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Coach or sensei? What's the difference?


Sven Kramer throws his sunglasses in frustration. AP Photo/Chris Carlson

Disaster struck the Dutch team in Vancouver as their speed skating star, Sven Kramer,  was disqualified during the men's 10,000 meter event due to a colossal blunder by his coach.  Momentarily distracted while recording split times, his coach, Gerard Kemkers, erroneously instructed Kramer to change lanes, costing Kramer the gold and the world record.

This incident underscores the difficulty of a coach's job - to straddle the fine line between preparing the athlete and telling the athlete what to do at the moment of truth.

This incident also starkly highlights the difference between a sensei and a coach.  A sensei would not have been yelling out instructions on the sidelines.  To understand why, one must delve into the meaning of sensei.

Like many Japanese words that have crossed cultures with the martial arts, sensei is one of those words that, while commonly used in Japan, defies precise translation into English.  In Japan, the word sensei can refer to martial arts instructors, schoolteachers, medical doctors, and other professionals.  Like many things Japanese, there is the overt meaning, and there is the underlying, nuanced definition.  The literal translation of the kanji characters that comprise the word sensei is "one who was born before".  Dave Lowry, in his book, In the Dojo, provides a wonderfully poetic explanation:

So he becomes, to his surprise in most cases, far enough along the Way, to be able to retrace his steps in order to assist others along the same path.

The United States Judo Federation, as the governing body for both a competitive sport and a martial art, has commissioned position papers on the subject:

Within the paper, Yonezuka sensei implies that the sensei is concerned with the development of the student as a whole person. 

On the other hand, a coach

who is well versed in some of the following areas has a better chance of getting his athlete to (the) highest spot in the victory stand if the Judo coach understands:

1. The basic rules of the game;

2. The demands of the game;


The differences between a coach and a sensei may be better understood experientially.  Cyril Landise, a sandan in Aikido, recalls his first real sensei - a French fencing Maitre, which proves that the East does not have a monopoly on the concept:

Maitre Poujardieu, the instructor for the fencers on the US Olympic Pentathlon Team at Fort Sam Houston, also consented to train a few pathetic college students from the area. We were instructed that he was not to be addressed as "coach", but we thought that was a French affectation, and assumed that he was just a coach by another name.

We soon learned otherwise. There was a seriousness to the way he carried himself and demanded we carry ourselves as well. Maitre Poujardieu drilled us with a simplicity that, at first, did not betray the complexity of the lesson. He never seemed to care if we scored a touch or not, he truly only remarked on how we performed in our own mirror.

He opened my awareness to a kind of focused training and dedication to an art which I had previously never experienced. 

Cyril Landise

Cyril found that his subsequent fencing coaches had approaches that were markedly different from Maitre Poujardieu:

After moving to the University of Illinois, my fencing team coach reminded us on every road trip that we wouldn't get a better van for traveling to matches unless we were winners. Our drills were scoring-oriented. There were even techniques that took advantage of the quirks of the electronic scoring devices, and we trained to use these quirks to our advantage.

It was in the contrast of these two fencing instructors that I formulated a distinction in my mind between a "coach" and a "sensei" or master.
A Sensei looks at our human skill set and asks, "How can we improve this?" A coach sees the same skill set and asks, "How can we use these skills to win?"

It wasn't until 1977, when I met Akira Tohei Sensei, that I once more had the privilege to witness such a clarity of focus on a single aspect of performance.

On the wall of the Midwest Aikido Center in Chicago, the words of the dojo's founder, Akira Tohei Shihan are framed prominently, explicitly defining the mission of both the student and the sensei within the context of the dojo:

 This is a dojo where one learns to become a better human being...

A coach is specifically prescriptive, while a sensei is holistically constructive.  Most importantly, a sensei teaches by example, with a quiet dignity earned through dedication and mastery.

To be fair, many coaches do focus on improving the whole person And there are many coaches who conduct themselves more as sensei Perhaps like sensei, they have come to realize that by improving the person, they can trust their athletes to do the right thing when that singular moment arrives.


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