What is it to be a martial arts student?

I am writing this because I think much has been lost over the years as to what it is to be a student in the martial arts. Back in the day, there were a number of students on the same page as I was, now finding one over a few years time is considered an accomplishment. Maybe this will give a bit of insight or inspiration to the new generation of up and coming students.

Way back when I started, there were 3 students and 2 teachers. We practiced in a dance studio, I believe, with hard wood floors. Granted we were not doing throws, but more stand up boxing type stuff – throws came later. This was a fairly interesting class as we would train in the men’s bathroom or outside, etc. It gave me a brief insight to situational awareness. How many people actually think of being attacked while in the bathroom? I would guess not many, but you should. It’s a perfect opportunity – it’s “sacred time.” Guys know what I am talking about – no talking, every other urinal is empty, eyes forward looking at the wall 6-12 inches in front of you. Now – look a different way – a room of targets trained to mind their own business and not make eye contact, hands are “occupied”, eyes diverted, belongings either stashed or easily accessible to others, that wall that you are staring at 6-12 inches away makes a great place to pin your face to – that urinal with your hands busy makes a fantastic and actually rather conformed straight jacket of sorts to be pinned into. OK you get the idea. Sinks, toilets, stall doors, plumbing – well there you have many potential “weapons” to use or to have them used upon you… point being – be aware of where you are and what you can use in that just in case moment. But I digress… The class was rather informal, yet even in the short time I was there, I learned a lot that still is with me to this day 17+ years later.

I had moved back to Illinois and got in contact with a friend from college who was a Tae Kwon Do instructor – somewhat old schoolish. Drills, repetition, practical application, more repetition. We practiced in his living room and out on a concrete slab. If it wasn’t rug burn it was road rash. As a student, you didn’t complain, you just did. These are all lessons, you may not understand them at the time, but they will become apparent later. There were 2 or 3 of us training with Kitaro in the background and candles or incense burning. A bit of contrast to my previous class, yet still lessons learned are still with me.

Around the same time as I was doing the TKD, I became involved in Aikido and JuJutsu. This was my first intro to dojo martial arts. Aikido was unfortunately not a great experience for me in terms of learning. The class was taught by a woman, and I in NO way am saying she was not qualified to teach, it was just my mindset at the time that did not jive with the “dancy” way it was presented. Now, working with the other students in the class was a weird dichotomy. Being a noob we were to work with the more advanced black belts. I thought “Hey, cool, I can learn some good stuff this way.” Yeah, no. This was their time to use their knowledge on an unsuspecting rookie. I am still trying to get a grasp on the warm ups and this guy is taking me by the neck and dumping me ass over teakettle repeatedly. How I was to learn from that – I have no idea. I finished out the semester and said thank you, but this is not working for me.

I was also enrolled in JuJutsu with Combat Arts Institute, which was a stark difference to what I had seen before. This was back in the earlier days when Sensei Koz and Sensei Martin taught together at College of DuPage. There was a beginner class to get people up to speed and comfortable with at least rolling and falling and some basic movement and being that close to someone. JuJutsu is an art where you need to be relatively comfortable with having another person up against you – there is not personal space in JuJutsu. There were a few senior students from the advanced class who would help us out with getting movements down and not breaking each other at first. A technique was presented, we worked on it, we drilled it and so on. I still remember Sensei Martin saying before we went to practice – “OK now remember to smile.” At first, this concept was foreign. Smile? WTF? This is martial arts, there is no smiling in martial arts. It took me awhile, but I got it. If you are not having fun, it doesn’t stick and you won’t want to do it. It’s a lot easier to enjoy something if you are smiling. Graduating to the intermediate/advanced class brought more of the same. A technique was presented to the various ranks and then we broke off and practiced said technique. I enjoyed the class and was having fun. I met people who I still talk to now – which is pretty amazing. Teachers were your friends as were the other students – a different dynamic. This also became my first experience with rank testing as well. I had put it off for awhile, as many people do. Eventually you want to learn more, so you must test and progress to learn the newer, cooler stuff. I remember thinking – I’ll get my yellow belt and be done then it was I’ll get my green belt and be done – too late I was hooked – it becomes so much a part of you and who you are. Tests covered all techniques left and right side, verbal, written sections. They were quite comprehensive and rather formal. I had never seen the teachers wear hakamas before, so seeing that makes you think – oh… this is not a regular class. So, testing was done and then we went to dinner. The beginning of the martial arts family had begun. Knowing people beyond the mat is a great thing. What makes my training partner tick? Where are they from? What do they do for work? Social networking I suppose – before the days of the interweb. There were parties and outings within the group – more chance to see people outside the dojo and experience new things – skydiving, rock climbing, etc. After a few years, it became time to move. Leaving my martial art was tough as I knew there would be nothing similar where I was headed and leaving the family was tougher.

After getting settled in California, I set off to find a new place to practice something close to what I was doing in IL. I checked a few places out and eventually found myself welcomed into a new family. At first, it was difficult putting what I knew off to the side and learning a new style of JuJitsu. There were some hardass brownbelts keeping me in my place, but that faded after some time and people got to know who I was. Once I got past the intro class and was able to take my first test, things changed a bit. Rank has some correlation to dedication and also to being “in” the group. Many people start a martial art and bail after 1 or 2 tests. People who have been around awhile know this and keep a bit of distance from the new students. Not that they are not willing to help and teach, but on a more personal level. Once you have been “accepted” this becomes your family. People you would have no problem calling at 3AM and who would answer with – whatever you need. If you are out and something happens – you know your back is covered. Somewhere in here and I really don’t remember exactly where it falls, but you get this sense of pride and duty for your school. I would guess it varies for each person and makes itself known early for some. It is evident in how people train, how often then attend, their desire to test, the willingness to teach others and soak up whatever they can. These people do not miss class, they show up ready to work and learn, they make time for class no matter what. This is what I was brought up with. You are always a student and always give back as much as you can. The teacher asks something and you selflessly do what you can. Your teacher gives much to teach you, more than you may realize and giving back is what you do to show gratitude. Showing up on occasion, while obviously better than not showing up at all, does not really help anyone. Your training partners suffer as you are not there to work with, you suffer as you are not there to work with your partner nor are you learning anything while not there. If you ask military personnel in war time, what gets you through you may hear “I am there for my squadmates.” Sometimes a lack of thought of oneself is good. If I had to miss a class I was bothered by what I may have missed and hoping to not disrespect my fellow students, school and teacher.

Eventually, the student becomes an assistant. It can be likened to an internship – learning while doing, on the job training, etc. Teaching is learning again, as you will find out what you don’t know and will learn other ways to present material to different types of people. This is to be a great sense of pride and a great responsibility. You are trusted with passing on the knowledge you have to people just walking in the door. Not everyone gets here and that is how it should be. Knowing the techniques is one thing, passing them on with the “sense of the class” is another animal. This sets the tone and intensity of what is to come. You may be asked to run classes on your own, possibly at other facilities. You are preparing the next generation of students and from experience I can tell you, when those students you brought into the family get their blackbelt – it is a feeling rarely matched. Ahh, the cycle begins again. Teaching is much a thankless job and making money – well it’s a nice idea. Once in awhile there comes a student who makes teaching worth it.

Being a student is a sense of pride, responsbility, duty, and requires dedication, perserverance, selflessness and a lot of time. It is a journey where you will learn about yourself, others and respect of both. Lessons learned in class you will find apply outside of the dojo as much as inside. Some say martial arts builds character, while this is true I feel that martial arts also reveals character.

– Sensei Chris Love

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