Saturday, January 02, 2016

Things That Impress Beginners

Most people thinking about starting martial arts or self-defense are "naive consumers" which means that they have no way to tell good instruction from utter crap. What little information they have comes from TV or other entertainment sources, and the potential instructor who can talk closest to that fantasy baseline sounds the most credible.

One of the odd side effects of this, is that many of the things that impress beginners are the exact same things that are red flags to people who have been around for a while.

Certificates and Diplomas. If someone has ten "Grandmaster" diplomas in ten different arts, to a beginner that sounds like a good thing. That's like a PhD, right? And someone with ten PhDs must know more than someone with just one, right? Depending on what "Grandmaster" even means within the system.
Does it mean that the person has trained "masters" defined as people who have trained other instructors? Because that would require three times the minimal time to get instructor rank in each of those styles. Assuming extreme belt inflation and a person could get to instructor rank in 3 years, it would take a minimum of nine years to get each of the grandmaster certs. Ninety years for ten of them. Thirty, if the person in question had no life and could study and compartmentalize three arts at once.
If Grandmaster means headmaster, he'd have to be the sole survivor of his generation of instructors and all the previous generations of instructors-- sole survivor ten different times. If the Grandmaster is the hereditary lineage holder, the poor guy would have to have ten fathers and/or mothers, which would make the holidays really hard.
One of my friends ordered a box of DVDs that included instructor certificates for all of the things covered in the DVDs (I don't remember Jeff, was it forty of them? A hundred?) Just fill in your name, you already sent your money.

Ranks. To a beginner, dan rank is dan rank and a fifth degree blackbelt must be better than a first degree blackbelt. But there was a huge change in the early and mid-eighties. An article I read in the late seventies said on average a black belt in karate took eight years to achieve. Some styles now offer them much more quickly-- eighteen months to black belt, anyone? I consider Jim Onchi (judo) to be one of the only two legitimate ninth-dans I have ever met, and he trained from 1929 until his death in 2013. 75 years. When I see a pimply-faced kid advertising tenth dan, I want to puke in my mouth just a little. To someone who has been around, extraordinarily high ranks that don't match the person's age (and ability to move, modified, of course by age) are red flags. And if super-high ranks are norms for the system, it calls the legitimacy of the whole system into question. It's like everyone at a fast-food restaurant being either a manager, assistant manager or manager trainee. Pretty good sign you're not at a 5-star restaurant.

Halls of Fame and Headmaster Associations. Again, the beginner sees these as marks of legitimacy. In the normal world, other sports' halls of fame are managed by governing bodies with a big stake in maintaining the legitimacy of the sport. You can't, as far as I know, buy your way into the Baseball or Rock Hall of Fame. But at least one of the martial arts halls of fame contacted everyone on their mailing list to induct them. My wife, with her (at the time) green belt in Shito-ryu could have been inducted into this hall of fame and all she had to do was pay $600 dollars to attend a dinner. Like almost every other senior practitioner, I've turned down multiple offers. (Full disclosure, I was inducted into one without my knowledge. My wife said it would be rude to refuse). To the experienced, Halls of Fame and Headmaster associations look like cynical, mutual ego-stroking societies existing sole to market to the naive. O maybe I'm the one being cynical.

Medals and Trophies. Yes and no. If you're into sport, you want to train under winners. But this is one that seniors get skeptical about. If they've never heard of the tournament, they wonder. If it says "World Championship" on the trophy but it was held in a one-horse town, you have to wonder. And there are some big tournaments that have a huge number of divisions so that almost everyone can go home with gold medals because there are usually only one or two competitors in each division.
But if you're learning a sport and some of the coaches or practitioners were on the Olympic team, you've struck gold.

Uniformity. Maybe this is just me, but TV always shows lines of people doing things in perfect unison, and that strikes me as dangerous. Tall people and short people should move different. If everyone's head is level throughout the kata, they aren't being taught how to drop step or use weight for power. An over-emphasis on visual measures of effectiveness is one of my red flags. But to the naive, consistency and conformity are almost always interpreted as signs quality.

There are exceptions, always. A red flag don't always indicate a smoking gun. But it strikes me as very odd, maybe funny, that what looks good to a beginner often looks just the opposite after a few years.
Or maybe it's just me.


Brandon said...

I'd like a post on what you're supposed to do if you know what is good instruction and can't find it. It's easy to say get qualified instruction and give a list of what that is, but it's entirely different to find it.

What is a person supposed to do if they know the difference and can't find it? What is someone supposed to do if they can find it, but can't afford it? What is someone supposed to do if they can afford it, but it's too far away?

What are you supposed to do if everyone is selling magic and chi?

I love your stuff, but I get annoyed when people act like it's the difference between shopping at target and walmart. Sometimes you don't get a choice.

Rory said...

Good questions, Brandon. Let me noodle this for a bit.

Jim said...

What do you do if you want fish, but are 1000 miles from the nearest river, stream, or seashore, and there's nobody importing it? Eat something else, right?

Sometimes, the answer to "I want to train in X" or "I want a teacher who meets this set of criteria..." but I can't find it or afford it or it's only taught to far away is that you can't do it.

So... at that point, you have a couple of choices. Do nothing is certainly one. Kind of like "if I can't have center cut prime rib, cooked to a perfect medium rare, I'm not eating." Great choice, at least you're not settling for less, right? But if it's food, you're getting awfully hungry, huh? If it's martial arts... you're doing nothing.

You can find a way to make it work: move to where it is, find a way to pay the costs, train via seminars, bring in that qualified teacher periodically and practice as you can in between. Sometimes, the options aren't practical. I couldn't practically up and move to train somewhere right now, not without costs I'm unwilling to pay in both professional and family life. I can't give up every weekend for a 6 or 8 hour train ride each way to train with someone, either -- for similar reasons. So, the option might be there -- but I'm not willing to pay the costs.

Or... you can make what's available work for you. Find the one that will give you the best value for your time and money, recognize the flaws and take actions to offset or correct them. Maybe one seminar rather than trying to do one every week. Maybe it's finding some like-minded friends and working together on things. Supplement your training with research and reading. To run with my food analogy... you can't get that prime rib because they're sold out, but that doesn't mean you have to settle for McDonalds grease burgers instead...

Anonymous said...

That are (some of) the problems that made rankings almost meaningless and martial arts quite ridiculous. Nowadays martial arts are everywhere, but quality is disappearing...

Unknown said...

I concur.

Anonymous said...

See if you can attend some seminars with the person you would like to train with (weekend or vacation). In the meantime, evaluate what's available to you where you live and what you can use. Judo is useful for breakfalls and grappling practice, a boxing gym may provide you with equipment to work on punches and kicks, etc. See if there are forms or katas in the style you want to learn that you can practice on your own. Maybe you can install a kickpad, wooden dummy or whatever your style uses somewhere in your home. Or maybe you can get a friend to join you and you can go to a seminar together and afterwards practice your skills together.

Some qualifications are certainly helpful. This may vary according to which country you live in. When someone is a qualified sports instructor, they should have learnt how to teach physical skills to others. Also they should have an idea of safety during training, as well as First Aid skills (and possibly CPR skills).
Also, if an instructor claims to have studied with Grandmaster XYZ, is Grandmaster XYZ a respected master in the style in question? And has the instructor only studied with them for an unspecified peried of time or does s/he have certificates that show the extent of their training and any exams they took? I.e. are they qualified and have the certification to teach Martial Art ABC in the style of Grandmaster XYZ?

One other thing that impresses newbies is if the school or the instructor explains why their art or style is the best of all arts or styles and their particular sub-style the best within that style. Red flag if this includes badmouthing other styles or masters. Double red flag if it includes badmouthing the very master(s) that the instructor is supposed to have trained with. This has happened to me. Found out some of this too late, got out after an injury but without permanent damage.

- Staying anonymous as a safety precaution -

Brandon said...


Thanks for the responses. Definitely good ideas, but I believe the problem is more training methodology than technique. Even crappy karate schools can teach you a good kata, which you can get some good skills from if trained properly. There's a disconnect between learning techniques and training. You can learn good techniques, but have poor training or worse bad techniques and good training. You ingrain the good with the bad most of the time. It's really hard to separate what's worth it on your own, or to develop training routines on your own that can build a skill, at least structure and body mechanics, or if it's just masturbating.

It just brings up a lot of questions and concerns, which go deeper than just find something you like.

If anybody wants to respond they can click on my picture and find my email. Shoot me any ideas. I don't really want to clog up Mr. Miller's comment section with my own personal bullshit.


Anonymous said...

Ha! I remember being impressed by some of the things in this list.

Anonymous said...

I considered this a while ago when creating a web site for my club. I put the following questions on the site to try to help the uneducated chose a good club (please forgive any possible formatting issues).

Questions to Ask

Karate isn't for everyone and there are other excellent martial arts clubs out there. If you decide to study at a different club then we genuinely wish you well: but please pick a quality club teaching a martial art in a quality way. Unfortunately there are many "McDojos" out there who will happily take your money and award you belts. When looking for a good club, make sure the training is about the art and not the money. Here are some questions you might want to consider:
1. How much does training cost? If you must pay up front and per month then be happy there are valid reasons for this and not simply because the club wants your money. [Of course, clubs need money to pay their bills. Only you can decide if what they ask for is reasonable].
2. Do they charge a "membership fee"? (We don't).
3. How much does the license cost? All martial arts clubs require you to have a license that is renewed annually, but if that cost is more than about £25 it is worth understanding why.
4. How frequently can you grade and how much does a grading cost? Of course, everyone wants to grade regularly and progress through the ranks - that is only natural -  but you need to be honest with yourself: if you are able to grade every 6 weeks, how good can that grading be? How much can you really improve in such a short space of time? At our club we insist on a minimum number of sessions between grades depending on your grade, and this really does maintain high standards. If you must pay more than £25 for a grading, then ask yourself why the cost is so high (Note: Black belt gradings are typically more expensive than colour belt gradings).
5. What is the club's lineage? Anybody can set up a club, award themselves grand master 10th dan black belt (or whatever) and call themselves expert. And anyone can hold a competition in their local squash court, win a medal and call themselves a world champion. Check the credentials of those you will be training with.

Starting (or continuing) a martial art is a large investment in your time and money. Make sure you do it right!

Anonymous said...

Learning is an activity, not a "passivity".
Learning is not the same as "being taught".

What you perceive as good teaching methodology depends on your learning style as on how the instructor teaches and whether your personalities and learning/teaching styles are compatible.
What is your preferred input channel (visual / auditory / kinetic)?
How do you best learn new movements? What is the normal timeframe for you to learn a new movement? How do you learn complex or coordinated movements?

The teacher's job is to present information. The student's job is to request information. Does the teach answer your questions? In the class in question, can you figure out what else you need to know? And is the teacher happy to give you this information?

Whatever you want to learn, be it a martial art, a foreign language, a craft, a musical instrument, driving a vehicle or any other kind of skill: Get input from more than one source. A good teacher will not keep you from consulting other sources.
Attend classes taught by other people than your regular instructor, read books and websites, watch videos.

Pay attention. And practise, practise, practise. This is necessary for your brain to store information and create the necessary pathways so that you can recall it effortlessly. Some people say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery (read _Outliers_ by Malcolm Gladwell to find out more about this).
There are no shortcuts.

God's Bastard said...


I'm in that position now, living in a poor rural area with very little training options, and with the added twist that I've managed to collect some pretty serious injuries. I'd previously gone for the approach of finding the local school that was the least crap - which turned out to be not very local, and still quite crappy, but I did train there for a year and enjoyed it. I didn't learn much but I learnt some, and I got to hit people, so it was good enough for me.

Right now, though, the potential risk. of training is too high for me to be willing to do it badly. Aside from the risks inherent in the activity, I've found is the not-so-good teachers are often oblivious to the difference between pain and damage. I'm not going to be put in a wheelchair by some bozo who won't respect my limitations. So the potential gains of not-so-good training just don't outweigh the risk.

I go to seminars whenever I can (Violence Dynamics, Rory, someone just recommended a Systema one coming up, etc.) but it's pretty damn frustrating. I'm hoping one of these days I'll find another poor bastard at one of these seminars who lives in my area, and at least we'll be able to practice.

But if I was well... I'd just go back to finding a training place that doesn't make me want to hurl, and maintaining a healthy dose of scepticism at all times.

Malcolm Rivers said...

God's bastard, that's why you train yourself. I've come to the conclusion that, at least as far as useful self exploration/conceptual preparation for real violence goes, most teachers aren't shit. They haven't seen shit, haven't done shit, haven't been through shit, and aren't interested in considering shit, especially the shit that's connected to teaching in ways they didn't learn or aren't comfortable with. The reality is (I know: a ridiculous, subjective statement) that much of the time the teaching is designed to appeal to the broadest audience in the simplest, least original way, which makes you training yourself, through use of good friends or decent training partners, the only way to go. I'm not saying that no one has anything useful to teach but that to really get something out of training, learning from someone else (especially someone shitty) in the traditional "teacher-student" role is of limited value. Keep in mind that I'm also relatively cynical, have difficulty with authority, and suck at personal politics so my view may be skewed.

Brandon said...


I agree.