Roughly 99% of people who walk into a dojo to join a style is doing so for the very first time. That is to say, they’ve never done martial arts before. And no, before y’all get snippy, I’m not saying that’s an actual statistic, it’s just my observations over decades of training in several dojos. One of the biggest challenges the new students face is the fact that they walk in, knowing nothing. This can leave them anxious, awkward and shy, which can make the learning experience harder and occasionally embarrassing. What sometimes makes things harder, is when you have a new student who thinks they know everything. That just makes things harder on the current students and can even be disruptive to the class in general.
The concept of learning in traditional martial arts will usually involve learning from someone who ISN’T the Sensei… As odd as this may sound, one needs to recognize that there are usually several students and only one Sensei, meaning that he or she may not necessarily have the time to spend with every student, even on their first day. This means that assistant instructors and even junior belts may be charged with teaching new students their basics on the first day. And this doesn’t sit well with everybody, especially those who think they already know better and feel they’re entitled to the Sensei’s attention. And as we all know, entitlement is currently the spice of society…
I remember an experience from years ago, when I was still back home in New Brunswick. Sensei had a policy that when a new student stepped into the dojo, one of the junior belts would show them the basic exercises and opening of our first kata, so that they would be able to keep up during their initial classes. This would usually involve fifteen minutes of kicks, punches and the opening of Sanchin, which is the first (and last) kata we learn in my style. this can be important and prevents the embarrassment of a new student standing there watching as the rest of the class engages in something they aren’t familiar with. There can be some of that even IF they get that initial show ‘n tell but at least it’s mitigated, somewhat.
I remember this one time, a large, muscled, athletic-looking guy came into the dojo. one of the first things he mentioned while introducing himself was that he was a hockey player and weightlifter. Although it isn’t completely unexpected that someone athletic would expect to be able to catch on to something athletic quicker than the average person, it would be a grave error in judgement to try and assume you know better than others who have been doing the art for years. Apparently, my turn had come around as Sensei asked me to show this individual the basics before his first class. I was comfortable with my level of skill and had no issues in showing the basics to someone else. I was motivated and pleased to be helping someone out.
I walked up to the guy and introduced myself. He was pleasant enough during the introduction. That is, until I explained that Sensei had asked me to show him the basics. He glanced down at my belt and saw that it was white. granted, my belt had a green bar on it, which in adult grading, is only one level prior to testing for green belt. But to his credit, this guy wouldn’t have known that. he held up his hands in a placating gesture and said, “no offence.” I don’t know about you, but experience has taught me that whenever someone says “no offence,” they’re about to say something that will likely offend.
He explained that he didn’t feel it was appropriate for a beginner to be teaching him and wanted to wait for Sensei. I responded that although I understood that perspective, Sensei usually used the 15-20 minutes before class to stretch and counted on the junior belts to show new students the basics. he said “no thanks,” walked away and began stretching in imitation of Sensei. When class began, the new student was completely lost. He gave it his best try and followed along with the class as best he could. Sensei noticed his struggle and the fact that he appeared not to know the basics and asked what I had shown him. he told Sensei I had shown him nothing.
The class carried on and Sensei came to talk to me about it after class let out. I explained what had happened and what had been said. He instructed us not to provide guidance or instruction to the new student unless he came and asked for it. Which he didn’t. Ever. The guy showed up for a couple more classes and then we never saw him again. Some say that was a harsh approach but the reality is that it was karate, not a fuckin’ knitting class. Besides, if you’re told something needs to happen a certain way in order to learn properly, one would assume that you should give the benefit of the doubt and do it. This guy chose to struggle and go against the flow before realizing he wouldn’t catch on. Be like water, dude!
Of course, had he stuck it out, he would have eventually caught on, received correction and started learning. But that was his choice. Martial arts is like a ladder. The students above need to help bring up the students below, in the hopes they’ll someday be above and help those who helped them. That being said, the one below needs to be willing to receive that help in climbing to the next rung on the ladder. Otherwise, they’ll always find themselves watching from below, while others continue to climb the martial arts ladder. This is something important to bear in mind, whether you’re currently a student of the Way or someone new contemplating joining a dojo. ☯️
4 thoughts on “It’s All Just One Step At A Time…”
I’ve trained at several dojos (bad luck with finding instructors who were great at their respective art, but not so much with business), and to be fair, if I was told I’d be getting trained by a white belt, I’d have concerns.
Yes, it’s fair to expect a lower rank “junior instructor” to handle beginning stuff, but let’s be honest; the typical dojo’s white belt barely has a grasp on the basics themselves. It’s fair to expect qualified instruction in exchange for one’s money.
They key difference here is in the totality of the situation. For example, in my scenario, I was charged with training new students with the basics but my white belt had a green bart on it, which in my style indicates I’m about to test fro green and have been training for almost five years. This puts me strides ahead of most others in my dojo. Although I could understand someone asking WHY they’re being shown something by a white belt, different styles will have different grading systems and assuming you shouldn’t be shown something because the person’s belt is white shows you aren’t ready to learn. in fact, some styles only employ white and black, so you may be rejecting someone who’s trained for a decade and could teach you a great deal. The lesson here is not to let bias and preconceptions guide your journey.
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Here’s the thing though; going by how you wrote the story, you didn’t outright explain to him the belt system or how much experience you had. Ergo, he’s presumably left assuming what a white belt represents for your school. The average person walking into a school for the first time isn’t likely to know enough to know what questions to ask and only has pop culture to guide them. 😉
I do explain that Sensei asked me to show him the basics, though. I totality understand that you’re looking at the specifics but the point is that if you’re going to undertake something like the martial arts, you need to have an open mind. Although I agree I could have explained my rank (which isn’t necessary), he could have asked about the process, as well. Instead, he puffed out his chest and assumed. To each their own, I suppose but there’s no room for such things in traditional martial arts.