Martial Arts Progression: Technical Skills vs. Proper Conduct

By: Jefferson P. Webb

Here is the scenario. You see a fellow martial artist within your school displaying what appears, and may very well be a natural skill and ability to quickly pick up on and employ the style that they are being taught. They do very well on the drills/katas. Perhaps this person managed to reach his or her third belt rank (or third chevron in the New Ulster Fighting System) and has started competing. This
person seems ready to take their next test, but the instructor does not appear to be giving the time of day for it. It may cause you to ask the question, “Why are they not getting to test as of yet?” For sure if you have thought about it, the person not being allowed to test has surely asked themselves the question, “Why can’t I test yet?”

 There could be any number of reasons why the instructor is holding off on testing
the student. The first thing that a student must do is a self-evaluation to determine whether or not there is something that he or she is missing. More than likely the student will always look at the actual drills/katas or technique and style that they are using in attempting to determine why they have not been allowed to test. While
this is a legitimate area in which one should conduct a self-evaluation,  there are several other areas that are very basic in which the student may have some deficits that could cause them to slow or even halt in progression through the ranks of his or her art of choice. One thing to also consider  is that most often than not,
the instructor will call to your attention the areas of your techniques and execution of the various moves that you need to improve on. So, what could be the issue if not techniques and execution on moves? Here are some things to consider and give some thought towards in answering this question.

 No matter where you are training or in what martial art style you are practicing, there are some very basic things that always play a factor in your progression and your relationship with your peers and your instructor. Here are some factors that your instructor/s are also looking for in the dedicated member/student:

 A couple of these factors are courtesy and respect. How is the student in his mannerisms and attitude towards the instructor? When the student arrives, how long does he take before greeting fellow members? Does he greet them at all? How long does it take the student to address and greet the instructor? Does
he do it at all or does the instructor have to finally initiate interaction through greeting the student first? As a student subordinate to the instructor, you should always be looking to greet your instructor at the first possible opportunity. That said, do not ignore other fellow members to get passed them to the instructor, but address the instructor as soon as possible, especially if you are the first one to arrive for training. Common sense should prevail here. Simply observe a basic level of courtesy and respect. You will make a good impression.

 Another factor is attitude. What is your attitude as pertains to your training and in your relationship with your peers? Is the member in question, good though he or she may be, big-headed about his abilities or is he humble, realizing there is always more to learn, and that all ability comes from God and not through their own doing? There is always someone better, or that can “one-up” you on any given day. This is true for all of us, Grand Master or otherwise. There may be a person that you can defeat time and again in freestyle fighting who, much to your amazement can defeat the person that defeats you time and again in freestyle competition. This is the way of things often. We must keep a humble attitude and a genuinely good attitude when engaging in our training and with our fellow martial artists. Getting upset and perhaps throwing a sword to the ground in frustration or cursing is not the way. This person will level off at a given rank and the instructor will more than likely leave them in whatever rank they hold until they “come around” and begin to conduct themselves properly or until they leave if not first discharged as a form of disciplinary action.

What about the person who is dedicated to their training, keeps a great attitude
about what they are doing, and while they may not be the strongest or the most talented martial artist, they practice hard and display a genuinely high level of enthusiasm and dedication to what they are doing? Perhaps this person will be defeated every single time they confront the “big-headed” member who has natural ability in freestyle practicing. Who should be considered above the other for
testing or meritorious promotion to the next rank? I think the answer is clear in this case. The dedicated member with the great attitude and desire to work hard to get it right. While the “big-headed” member stymies in progression, eventually the
student with humility and a great attitude will surpass the other in rank, maturity, and wisdom. Perhaps even in martial ability in the physical sense.

 Another matter of importance is the condition of the appearance of the student when arriving at training sessions. Is the student wearing a designated uniform? Is the uniform clean or is it dirty and perhaps very wrinkly? Does the member display the correct rank on his or her uniform? What about the student’s gear and equipment? If using a weapon in their art, is it well maintained as instructed? Did the student bring with him all of the gear he knows he should have for the type and level of practice they are engaging in? Is the member on time or is he/she continuously late for practice. If so, is there a reason expressed to the instructor that is legitimate, perhaps a scheduling issue, emergency, or something else. A scheduling issue is almost always an understandable matter in this age of busy people with jobs, educations, families and so on. All of these things are factors that an instructor considers and looks for in his students when evaluating who is ready to test and progress to the next rank in their organization. ALWAYS be sure to be in a well maintained uniform when attending training. ALWAYS be sure to have all of the gear that you need to engage in your level of training. And when in an art that is weapons based, ALWAYS be sure to have your weapons maintained properly. This is for your own safety and for the safety of others, but too it shows a level of dedication and caring for the art that you are training in. If your appearance and the appearance of your gear and equipment looks as if you do not care, then your instructor, while he or she almost surely does care about you, may take the outward approach to you that they do not care for any further advancement for you. In almost all martial arts schools if you do not wear your uniform as it should be worn at practice and/ or you do not bring your gear, you do not get to practice. You must watch the others.

 Some very basic things to consider whether you are studying the New Ulster Fighting System, or whether you are in another martial arts school of an Asian art, Central American Art, African art, Native American art, and so on are as follows:Be courteous and respectful. Be humble and keep a great attitude. Keep a good
appearance in uniform.
Take good care of your gear and equipment. Be on time, and
if you cannot, contact your instructor as soon as possible.

All of these things show a level of dedication that the instructor is looking for no matter where you are practicing martial arts. Do these things, and even if you have a harder time than others with the techniques and execution of the moves of the art, you will still go a long way. It may take a little longer than others, or it may take you less time than the student gifted in the technical execution, but for whom is not so gifted in the areas of character. Keep these basic fundamentals in mind, and you will do very well. Furthermore, these positive attributes will help you in everyday life in your relations with other people.

Join the Conversation


  1. Every time read this or another topic like it I always have to go back and evaluate myself as I read. In doing so I usually find some area that I can improve upon. I think that these are very important things for every pupil to learn, not just those who are learning a martial art but regular students as well. Given some areas are less applicable than others, but as a whole the lesson of this are very general in their uses. I am rather sorry to say I have seen a handful of students like this in my VERY short time as a pupil. And every one of them lost dedication, nerve, and all desire to learn anymore when they were not progressing as they would have liked. It is very sad to me when another person cannot dedicate themselves to learning and practicing something as necessary as a martial art. It has become all too common for a person to desire the end result of practice, but want no part of the work it takes to reach the goal. I believe that in these time we should follow the examples of other countries such as China and implement a readily available system (though not mandatory) for everyone to learn even just the basics of martial arts. When our federal government is restricting our second amendment rights and at any time, given the reinterpretation of the amendment by the supreme court, can in effect repeal its application to all citizens not in a militia, we MUST take it upon ourselves to prepare for the worst and be also prepared to defend our families, friends, and those who could not for other reasons defend themselves. Without a martial system of some sort the only people that would progress would be those who were naturally born prepared, and that is a bit to Darwinian for my liking.

  2. I definitely agree on all of the above mentioned points. In fact I have been studying and analyzing a number of various martial arts over the last year in order to further myself as a martial artist and to further my family martial arts system so that my current family and future generations will be even better prepared for a life or death situation and I have found that those systems that allow students to rank based off of skill alone and not taking into account humility or discipline are often the ones that show poor form and precision later on although they have power. The most basic example of this I believe is MMA. Although I understand many of the restrictions placed on them in the ring for safety reasons I still get this impression from them that they believe that they are above everyone else. I think the competition in the ring is mainly the reason for this as sparring is supposed to be a teaching experience not a competition. However I have looked at some of their highlights and always the top ten that get through the opponents defense and are the most devastating are the ones that have the most traditional form to them as opposed to the brawl like movement that they seem to have usually. This in itself is a major tenant of my training, that proper form and technique with little power and effort will always overcome strength without any technique or form. And as far as I’m concerned the second that you think that you are better than those around you is the second that you stop growing as a martial artist and as a person.

    1. Joe, thank you very much for your comment on this article. You make some really nice observations when touching in the area of MMA fighting. I actually love to watch MMA fighting and by in large part to observe the things you mention in your posting. Technique and proper form are absolutely key in effective and efficient martial arts. That is one thing I loved so much about my experience as a student of Aikido some years ago. That style in particular to me speaks volumes in the area of proper form and technique executed against an adversary of greater strength and brute form capabilities. The employment of proper form and technique in Aikido manipulates and redirects the strength of the adversary. I have been fascinated with and have loved Aikido since a the late 1980’s for this reasons. It is not that other styles are not also effective to varying degrees in this, but I love the way in which Aikido does this. The efficiency is incredible…fluid…and like so other style that I have personally experienced can one do as Bruce Lee stated and, “ water, my friend. Be water..” Not to sound hokie at all, but to me Aikido does flow like water. That experience is something that I believe has affected positively my training and instructing of European martial arts, which also does this in a number of its techniques.

      So, yes indeed you are correct and I thank you so much for your posting here.

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