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5 Mistakes Beginning Martial Artists Can (And Should!) Avoid

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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

warmup

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

roundhouse kick knee injuries

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

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

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

nearby 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?

Conclusion

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!


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15 Surprising Benefits of Beginning Martial Arts as an Adult

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Losing weight, improved fitness, physical self defense skills… there are lots of reasons why people take up martial arts as adults.  Certainly the martial arts have a lot to offer in these areas, but many people are surprised by other benefits when they begin their training.  Here are a few:

1. Stress relief

I forget about kids, house, bills, etc., while I'm on the floor. - Patti

Any regular exercise is scientifically shown to relieve stress, but being able to get that exercise surrounded by a supportive community can go a long way to put you at ease.  Moreover, many martial artists value their class time as a break from the stressors in their lives.  Patti Phillips Dutton says, “I forget about kids, house, bills, etc., while I’m on the floor.”

2. Energy

In a similar vein, having a good workout on a regular schedule can do a lot to improve your energy levels.  Part of this comes from an increased blood flow to your body and a healthier cardiovascular system, meaning your blood moves oxygen to your body more efficiently, resulting in higher energy levels.  In addition, regular exercise helps you sleep at night, so you can be even more refreshed during the day.  Even though the science behind this is well known, many beginning martial artists are surprised when it happens to them.

3. Peacefulness and mental balance

I am less likely to allow things to become stressful. - Mary

You know the stereotype of the ancient martial arts master who never gets riled up, but calmly deflects the protagonist’s antics?  Well, you don’t need to be a master to get this benefit from martial arts training.  Martial artists of all levels report calmness and an inner fortitude against stressful situations.  Mary Collins describes this as “a sense of peace and harmony,” adding that because of her training, she is “less likely to allow things to become stressful.”  Dutton echoes her sentiment, saying that because of her training, “I am less likely to lose my temper.”

4. Overcoming unhealthy habits

Karate gave me a focus point and a healthy alternative to drinking alcohol. I haven't consumed alcohol in over 2.5 years. - Dakota

Discipline and self-control are lauded as great reasons for children to participate in martial arts, but adults often experience similar benefits.  It’s not unusual for a martial artist to credit his or her training with being able to finally quit smoking, recover from substance abuse, or eat healthier.  Dakota, who has asked to withhold his last name, describes how he finally achieved sobriety by saying, “Karate gave me a focus point and a healthy alternative to drinking alcohol. I haven’t consumed alcohol in over 2.5 years.”

5. Confidence

"What I developed through martial arts was a balance of humility and confidence." - Nathan

Confidence is a very common benefit of martial arts training, and it takes many forms.  Some people overcome shyness, and others just learn to carry themselves with more presence or authority.  Nathan Kirk, who began training in taekwondo as a young adult, explains that even though he has never been shy, he still had to learn to perform without being self-conscious.  He says, “I could always be the class clown, or be in front of others, but if I wanted to present my honest best, there was a concern people might see the faults. What I developed through martial arts was a balance of humility and confidence. I accepted my imperfect performance without feeling the need to joke or apologize or highlight it in a self-deprecating way.”

6. A healthier relationship with your body

"I no longer want to eat healthy and work out to be skinny and beautiful, but rather to be strong to perform karate well! It changed my whole way of thinking." - Alexandrea

Many people experience a connection between their minds and bodies when they begin martial arts training.  It usually begins with an awareness of the body that comes from learning new things—you have to pay attention to your body in order to learn a new physical skill.  As training continues, people tend to notice that when the body is well taken care of, there is a corresponding boost in mental areas such as creativity, patience, and energy.  But it can be much deeper than just an awareness of the symbiosis between the mind and the body.  Karate stylist Alexandrea Kristiansen recalls a dramatic change after training for only a few months.  She says, “It was the first time I ever connected with my body in a way that wasn’t about vanity. I no longer want to eat healthy and work out to be skinny and beautiful, but rather to be strong to perform karate well! It changed my whole way of thinking.”

7. Improved mental health

“Karate has done more for my anxiety than anything else!” - Rachelle

For people struggling with mental health problems such as depression or anxiety, professionals will often recommend regular exercise to help with their symptoms.  Especially for those battling depression, having a supportive community at the training hall can also go a long way.  Internationally famous karate expert Iain Abernethy credits his training with recovering from depression.  Rachelle Lawrence says, “Karate has done more for my anxiety than anything else!”  Jeff Gortney, who has been training for a year and a half, says, “There are huge mental health benefits.  No matter how I felt emotionally before training, I always felt better afterwards.”

8. Better balance

Balance is usually associated with softer arts like tai chi, but training in any martial art can help.  Arts that train sweeps and throws tend to be especially effective for improving balance, as are styles with a heavy focus on kicking.

9. Making deliberate choices

Making Deliberate Choices

In the words of Uncle Ben and others, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  But what Spiderman learned the hard way, martial artists can get from regular training.  If you learn to turn your body into a weapon, you also have to learn the self-control to not use that weapon lightly.  But that self-control can help in all areas of your life.  Debbie Scofield, who started training at age 44, explains, “I’ve become more conscious of my decisions. When I have down time, it’s not habit but a decision now. If I eat ice cream, for example, I don’t do it mindlessly, but by choice. I’m more aware on every level.”

10. Improved reflexes and coordination

Reflexes Coordination

Most beginning martial artists expect to drop some weight, improve cardiovascular health, and build strength, but many are surprised the first time they catch the soap they drop in the shower.  While that’s a somewhat silly example, having that coordination and the faster reflexes can help in many areas of life, from playing sports to driving more safely.

11. Motivation

Motivation

It’s not unusual to see someone take up marital arts and then suddenly make significant progress in a goal they’ve had for years, such as quitting smoking or eating healthier.  It can happen for a lot of reasons, but one common reason is because their training provides some extra motivation.  Susan Briggs had this kind of experience early in her training when she realized how much her smoking was affecting her progress.  She recalls, “When I got to purple belt and wanted to continue I found the motivation to successfully give up smoking!”  She has been smoke-free for four years now.

12. Career gains

Workplace

Sometimes the added confidence, self-discipline, stress relief, and increased energy can add up to huge benefits at home or in the workplace.  Karate instructor Barbara Lamble has experienced this both for herself and with her students.  She says, “I’ve noticed that my professional career has had a similar trajectory as my karate career.  For example, [each black belt] ranking has corresponded with a significant promotion at work. The two disciplines are not connected, but I think that the sense of focus and purpose while training has helped me progress in the workplace.  I’ve seen it among my students as well.”

13. Friendships

Friendships

It’s hard to explain the bond that forms between martial artists.  If you can throw punches at each other one moment and laugh about it the next, you’ve experienced something that few outside of the martial arts will ever understand.  Martial arts friendships are really something special.  Some even go so far as to call it a second family.  Jamie Warren values the breadth of friends he has met through training, saying, “I met friends through martial arts who I would have never met otherwise.”

14. Family closeness

Family

Martial arts is one of few physical activities that transcends age groups and can be practiced with the whole family.  After all, parents usually aren’t allowed to join Little League teams with their kids.  Since many styles can be practiced well into old age, you can have three generations in one family all taking lessons together.  Michael Wroe was 49 years old when he began training.  He recalls, “My two daughters and myself started at the same time and one daughter still trains with me.  I feel it has kept us close.  I now have more confidence, less fear, more fitness, more flexibility and a close relationship with my daughter.”

15. Fun

Fun

It’s great to experience a huge onslaught of physical, mental and social benefits, but at the end of the day, training should be fun.  Bill Leake was pleasantly surprised when he started training.  He says now, “It’s more fun than I expected.”  Others come in already expecting a great experience, and are not disappointed.  Jonna Hausser Weaver sums it up nicely: “It is just so much fun to do.”

These are just a few of the common benefits that surprise beginning martial artists, but there are tons more.  Leave a comment with your story of what martial arts training has done for you!

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4 Ways Knowing Your History Can Improve Your Skill

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Even among martial artists who take their history seriously, there are many people who see martial arts history as nothing more than an interesting diversion–a distraction from real training.  They have a point.  The best way to gain skill is to train.  But understanding your history is certainly not useless!  Here are four ways that knowing your history can help you in your training.

1. Technical details are sometimes recorded but no longer taught.

There are many specific instances of forms applications being recorded in old texts, but here’s a more in-depth example that I learned by paying attention to Iain Abernethy.  Suppose you are practicing Jindo.  You might know the form well from many repetitions, and you might have the conditioning and balance to perform it well.  You might also have a good sense of how to analyze a form.  The original applications are lost to time, so it is often left to the student to make interpretations.  In this, a little history can help a lot.

Jindo is the Korean version of Chinto, a form created by Matsumura Sokon.  Matsumura was the martial arts instructor and bodyguard to the king of the Ryukyu islands.  The king sent him to deal with a shipwrecked sailor by the name of Chinto, who had taken up residence in some local caves and had been stealing from farmers’ crops to survive.  But when they fought, neither could defeat the other and they arrived to an agreement–Matsumura would take care of Chinto and help him get home to China in exchange for teaching him his techniques.  He created the form to record what Chinto had taught him.

Sokon Matsumura.jpg

Matsumura Sokon

From this story we can make some guesses to help with our interpretations.  Since Matsumura was already the king’s instructor and bodyguard, he must have already been a very competent fighter when he began learning from Chinto, so we can eliminate any applications that are very common or basic.  Consequently a student should not study this form too deeply until other simpler forms are well understood.  We can also assume that there are no applications that are not highly effective in practical situations, as these would have been useless to Matsumura.  We know from another story that Matsumura hated the flying front kick, and it is very weird that we see one in Chinto.  It is very likely that this move is a modern development.

Jindo

Author practicing Jindo

By knowing the history of this form, a student can optimize his or her training time by focusing on applications that are consistent with the skills and goals of the people who created it.  (For more on this specific example, this podcast episode is an excellent use of your time.)

2.  Understanding the roots of your art can help you optimize your cross training.

Many martial artists cross train in other arts.  Usually they do this to cover material that is excluded or minimized in their regular training.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that cross training can also help you understand your primary art more deeply.

For example, I have studied Kang Duk Won taekwondo for years.  By understanding its history, I know that it was founded by a student of Yoon Byungin.  Yoon’s primary art was Chinese chuan fa, and his second art was Japanese karate.  The influences of both on Kang Duk won are very obvious, and I have learned a great deal about Kang Duk Won by cross training in karate.  Sadly, it is impossible to do this with the art’s Chinese roots.  “Chuan fa” is a broad term that encompasses far too many styles to even dabble in, and the specific style that Yoon studied is simply not known.  There have been efforts to rediscover it, but no definitive answer yet.

3.  Knowledge of the history of your art can open doors among its practitioners.

The first time I was in Korea, I met Grandmaster Park Chull Hee.  I knew him only by his martial arts achievements–most notably founding Kang Duk Won taekwondo.  I knew enough that I was able to seek him out, even though I had no contact information and he was retired without a school or a website.  When I met with him, I was able to ask intelligent questions about the history of our art.  I’ll never know for sure if that was a factor, but by the end of our meeting he promised to teach me.  Without the history knowledge I had, I may never even have found him, and everything I have ever learned from him might never have come.

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4.  Your history can inspire you.

Grandmaster Park once told me a story about another instructor who forced his new students to sit outside of his house without food or water for three days.  If they were able to do so without giving up, he would accept them as students and begin their training.  Grandmaster Park said he never did that to his students, because it was harsh and unnecessary.  He didn’t tell me whether this story was true or if it was more of a fable or legend, but ultimately it didn’t matter.  After he told me that, standing in a deep stance for an impossibly long number of minutes didn’t seem quite so impossible.  Because surely I was tough enough to pass the 3-day test, so this measly little stance drill should be easy!

Every style has its stories–some true, some wildly untrue, and plenty in between.  Take from them what you can, maybe knowledge, maybe inspiration, maybe something else entirely.

All that said, no amount of history will help you without the practice to go with it.  Happy training!


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