Sunday, April 19, 2009

Five Keys to Your First Martial Arts Class

You're excited, nervous, and maybe a little bit scared. After all, you have no idea what to expect; what to expect of the instructor, the other students, or even of yourself. Maybe you've been thinking about studying a martial art for a while, and maybe you're not entirely sure this is the thing for you. So what should you expect from your first lesson?

I began with my then seven-year-old son (was later joined by my eleven year old daughter). In our first lesson we learned the most basic training stance and how to walk across the room. In the second lesson we concentrated on breathing. My wife hoped that the third lesson would cover eating! My instructor, a Fifth Degree Master, was very patient and explained many of the fundamentals, most of which were so simple and of such common sense that I immediately dismissed them as too juvenile to be of any real importance. Tight fist, low stance, and concentration he'd say.

Your first lesson will likely be similar in many ways. No one will ask you to break any boards, jump through fire, or demonstrate any mastery. You'll likely be shown the most fundamental of concepts such as how to make a fist, one or two fundamental stances, and maybe some light movements. The first thing you will learn however is that these stances and movements, while appearing so elegantly simple from the waiting room, require far more effort that they would appear.

I have a student in his 60's that used to bring his grandson in and watch him throughout the class. Afterward the grandfather would kinda admonish the grandson for not working hard enough. Finally the grandson told him, "if you think it's so easy grandpa, why don't you try it?" - and he said this in front of the school's owner. After some stammering and stuttering, the grandfather said, "sure, how hard can it be?" Well, four years and a Black Belt later, the grandfather freely admits, it's a lot harder than it looks from the parking lot. By the way - you caught that right - a man started at the age of 60, and was able to achieve Black Belt in four years. You can do it too.

In your first class you'll be excited and nervous and may not let some of the lesson sink in - the parts about fundamentals and basic philosophy for your art. For instance, Tang Soo Do, is a defensive martial art. We don't teach you how to beat people up, we teach you how to defend yourself with a variety of techniques that include both offensive and defensive techniques. Our defensive techniques, such as blocks, are meant to persuade the attackers to discontinue their assault - in that sense they can be thought of as defensively-offensive moves. The defensive nature of the art is almost always discussed in the first lessons, but many students miss it.

In our early classes you're sure to hear, "tight fist, low stance, concentration" about a hundred times. Six months later, as you're preparing for your second test you may begin to ask, "of all the things I've learned, what is the secret to real martial art skill." Yeah - tight fist, low stance, and concentration.

I've listed here five things you want to remember as you arrive to your first class:
  1. Come prepared to listen. There isn't a whole lot to hear, but what is said is so foundational, that it will likely affect everything else you study and practice. It's OK to ask questions, but (a) only ask what you truly need to know, and (b) remember you're not there to show off your knowledge, describe your life's experiences, or carry on a conversation. Learning martial arts is a whole lot about focusing the mind on the repetitions of the body.
  2. Lose the whole "I can't do that" lingo - In the first place it's just not true and secondly, this is not the place for self-deprecation.
  3. Be on time. Your instructor schedules beginner students at times when he can devote either his attention or the attention of trusted teachers on you. When you show up late you effect other students' training - how rude is that?
  4. Be ready to work. This would include leaving the problems of your day-job outside, let go of your term papers, un-cut grass, the girl with the freckles, the boy with the eyes, and the boss with the pitchfork. (A), they'll still be there after class and you can deal with them then, and (B) a martial arts class is the last place you want to loose focus!
  5. Don't apologize. You're new - we all know it. Everybody makes mistakes, moves left instead of right, blocks up not down, and gets frustrated with themselves. Welcome to the human race! If the instructor corrects you, just fix it. If you catch your own mistake, just fix it. There's no need to verbalize your internal disappointment. If you feel compelled to say something, say, "thanks."

I've tried to keep these general enough that they'll apply to any martial art. If you keep these five things in mind, you'll do well. If five is too many to remember ('cause you're all nervous and all) - then just do this; listen and try to have patience with yourself. Do your best.

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