How to actually learn martial arts…

For some reason people today join martial arts and feel that they only need to train when in the dojo or have a Sensei hand walk you through the requirements and skill sets. This type of attitude leads only to one pathway…failure. Let me explain further using both experiences in my past as well as experiences I have teaching for the last 26 years.
When I began training classes were twice a week and were two to three hours long. Training was tough and the Sensei was more strict than modern dojo as well as we were demanded only the absolute best on each punch, kick or Kata we did. Anything else led to a lot of push up practice. I can remember Sensei leading Kata class. We would be ran through a Kata two to three times and then told to go practice on our own. About the only thing that was actually led consistently was when we did the basics or when we would do Kumite. Even when it came to self-defense we would be guided through it two to three times and then split up to go work with a partner to get right. The Sensei would walk around the dojo correcting our movements or giving us suggestions on what we had to do to improve everything to black belt level quality. As we moved up in rank self-study times such as this increased and it was only the students who actually showed up to dojo early, or stayed after class to train that moved up in rank beyond brown belt. It was not uncommon to see students in full Gi and Obi (uniform and belt) in the dojo during open times on Saturdays working out on their own or with a class mate.
I remember when I got to brown belt all the other brown belts would get together to work out on Saturdays. It was a great feeling to be asked to show up which I always did. There were plenty of brown belts that never did though and not a single one of them ever made it black belt…not one.
Since I began teaching on my own in 1992 (running my own dojo) I have witnessed a steady decline in the self-discipline people put forth when they join a martial arts dojo. It seems everyone thinks if they simply “show up” to classes they “deserve” to move up in rank. I have a lot of students with great capabilities that could have become black belts but they were lazy in their training or tried to skate by with acting like they were training. Regardless one of the reasons I use belt exams is to actually TEST a student to see if they are truly training and understanding the materials being taught in the dojo. It is very clear when a student is not practicing or preparing for the belt exam because they do not do good enough to pass it.
It used to be that I would show a student a Kata three or four times and they would work it until they had the basics of it down. We would then work on it to help them get better at it. Today if you are not teaching the Kata by numbers and stepping the students through it they don’t even try to get it. This bothers me because, unlike them, I have had to use my skills in real life situations and I know that had I trained this way I would not be here today for certain. Part of Karate training is about disciplining yourself to train…even when you don’t want to. To go above and beyond the normalcy of life and step in the excellent. You have to push yourself hard and harder or you quite simply will fail. So here is my advice to all you aspiring students out there:
  1. When a Sensei tells you something, corrects you or shows you something don’t just stand there and nod yes. Work it until you think you may have it and then show the Sensei so we can help you get better at it. This what a Sensei loves…seeing a student’s desire to excel and improve.
  2. Whenever you can make it to the dojo to train…even when a class is not going on. The extra effort you put into your training will be the absolute difference between being able to use the skills you are learning and failing in a real self-defense situation and in life. We are very fortunate today that most schools have open mat time…take advantage of it…after all you pay tuition so get the most out of it you can.
  3. When you feel like you want to quit training is when you MUST go to classes. This is an absolute in anything in life. The only way to get over the quitting bug is to not do it and to FORCE yourself to achieve. A Sensei is not there to hold your hand and most good Sensei will not. If you don’t show the self-discipline to train and improve you deserve to be ignored. We teach Karate…not do babysitting.
  4. Set realistic goals each week. A lot of people just show up and go through the moves in classes. Each week you should start off with a new goal. For example “this week I am going to learn my new kata” or “this week I am going make my stances better” and then focus on that goal. Simple and realistic goal setting such as this improves the overall goal of not only earning a black belt but it will make you an excellent one to boot.
  5. Quit making excuses or blaming your failures on others. If you show up unprepared for classes it is your own fault…no one else. Always be prepared is important if you want to be successful in life as well as in a real self-defense situation. When someone is trying to harm you making excuses means you get HARMED.
  6. MAKE TIME TO TRAIN. Schedule your class days as Karate days and they are not bendable for anything except emergencies. Pick at least two class days a week that you WILL go to the dojo no matter what unless an emergency comes up. People who do this and do not just show up randomly are 10 times more successful than others at learning the martial arts.
  7. Make time to work on your skills outside of the dojo. Since many people are very busy these days and cannot often make it to open mat time at the dojo you should pick a 30 minute interval twice a week where you will study what you are learning that week in the dojo. Do not use this if you miss classes though…you need to make up that class.
  8. Push yourself and when your Sensei is pushing you harder give it all you got. All the best black belts have a saying of “leave it all on the mat” which means to give it everything you have each class. Sweat, strain, work hard, struggle and put it all into your training…no exceptions. This is the only way to improve in Karate. Giving half effort leads to ultimate failure and failure cannot be an option.
  9. Remember that every single person who has earned a black belt including your Sensei has gone through the same emotions and feelings you are experiencing. We have all wanted to quit at some time. We have all felt like crap sometime. We have all felt like we couldn’t get it right at some time. The only difference is we followed the above advice and trained to get better realizing that only quitters fail and we would not allow ourselves to be quitters.
  10. Face every single fear you have no matter what. A good Sensei will know your fears and eventually you will be required to face them. If you are afraid to Kumite a certain person in the dojo you can rest assured that your Sensei will keep paring you up with that person…not to get you to quit but to help you get better and overcome the fear. Overcoming fear is as big a part of earning a black belt as is learning how to throw a great front kick.
In closing keep these in mind and print them out. Go back to them over and over again to remind yourself how to train and then improve each class. It is tough but it is the tough that makes it great. Anyone can earn a black belt…but not everyone will make it to black belt…you can either be one of the greats who put in the work or just another space on the mat. I think the only answer is clear. Good luck and remember what you learn in the dojo will improve your life outside of the dojo 🙂
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