Guidelines for the Beginner


    So, you've joined a dojo.  You're probably, tense, nervous, excited, and a little (maybe a lot) unsure about just what you're doing.  You're not the first and you won't be the last person to feel this way.  Actually, you have already crossed the biggest hurdle to learning martial arts, which is getting started.  This act alone has set you apart from the vast majority of people out there.  The fact that you have made a decision to commence studying makes you a member of a select few.  Now all it takes is enough stubbornness not to quit.  Here are a few guidelines to help you make the most of your training:

As a member of a dojo you are one of its official representatives, even though you are only a beginner and don't have the slightest idea of what you're representing.  Therefore, if you should ever do anything that would bring discredit upon your dojo, you not only dishonor your fellow students, you dishonor everyone who has ever been a member of the dojo and everyone who may ever become a member of the dojo.  For example: whatever you do outside the dojo may be interpreted as what is taught at the dojo.  Therefore, if you're a bully to others, they may assume that all students of the dojo are bullies and that the dojo teaches students to be like that.  As a member of the dojo, you have a responsibility to uphold the honor of the dojo.

The proper attitude for the beginner is nyunanshin.  This means having a flexible spirit and being capable of being molded by the dojo.  This means that a person must surrender his ego to the headmaster, the sensei.  In effect, he says, "Here I am.  Do with me what you will."  Without this spiritual pliability and intellectual receptiveness, you will never master a martial art.  As the old saying goes, "If you would drink of the master's tea, you must first empty your cup."

Know when and how to bow.  This shows attention to detail and proper respect.  Lack of proper etiquette and respect will mark you as a beginner.  Aside from the bowing done during the formal opening and closing ceremony of a class, there are bows...

   To your partner at the beginning and end of a practice session.

   To your senior after receiving instruction.

   To the people you have trained with (do this after class).

   To the dojo when entering or leaving.

   To the shinza when coming onto the practice area and before leaving it.

   To a black-belt upon seeing him for the first time that day.

   To the instructor upon every encounter.

   To a weapon when it is handed to you.

   To a seated senior when you pass him (han-gassho).

   To the weapon of a senior when you pass by it (han-gassho).


Dawdling around in the dressing room is the mark of a beginner.  There are never enough dressing rooms in a dojo.  Change clothes as fast as you can and then clear out so the next person can use the space.

You should never wear your gi outside the dojo -- it is a special uniform, to be worn in a special place, while doing special things -- and wearing it on the street tends to reduce its importance.  If you have no other choice, remove the obi and jacket, roll them neatly, and wear the pants with a warm-up jacket.

Men never wear a T-shirt under a gi.  Women, on the other hand, are encouraged to wear a t-shirt.  It should be plain white.

You will probably note that the seniors always look neat, no matter how vigorous class is.  Your uniform however, always seems to be falling off.  The trick is to make tiny, but constant, adjustments to your gi as you train.  This ability comes only with practice.

Everybody feels stupid as a beginner.  Sorry, there is no escape to this one.  The first few times you step onto the floor you are going to feel like a complete idiot.  Things that everyone else is doing with ease, you will find extremely difficult if not totally impossible.  Don't worry about it!  This is just a part of the learning experience and every single member of the class, including the instructor, went through the same thing.

If you feel lost, don't feel lonely: 90% of all beginners feel exactly the same way.  You don't really understand where you are, where you're supposed to go, or how to get there.  And you probably spend a lot of time standing around on the mat with a slightly dazed expression, doing nothing.  Find a senior and politely ask them what you can do.

    What about the 10%?  They fall into one of two categories: the racers and the hiders. 

    A racer is a student who is so terribly eager to become a black belt that he never learns how to be a white-belt.  The biggest mistake made by the racer is confusing quantity with quality: he thinks that the more he learns the better he will become.  However, charging madly around, constantly striving to learn more new techniques, he never really accomplishes much.  Instead of striving for black belt, which you usually wind up getting before you usually deserve it anyway, concentrate on being the very best white-belt in the dojo.  You will impress the seniors, make the sensei smile a lot, and wind up getting a lot more personal attention than if you persist in working on techniques that you're not even supposed to know yet.

    Hiders are the opposite of racers.  Hiders stay in the back row, never say much, and hope to remain unnoticed by the seniors.  The greatest reason for this is fear -- they are afraid that they will fail a promotion examination, so they adopt a low profile and pretend that getting promoted is not important.  If allowed to continue in this mode, they become very old white-belts.

    The fear of making a fool of oneself is natural, so don't allow it to control you.  Seniors have been chuckling over the mistakes of beginners for a thousand years: you aren't the first and you won't be the last beginner to be afraid of standing up in front of the other students during an examination.

When you have a question, you should always work your way up the ladder of ranks.  Start with a student who is one grade senior to you.  If he doesn't have an answer, then you can try someone one grade more senior.  As you do this, remember that only the sensei has the final answer; everyone else only has opinions.

Always practice a new technique in three stages: first, very slow, then very fast; finally, fast and strong.  Start the new technique in slow motion and concentrate on proper form.  Once you have the move memorized, and it feels smooth, then you can gradually start accelerating.  Finally, when the technique is both fast and proper, start working on power.

    Most students have a tendency to skip past form practice in their desire for speed and power.  As a result, their peak speed and power is severely limited by their flawed technique.

Beware of over training.  Too much training is worse than not enough: you must allow your body enough time to recover between sessions.

White-belts tend to think that they know a lot more than they really do.  This leads to a disease commonly known as spilling or white-belt-itis.  The first symptom is a beginner acting like a sensei.  When a new student joins the dojo, he immediately takes the newcomer under his wing and starts teaching him techniques and showing him the ropes.  When working with others, especially beginners, he tries to explain the hows and whys of whatever there working on as if he is spilling over with knowledge.  Don't let this happen to you.  If you knew enough to teach you'd be the sensei.  When this occurs, it is annoying to the seniors, misleading to the newcomers, and a great waste of time. 

From time to time during class, the sensei will signal everyone to stop (usually with a clap of his hands) and demonstrate a variation, or a new detail, of the technique you are working on.  When this happens, move away from the center of the mat and sit in seiza while he talks.  When the demonstration is over, bow, shout "Os!", and quickly return to practice.

Although the instructor will normally use one of the seniors as a partner when demonstrating a technique, you must be prepared for the terrifying possibility that he will grab you to demonstrate something.  Don't worry about this too much: he will lighten up on beginners.  If the sensei uses you to demonstrate a technique, don't struggle against him.  If you do (and are strong) he might take you seriously, and that could be extremely painful.

Get a notebook!  It is unbelievable how many students ignore this simple advice.  If you were in college you wouldn't fail to take notes at an important lecture, would you?  Don't disrupt the class by taking notes, waste time writing when you should be practicing, or miss what the sensei is saying now because you are busy writing down what he said a moment ago.  Wait until a rest period or the end of class and update your notes, asking others students about anything you can't remember.

Keep your mouth shut!  The sensei should do all of the talking; you do all the listening.  You can do most of the communicating you need with your partner with an occasional nod or shake of your head.  Excessive talking draws your spirit into your mind and away from your body--simply closing your mouth and concentrating on the technique can easily triple your rate of learning.

Pay attention to the instructor.  When he starts to talk you should immediately drop into seiza and concentrate intensely on what he is saying.

Practice with the seniors as much as you can.  You will learn more in five minutes working with a black belt than you will in an hour with another white-belt.

Practice learning with your eyes.  Most people only learn with their ears, never really learning how to see.

Don't sit on the mat (floor) in a position that is senior to a position occupied by someone who is senior to you;  Don't place a weapon on the mat with its point toward a senior.

In general, if you don't see several people of your rank doing something, assume that you shouldn't do it either.  (Remember, seniors are often permitted to do things you can't.)

What seniors want to see from a junior is cheerful obedience, good manners, and a lot of sweat.  When a senior asks you to do something, never ask why.  Bow, say "Yes Sir!" (or shout, "Os!"), and jump to it.  Casual suggestions from the sensei, by the way, are always to be interpreted as direct orders.

Don't be shy about insisting that other people treat your sensei with the proper respect.  If you see another student acting improperly (e.g., being overly familiar), you should get that student aside and explain how to act.  Don't, however, do this until after your first promotion -- as a white-belt you're not assumed to know much about anything.  Neither should you correct the actions of a senior -- your seniors may not always be right, but they are never wrong.

Your sensei is your sensei twenty-four hours a day, not just when you are in the dojo.  You should, therefore, only address him as Sensei.  There is absolutely no excuse for ever addressing him by his first name.

To introduce your sensei to another person, say, "This is Mr. Jones, my Sensei."  During conversation, refer to him as Jones Sensei.  You don't introduce him to outsiders as Jones Sensei because they might mistake Sensei as his last name rather than his title.