Andy Jeffries

Martial arts beginners: I could never do that….

I’ve been a Taekwondo instructor for around 25 years now, so while my own start in martial arts was a lifetime ago, the experiences are fresh because I’ve seen the same thing on so many people’s faces over those years.

Generally I would say that beginners to martial arts classes come in three types:

  1. I’ve never done martial arts before, I want to, but I don’t think I can do what you guys do.

  2. I’ve never done martial arts before, I want to and think I’ll be really good, so let’s get started.

  3. I’ve done some martial arts before, I want to try Taekwondo and can’t wait to get started.

By far most people fall in to the first category (I’d say 80%). Before this decade I would say that generally people had not much idea of what Taekwondo was (they thought it was another form of Karate) so they’d come and watch a lesson first then generally feel that “that was cool to watch, but I couldn’t do it, I’m just not flexible/fast/whatever enough”

However, in the past few years this seems to have changed in two ways: 1) from the Olympics and movies, people now have more idea of what Taekwondo is; 2)people seem more inclined to just give it a trial and see if they can do it.

We do still get a lot of people who assume before they start their first lesson that they won’t be able to do it very well. We try to reassure them that they won’t be doing jumping spinning kicks striking through multiple wooden boards on their first day, but for some reason they seem to think that you have been born in to a ninja family and trained from birth to be good at Taekwondo.

So the first lesson starts, it’s nice and easy… We teach them how to clench a fist properly (it’s suprising how most people can’t do this, they put their thumb in the wrong place), we don’t judge though, we’ve seen it many times before. We teach them basic stances and some basic blocks and how to punch. All is going well.

Then we get to their first kicks. Suddenly mild panic sets in! You want me to stand on one leg and do WHAT with the other one?? I’ll never be able to do that! We break it down, step by step, each part building on the previous. Before the end of the session they are able to execute four basic kicks to a reasonable skill level and, get this, move forward at the same time, not on the spot!

I would generally say that I hear one of my assistant instructors say at some point during each beginner’s first couple of lessons “see, you said you wouldn’t be able to do that, but you are”.

A martial arts journey is about sweating together, having fun together, but it’s also about trust. These first few lessons start students building the trust that “when a black belt gives me a tip or tells me how to do something better, I’ll give it a go, even if it feels wrong or I don’t think I’ll be able to do it — because it’s pretty much worked out every other time”.

The other thing new starters see that worries them sparring (fighting with protective pads on). For the first few minutes I remember the first time I saw it that it looked like controlled chaos, a violence whirlwind that I could never be a part of because I would just get torn apart. However, sparring is a progressive part of the art. When you are a beginner, it’s slow, methodical and the higher grades you spar with will give you lots of tips and opportunities. I know most of my black belts tend to act like walking kick/punch bags for the low ranked students (saying things like “come on, kick me, you can do it, it’s OK”).

I will say though, that this is one of the happiest moments of my life. Watching my students spar, knowing if anyone walking off the street saw them they would think they were trying to kill each other. Thump, thump as the kicks land on the protective pads. Crazy banshee-like yelling going on. But then every few minutes, a pair will stop and laugh about something that happened. Maybe they both did the same thing, maybe one of them made a mistake and found themselves in a crazy position. But something will happen to make them laugh/chuckle about it. And it’s in that moment when it becomes clear, these are two people having fun, learning and improving — not trying to kill each other.

I remember a story I read a long time ago on the topic of beginners, and I’ll share it as best I remember it:

“I arrived at my first class, nervous of what I was going to be asked to do. I stood at the back of the hall and looked to the front to see what everyone else was doing before the class started, so I could copy them to try and fit in. The black belts at the front were doing crazy jumping and spinning kicks, looking like Tazmanian devils. One of them catches my eye in the mirror and gives me a strange smile. I just know it’s like a lamb to the slaughter, they are looking forward to kicking me around the room using those techniques I was just in awe of. What have I got myself in to? The instructor calls everyone to line up…

fast forward 5 years, the beginner is now a black belt themselves

…It’s just another Tuesday night, time to get the old legs moving and ready for action. OK, normal kicks are working well, how are the spins and jumps feeling tonight.. pretty good. Hey, there’s a new guy at the back! I remember being that guy, way back before I was able to do these kicks, let alone applying them or teaching them to others, I’ll give him a smile to let him know that I welcome him as a new member of our Taekwondo family…”

This is something that a lot of beginners forget. 99% of the people they see doing Taekwondo are not naturally gifted. We weren’t doing it before we could walk, we haven’t had Matrix-style brain implanting. We’ve just been putting in the hours, sweating away in the gym and little-by-little, week-by-week, month-by-month and year-by-year got better. We’ve all been when you are right now and we are all where we are because we stuck with it. There’s a phrase in martial arts that say “a black belt is just a white belt that didn’t quit”. It’s true for all of us, and there’s no reason to think that you couldn’t be too…