The Number One Student

By Sensei Rich Cote, Uechi-Ryu Karate

I was watching a program on television recently about ancient Martial Arts. In one segment they talked about the Master’s “number one student,” this is the student who eventually became the new Master when the old Master died. I was struck with the amount of respect that was afforded this student by the Master and the other students. I also noticed that in each depiction, the “number one student” was never in the front but stood with the other students until called upon by the Master. After the program was over, I asked myself “how does one become the number one student, and who is this person in our Dojo?”

 It has always been made very clear to all of us that those of higher rank are to be afforded our respect. We do this to acknowledge their experience and dedication over time. Does this mean that the highest ranked student is the “number one student”? Is the highest ranked student the most highly respected student in the Dojo? I have noticed that the Okinawan Masters treat the elderly students in our Dojo with a tremendous amount of respect regardless of rank. Does this make the oldest person the “number one student”?

 Is the “number one student” the best student in the Dojo? There are many students who are higher ranked than all of us but, have (for one reason or another) not trained in years. Maybe the highest ranked student is not the “number one student.” I don’t think that age is enough of a factor, in itself, to make someone the “number one student.” This leaves only the best student. How do we define the best student? Is the best student the strongest? We have all worked with students who are very powerful simply by virtue of natural strength or the type of work that they do every day. Should we forgive other weaknesses for the sake of power? I think not.

Is the best student the person who attends the most classes, helps teach the most classes, or volunteers for every Dojo event? These are all qualities that make you a good person, but not necessarily a good martial arts student.

 Then there are those individuals who perform beautifully, and train hard . . . . and they know it! They expect to be acknowledged above the rest of the group. They expect to be called up front to demonstrate. They expect to be invited to test simply because “it is their time.” Basically, all they have is a visible ego. If their ego is not stroked they become resentful and, at its ugliest, will begin to criticize those who they feel have affronted them. Not my idea of a “number one student.”

I have pondered this question for some time now and believe that I have identified the “number one student” in our Dojo. This person has all the qualities necessary to be a great martial artist and deserves all the respect that we can give them. This person is a diligent trainer; they can not wait to get home and practice what they have been taught. They practice every day, sometimes more than once a day. They do not expect to be in front, they wait to be invited to move forward. They do not expect to be promoted and have no ego because they truly believe that everyone in the Dojo is a better martial artist than they are. They are eager to learn from anyone, and are perhaps the most humble person in the Dojo. Who, then, is this “number one student” in the Dojo? The next time you’re in class look over your left shoulder and you will see them clearly. It’s the new white-belt standing in the back corner of the room. They are scared and nervous and unknowingly exemplifying all the qualities of a “number one student.”Each student should strive to be the “number one student” in this way. They should hold onto the attitude, energy, and respect that they had for training and their fellow students when they entered the dojo for the very first time. A true martial artist never stops being a beginner!