Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How Much is TOO Much?

Is it ever too early to introduce a brand-new martial artist to hard physical contact? I'm not talking about a punch to the arm or a light kick to the gut, but powerful techniques from folks who've not only been training longer and are more experienced but who are bigger, faster and stronger?

There's a bit of a debate going on over at the Women's Forum of Martial Talk.com about a young woman who has only been training for four months feeling intimidated by how advanced the guys in her training hall are - and how hard they hit. Now, I'm most definitely of the "It's karate, not knitting so expect there to be contact" school of thought, but I still can't get behind the "tough it out, it make you a better martial artist!" refrains in some of the replies.

But really, something about the idea that she's asking for advice on how to get over feeling intimidated by her training partners seems strange to me.

Her original question:
I'm a small 24 y.o. woman, not very strong. I feel it's important to learn to defend myself so I started martial arts. I've been going for four months now but I still feel really intimidated in the class full of men. Some of them are nice but some are quite advanced and are in my opinion quite hostile - and they hit hard. I like my teacher but I am a slow learner it seems, and this may be annoying for the advanced students. Any advice from instructors/other women about feeling initimidated?

If you read through the thread, you'll see that most of the advice she's gotten to date has centered around her speaking up to her training partners and asking them to temper their hits/kicks/blocks and even speaking to her instructor if the "I'm gonna blast you across the room" techniques don't cease - and I agree - but really, should she HAVE to tell more advanced students not to kick her in the face? Shouldn't the idea that folks who have just started on the path not being quite ready for full-power techniques be a given?

I remember being punched in the face THREE TIMES by a fourth dan during a basic jab drill when I was only a seventh kyu. I'd been training for less than a year and had no idea what to do. I know NOW that he should have had the most control/been the safest person in the room, but as a newbie, I wasn't quite sure if getting hit in the nose that much was drill protocol - I just know it made me feel really uncomfortable, whether it was the norm or not.

But who knows what "normal" is when they decide to step on the mat for the first time? After they've been training for a few months? Whether there to learn self-defense, to sweat a bit or simply for the challenge of learning something new, the environment that is martial arts training is a pretty unique one. The rules of what is appropriate and what isn't aren't posted on the wall but rather learned as we go - and usually, they are learned by watching and working with more advanced training partners.

It should come down to the student deciding what is appropriate contact-wise for her/him - regardless of her/his level/rank, but is that what really happens? Like I said in my reply, I think everyone should totally be able to say if/when the contact is too much. I don't think it is ever OK for others - be they fellow students or instructors - to determine what is and isn't "too hard or too much" for anyone else. Insisting that they "tough out" whatever is dished out in order to learn is the fastest way to chase a person right out of the training hall, IMHO.

The reality is that most women have probably never been hit until they kick off their shoes and step onto the mat - and if they have, it probably wasn't by a guy who out-weighs her by 50 lbs or so in an environment that is supposed to be about learning and fun to some extent. I don't really see how facing dudes with absolutely no control or a dimmer switch teaches anyone how to be a better martial artist - just how to "take" a punch. But what does that have to do with becoming a good martial artist? To me, that demonstrates only how easily we bruise and bleed in a "oh look! I almost ruptured my spleen today!" sort of way. That is not quite all the karate I study is about.

There are reasons we wear pads while training - primarily so we don't hurt the person on the receiving end of a kick/punch/block too much. Sure, punch like you mean it, but to me, there is a big difference between a solid technique with intent and one that is meant to blast the uke out of the ring just for ha-ha's. Let the contact be appropriate for the learner's level, that's all I'm sayin'...

OK - rant over. Thanks for indulging me :-)


  1. Wow...lots to think about there. I'm all for good contact, but the student must be ready and given time for the mind/body to get tempered. This is done individually. I usually test through Sanchin and start slowly with contact...some women I have in my dojo are hard-hitters and can take a punch almost the moment they hit the dojo floor. Others needed more time...neither one is better than the other. I try to stretch people out, but meet them where they are at...make sense?

  2. ANY dan rank who hits a junior in the face more than once is a warning sign of an inappropriate environment, in my (not so humble in this case) opinion. My Sensei would tear a strip off of any yudansha caught giving anything other than light to medium stomach contact against a kyu belt. If the Sensei is aware of the contact and permits it, I would be worried about the environment and example that is being set.

  3. It's completely understandable that this girl's freaked out. I'm a shodan and I'd feel uncomfortable too. Not only should these guys have high degree of control, being "advanced" students, but the sensei should step in and stop them from behaving like that. It makes me wonder if they have issues with their egos.

    The funny thing is that being light and relaxed is a much better way to learn and execute techniques. If you can do something lightly - an ashi barai or takedown, for example - when (if) it comes to you having to use it in real life, then with full power behind it the technique will be much more devastating. I do feel, as I know you do Felicia, that part of being a good martial artist is knowing when a situation calls for that type of response. In my humble opinion that's never in the dojo.

  4. It is absolutely the responsibility of the more advanced grade to temper their strikes to an appropriate level for their opponent. One of the most important things to come with advanced grades is (should be..) control. From the information you've posted is smacks to me of insecure blokes having to "prove" themselves..."aren't I great, I can pick on this lower grade (woman or not) with impunity". To me that does not make for a good martial artist. Her Sensei/Shihan should surely be aware of what's going on and step in? Makes me thankful the guys in my dojo are great blokes with respect for others not idiots who think punching hard makes for good technique.
    I don't envy her being in that position.

  5. I have to agree with everyone else - this girl is in a bad, bad club. She needs to know that this is not what real martial arts is about. Martial arts is a lot more technical and subtle than just having a good punch up. She needs to find a new club where she is treated with more respect before her confidence is eroded even further.

  6. You make some great points here yet the one point that I am feeling is that this dojo and this Sensei is not addressing the levels and proficiency adequately.

    This woman can use this environment to her advantage simply because the most attacks against women are by men. This intimidation, etc. can be used to learn how to overcome it if attacked which will be by a man, if ever.

    That small piece of advice not asked for does not mean that this environment is wrong for martial arts instruction.

    This dojo is not providing proper instruction. They are failing to recognize that this grouping of experienced with new participants is wrong. They are not adequately controlling the actions within the dojo.

    Sensei should be monitoring and when it is very apparent that a senior who should be leading and mentoring this woman is going out of bounds MUST intervene immediately and with out equivocation.

    In my dojo, I would have stopped the entire dojo and spoke of the sempai to kohai relationship. It would be a speach that warranted repeating because I teach this from the very beginning.

    There are no excuses for this and in my opinion I would leave and search out a Sensei and Dojo where this Sensei-Deshi/Sempai-Kohai relationship is fostered and enforced completely and utterly.

    She should not ever have to worry about a Sempai going to hard and the Sempai should not be allowed to mentor a Kohai of such early practice until fully vetted by Sensei.

    A critical part of instruction in martial arts is the ability to be aware, to perceive, and to practice adjusting to varying and fluid levels of proficiency, etc. in fostering a learning environment.

    There is a place and time to put people in "shugyo" and the first three months is not it.

    When she reaches a true budo level of 5th kyu, maybe start but each individual is unique and the Sensei should "KNOW THIS" and apply this rule.

    Off the soap box but this makes me feel strongly of a misuse of martial power. Tell her to leave and find a good Sensei.