SenSen No Sen

“Sensen no Sen: Taking Performance to the Next Level,” by David Shaner

“Peak performance requires calmness under stress, which yields expanded awareness, which feeds the ability to clearly focus on the right ‘stuff.’”

David Shaner

David Shaner

Suppose you are trying to take your performance to the next level. Whether the context is athletics, business, music, or maybe just taking better care of yourself through improved diet and exercise, you can always take your game to the next level through improved focus.

As a practitioner of the martial arts, I find the training methods used for black belt examinations to be of the same substance as methods used to improve anyone’s performance in any endeavor.

Peak performance requires calmness under stress, which yields expanded awareness, which feeds the ability to clearly focus on the right “stuff.” This enables you to perform with confidence at a higher level. When you learn to practice with confidence in the daily pursuit of continuous improvement, for example in the martial arts or in a lean enterprise, anyone (or organization) can plan to take their game to the next level. For individuals as well as corporations, adopting the Seven Arts change process means that the focus is mental; that is, learning to be fully engaged and at your best every single day. Imagine what changes might occur at your workplace if everyone involved were completely focused and supportive of each other!

Let me explain the martial context first.

This past June I was teaching our Eastern Ki Federation Summer Camp held at Christopher Newport University. The focus this year was training students who were preparing for their Black Belt examinations. There is a planned increase in performance with each grade (kyu) as students work their way through the early stages of traditional martial arts training.


The theme was building upon an oft-spoken phrase that my teacher Soshu Koichi Tohei (1920-2011) always taught, especially when preparing students for black belt testing, “ki (or mind) moves first.” Tohei Sensei is the Founder of Shinshin Toitsu Aikido and Ki no Kenkyukai, and was the first person to bring the martial art of Aikido out of Japan in 1953. That “ki moves first” or “mind moves first” is an important concept to internalize for learning to move earlier (sensen no sen) in anticipation of your attacker’s intention(s). These concepts are also at the heart of the first of the Seven Arts, The Art of Preparation.

Any competitive endeavor has this mental dimension in which confidence arises from not only solid practice and preparation, but also from internalizing prior knowledge. In the business context, this prior knowledge refers to the company’s strategic plan. It represents a map to the future that when understood by all, enables the organization to execute the operations and commercial business plan. Again, whether in the martial arts, competitive athletics or business, it is important to communicate, understand, internalize, and have confidence in, “the plan.” Understanding and institutionalizing both the competitive strategy and the operational business plan means that everyone has bought-in and has prior knowledge (sensen no sen) of the roadmap to success.

Two of Tohei Sensei’s three main teachers were Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), the Founder of Aikido and Aikikai, and Nakamura Tempu (1976-1968), the Founder of Shinshin Toitsudo and Tempukai. From Ueshiba Sensei my teacher learned the “power of relaxation” for performance improvement. And, from Tempu Sensei, he learned the principle that “mind leads body”. When Tohei Sensei explained what he meant by “ki moves first” he would refer to traditional concepts in budo (martial arts) that were sometimes used by his teachers.

OSensei2For example, Ueshiba Sensei (O-Sensei) used to refer to the concept of “sensen no sen.” At Summer camp I was sharing this concept in my efforts to explain Tohei Sensei’s teaching that forall forms of performance improvement, it is always the case that one must be prepared to act prior; that is, “ki moves first”/ “mind moves body.”

One of our EKF Head Instructors in attendance at the camp is originally from Japan, but is now living in North Carolina as a professional translator. After camp, she followed up and wrote back to me a very clear summary of sensen no sen:

“I have looked up sensen no sen and the character for sen is 先 (the same as saki = precede; anticipate; prior; ahead; previously). It is one of the Budo terms as follows:

go no sen (後の先) — after the prior
“go” = behind, after, rear, “no” = of

sen no sen (先の先) — prior to prior

sensen no sen (先先の先) — prior to prior to prior

TempuSensei2In other words,

Go no sen — After you see the actual attack, you respond.

Sen no sen — After you recognize the attacker’s intention, you deal with the him before his attack reaches you.

Sensen no sen — After you recognize the attacker’s intention to attack, you deal with the attacker before his intention become an attacking move.

They are all equally employed martial art tactics (so “go no sen” is not an inferior way to sen no sen or sensen no sen).”

So, what does all this mean? If you really think about it, what causes you to be held back in your performance whether it is at work, on the athletic field, or on the musical or artistic stage? That which holds you back is your mind, specifically your ability to focus on the task at hand. And, the key is that you cannot just focus some of the time when you feel like preparing and practicing. No, your ability to take your game to the next level will require you to remain calm, relaxed, and focused making “on-strategy” decisions all day, everyday. Executing “the plan” means being fully engaged, willing to give your best, and understanding exactly what you need to do to make a difference. In athletics and in business, you need to understand how to keep score (core metrics), how your personal actions influence the score, and you need to have prior knowledge (“mind moves first”) in order to execute the plan on a consistent basis.

Note that this Seven Arts change process applies equally to the minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, daily focus required to overcome addictions of all kinds. After all, we are all addicted to “the way in which we have always done things” and this represents literally the attached mind that is holding us back! Unless your mind is 100% focused in the right direction, you cannot expect to take your game and performance to the next level.

The key to sustained improvement for individuals as well as corporations is to understand deeply, practice, and habituate/institutionalize the mental ability to remain calm and relaxed under the considerable stress of seeking continuous daily performance improvement. When the stakes are high the stress and pressure to perform becomes greater and greater whether it is advanced black belt testing, overcoming an addiction, or pursuing continuous improvement in a world class company.

In short, continuous performance improvement in the martial arts and in business means that you have to let go of tension, let go of the past (“the way in which we have always done things”), and have prior knowledge of, and confidence in, the future plan. You are really preparing to “boldly go where you have never gone before”! And that can be scary; unless you have (and believe in) an overall performance improvement strategy that when executed will lead to success.

Developing, practicing, and institutionalizing sensen no sen would enable you or your organization to anticipate obstacles and respond with corrective speed and accuracy. Whether you are responding to an attack in the martial arts, or a verbal threat on the factory floor, or an immanent strategic threat posed by a competitor with a new product or service, your ability (and your organization’s ability) to be at your best depends upon first calming your mind and then focusing it upon “on-strategy” tasks hour-by-hour every single day.

So, how then do you “take your performance to the next level?”

Overcoming an addiction and pursuing world-class performance both start with the MIND. At the end of the day, you must be able to focus, anticipate problems, respond in ways that are on-strategy (making good choices), and remain doing so on a consistent basis even under the daily stresses and strains occasioned by the pursuit of continuous improvement. As Tohei Sensei taught, “ki moves first”(related to Ueshiba Sensei’s sensen no sen) and “mind leads body” (related to Tempu Sensei’s shinshin toitsu-do).

Tohei Sensei’s ki-aikido teaching that “mind goes first” is woven through The Seven Arts of Change, but is especially important for practicing The Art of Preparation (Assessment), The Art of Relaxation (Clarity, Visibility, and Focus), and The Art of Conscious Action (Execution).

The original article can be found here:


David Shaner is the author of the new book The Seven Arts of Change: Leading Business Transformation That Lasts. David is the principal of CONNECT Consulting, LLC, which advises organizational change for Fortune 500 corporations. His previous clients include Umbro, Frito-Lay, Duracell, BIC, Ryobi, Gillette, Owens Corning Composites and many others. He currently holds an endowed chair as Herring Professor of Asian Studies and Philosophy at Furman University, and is also an internationally renowned teacher of Ki-Aikido holding a Seventh Degree Black Belt. Shaner has taught at Harvard University, was a member of the Olympic Valley USA Ski Team, and has served as a Fulbright Fellow in India