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Etiquette in Martial Arts Classes

You’ve met him at a seminar. You’ve encountered him in a class. He’s that guy, and while he’s probably somebody you don’t know well, he might be a classmate of long association. He’s someone who doesn’t understand the etiquette of martial arts training, and this lack of understanding causes problems. Some of these problems are minor, but some of them are the kind of thing that discourages students from returning to class.

1. Poor Hygiene and Infectious Diseases
Martial arts training requires a fairly intimate level of personal contact. If you’re training in grappling with someone who sweats like a glass of beer on a hot day, or someone who smells like a high school locker room, it’s going to be unpleasant. We’ve all worked with students whose uniforms could stand upright, unoccupied and unassisted. These things are unpleasant but generally not too bad. They’re part and parcel of working with other people.

In extreme cases, however, a lack of personal hygiene can be so bad it prompts another student to stop training. If you catch a nasty case of foot or body fungus from an unkempt classmate, you won’t just be disgusted; you’ll be concerned about the future. Worse, if you’re exposed to other student’s blood, you may actually fear for your life.

I once worked with a student in a Wing Chun class who never properly trimmed his nails. He had talons for fingers. The first time he cut me open with his hand, causing me to start bleeding, I was very annoyed. The second time he cut me open, a couple of weeks later, I refused to work with him again. The instructor eventually had to speak to him about the issue. Ultimately the student stopped coming to class.

Another time I worked with a student who mentioned, during partner drills, that he had herpes. Now, working with someone in a training drill is not like having sex with them, but there is at least a chance of passing on a virus like this to another human being during close physical contact such as grappling and striking. If someone starts bleeding, all bets are off.

I once had a student bleed all over my hand during a handgun disarm. He was an older gentleman and the skin of his hand was quite thin. By the time I knew what was happening my entire palm was drenched in his blood. You can bet I asked him if he had anything I needed to know about. Had this student borne something like Hepatitis, it would have been a real issue.

If you have a potentially communicable disease, you need to stop and evaluate very seriously whether you pose a risk to other students. You have a responsibility to avoid endangering other people if you harbor an illness. Even if you are in good health, if you aren’t properly clean and maintained for class, you are insulting everyone there.

2. Inappropriate Levels of Force
At its hardest levels of contact, martial arts training isn’t martial arts at all. I know and have spoken with fighters who regularly beat each other so hard that permanent or seriously debilitating injuries were common in class. While training like this certainly produces dangerous fighters, it comes at too high a cost. Most people simply will not pay it, and rightly so.

At reasonable levels of contact, learning to fight and training in martial arts (which often should not be confused with each other) still produce injuries. There is a beautiful window in one’s late teens to early twenties in which the human body is extremely resilient, seemingly indestructible, made of rubber and immune to pain. At every other age, you’re going to get hurt if you train. You’ll break a toe, pull a muscle, dislocate something, or get hit when you shouldn’t.

I’ve had escrima and fingers shoved in my eye. I’ve been elbowed in the face and punched in the head. I’ve been chopped in the throat and nearly lost consciousness from it. I had a shoulder injury that lasted a year. I suffered a contusion of the ankle that may actually have been a break. I stabbed myself in the arm once. My doctor told me to quit aikido or develop tendonitis. I had to dig a bloody Simunition round out of my flank. These were minor injuries. In two decades of training I’ve been relatively lucky.

Given this, it’s an act of common courtesy not to use more force than your partners when training, especially when you go to a seminar and you’re dealing with people, and with a teacher, whose format and levels of contact are unfamiliar to you. We’ve all seen “that guy” at a seminar, using a much harder level of contact right from the start, before students have “felt out” just how hard their partners wish to go. That guy usually smiles and congratulates himself for hitting so hard when, in fact, he’s simply been rude. Congratulations, pal: You hit your partner at 80% power and he hit you at 20% power while he was trying to be polite. That must must mean you’re tougher and you train harder. Way to go.

Adults with jobs and families to support can’t afford to incur injuries that might interfere with their ability to earn a living. This means that avoidable injury should be, well, avoided.

Respect your training partners. Don’t treat them like they’re made of glass, and certainly provide them with resistance… but don’t use a level of force inappropriate to the venue, or out of proportion to the level of force offered.

More importantly, don’t be rude and charge in at full power, or close to it, then congratulate yourself when you take someone by surprise. You aren’t proving anything to anyone except that you have no manners, nor will your grave pronouncements about how hard you’re accustomed to training make you a celebrated warrior among your peers.

Students on both sides of such conduct should resist the urge to retaliate. The appropriate reaction to an inappropriate level of contact is not to hit the offender back to “teach him a lesson.” If you’ve been training for any length of time, you have the ability to deliver a great deal of force. The last thing you want is to “teach” a rude student at the cost of his health or his life. Could you live with dealing a permanent injury to someone? Can you stomach the idea of killing someone accidentally? It’s a freak accident, usually, when someone dies from a single punch, but it has happened.

3. Lack of Control
Closely related to inappropriate levels of contact and force is a lack of control. The student who lacks control isn’t deliberately doing anything offensive; he just can’t help it because he doesn’t yet know what he’s doing. It’s those guys who lack control who invariably end up hitting you when they’re not supposed to (during the learning phase of a new technique, when contact is light and movements are done slowly).

Where this can be a very serious problem is when learning joint locks, chokes, any strike involving the throat, and certain other potentially dangerous techniques. An experienced student knows two ways to apply a joint lock. There’s the way he applies the technique in a training setting, slowly and smoothly so as to avoid injury, and there’s the way he’ll apply it against someone he wants to injure, which usually involves popping or destroying the joint.

An amateur doesn’t yet know enough to make this distinction. He’s a beginner; he’s untrained. Often he doesn’t realize just how potentially dangerous the technique can be, either, so he’ll spear you in the hollow of the throat with all his might, crank your elbow or your wrist so hard it hurts for days, or break your leg by accident (I know a guy to whom this happened).

Unless you are very confident in your ability to counter such techniques, or you trust the student you are working with to go slow and comprehend his own lack of training, it’s wisest to avoid (completely) training joint locks and other dangerous moves with amateurs. Somebody has to do it, but it doesn’t need to be you.

Don’t give an inexperienced and exhuberant beginner the chance to injure you for the rest of your life. Where other potentially deadly techniques are concerned, use your best judgment. Assess the character of those you work with (which won’t be easy in a strangers-only seminar setting). Some people simply aren’t good training partners and you should refuse to work with them.

4. My Cup Is Full
This guy isn’t just a martial arts student. He’s one of the students in every class you’ve ever been in, whether you were sitting behind a desk, standing on a firing line, or wearing a gi. If this guy ever heard Bruce Lee going on about “emptying your cup” so that you have room to receive new knowledge, he didn’t understand the concept. This guy is so convinced he knows more than the instructor, or so determined to question or micro-analyze everything taught, that class grinds to a halt while he interrogates the teacher.

A good teacher will answer students’ questions and even indulge analysis to the point that it does not interfere with class. The bigger the class or seminar, however, the less you can afford to let a minority of students hold up the proceedings with what-if questions. If you’re working with a cup-is-full guy in training drills or as a teacher, know when to encourage that person (politely but firmly) that there’s work to be done.

There is a darker side to this guy, however. In its worst incarnations, this behavior becomes like dojo-storming, in which a student (and especially an attendee at a seminar, where attendance is more likely to include folks off the street and even enemies of the school or teacher in question) is gunning for the teacher. He wants to make that instructor look bad in front of the other students. Such “gunslingers” will openly deride, contradict, or disobey the teacher in a seminar. In mild cases this manifests itself as a swaggering student who tells the teacher, “That stuff won’t work.”

We’ve all heard stories in which a teacher dealt with such impudence by beating on the student in question, proving that his “stuff works” by dealing out some pain. This is not the proper response from a mature adult, however, no matter how morally just or emotionally satisfying it can be. A true professional deals with such issues by informing the student in question to leave and, if he does not leave, either shows him the door or calls the authorities to do the same. Your ability to put this jerk on his posterior is not in question. The propriety with which you conduct yourself in class is what matters, no matter which side of the student-teacher relationship you occupy.

Conclusion
If you see yourself in any of “these guys,” please don’t worry. This is not a passive-aggressive attempt to shame you. This article is drawn from personal experience as the misbehaving student, not the offended training parter. We have ALL been “that guy” at one time or another, especially when we were just starting out. The martial arts and training in them would not be so ripe for satire and criticism if they were not also heavy with misbehavior.

Any number of excuses can be made for failing to comport yourself with courtesy and respect while training in the martial arts. Some will even be valid. Even if there is a reason for your behavior, treating your training partners or teacher rudely is never a sign of strength or knowledge. Mature adults are not impressed by how many times you managed to hurt yourself — or others — in the course of your training, for the overwhelming majority of your fellow martial artists have responsibilities. Mature adults are not impressed by how much you think you know compared to others, because there is always someone who knows more.

For every obsessive martial artist who lives, breathes, and bleeds his art, there are a hundred family men and women who need to learn to defend themselves and then go home intact and in good health. Anything you do that interferes with that goal does not make you better, tougher, more able, or the superior martial artist. Any neglect of yourself that diminishes your fellow students’ class experience, likewise, does not make you special.

These things simply makes you “that guy.”

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