Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Who you callin' a beginner?

Sometimes I'm startled by some of the things I read. The Internet is such a powerful tool and yet it so often seems to be a showcase for ignorance or at the very least inane discussions. I remember a professor I had back in the early days of the Internet describing it as "a mile wide and an inch thick." I think that's a pretty accurate description of the superficiality I see so much of.

So I got to thinking, not seriously, but rather in a sort of superficial way about how you can tell whether someone is a real martial artist. Or more humorously, how you can tell if someone is not a real martial artist...or more politely I suppose, how you can spot a beginner.
Me as a beginner, carrying
a trophy. 

A beginner always asks questions like, what's the best kata? They collect katas from different systems. It reminds me of this guy that came up to me once--I believe he trained Tae Kwon Do or something--and he asked me if I'd teach him Suparinpei. What for? If you don't really know a system, what good does it do you to know one kata from that system?

They wear really really long belts with their gis. And they buy really heavyweight gis so they "snap" when they throw a punch. They also role the sleeves of their gis up. Then they put patches all over it. That always reminds me of a noted "master" I saw at a tournament once. He had "Budweiser" emblazoned in big, bold letters down the side of his gi pants. I don't really think he was a real master, though I'm sure his students thought so. Particularly the ones who said he was the head of Jundokan in the U.S.

A beginner learns all the terminology and then doesn't miss a chance to show it off, with no understanding that different schools use different terms for the same techniques, making the use of these Japanese or Korean or Chinese terms a serious exercise in obfuscation.

Beginner's put videos of themselves up on the Internet after they've just learned a kata. Speaking of the Internet...a serious beginner spends more time on the Internet talking about the martial arts than they do training it. I know a lot of these. 

A beginner wears an undershirt under his gi top. Some really classy beginners wear gold chains. Younger beginners wear their gis to and from the dojo, belts and all. Some beginners carry their gis in on hangers, neatly pressed and bleached.

A lot of beginners ask what sounds like really significant questions, since they focus on minutia. I read a lengthy discussion once on why a particular high-level Okinawan practitioner straightened his foot out before he stepped forward in Sanchin kata. They scrutinize pictures and chastise people for being too high in horse stance. When they do kata themselves, they put in these very theatrical, lengthy pauses. A lot of them make up their own katas for tournaments. I have even known schools where that was a requirement for black belt. I think those schools were started by beginners. A lot of beginners can practice for twenty years, but they still remain beginners.

Beginner carrying wood.
Beginners say things like "osu" whenever they can. Whenever the conversation gets even remotely close to anything having to do with Asia, fighting, eating tofu, Charles Atlas, how to cook edamame, or the present deplorable state of the world, they will tell you "I know karate." These are the people that skip training on a Wednesday night because they're showing re-runs of "Kung Fu" with David Carridine on AMC.

Beginners tend to argue over which came first, kata or bunkai. They debate endlessly over which master or school should be considered the real lineage heir to the system. Ironically, however, they also carefully avoid calling someone out on bad technique or poor kata or ridiculous bunkai because they may be challenged in turn.

Beginners like to hang up pictures of themselves at seminars with teachers they barely know. Then they list all these teachers on their websites as if they actually studied with them. I knew a guy once who even had a certificate made up and then got the teacher to sign it at the seminar. The teacher was Okinawan and had no idea what he was signing...nor did he really care. That was the part that was funny.

Beginners tend to know everything. But of course, the only people they fool are other beginners. The good part is that at least some beginners mature into good martial artists if they train long enough. The sad part is that most of them stay at that beginner level and never get any better...no matter how long they train.


  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on various aspects of training. Sometimes I find myself in disagreement....but your posts encourage critical thinking and reassessment...and that is good. :)

  2. Sensei, with out such characters beginner's karate humor would be hard to come by. You should search on Enter the Dojo - Ameri-do-te on YouTube its a great series of spoofs on a very American dojo.