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Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture
How did you choose your martial art?

Hi All,

I have two questions I’d be very interested in everyone’s answers to:

1, How did you choose your first martial art?

2, What is it about the system you have practised for the longest that has made you stick with it?

This is off the back of a conversation with a friend where we confessed to having “lucked out” with our initial uneducated choice. I stared in karate because I wanted to start a martial art and I had two school friends who went to karate (and who quit the week after I started) so I went along with them. There was no deep thought about the pros and cons of the various systems. I wonder if for others it was a considered choice? Or if you too stumbled into your first art?

I stuck with karate because it was very well taught at the dojo I trained at. However, had my friends done another art that was also well taught I may never have started karate and done something else instead. If the dojo had been poor I may have quit and never got involved with the martial arts in a meaningful way at all.

I have stuck with karate in the long term because it matches my training goals and there is something about it that resonates with me. I like the history of it all, being part of that tradition, its many expressions, its holistic nature, and obviously the exploration of kata is something I greatly enjoy. While I don’t believe there is such a thing as “the best system”, I do believe that “traditional karate” is the best system for me.

So my answers would be:

1, I didn’t! I just went to the class my friends were going to.

2 , It meets my training goals in a way I find enjoyable and engaging.

I’m very interested to hear what lead people to start with their first art, and what has made then stick with their favoured system? Could make for an interesting and informative thread I think.

All the best,


Gary Chamberlain
Gary Chamberlain's picture

1) When I started (1971) the choice was Kyokushin or Shotokan.  It was pot luck that my mother rang the Kyokushin first.

2) I enjoyed my time in Kyokushin (28yrs) until things started to get technically top heavy.  To start with it was just basic and ferocious, but as the syllabus grew and grew I started to have doubts about the way I was being asked to teach.

I'd never knock it though, it was a tough style with a hard fighting system (knockdown) and I feel proud to have survived in 'the early days'.


Gavin J Poffley
Gavin J Poffley's picture

Good questions!

I had wanted to take up a martial art for a while by the time I started my A levels (16) and initially looked for a judo club because I had a school friend who had done judo before and I liked his stories. I searched for judo but the local club had moved too far away.  With almost perfect timing I saw a poster for shotokan karate on the college notice board and went along.

I have tried a number of different arts in the intervening years and still train regularly in classical Japanese arts, jujutsu and aikido but have always primarily been a karateka. Although I have changed karate styles several times I personally see it all as the same thing and often find there is more difference between teahcers and individual dojos than the style ostensibly practiced there.  

For me the big lure of karate is that it can be what you want it to be and personalised to the tastes and objectives of the individual to a great degree. I suppose this undefined, flexible nature of modern karate has many problems that have beed discussed frequently on this site (murky, non specific training goals, monocontext thinking etc) but I also see it as an advantage. In my opinion, If you practice judo or aikido for example then what you do and the training objectives are very clearly defiined and there is not much room for deviation. Karate on the other hand lets you specialise in competition (with further choices of semi, full or touch contact, grappling inclusive MMA style, continuous kickboxing style or point stop "sundome" formats etc) or focus on traditional or more modern self protection interpretations, asthetic kata or whatever aspect/s most interest you. Of course you have to find the right dojo to fit with your chosen slant! If you develop interests in other aspects (as I have done on many occasions!) then you can adapt and change your training to encompas those without having to throw everything out and start again and because of this breadth cross training feels really easy and beneficial.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Gary Chamberlain wrote:
1) When I started (1971) the choice was Kyokushin or Shotokan. It was pot luck that my mother rang the Kyokushin first.

The “luck factor” with our initial choice of system was one I was hoping would come out. I wonder if this was possibly more prevalent in the pre-internet days before people could easily find masses of information on any given system? Perhaps those who have took up the martial arts more recently make more informed decisions?

Gavin J Poffley wrote:
For me the big lure of karate is that it can be what you want it to be and personalised to the tastes and objectives of the individual to a great degree …. Karate on the other hand lets you specialise in competition (with further choices of semi, full or touch contact, grappling inclusive MMA style, continuous kickboxing style or point stop "sundome" formats etc) or focus on traditional or more modern self protection interpretations, asthetic kata or whatever aspect/s most interest you.

That’s a very good point. Interesting too because the “broad church” within karate and its flexible nature are not things readily associated with the “stuffy” and rigid image karate has acquired in some quarters. That ability to explore and then specialise was something always encouraged by my teachers and is another facet of karate that makes it appeal to me.

All the best,


Gavin Mulholland
Gavin Mulholland's picture

I started in Judo because my Dad was teaching it and all my brothers did it.

Goju however was a choice - to a degree...

I knew nothing about Goju at all and didn't know that there were different styles of karate - I just thought it was karate. To pick up on Gavin's point, I wonder whether it is the fact that Judo is Judo and Aikido is Aikido, that leaves many struggling with the fact that Karate isn't like that and in fact Karate as a martial arts doesn't really exist at all.

Anyway, I saw a 'karate' demo by Mick Lambert, Kim Roberts and Dave Arnold in the late '70s and I knew I wanted to train with them (Mick punched through a paving slab...).

So, I guess a bit of both for me. 

ppp047's picture

I started Parker Kenpo back in 1988 because an old primary school friend I suddenly found myself at high school with dragged me along!  I stuck with this until about 92 when, at the age of 20, I started paying less attention to discipline and more on other things in life :-)

I continued to dabble and train in no specific school for the next 15 years on and off before I joined my current traditional dojo (basically we're kyokushin by a different name).  I went back formally because my 4 year old son was training in the little Ninjas program and I thought it was something we'd be able to do together over the years.  He has since stopped, of course, but I'm still going, of course, and loving it!

My daughter is now up to 5th kyu and doing very well for a 9yo.

I'll never stop now....martial arts has given me so much as I'm sure everyone else can attest to.

So I guess...it was luck for me the first time and a bit of both the second.

Dave's picture

I started my martial arts training in the early 70's.  A school friend's father taught judo and asked if i would be interested in training.  This lasted for about 21/2 years, as they moved away.  Then through word of mouth, I joined a Goju ryu school being taught by a local bar owner, who had a very interesting background.  He was an extremely tough teacher, it was also during this time that I was more interested in learning more about fighting than the insights to Karate's past, and of course alot of young people wanted to be like Bruce Lee. Being from a small town clubs did not stick around long and to go elsewhere was not possible for me.  So 3 years passed and again the club closed. However the interest and desire to train continued and I looked around for another school, by know I could drive and get around.  A co worker was training in Shotakan and asked if I would be interested in joining a school he and a couple other black belts were going to start.  I jumped at the chance and was one of the first students.  It was at this time I started to really get more interested in were karate originated from, and the history of Okinawan history.  Again training was short lived due to the school closing, as well early father hood and other interests redirected my path.  Although I always delved into other systems Tai CHi, Jujitsu, nothing really lasted long.  My career had me do a training course in Managing Aggressive Behaviour which had alot of martial arts techniques tamed down to deal with the physical aspects of aggression.  However it was the verbal techniques that really caught me and how the two worked hand in hand. 

Well know that I have bored everyone and have become long winded, I will jump to my last 10 or so years of training.  I found a school that taught Kobayashi Shorin Ryu, the teacher was very good at providing both a traditional and contempary veiw on training. There were added seminars and trainings in other systems through him.  I found that even after obtaining my black belt that something was a miss, as I have always been interested in knowing more of the practical side of the art. Hence when I moved on and opened my own school and continued my training, I was always on the search.  Hence again finding this site was inspiring and fills the goals of my training and teaching.  Along with search other streams that address the practical methods, linked with the traditional.

Wallace Smedley
Wallace Smedley's picture

1, How did you choose your first martial art? For me, the choice was made out of financial necessity, I could afford the payments to the instructor. He taught Monkey syle kung fu, but it was not a good fit for my body. That instructor introduced me to my Hung Gar instructor, and that was where I stayed. 1

2, What is it about the system you have practised for the longest that has made you stick with it? For me, as for most people (I assume), I got along well with the instructor. I love Hung Gar, but at the same time, I see people in other styles/systems who love what they do every bit as much as I. This, to me, is the same as people who think their University is the center of the educational universe, and continue to wear the team colors long after they graduate. So, for me it was the instructor who convinced me to stick around. I have trained in other styles, and the funny thing to me is when people who know watch me do a TKD form, they say things like, "When you do that, you look like a Hung Gar guy doing taekwondo." The style has so colored my movement, body mechanics, generation of power, transfer of force, etc. that it is identifiable no matter the style I am trying to show.

psadwick's picture

1. In 1973, a co-worker asked me if I would like to check out his karate class.

2.  The sensei was good, had ties to Okinawa and the art itself has kept me interested all this time.  The friends I made then, are still the friends I have today.

PASmith's picture

1, How did you choose your first martial art?

Like some here my first class was Karate found through the daughter of a friend of my mum's. Then I went to Uni about 4 months later and opted for TAGB Taekwondo. Sadly I was swayed by some good PR in "combat" magazine at the time. They also had some prominent fighters and instructors then too (early 90's).

2, What is it about the system you have practised for the longest that has made you stick with it?

Shidokan Karate is, right from its conception, an amalgam of Kyokushin karate, Thai boxing and judo/grappling. As such I find I can incorporate all the elements of my previous (and future) training (TKD, BJJ, Thai etc) into it's structure without having to compromise anything (although agruably anyone doing "karate" can do the same). It's very broad in approach so any lesson can be sport based, thai pads, grappling , SD, jumping kicks or whatever and still retain the flavour of being "Shidokan karate". As it has retained traditional kata I can still make use of and understand material from Iain Abernethy and other bunkai instructors as well as MMA/BJJ instructors alike. I like a broad approach to martial arts as I tend to have quite a short attention span. :)

PASmith's picture

Oh and in addition I found Shidokan because my Shido instructor was cross-training at the Thai club I trained at. We became mates/training partners.

I wasn't looking for a new art to train in but my Thai club changed training times I couldn't make a few months after my Shido instructor started his Shidokan club.

paul clark
paul clark's picture

I found Wado Ryu in the function room of the pub on my estate as a young teenager in the mid 70's. All knuckle push ups and sparring without pads of any description. I started with about 10 mates and after a couple of years it was just me. The impact on me has lasted my whole life and although I now train freestyle, which allows us to explore and adapt  techniques from any discipline, traditional Wado remains my touchstone!

Michael Stolberg
Michael Stolberg's picture

1) My karate journey started at the age of 5 when my mother decided that I was not eating enough. Curiously she thought that karate would increase my appetite. Though I do not remember the style of karate practiced at the dojo, I remember liking it a lot even though the rules were very strict. This was in Israel.

I stopped karate when we moved to Canada. However I still wanted to do martial arts. Luckily after a year a brand new sport center opened next to my house and it offered Shotokan karate. I joined and never left. I have now been practicing there for 12 years. Admitedly I may have done another martial art had karate not been offered at that center. Maybe my parents felt familiar with karate as I had done it before and decided to enroll me?

2) I enjoy the people with whom I train. The instructor is very technically skilled and has a great technical eye. I also enjoy the large network that the organisation (JKA - Japan Karate Association) provides through seminars and tournaments. Nevertheless I am now exploring other methods than those tought at our dojo and look to expand my combative knowledge. A big part of this has to do with discovering Iain's thought-provoking and original work in traditional karate.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Really enjoying reading these! Fascinating to hear how you all got started and what motivates to keep going.

Neil Cook
Neil Cook's picture

Hi All,

1. I started karate when i was about 14 at school. My instructor came on stage and started hitting himself then managed to pick the year pyscho (out of about 200 students) for a demo, which worked. I had always been interested in karate but was too shy to go to my local club, however, after that demo i was at the first lesson.

2. At the end of that first lesson we sparred, i was hooked. I loved competition sparring, so for the first 4 or so years everything i did was about competitions. Like many of you i have done a few arts over the years but karate is deffinately where my heart is, although i'm not sure why? I think rather than being about how practical/efficient the arts is (which it is) it's more about how it's shaped my life. I owe a lot to my instructors and what karate has done for me.


robinjamesshort's picture

Hi Guys,

1. I started Shotokan Karate for the same reason as Iain, I had a few friends in the class and I just went along with everyone else

2. I just loved the enthusiasm and intensity. Then when we woudl go on semiars and train with other clubs seeing different opprtunities, especially training with some of the greats like Enodea, Kanzawa, Dave Hazard, Tiki Donovan, Dominic Valero, and countless others that I could mention here.

After that exposure I was hooked

I always smile to myself when I see the difference now to when I staretd in the 80's training in the community center hall on hard wood floors and only using pads if you had them as they were not a requirement. Biggest thing I see now is people advertise what they do by going to the Dojo in their Gi's. It has in my humble opinion taken a lot away from the old ways

Paul Anderson
Paul Anderson's picture

1. Literally walked into a local sports centre at Bishopbriggs to go to gym and saw a poster advertising Karate.  My mate and I joined in 1996.  Trained for years without any real idea that I was doing shotokan karate and that there were other 'styles'  even then our club being run indepently I was unaware of the politics associated with big groups of Karate-ka.

Frankly, I think I stumbled onto the best Karate club in the local area, and for that I am very much grateful.

2.  I like where I am for a few reasons:

- I now understand all Karate styles to be 'mixed martial arts' with the sparring competition being a specialist training device.  It's not a fight !  I find it ironic that people move from Karate to MMA type styles and say they are doing something different.  I also find it annoying classes that teach Karate but refuse to understand or look to other combat sports that teach the same thing in a different manner.  We are all doing two hands two feet style.  When we evolve three legs than a new type of system is required.

- The instructor is a 7th dan and teaches all kinds of bunkai I don't see getting taught elsewhere at other karate clubs, it's done in a realistic manner.  He is a professional teacher and i think this reflects in how he takes his classes.  He's open to influences from other styles, the visiting instructors we have are from different Karate styles and even other 'systems' such as greco-roman wrestling and done deliberately to place us outwith our own comfort zone to make us think.  We all see his instruction change and evolve from our participation in these courses.  Hence there's no 'my teaching is correct' 'my style is correct' dogma.

- We have a mix of people who train in other arts from Thai boxing/western boxing/tai chi/tae kwon do/aikido and others.  There's a common understanding that we all do the samething, but from different angles.  There's no issues with cross training, lots of us at the club do.  We bring all that understanding and apply it as facets of our Karate.

- We have an understanding of impact.  Although we do practice basics punching air there's a key understanding on impacts and we practice padwork as a matter of course.  Indeed the head instructor was fighting full contact thai fighters in the 70s.  Own of our students was until recently the Scottish Heavyweight Muay Thai champion.  I see other local Karate clubs doning the famed bouncy bouncy scream scream stop point awarded style of Karate and they think they are fighting.  I don't want to learn that.

- I feel like I am progressing.  Simply put.  I feel that there's others at the club better than me.  I feel that I am being push to improve everytime I train, and that there are others at the club who having trained in the same instructor/club for 30 years I aspire to be as good as them

For anyone interested we are www.karateglasgow.com

mattsylvester's picture

1. I saw an article on TKD in the You Magazine (back when it was a real magazine) as a child, it said it was the 'deadliest form of self-defence'. At the time I was being bullied, so this appealed greatly. Although I didn't start until a few years later because we couldn't find classes at the time, it just stuck with me.

2. I had a great instructor, was training with my best friend, loved the kicking aspect and enjoyed the sparring and patterns. And my mum was paying :)

miket's picture

My first answer would be a variation of your  #1, Iain.  I went in and my instructor was congenial, professional, and informative..  He also quite evidently had one of the largest, best run commercial dojo's in the area.  He had some credentials that I thought were imporatnat at the time, and which, even today, I view with a certain amount of respect for the accomplishment.  The place was clean, well kept, and professional looking.  All the gear was organized and hung up.  Most importantly, he answered my questions without attempoting to sell me anything.

Looking back, at the time, I couldn't really have selected an art based on criteria, because at the time, I didn't even know what criteria I was looking for-- I vaguely remember saying something about learning self defense.  But back then, I thought 'fighting' and self-protection were synonomous.

In my case, I got lucky and fell into a good school, ending up training with this individual for over 15-years, and keeping contact with them even today.  But I could just as easily have fallen into a bad one.

Question number 2, in my case, ultimately I didn't stay with the art, at least not as a I learned it.   Eventually, I moved on to a study of other arts, and ultimately, started teaching a blended version of what I had learned along the way.  To me, while I know others would disagree, there is nothing sacred about the term 'karate'.  Karate is a generalized term, like 'clothing' is a generalized term, or "Chinese food" is a generalized term.  Ultiamtely, I have found that what specific items (i.e. which sections of yoru MArtial Map) you develop a personal taste for are more important to me than developing an understanding of those sections where i have no interest.  And you have to (I believe) eventually focus your interest, because the whole map is too big for one person to study in their lifetime, like attempting to study all aspects of a single culture or even a subject- paleontology, cooking, English, golf, would be too broad.  Ultimately, a person needs personalize their skill set.  So, you could say I still  teach 'karate', but 'MY' karate isn't my instructor's karate, if that makes sense.  That's because, to me, saying 'karate' is simply the Okinawan way of saying 'self-defense'.  So you could say I teach self defense just as validly as you could say I teach karate.  That's how I see it anyway, the name of the art isn't important, it's the skill sets that the art develops that are really important. 

Jon Sloan
Jon Sloan's picture

1. I started in TKD in the early 80s after having spent three weeks on a school summer camp sharing a tent with a guy who did it. I'd always been interested in martial arts but hadn't found a local club. This one was local, big and very popular. When I left for University I was exposed to many other arts and began to see the limitations of TKD - as I had started for self protection reasons not competitive ones.

2. Despite misgivings, I stayed in TKD for around 16 years. Then met a girl who was a shotokan shodan, joined the club she went to and have been doing it ever since - around 14 years now. Naively, even then, I thought I was doing something more 'real' and 'practical' than TKD. Luckily, after some years, I found people like Iain, Vince Morris and Don Came that showed me it could be albeit with some modification to training methodology. Can't see myself doing anything else now.

Dave Moore
Dave Moore's picture

My last club I only went because the wife wanted to try Karate and it was a friend that introduced me. It was very sports orientated but I enjoyed my time with them but decided I wanted something more hands on. 

So I am currentlly with a club that does that, I tried a good few classes to make sure it was what I wanted, then switched. Its a heck of a lot rougher than before but I enjoy it.

Stuart Ashen
Stuart Ashen's picture

They knocked on my door! My 8yo daughter wanted to given it a try. I joined 8 weeks later and we graded to shodan together. Lovely thing to do with your kids. She stays because she loves sport karate. This is the main strength of our style. I have no interest in this however, and now teach a specialist class focused on self defence and kata applications. It works for me right now but I am at a stage where I really need to find an instructor to take me further down this path. Iain, don came, vince Morris et al have been massive influences, as was bill burgers book five years.... Stu.

Stuart D
Stuart D's picture

I started in the late 70s with a combination of Karate, Aikido and Kendo. Quite simply it was chance that I started there as this dojo was the closest to my home (although it was 6 miles away). I stuck with this for some years as the Karate and Aikido were taught as supplements to each other i.e. use an arm bar / lock / wrist lock then kick them in the nads/ knee /face - which ever was the closest to you foot. It was all quite violent and injury prone - but in my late teens also good fun.

The dojo closed due to lack of support and I did bits and pieces here and there until about 12 years ago when I started shotokan. Even though the association I belong to is sport based, my instructor liked the "mix" approach of restrain / control then hit.

I have stuck with him rather than the style, association or syllabus as he is a great teacher / mentor / coach for the clubs he looks after. Even though the sessions can veer off syllabus, he encourages it but then adds – “but don’t do that in your grading”  (he is a member on the board here but I won't name him to save his blushes) . 

lcpljones_dontpanic's picture

first took up Wado ryu back in 1992 after a work mate invited me along. really enjoyed and did it for about 6 months before having to leave as i had joined the army.

i have been doing martial arts of one sort or another since, while moving around in the army i had to do whatever i could find wherever i happened to be serving. in 1997 i started Ju Jutsu which i did for about 5 years. then another move forced me to have to change tack again. i found another ju jutsu club, Bushido Ryu in ashford, but they only trained once a week and i felt i needed more. thats when i found by chance my curent shotokan club. i paid a visit and spoke to the instructor who turned out to be very good friends with my ju jutsu instructors so that sort of clinched the deal really. what i liked about the shotokan or more specifically my instructor was his karate jutsu knowledge through having cross trained with his friends my ju jutsu instructors.

Similar to Stuart D above i choose to stick with my karate instructor as he has been very good to me and i feel i owe a certain debt of loyalty to him. i like training with him as opposed to the style or association.

evan.yeung's picture

Got enrolled in judo when I was six at the YMCA, but moved after about a year.  Was enrolled in TKD twice during middle school, but was pulled out by my parents.  Never discussed why, but I suspect they thought it was too 'violent.'  When I was in high school, I got involved in a tai chi club that didn't do much with true self defense, but did some push hands and martial applications training.  My parents were under the impression that tai chi was all meditative and gentle, so I didn't dissuade them from that idea, but throughout this time I was really much more interested in self-defense and practical application.

I did a lot of self-study in the intervening years on the Chinese Internal Martial Arts (with varying amounts of success) and finally took up formal training again in 1996 in an Indonesian Shaolin Hybrid (Shaolin Do) which also had some internal style teaching.  After reading Rory Miller's book "Meditations on Violence" I really had to rethink what my training goals were and what my previous traditional martial arts training was teaching me.  I managed to meet up with some practitioners of a New York based group called the Guided Chaos Combatives group that combined practical self defense with internal martial arts principles and was thoroughly impressed.  I'd probably be doing that if I wasn't stuck in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

In the meantime I took up additional training in a Shorin-Ryu Karate school just to keep in shape and to learn something new.  I figured that learning the Pinan and Naihanchi katas that are so prevalent in many karate systems would help me gain a 'common language' with other karate practitioners.  I was pleasantly surprised at how many of the katas, which are superficially simple, have so many hidden applications.  The dojo is heavily into sport competition, so I was looking for additional information on practical self-defense information from a karate viewpoint, and wound up amassing a library of Iain Abernethy DVDs. 

So there you go.  Sorry about the length.  You asked!   :)