When you get started in martial arts, you use your body and your mind in ways that you never have before. You face challenges that push you to learn and grow and eventually excel. It can be daunting, but you have an instructor to guide you every step of the way. If you have a good instructor you can trust, being a student is a lot easier. Even so, many beginners make huge mistakes that could have been easily avoided. Here are a few examples:
1. Inadequate warm-ups
For beginners, the responsibility for this one mainly lies on the instructor. However, sometimes warming up with the class is not enough. The older you are, the more important it is! Children and young adults can get away with skipping the warm up, or warming up badly. But just because they can doesn’t mean they should. Regardless of age, anyone will perform better with a good warm up. As we grow older, our bodies are more prone to injury unless we warm up properly.
So what makes a good warm up? You could fill entire books with the answer to that question, so this is a simplification. A warm up should make the muscles warm and ready to perform. This usually involves some light cardio, especially using the parts of the body that you are going to train, in a way that is similar to how you will train them. Light stretching can be done safely during a warm up, but does not actually help warm up the body, and also does not prevent injuries. If your class begins with a short warm up or the warm up is mostly stretching, you will need to arrive early to class and supplement the warm up on your own.
2. Ignoring pivots
Many martial arts movements, especially kicks, require the feet to pivot. Your instructor should teach you how to pivot your feet correctly for each technique. However, many students (and sadly some instructors) treat pivots as an unimportant aesthetic detail to be ignored until the technique is learned and well-refined.
This is a huge mistake.
Pivoting correctly puts your hips in the right position, making the technique much easier to execute and to learn in the first place. This also ensures that you are using your strongest muscles so that your techniques will be more powerful. But most importantly, correct pivoting prevents knee injuries. It is possible to do permanent damage to your knees simply by not pivoting correctly. Don’t let it happen to you. These techniques can and should be safe, easy and fun to practice.
3. Not listening to your body
Knee injuries like that don’t happen suddenly. Broadly, injuries can be classified as overload or overuse injuries. It’s impossible to completely avoid overload injuries–if you’ve ever stubbed your toe or sprained an ankle, you’ve experienced an overload injury. Overuse injuries, on the other hand, are almost always avoidable. They occur when your body repeats an unhealthy movement until you are injured.
Martial arts movements, when trained correctly, are very safe to practice. However, unless all of your DNA comes from the same place that your art comes from, your body is going to be a little different than the bodies the techniques were designed for. Most of the time this doesn’t matter at all. Maybe you’re a little taller, your hair color is different, etc. But sometimes, you will need to adapt a technique to your body.
I’ve seen students with extreme external tibial torsion, students who are particularly bowlegged or knock kneed, students with wildly different hip structures, and similar variations in the hands and arms. All of these people had to adapt their techniques in order to perform them safely. As an instructor, I was able to use my knowledge and experience to help them do that, but the fact remains that nobody knows your body as well as you do. If something feels wrong, don’t ignore it.
4. Putting too much pressure on yourself
If you want to get good at something, you should practice every day, right? Wrong.
This is terrible advice, especially for a beginner.
Being a beginner is a magical but delicate time. If you have a few lousy experiences early on, it’s going to be hard to enjoy your practice in the long run. As a beginner, if you physically don’t feel well, or even if mentally you’re just not up to a challenge, you are better off waiting until you can show up to class ready to give it your all. Discipline is great, but that comes later. You’ll get more out of your training when you are physically and mentally prepared for it.
Nobody ever got good at anything because they decided they were going to force themselves through a daily grind. They got good at it because they fell in love with the practice. Find the joy in your martial arts training, and the discipline will come.
5. Choosing a school based on location
Many people sign up at the school that is closest to them. Similarly, some people choose a school because they are interested in a particular style of martial arts. Unfortunately, neither of these things means that the school will be right for you.
The absolute most important thing when you choose a school is the instructor. You need an instructor who you can trust and who interacts well with you. You need an environment where you feel safe practicing techniques that can be dangerous. You need a class that you can enjoy and a place where you can thrive. Given the choice between a great class, and a class where you are constantly getting hurt, constantly self-conscious, not improving, and constantly unhappy, isn’t it worth spending a few extra minutes in the car?
Being a beginner in the martial arts can and should be an incredible, rewarding experience. Your instructor will guide you along the way, and hopefully you won’t even need a list like this. But if you find yourself needing a little extra help, this list is a good place to start. If you have any questions that aren’t answered here, feel free to contact me using the link at the top of the page. I’d love to hear from you!