in the secrets I had learned. I brought in props to demonstrate how the techniques would originally have defended against a knife or a sword attack. And I explained what was physically happening inside their wrists to cause the discomfort they felt when the technique was successfully applied. I shared everything I knew.

Most of them never came back.

Conversion rates are famous for being quite low—in e-commerce, hitting 4% is considered good. But my conversion rate with prospective students was just awful.

Oversharing ≠ caring

After one training session where I had managed to do a particularly bad job at showing a group of newcomers the ropes, my sensei approached me and gave me some advice. He said, ‘Just slow down. Don’t worry about explaining all the little details to them; it’s too much to remember. Just help them get to the end of the technique, and don’t worry if they get it all wrong. They’ll come back next week, and you can add a bit more detail then.’

I think about that advice every time I mentor someone new. In hindsight, I have come to realise that it was the tactic the more experienced folk in the dojo used with me; dropping nuggets of wisdom at appropriate intervals, whenever they felt I was ready to level up.

As experts, we can get enthusiastic and forget how long it has taken us to get where we are. And if we try too hard to help someone, we may end up putting them off entirely.

So when it comes to mentoring someone (especially someone with little experience), go slow, teach in increments, and focus on the journey rather than the destination.