How do I getting the most from my training?



“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” A famous old saying that seems to focus on the teacher — but really doesn’t.


You see, characteristically, the classic teacher has surprisingly little to say about appearing.  And it often happens at the slightest provocation, and usually just as dinner is being served. (I’ve known one or two teacher’s wives who will personally attest to that.) But, as you’ll learn, ultimately, it’s the student who drives the process — as they should.



Ok, so you’ve done your homework on choosing a suitable martial arts school, and now want to know what you need to do to get the most from your studies.


As you learned, or soon will, today there are many combat oriented programs under the “martial arts” banner: MMA (mixed martial arts), BJJ (Brazilian Jujitsu), kickboxing, and a whole array of highly commercial or equally amateur offerings. Each type represents a differing approach and so,  has its own unique requirements for student success as well.


However, all training has certain aspects in common that we can address here. And, if you’re interested in enrolling with a TMA (traditional martial arts) instructor — the kind, after 30 years, I understand the best — this article will serve you especially well.


It’s also helpful if said instructor is competent, but we’ll leave that can of worms for another time. For now, let’s concentrate on your part in the equation. Being a good student is actually rather simple which isn’t to say it’s necessarily easy.


Just do what’s asked of you to the best of your ability (simple, huh?) — at all times (easy, right?)


So, short and sweet, here’s my recommendation to the novice student. By the way, what follows applies to both adults and children, but at appropriate levels of intensity.


The Basics

Attendance.  Your instructor may have his or her own take on this, but we recommend twice weekly classes as optimal. I find any more or less and even high potential students tend to either start losing interest or burn out.  However many classes you sign on for, one thing is a given —consistent attendance is a must. Everyone sometimes misses class; it’s the habit of missing that’ll get you.


Participate!  I’m speaking here specifically of opportunities for social interaction. There are parents who rarely set foot inside the school let alone watch us work, and students who barely say goodbye while rushing out after class let alone sign up for any special events. 


This is a shame. Half of what I know I learned off the floor, and now teach — off the floor. Don’t waste your money. “Rec. Center Karate Lessons” come cheap for a reason. If you went through the trouble and expense to find and be taught by the best, you must seek your instructors out at every opportunity.


Besides, if being a karate student really were only a matter of getting kicked in the head, I would’ve gotten bored with it decades ago. 


Practice.  Easy to say; often difficult to do. Here’s some helpful hints:

  • Practice requires repetition, but repetition isn’t practice. You have permission to make it enjoyable. Instead of throwing punches for 30 minutes, concentrate on each one — how your arm operates, how smooth you can move, how different levels of force feel to you. Give me 10 punches with thought and you’ll make more progress than with 100 monotonous ones. Besides my way’s a whole lot more interesting!
  • Don’t over do it. Practice consistently (there’s that word again), but sensibly. You know as well as I that few people can afford an hour three times a week down in the basement. Instead, make it a point to show up for 10 minutes three times a week and take it from there. 
  • Stay organized. I’m big on making charts for this. Enter everything you’re learning to practice on a worksheet. At each practice session, pick whatever item strikes your interest, work on it and check it off. When items lag behind, figure out how to light a fire under yourself to get to them.


The Essentials 

Attitude This has got to be the single most important attribute of a true martial artist. I can be in a Black Belt’s company for about 2 flat minutes before their attitude tips me off about their training, their teacher — and the product that both of those turned out.


What you do is never as important as How and Why you do it.


Take your karate into the street. Always look for ways to apply and benefit daily from everything you are taught. It’s in there if you try, and don’t be shy about asking for help. This is where that competent instructor I mentioned earns his or her keep!


Trust me, students who leave the dojo behind between one class and the next are fated. Few ever stay long enough to make Black Belt, and of those who somehow manage it, the victory is always a hollow one.


Value. It would be nice if you got some. Study involves investment of time, effort, and, yes, money. If all you walk away with are colored belts, some spiffy looking moves, and a few cocktail party anecdotes, well, you got beat. I think that this kind of investment warrants a much better personal return. Don’t you?

  • Self-defense. No normal person expects to become an assassin, but… After a reasonable amount of training, anyone who assaults you should at least be identifiable to the police by his limp.
  • Self-improvement. Unless you hang out in bad neighborhoods or suffer from really poor people skills, actual combat shouldn’t rank all that high on your motivation list. What should is victory in the battle everyone must fight — everyday living. This is where your martial arts education can become, quite literally, invaluable. We needn’t go on about it here, but I’m sure you get the picture. The point is, when taught and studied properly, this stuff actually does work as advertised.
  • Self-enrichment. While perhaps not as notable as the first two motives, it's definitely a consideration. If simple diversion is your thing, that’s fine; many would agree. Just remember, you're paying Broadway prices, so why miss the show? An enjoyable, authentic, culturally rich experience is not only fulfilling, but goes a long way towards helping you regroup and recoup at the end of a hard day. In the best school’s, students often report getting “twichy” when kept away from their training for too long.


Karate doesn't work; you do.

Effort is required. No amount of technique ever saved anyone in an alley. The martial arts are simply a tool used to forge you into the weapon. And forged is the perfect word for the process. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something (probably lots of something’s).


By the same token, in combat, disciplined spirit invariably conquers physical advantage; not the other way around. Karate wasn’t invented for athletic tough guys, but to protect normal people from athletic tough guys. Think about it. Some instructors seem very confused.


What the excellent student needs to keep in mind about martail arts training is that it’s the journey that makes the weak strong and the strong great; not the mere accomplishment. And that means martial arts training is equally for the out of shape, the clumsy, the... people just like me.


A final word…

Teachers and students deserve one another; eventually each gets the one they deserve.


Becoming a great student insures that you’ll get the most from your studies. But that's only half the story. A great teacher will (must) appear to meet that challenge. Instructors who won’t (can’t) make that transformation will soon reveal themselves as undeserving. Either way, you stand to win.


Imagine if all students deserved better? Now, wouldn’t that be interesting.




© 2005 Salvatore T. Musco. All Rights Reserved.