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On Mentors: To Sharpen Is To Destroy


When I was an uchi-deshi, there were special classes reserved for senior students called kenshu (“sword sharpening”).

During these classes, I would sit in seiza (“proper sitting”) for 30 minutes or so, listening to the instructor lecture on a multitude of topics. History, art, subtle points of techniques, themes, etc. If you haven’t come from a culture where sitting in seiza for extended periods of time is the norm, it’s very uncomfortable. LIke tough to stand up afterwards, I can barely walk, uncomfortable.

After the lecture there would be an hour or so breakdown on one technique, perhaps one movement. A pivot or a shift of hips or moving into position against your partner. A single movement could be repeated hundreds of times. Occasionally I would be told the movement was correct. Mostly I would be told that the movement was wrong.

It was aggravating. It was boring. It was difficult. Deliberate, long, tiresome, and trying. After the tenth repetition of a movement I would grow bored. At the thirtieth, my mind started to wonder. At the sixtieth I was barely concentrating. At the hundredth, my mind had become still and there was only the movement.

As the uchi deshi, I was also the dedicated partner of the instructor (IE – all demonstrations by the instructor were done on me, I was the “training dummy.”) Instructor need to explain fine point of a throw a dozen times? I took a dozen falls. Student needs to see it from a different angle? A half dozen more falls. Moving among the students as they begin to practice? I trailed behind the instructor, waiting to be used thrown again and again. Somewhere around the fortieth time you’ve been thrown to the ground in under half an hour, you sort of become numb to it all.

When the class was done, I would be bruised mentally and physically. Tired of training, tired of sitting, tired of thinking. Often times I felt broken (sometimes literally) after class, laying on the slim tatami that served as my bed. Beaten down and stripped away.

But that’s the point. To bring an edge to a blade, to make is capable of cutting and piercing, it must be ground and filed. The metal on the blade must be removed – broken away –  again and again before the edge is revealed. The edge is never “created” – it always exists innate in the metal. The potential to cut always lies in the blade. In sharpening a blade the excess is stripped away, revealing the inherent edge in the metal.

It’s been ten years since I was an uchi deshi (and seven years since I’ve trained in Aikido regularly) and I can explain, in exacting detail, the intricacies of a technique. I can explain why dogi are worn left over right. I can discourse on fuboku no oshie from memory. I can take a fall on concrete and pop right back up. All of this is possible because I was broken down again and again. Instruction, examples, and demonstrations were plentiful. Praise was slim. I look back on it with fondness.

So when you are looking for guidance, when you are looking for help in developing who you are as a professional, as a person – don’t seek out those who only praise you. Seek out those that will grind you down and reveal the edge inside of you.

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.

– Proverbs 27:17


  1. Much praise for writing this article. You speak the truth boldly in your last paragraph.


    • It’s a tough pill to swallow for many people, but I’ve found it to be true in most relationships I’ve had with mentors in my life. Osu!

  2. Chrissy Bushnell

    Great article. Sometimes we lose focus on what the real lesson is. But when we are steadfast, in the end we are better, stronger, and able to face anything. Not just on the mat, but in life, work, and even in our faith. I really needed to read this and remember the student within.

    • I don’t know if I always made stronger – my never quite working correctly right pinky finger and permanently crooked big toes are certainly not “stronger” than before I started my time as an uchi deshi – but the experience whittled away large parts of me that I thought were necessary. Sometimes we need other people to break us down in order to find what we really need.

  3. This rings so true to me. It’s been many moons since I was an associate or martial arts neophyte, but you’re right, and it’s so rare these days to find anyone under 40 who possesses such wisdom.

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