On today’s episode, we discuss the importance of etiquette in a martial arts class. We also tackle how to handle attending class with a different group of people, where martial arts etiquette might be different.
Martial Arts Etiquette – Episode 131
The following is a transcript of the episode.
It’s time for episode 131 of whistlekick Martial Arts radio. This episode we’re going to cover etiquette within the martial arts sphere, and how to come across the right way when you’re working out with strangers.
Let me introduce myself. I’m whistlekick’s founder but I’m far better known as your host for this show. My name is Jeremy Lesniak. whistlekick, I am humbled to say, makes the best sparring gear, apparel, and accessories for practitioners and fans of traditional martial arts. I’d like to welcome any new listeners and thank everyone that’s returned.
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What is Martial Arts Etiquette?
Throughout today’s episode, we’ll be using the word etiquette, but you can certainly substitute the word politeness. Really, when we say etiquette, we’re talking about a code or a set of principles that relates to your martial arts training. In many cases, this code covers what you do within your training space – your dojo, dojang, academy, etc.
In some cases, martial arts etiquette can relate to things you do outside of training, things required of you simply for being a martial artist. These rules vary from style to style and school to school. We’re going to talk about the history, how these rules apply today, why they’re important and why different sets of rules are not only okay but important. Finally, we’ll cover some fundamental advice for how to handle training with people that might have a different set of etiquette, especially when you don’t know what it is.
Where does Martial Arts Etiquette Come From?
Martial arts are steeped in tradition, as we all know. Those traditions come from two places that love strict, regimented practices – the military and religion. When we trace martial arts all the way back – to the place where most martial arts historians accept the roots of modern martial arts having begun – we find ourselves in a temple. It’s easy to forget that the Shaolin temple was a practicing Buddhist temple.
Dedicated, organized practice of most religious faiths involves prescribed actions and non-actions. If you explore the texts of any religion, within them is a set of instructions for how to conduct yourself. They often involve frequency for these actions, suggested rules for life and can even contain absolute prohibitions on certain actions.
Military training is often the same way. An elder – be it in rank of not also age – oversees the progress of the people enrolled, dedicated to a certain goal.
So, too, is the case with martial arts. While faith can be thought of as a path to self-improvement, military training can be thought of in similar fashion. Martial arts borrow heavily from the two, combining the development of the physical and non-physical parts of who we are.
Throughout the history of martial arts, this strict adherence to a code of etiquette was not only seen as important, but necessary.
Why is Martial Arts Etiquette Still Important Today?
Have you ever been in a group of people without a leader? Most of the time, very little gets done. There’s a reason we have hierarchy – it allows us to focus on certain things. In martial arts, we have a code of etiquette that includes a hierarchy of rank, of movements, of forms. In most schools, whether it’s consciously acknowledged or not, there’s a hierarchy of knowledge.
Without this hierarchy, people would be learning things in any old order. Can you imagine trying to learn a black belt form on your first day? Or any form before you learn the movements it contains? Sure, these things can be done, but they’re far more challenging than they need to be. There’s an intelligence in that order, in that hierarchy.
Part of the reason the hierarchy stays in place is because we respect it. It’s generally bad form to ask your instructor to promote you, or even test you for your rank. This top-down hierarchy helps make sure that the people charged with the development of the students – the instructors – keep everyone on track. It is because of the martial arts etiquette that the students and instructors follow that this system works.
Etiquette is, at the heart of it, a set of rules that help everyone know how to act. By following these rules everyone can better do their job – the instructors can educate, and the students can learn.
Some people, especially those outside the martial arts, point to our codes and find them frivolous. They point at colored belts and think them trivial. Some schools don’t have outward symbols of rank, and I’m not disparaging them. Rank, the external symbols of it, anyway, allow for everyone to know where everyone else stands. Military units have rank, religious organizations often have some hierarchy, too.
Let’s face it, we could operate a martial arts school without rank. Without uniforms, and without titles. When new students come in, there’s a lot to learn, and it can be overwhelming. By telling them what to wear, where to line up and what to learn in what order, we make their personal development easier. Those external symbols of rank, while they’re unnecessary in one sense, help make everyone’s role easier. When I line up to work with a yellow belt, I’m going to conduct myself differently than if I line up to work with a red belt. The point in their path is different, their knowledge is different and my responsibilities are different. Without colored belts or something similar, that process becomes much more difficult.
What are the Most Basic, Universal Rules of Etiquette in Martial Arts?
Every school has slightly different rules for martial arts etiquette, but at the heart, it comes down to respect for each other and respect for the process.
We respect our higher ranks because they’re the ones charged with our education. They’ve put in the work; they’ve grown as individuals and as martial artists. They’ve taken up the responsibility to educate us. If you’ve ever taught anything before, you know that it can be challenging. That willingness to take up a challenge like imparting martial arts knowledge on someone else is worthy of respect.
We respect our peers and our lower ranks because they provide us opportunities to grow and learn. The sheer mathematics of martial arts show that fewer people will achieve each rank – attrition will also make this true. Without our peers and lower ranks, who would we get to learn from? One instructor can’t simultaneously work with an entire class.
For both the higher and lower ranks, respect, in all forms, becomes a necessary part in training. It is far easier to trust someone when you respect them, and martial arts is tough to practice with someone when you don’t trust them. A lack of respect will generally lead to a culture of fear. Yes, I’ve seen it.
Other rules are more specific, practical, and, honestly, less important: keep your uniform clean and presentable, show respect to the training space by bowing and keeping it clean.
Have you noticed that these rules, at their heart, are ways to show respect?
Why are Different Rules of Etiquette Important?
As you might imagine, there are different sets of rules that schools operate under. One of the best examples I’ve seen involves belts. I was raised that your belt was to never be washed, never altered and never touch the floor unless it was on you as part of your uniform. I’ve been to other schools where belts are placed on the floor indiscriminately. You might imagine my horror the first time I saw this – I was young and thought this rule was part of every martial arts school. I thought the person I was witnessing was acting disrespectfully.
What I learned was that in this other school, your belt was an extension of your uniform. It could be washed and was simply another piece you wore, along with your top and your pants.
When you look at things in this way, you might see the value in both perspectives. Which is good, because both are right – there’s no disrespect intended in either way. Just as we have different people teaching different arts, differently, we have different ways of leveraging our martial arts etiquette – our codes of respect – to the end of our own personal development.
As we’ve talked about in other episodes, these differences aren’t to be criticized, but celebrated, because they allow more people to find the martial arts school they want, and to gain the benefits of training.
When Does Martial Arts Etiquette Go Too Far?
Etiquette equates to respect; we’ve already established that. Sometimes martial arts etiquette can be more than respect, and that’s when it goes too far. On episode 127 we discussed the benefits and privileges of rank, and there’s a lot of crossover between these two episodes. The etiquette we see in a martial arts school run by a disrespectful instructor will be strongly enforced. This is the point where I don’t name specifics because I don’t want to offend anyone, but I can illustrate the idea with a story.
When I was much younger, I think I was 7, I was in the middle of class when I raised my hand. The instructor called on me and I proceeded to explain how my Mother, who was also training in martial arts at that time, had violated the etiquette we had in our dojo by washing my obi, my belt.
The Sensei looked at me curiously, then at my Mother sitting on the side of dojo. I was sure she was going to be punished for breaking the rules. My Mother looked at me upon hearing me speak and realized what was going on.
“Tell Sensei why.” My mother stated. I looked at Sensei and informed her, not realizing that this warranted an exception to the rule, and said “Because I dropped it in the toilet.”
All rules have exceptions and a martial arts school that doesn’t recognize that goes too far. Would you want to train somewhere that didn’t let their students wash the toilet water from their belt? I sure wouldn’t.
Advice for Visiting Other Schools
Navigating the differences between schools can be very difficult. Learning the ins and outs of a school takes time, especially if you come into the school with a higher rank that the school honors. Your new training family may be nervous to advise you of smaller differences out of respect for your rank and your efforts.
See, it all comes back to respect.
The simplest thing to do is watch what others are doing. If other people are doing or not doing something, follow their lead. If you have the opportunity, ask a high rank for some of the etiquette differences people seem unaware of when they start training or visit from another school
When in doubt, bow. A bow is a sign of respect and I can’t say I ever saw someone offended that I bowed to them when it wasn’t necessary.
The one thing I have seen some schools get a bit upset about is the color of the uniform. Different schools have different rules about it, and some change the rules based on your rank. One of the best things you can do is ask about this rule ahead of time. If that’s not possible, bring multiple uniforms with you. If you can’t do that, go with a plain white uniform. I haven’t visited a school where that was bad form.
Always offer to pay for your class and always remain humble. Introduce yourself by your name and allow the instructor or a higher rank to ask about your title. I introduce myself as Jeremy wherever I go. Some schools end up calling me Mr. Lesniak, some Sensei Jeremy, Sensei Lesniak. I’ve ended up with other titles depending on the style and school – but it always starts with Jeremy. I’m humble enough to use my name and respectful of the people I’m training with to let them show me the way they’re comfortable addressing me.
Never, ever, pose a question that even might be interpreted as disrespectful or challenging of their methods. If you’re doing basics, mimic what the others are doing, even if it’s different. Your job is not to show off, to highlight differences or to do anything other than fit in. Just as with the concept of name and rank, let the people you’re visiting ask for your ways of doing things.
After all, why are you there? Hopefully, you’re there to learn new things from new people, to build friendships and further weave the web of martial arts family. You can’t do that if your cup is full and if you’re unwilling to learn. When in Rome…right?
What did I miss? Any weird etiquette you’ve bumped into when training? How does your school handle visitors? What do you do when you visit another school?
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That’s all for today. Until next time, Train hard, smile, and have a great day.