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Getting Started in the Martial Arts

Getting Started in the Martial Arts

Lawrence Kane is the author of Martial Arts Instruction: Applying Educational Theory and Communication Techniques in the Dojo (YMAA, 2004) and co-author of The Way of Kata: A Comprehensive Guide to Deciphering Martial Applications (YMAA, 2005). Over the last 30 or so years, he has participated in a broad range of martial arts, from traditional Asian sports such as judo, arnis, kobudo, and karate to recreating medieval European combat with real armor and rattan (wood) weapons. He has taught medieval weapons forms since 1994 and Goju Ryu karate since 2002. He has also completed seminars in modern gun safety, marksmanship, handgun retention and knife combat techniques, and he has participated in slow-fire pistol and pin shooting competitions.

Since 1985 Lawrence has supervised employees who provide security and oversee fan safety during college and professional football games at a Pac-10 stadium. This job has given him a unique opportunity to appreciate violence in a myriad of forms. Along with his crew, he has witnessed, interceded in, and stopped or prevented literally hundreds of fights, experiencing all manner of aggressive behaviors as well as the escalation process that invariably precedes them. He has also worked closely with the campus police and state patrol officers who are assigned to the stadium and has had ample opportunities to examine their crowd control tactics and procedures.

Lawrence lives in Seattle, Washington. He can be contacted via e-mail at

This article discusses getting started in the martial arts and gives some great advice for those looking to get involved in the martial arts. It's a really good article and I'm very grateful to Lawrence for sharing it with members and visitors to this site.

All the best,


Getting Started in the Martial Arts

by Lawrence Kane

"The word dojo translated means "the place to learn the way," and Orientals consider it a valuable place of many lessons where a practitioner may learn to master himself as well as his opponent." - Dr. Hayward Nishioka

Interested in martial arts and don't know where to start? Upon discovering that I am a martial arts instructor, many of my friends, co-workers, and acquaintances have expressed an interest in the subject too. Those who do not live near where I teach inevitably ask me to refer them to someone with a dojo (school) in their local area. While I do not always know a specific person to send them to, I have developed an approach that has proven very successful in matching interested individuals with quality instructors who can fulfill their needs. Here is how to begin:

Start by knowing why you want to learn

No matter how good an instructor you ultimately find, he or she will only add value if the curriculum taught addresses your learning goals. The first thing you need to determine is why you are interested in martial arts in the first place. Are you looking for character development, tournament competition, physical conditioning, mental discipline, self-defense, weapons forms, any or all of the above, or something completely different? Are you looking to achieve rank and promotions or just learn some new skills?

Our interests in budo (martial ways) generally evolve and change over time. As children we may be drawn to martial arts simply because it is fun. Building strength, balance and coordination is definitely rewarding, yet the most beneficial aspect for many youths is the enhancement of self esteem that comes from surmounting challenges and receiving promotions throughout the training. Parents likely appreciate the discipline and conditioning aspects more than their children do. Many of my student's parents have remarked that their child pays better attention in school as a result of his or her karate training.

As young adults, we may be more concerned with the competitive aspects of our art. Social interactions and physical conditioning become more important. The ability to defend ourselves from potential adversaries is often a draw. As we reach our late 30s or early 40s, however, many practitioners begin looking for something deeper, such as internal (ki) training, character development, or even spiritual enlightenment.

Finding the best instructor is more important than choosing the right martial art

New students should choose the art they wish to pursue in large part by choosing the person who will be teaching it. Because there are only a limited number of vital areas on the body that can be manipulated, struck, or otherwise damaged by a martial practitioner, and there are only a limited number of ways that each joint in the body can move, every martial art shares certain common components. Emphasis and strategies will differ, of course, but techniques (e.g., punching, kicking, grappling, and throwing) always overlap.

Tai chi, for example, metaphorically boils an egg from the inside out with its predilection for internal energy. Karate, on the other hand, boils that egg from the outside in as it begins with an emphasis on external power. Advanced practitioners of both arts are able to harness both internal and external energy, so either way you ultimately get the same (metaphorically) boiled egg.

The fundamentals of fitness are universal as well. No one should feel forced to learn from an instructor who does not fulfill his or her needs just because they are the only local source of whatever style you have set your heart on. Finding the right teacher is far more important to effective learning than discovering the perfect martial art to study.

Identify potential instructors

Once you know what you are generally looking for, you will need to find an instructor who can fulfill those needs. The best source is obviously a referral by someone who knows you well, understands how you learn, and also knows someone appropriate who teaches martial arts. If you do not have friends or relatives who can refer you to an excellent instructor, however, you can start your search simply by looking in the Yellow Pages for your local area.

Make a list of dojos nearby and visit them. A good initial approach is to ascertain the emphasis of each dojo. Much of this can be understood simply by walking through the door. Schools whose front windows are crowded with trophies most likely have an emphasis on tournament fighting and competition. The presence of pads and headgear may reinforce this initial impression. Depending upon your age and interests, this may or may not be attractive.

Stacks of tatami or other practice mats indicate a propensity for grappling techniques. Racks of weapons offer an obvious clue to the availability of such training. The presence of kigu undo equipment, traditional tools used for conditioning exercises such as nigiri game (gripping jars) and makiwara (striking posts), suggests a traditional approach-one that bodes well if your goal is character development.

Watch a class in progress

You can tell a lot about how a school is run by looking across the dojo floor while training is in session. Ask if you can observe a class. Are students standing around looking confused or does everyone appear to be actively engaged in the learning process? Are they talking or working? Do students and teachers interact in a respectful manner? Are students corrected in a positive way when they make a mistake? Is there an appropriate level of supervision?

If the dojo rules and/or dojo kun (precepts or virtues) are posted on the wall, does what they say make sense to you? Are students training in traditional uniforms or modern street clothes? Assuming shoes are not worn during class, are they lined-up neatly in front of the floor? Is the place neat, orderly, and in good repair? Is there a viewing area where parents can observe their children without getting in the way? Is there adequate room to train? Does there appear to be an appropriate emphasis on safety? Is attendance strong?

Interview the instructor

Be prepared to interview the instructors to get a feel for his or her teaching methods. If properly approached, teachers should be happy to discuss their styles, testing methodologies, and teaching philosophies with prospective students (and/or the parents of prospective students). Be respectful of their time, however, preparing questions ahead of time and making an appointment when necessary. Just as you are forming an initial impression of a potential instructor, your future sensei (teacher) is forming his or her impression of you.

If you are a parent looking for a place where your child(ren) can train, you should know that teaching youngsters is significantly different than communicating with older students. Educational programs for children must accommodate their levels of physical and emotional growth. When younger children encounter a stimulating, enjoyable, and safe classroom environment, they will build solid foundations from which they can learn more advanced skills as they age.

Be sure to enquire about how the curriculum accommodates children's unique learning needs. Contests, for example, can be very motivational for children so long as they serve legitimate educational purposes and everyone has an opportunity to win. A class that is nothing but fun and games, on the other hand, simply does not teach martial arts effectively. Exemplary instructors understand this balance.

Whether they are dealing with children or adults, instructors need to be firm yet polite when disciplining students, informative when explaining new skills, and persuasive when teaching the more esoteric aspects of their art. They should be approachable for answering questions and polite no matter how silly the inquiries might be. Above all else, exemplary educators are always prepared and ready to teach each class in a professional manner.

Characteristics of an exemplary instructor

After interviewing an instructor, it may be possible to talk with students and/or parents of students to gather more information. Exemplary instructors have nothing to hide and should not mind such additional scrutiny so long as it is not disruptive to their students. Characteristics of an exemplary instructor include following:

• Enthusiasm for practicing his or her chosen martial art form

• A passion for teaching

• A deep, well rounded knowledge of budo, preferably beyond a single art form

• A high degree of perception regarding the needs and interests of students

• A good understanding of personality differences among students and a demonstrated willingness to accommodate them as necessary to ensure good communication

• An intuitive ability to select the most effective teaching style for any situation and a willingness to change course midstream if things are not working as anticipated

• Ability to communicate a sense of direction and purpose for his or her school and art form

• An open mind, tempered with a great deal of common sense

• A high degree of integrity, personal honor, and strong moral character

Try before you buy

Once you have made a preliminary decision, many dojos offer one or more free classes to help you decide whether or not training there will be right for you. It really takes a minimum of two to three months to know for sure (especially if you have not done this sort of thing before), but much can be intuited with a single class.

Most instructors are perfectly happy to give you a trail run. I would not personally join any school that did not give me a minimum of one free trial class. Do expect to be required to sign a liability waiver for insurance purposes though. That is a standard procedure.

Caveat emptor

While exemplary sensei have special knowledge, skills, and abilities that are well worth paying for, you should strive to avoid getting ripped off. After all, you are signing up to learn skills that literally take a lifetime to master so this can be a pretty long term deal if you find the right art form and stick with it. Unfortunately even with a good teacher it can easily take a year or more to learn enough about a style to ascertain whether or not it really is a good fit. On top of that, some instructors whose only source of income is teaching martial arts may use unscrupulous or manipulative tactics to bring revenue through the door.

To a certain degree you get what you are paying for but a higher price does not always indicate higher quality of instruction. Where I teach (and train) dues are roughly half the price of the nearest competitor. This is because the owner of our dojo is not running the school to make a living; he already has a day job. His goal is simply to have his students cover the cost of maintaining a convenient place to train.

Understand the payment scheme

Be wary of long-term contracts. In fact, if someone offers you a "special" one-time only deal (typically for more than a thousand dollars) that covers all your training through black belt, I strongly suggest that you walk away quickly. Month-to-month arrangements are best. Prices tend to run between $45 and $120 per month depending upon where you live and how many days per week you wish to practice.

Requirements to pay a moderate initiation fee (~ 1 month's dues) and purchase a uniform (~ $20 to $80) are perfectly reasonable. Even if you already have a gi (uniform), if it is not the same type as that used by the rest of the class you can expect to be required to purchase a new one. While there are a variety of online sources for purchasing a gi, most schools can provide them for you at a reasonable cost. They can also help with sizing or tailoring when needed. Uniforms are generally sized numerically in a fashion that does not correlate with any other method of clothing dimensions. Online conversion tables do not always account for shrinkage accurately.

Be sure to look into testing and/or advancement fees as well. Most schools charge a nominal fee (~ $10 to $20) to cover the cost of your new belt and/or certificate for each kyu (colored belt) rank you achieve. It takes nine kyu promotions to become eligible for a black belt. There is a larger fee, typically somewhere in the $200 range, for black belt tests. Anything significantly larger is suspect. Further, most legitimate schools only charge the testing fee once regardless of whether or not you pass a promotion test on the first try.

Starting your journey

OK, so you've found a dojo, are impressed with the instructor, and are ready to begin your training. You will quickly find that you have to relearn basic concepts like breathing, standing, and walking. You will be taught how to breathe through your diaphragm rather than solely with your lungs, introduced to a variety of uncomfortable stances and foreign postures, and shown how to move in unusual new ways. You will wear a distinctive uniform, learn new traditions and etiquette, and begin to understand a whole new language (e.g., Japanese, Chinese, or Korean). And that's just the beginning.

Expect the process to take a while. No matter how gifted an athlete you are, you cannot possibly learn everything right away. Certain information simply cannot be understood until prerequisite knowledge has already been internalized. It takes a lot of repetition and hard work to truly learn these skills.

You'll undoubtedly feel like you are drinking from a fire hose. That's perfectly normal and should be expected. Give the process time. Sensei literally means "one who has come before." The teacher you have selected is a person who has advanced further along the martial path than you have. He or she will be your guide as you strive to learn new concepts, understand the subtle nuances, and master new skills.

Student/teacher relationships

Student/teacher interactions are complex, especially in the field of martial arts where instructors hold a higher-degree of power over their students than in other disciplines. While a math or science teacher can flunk you, manipulate you, threaten you, or otherwise mess up your life, he or she works for an institution with strict bylaws, governance, and oversight. If a student's professor does something inappropriate, there is generally a review board and dispute resolution process to follow.

A martial arts instructor, on the other hand, can kill you. Furthermore, he or she often runs his or her own school with limited, if any, oversight by an association of that style. Consequently such relationships need to be deeply founded on trust, integrity, and honesty, untainted by even the appearance of impropriety. Most teachers feel that it is imperative to separate personal and professional relationships. It is important that students understand and respect that division. Tribulations in one's personal life simply do not belong on the dojo floor. It is dangerous and unwise.

Expect a mentor, not a friend

Most instructors find that there is a certain degree of professionalism and detachment that is prudent when interacting with students. We live in a highly litigious society where even an unfounded accusation of harassment or sexual misconduct can ruin one's reputation and livelihood. Expect your teacher to be professional and polite, but not necessarily friendly. That does not mean that he or she does not like you. It is just a practical response to an unfriendly environment.

Try to respect your instructor's boundaries. Given turnover rates among new students, teachers will usually distance themselves, at least a little, from all but the most senior, dedicated practitioners. Most budo instructors will not go out of their way to provide "secrets" or special assistance to those who have not proven themselves worthy over a significant period of time. That is just human nature.

Your instructor should be your mentor in all things martial arts. He or she is uniquely qualified to excel in that arena. However, senseis are neither omniscient nor omnipotent no matter how frequently students treat them as such. Don't place him or her in the position of becoming your priest, counselor, or psychologist. That's the purview of other professionals.

Final thoughts

Many students discover that their martial arts experience transforms their lives in ways they never expected. Finding the right instructor, someone who can help you fulfill your goals, is the first and most important step in that journey.

Copyright © Lawrence Kane 2005

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