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When You Are Starting Out

July 13, 2014

Confession: I am totally fascinated with teaching beginners.

A total beginner, someone who has no background in any other martial art, has a totally clean slate. He or she starts off with no idea what is going on, and yet within a short time frame of 2-4 years can acquire complex, high-stakes skills such as evading a striking or grappling attack and launching a somewhat effective counter. If we truly understood what was happening during that process, that will allow a proper teacher to gauge the student’s progress and teach the right material and at the right pace.

I cannot speak for other martial arts, but for Bujinkan Ninjutsu this is what I see happening when a student begins his martial journey:

A)     Student Learns Kamae

Kamae is often translated as “stance”. In any proper martial art, stances are not something random or quirky, done solely for stylistic purposes. There are certain structures that allow the human body to effectively and efficiently:

1)      generate and deliver force to an opponent;

2)      maintain control and balance; AND

3)      create a certain degree of safety from specific attacks.

These structures are not intuitive. People tend to make two mistakes with their kamae, they either take one that wastes effort and energy, thinking that more effort on their part means more results, OR they cut important corners, leaving out details that will make their techniques work well later on.

A good teacher will understand the importance of teaching proper kamae, be able to explain and demonstrate its importance, and be able to gradually build a beginner up to proper kamae. Which brings me to the next point…

B)      Student Gets Conditioning

As I said before earlier, kamae is NOT something intuitive or natural to the untrained person. Many beginners struggle to get a basic ichimonji no kamae right. Even the simple point about keeping the tailbone tucked in and spine straight takes a lot of practice. And once you tell them to keep the knees in line with the feet they either stick out their butts or start leaning forward. Not easy!

We can see from this that proper kamae, at least at the beginning, takes a certain level of understanding of how the body works. Every martial arts instructor owes it to his or her students to ensure that what is taught is based on proper biomechanics.

Kamae also includes the head position. Many people have weak neck muscles these days, so if they are not careful they will let their faces jut out closer to their opponents’ attacks. That is not smart! Sometimes people begin their martial arts journey with injuries or inborn weaknesses. Conditioning for these people will also include a certain degree of rehab, to help them get their bodies working properly again.

So besides learning kamae, the newbie also begins to get conditioning in order to get into a good posture and structure. Strength, flexibility and even toughening (depending on the martial art) take time to develop. A good teacher knows what degree of conditioning the students need to perform the art well, and will gradually build the students to that level in a safe and sustainable way.

C)      Student Builds Coordination

We usually don’t think of ourselves as klutzes, but martial art skill requires body coordination at a higher level than most day-to-day activities. A majority of the beginners have to work to get the coordination necessary for a back roll (sit down on the ground, extend one leg and swing it towards the opposite shoulder). Stepping forward with a punch requires the hips, knees and arms to work in tandem, striking with a weapon such as a sword or stick even more so.

One good thing about weapons training, by the way, is how it enhances coordination. It may make coordination slightly more challenging, but it gives you immediate feedback on whether you are getting it right, because it will magnify your mistakes. Little glitches you may not notice unarmed become more obvious when you are holding a sword or stick in hand.

That is why I suspect warriors of old spent more time training with weapons and then carried over such movement principles and concepts to unarmed combat.

And in the end, it is coordination that defines a martial artist. If you see a guy opening a door by elbowing the door knob, holding the door open with a foot and using hips and knees to nudge a baby stroller (loaded with groceries) through while carrying a baby in his arms, you can be quite sure he’s a martial artist…


I wrote all this for two groups of people:

First: for the beginner. This is your journey. It will be frustrating at times, but I hope that this will help you understand what is going on as you learn a new set of skills!

Second: for martial arts teachers. Some of us have a natural inclination towards physical activity, and that helps us to learn martial arts more easily. But that can also lead to frustration when we find it hard to teach students who are less naturally gifted (which would be pretty much everybody else). When you understand what your students are going through, you will be better able to teach at their level, not at yours. And that will certainly help them progress better.

Ok, that’s all for this post. See you at training!

俊傑 (Shunketsu)
Bujinkan Ninjutsu



From → bujinkan

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