How To Start Martial Arts Training

Bill Mattocks

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I've been giving this issue some thought recently. Although I am still very much a student, I am also helping to teach others now, and I have been training non-stop for close onto six years.

It seems to me that many new students are not sure how to begin, and they can be intimidated by what they see and hear when they first begin to train. Hopefully, I can help a bit with that.

Before you enter the training facility, take a moment to put away the cares of the day, mentally and emotionally. Take a few deep breaths and relax. You are entering an arena where you need to be thinking about what you are being taught, not what you did at work that day, what is waiting for you at home, etc. It's time for the phones and the entertainment devices to be turned off. Except under certain very limited circumstances, you do not need to be reached by phone or text while you're in the training hall. If you have some exceptional circumstance, let your instructor know and get their permission. Otherwise, turn all that stuff off and put it away.

Have you ever trained before, in this style or another? That's nice. Please put it aside. What you know, and perhaps more importantly, what you think you know, will get in the way of your learning anything knew.

"That's not the way I was taught" is never a good thing to say to your instructor. Your instructor is trying to give you his or her instruction, not what you were taught previously. There are many ways to teach, and many methods of performing what are essentially the same things. It is on *you* to put aside your old training and accept your new training, else why are you training? You don't have to abandon your old training; just put it aside while you're training somewhere new.

Observe how the other students behave in the training facility. If they bow when entering the training area, then you should do that too. If they do not, then unless you're told otherwise by an instructor, you can assume it is not a practice of the training hall you are currently in. Observe how the other students behave when waiting for training to begin. Do they joke around and play or do they quietly begin stretching and performing warmup exercises in preparation for training? Whatever most of the other students do, take that as your cue. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Old advice, but still valuable.

Once training has begun, close your mouth and open your eyes and ears. Your attention should be on your instructor, not on your fellow students, people passing by on the street, etc. Remember that you are paying this instructor for his or her time, effort, and knowledge. If you do not pay attention, you are as much as stating that you do not find his or her instruction valuable. If that's the case, why not go home and stop insulting the instructor?

When you begin to perform basics, as most beginners do, do them to the best of your ability. Don't ask when you get to start fighting, sparring, or whatever it is that you think is in store for you, or what you had imagined that martial artists do. If you spend the first few weeks learning to walk a particular way across the floor, do not lose patience. Know that all the students you see in the training hall all started by doing exactly what you are doing. You will be doing the more advanced things soon enough.

Don't announce what it is you want to 'only' learn. I've seen students come through the door who announced they 'only' wanted to learn to spar. They had no interest in basics, kata, or anything that did not involve actual fighting. That's great, but that's not what we teach. Go and find what it is your heart desires, but don't demand that your instructors modify their instructions for you. It's OK if you discover that the training you are getting is not a good fit; it's not OK to demand changes to suit your particular desires. You would not sign up for French class and insist they only teach you dirty words in French, would you?

If you are asked to do what others are doing and you cannot do them well (or at all) yet, do not despair. Everyone started at your level. Do the best you can; no one expects perfection out of the box. Be patient, do what you can, ask for help if you need it.

Expect to be corrected. You are a new student. You see, you do. You think you are doing exactly what you saw, but in most cases, you are not. The instructor is aware of this and will make suggestions and corrections. That is their job and they are doing it to help you. There is nothing personal about it, it doesn't mean you suck, it's not meant to belittle or demean you in any way (if the instructor is a good one, that is). It is meant to help you improve.

Practice cements training. Practice as much as you can. Repetition is what will bring about improvement. Do not expect to go to class a few times a week, practice a few moves, and in a couple years, you're a master. If you want to improve consistently and fairly rapidly, practice. Most of what you learn can be practiced at home. If you are too lazy to practice, you are too lazy to succeed. Practice, like anything else, becomes a habit. Once the habit of practicing is established, it is harder to fall out of.

Bad practice cements bad technique, so practice CORRECT form as well as you can. Power and speed are nice and they will become part of your arsenal in time; but correct form is the basis for that. Balance, breathing, and good technique, practiced diligently, is what makes master practitioners. When you see a master at work, you will marvel at their power and speed. Other masters will admire their form and technique; that's what gets the job done. Any fool can drive a car fast; only a master driver can drive a car fast and do what they want to do with it.

Be patient with yourself. People learn in different ways, and at different speeds. Some students will race ahead in the basics, and if you are not as fast as they are, you may be tempted to lose heart. Be aware that time and diligent practice really do trump natural ability in many ways. In my experience, some of the best students are the ones that had the slowest starts; not only that, most of them stick around, while the shooting stars show up, learn the basics quickly, and then vanish. Perhaps it's not a challenge enough to them, but for whatever reason, they're gone. Don't be them. Relax and let things happen as they happen. I am not a great martial artist, but I will promise you that I am better than all the people who started at the same time I did and then fell by the wayside. I started slow and I'm still slow. But I am on the path; they are not. Stay on the path.

If you are injured, you must let your instructors know. If you find it painful to perform a technique you are asked to perform, tell someone. Do not let your machismo get you more seriously injured. Do your best, but do not take risks with your body when you are injured. Injuries during training are normal and to be expected. Some injuries are permanent and can be avoided.

If you are sick and contagious, stay home. Everyone appreciates your dedication, but if you make the rest of the students ill, no one will be thrilled about it.

Be humble. If you learn a technique more quickly than another, or if you are better at it, or if you are promoted ahead of someone else, keep your mind and spirit humble. You are a student, like everyone else, including most likely your instructors. You have much to learn, and an entire lifetime to learn it. What you know and can do amounts to small potatoes compared to some. And more importantly, it gets in the way of your training. No one can fill a cup that is already full. If you want to be a good student and learn much, empty your cup every time you enter the training hall. You know nothing and are there to learn. Act like it, believe in it.

Treat your instructor and your fellow students with respect. Whether your training facility is more or less formal, all students are worthy of your respect, as you are worthy of theirs. The way you treat others will be seen and known by all over time; if you think it does not affect your training and even eventual promotions, you are mistaken. Good instructors do not bully and do not promote or even train bullies. Fellow students don't like bullies either, and will find ways to make that clear which you will not like. From the day you enter the training facility, you are both student and helper. You are there to learn, and you will be seen by others to help them learn. Be a good example.

Be willing to help. When working on typical two-person self-defense drills, one person is working on learning a technique, and their partner is helping them to learn it. That means doing good technique so that the person doing the technique is required to actually make it work, not fake it. But it also is not a competition in how hard or fast you can hit them, or a demonstration of your power and skill. In many training halls, you get what you give. Punch your partner hard and get punched hard in return. One of the things you are learning is control as well proper technique. Consider yourself a helpmate and not a competitor. You are trying to help your friend up the ladder of martial arts success, not stomp on their fingers as they try to climb it.

Many training facilities are not wealth-producing businesses. You might be surprised to learn that many or most of the instructors are volunteers, who put in their time helping teach others after they get off their day jobs. You might be surprised to find black belts and even owners down on their hands and knees, scrubbing toilets and emptying trash and scrubbing the mats and floors and cleaning the windows and mirrors. If that is the case where you are training, you might want to consider stepping up and pitching in. In many cases, you won't be asked to help; it will be up to you to notice and volunteer to do what you can to help. You may not think it is noticed, but it is well-known who helps and who does not.

Do not ask about tests or promotions. It is considered quite rude in many styles of martial arts. You will be tested and promoted when your instructor feels you are ready. Asking to be promoted in many styles will only ensure that you get to learn some more patience. And consider that a belt around your waist does not change who you are or what you know, not even one iota. You could be handed a black belt the day you sign up; would that make you a better martial artist? If a belt is all you desire, your motivations for learning are frankly suspect.

Boiled down to the basics, keep these things in mind. Be patient, with yourself and with others. Be humble and contain your ego. Keep your instructors informed and ask for help when you need it. Practice diligently. Don't compare yourself to others. Keep training and always do the best you can.

All good things come in time. The road has no end for a true martial artist; there is no final destination; one simply remains on the path for life and enjoys it for what it is. If you are on the path, just keep moving. It's a really good path to be on.
 

Buka

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So nice to have Bill back.
 

Tames D

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Welcome back, Bill. Have you received your black? I seem to recall you were at brown? I'm glad to see you've stayed with it.
 
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Bill Mattocks

Bill Mattocks

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Welcome back, Bill. Have you received your black? I seem to recall you were at brown? I'm glad to see you've stayed with it.

Yes, I am a shodan now. Still working out, and have been putting in some time helping to teach a couple kids classes. I stay really busy at the dojo. Thanks!
 

oftheherd1

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Great Post Bill, just like your sticky post on when new practitioners might quit. Good to see you back here.

You rang a memory bell about learning how walk. When I studied under Jhoon Goo Rhee, he put me to walking up and down the dojo, with my feet on the lines formed by the tiles. I learned how to properly walk, and more importantly, why.

When I began studying Hapkido, I have never felt so uncoordinated in my life! But staying with it, it finally gets to be 2nd nature. You are right on with all your advice, but that is very important; stucktuitivity.
 

Carol

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Sometimes when I hear folks complain about their school, it makes me think their school is just fine. Its just not a match for where their interests are.

I think a really important first step for a beginner is to ask yourself.... what do YOU want to be doing with YOUR training? Its your journey, after all. Your time, your effort, your $$.

Some folks like a a course of study that is contemplative.
Some folks thrive on a competitive aspect.
Some folks may secretly (or not so secretly) hope to slug it out with some local guys in a proper cage fight some day.
Some folks particularly enjoy historical practices.
Some folks just want to feel better when they get off the mat than they did when they stepped on the mat.

These are all good reasons to train, IMO. (Criminal behaviour aside, there are very few wrong reasons to train :D) But the reason behind your training may make one school a better choice than another.

No school will be perfect, but if you are honest with yourself and you are more likely to find a school that will be a lasting fit :)
 

Brian R. VanCise

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I like everything you said Bill except for the dirty words in French. I am thinking that could be a really fun French class! ;)
 
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