Don’t Be That Guy: Etiquette in Martial Arts Classes

You’ve met him at a seminar.  You’ve encountered him in a class. He’s that guy, and  while he’s probably somebody you don’t know well, he might be a classmate of long association.  He’s someone who doesn’t understand the etiquette of martial arts training, and this lack of understanding causes problems.  Some of these problems are minor, but some of them are the kind of thing that discourages students from returning to class.

1. Poor Hygiene and Infectious Diseases

Martial arts training requires a fairly intimate level of personal contact.  If you’re training in grappling with someone who sweats like a glass of beer on a hot day, or someone who smells like a high school locker room, it’s going to be unpleasant.  We’ve all worked with students whose uniforms could stand upright, unoccupied and unassisted.  These things are unpleasant but generally not too bad. They’re part and parcel of working with other people.

In extreme cases, however, a lack of personal hygiene can be so bad it prompts another student to stop training.  If you catch a nasty case of foot or body fungus from an unkempt classmate, you won’t just be disgusted; you’ll be concerned about the future.  Worse, if you’re exposed to other student’s blood, you may actually fear for your life.

I once worked with a student in a Wing Chun class who never properly trimmed his nails.  He had talons for fingers.  The first time he cut me open with his hand, causing me to start bleeding, I was very annoyed.  The second time he cut me open, a couple of weeks later, I refused to work with him again.  The instructor eventually had to speak to him about the issue. Ultimately the student stopped coming to class.

Another time I worked with a student who mentioned, during partner drills, that he had herpes.  Now, working with someone in a training drill is not like having sex with them, but there is at least a chance of passing on a virus like this to another human being during close physical contact such as grappling and striking.  If someone starts bleeding, all bets are off.

I once had a student bleed all over my hand during a handgun disarm.  He was an older gentleman and the skin of his hand was quite thin.  By the time I knew what was happening my entire palm was drenched in his blood.  You can bet I asked him if he had anything I needed to know about.  Had this student borne something like Hepatitis, it would have been a real issue.

If you have a potentially communicable disease, you need to stop and evaluate very seriously whether you pose a risk to other students. You have a responsibility to avoid endangering other people if you harbor an illness. Even if you are in good health, if you aren’t properly clean and maintained for class, you are insulting everyone there.

2. Inappropriate Levels of Force

At its hardest levels of contact, martial arts training isn’t martial arts at all.  I know and have spoken with fighters who regularly beat each other so hard that permanent or seriously debilitating injuries were common in class.  While training like this certainly produces dangerous fighters, it comes at too high a cost.  Most people simply will not pay it, and rightly so.

At reasonable levels of contact, learning to fight and training in martial arts (which often should not be confused with each other) still produce injuries.  There is a beautiful window in one’s late teens to early twenties in which the human body is extremely resilient, seemingly indestructible, made of rubber and immune to pain.  At every other age, you’re going to get hurt if you train.  You’ll break a toe, pull a muscle, dislocate something, or get hit when you shouldn’t.

I’ve had escrima and fingers shoved in my eye.  I’ve been elbowed in the face and punched in the head.  I’ve been chopped in the throat and nearly lost consciousness from it.  I had a shoulder injury that lasted a year.  I suffered a contusion of the ankle that may actually have been a break.  I stabbed myself in the arm once.  My doctor told me to quit aikido or develop tendonitis. I had to dig a bloody Simunition round out of my flank.  These were minor injuries.  In two decades of training I’ve been relatively lucky.

Given this, it’s an act of common courtesy not to use more force than your partners when training, especially when you go to a seminar and you’re dealing with people, and with a teacher, whose format and levels of contact are unfamiliar to you.  We’ve all seen “that guy” at a seminar, using a much harder level of contact right from the start, before students have “felt out” just how hard their partners wish to go.  That guy usually smiles and congratulates himself for hitting so hard when, in fact, he’s simply been rude.  Congratulations, pal: You hit your partner at 80% power and he hit you at 20% power while he was trying to be polite.  That must must mean you’re tougher and you train harder.  Way to go.

Adults with jobs and families to support can’t afford to incur injuries that might interfere with their ability to earn a living.  This means that avoidable injury should be, well, avoided.

Respect your training partners.  Don’t treat them like they’re made of glass, and certainly provide them with resistance… but don’t use a level of force inappropriate to the venue, or out of proportion to the level of force offered.

More importantly, don’t be rude and charge in at full power, or close to it, then congratulate yourself when you take someone by surprise.  You aren’t proving anything to anyone except that you have no manners, nor will your grave pronouncements about how hard you’re accustomed to training make you a celebrated warrior among your peers.

Students on both sides of such conduct should resist the urge to retaliate.  The appropriate reaction to an inappropriate level of contact is not to hit the offender back to “teach him a lesson.”  If you’ve been training for any length of time, you have the ability to deliver a great deal of force.  The last thing you want is to “teach” a rude student at the cost of his health or his life.  Could you live with dealing a permanent injury to someone?  Can you stomach the idea of killing someone accidentally?  It’s a freak accident, usually, when someone dies from a single punch, but it has happened.

3. Lack of Control

Closely related to inappropriate levels of contact and force is a lack of control.  The student who lacks control isn’t deliberately doing anything offensive; he just can’t help it because he doesn’t yet know what he’s doing.  It’s those guys who lack control who invariably end up hitting you when they’re not supposed to (during the learning phase of a new technique, when contact is light and movements are done slowly).

Where this can be a very serious problem is when learning joint locks, chokes, any strike involving the throat, and certain other potentially dangerous techniques.  An experienced student knows two ways to apply a joint lock.  There’s the way he applies the technique in a training setting, slowly and smoothly so as to avoid injury, and there’s the way he’ll apply it against someone he wants to injure, which usually involves popping or destroying the joint.

An amateur doesn’t yet know enough to make this distinction.  He’s a beginner; he’s untrained.  Often he doesn’t realize just how potentially dangerous the technique can be, either, so he’ll spear you in the hollow of the throat with all his might, crank your elbow or your wrist so hard it hurts for days, or break your leg by accident (I know a guy to whom this happened).

Unless you are very confident in your ability to counter such techniques, or you trust the student you are working with to go slow and comprehend his own lack of training, it’s wisest to avoid (completely) training joint locks and other dangerous moves with amateurs.  Somebody has to do it, but it doesn’t need to be you.

Don’t give an inexperienced and exhuberant beginner the chance to injure you for the rest of your life.  Where other potentially deadly techniques are concerned, use your best judgment.  Assess the character of those you work with (which won’t be easy in a strangers-only seminar setting).  Some people simply aren’t good training partners and you should refuse to work with them.

4. My Cup Is Full

This guy isn’t just a martial arts student.  He’s one of the students in every class you’ve ever been in, whether you were sitting behind a desk, standing on a firing line, or wearing a gi.  If this guy ever heard Bruce Lee going on about “emptying your cup” so that you have room to receive new knowledge, he didn’t understand the concept.  This guy is so convinced he knows more than the instructor, or so determined to question or micro-analyze everything taught, that class grinds to a halt while he interrogates the teacher.

A good teacher will answer students’ questions and even indulge analysis to the point that it does not interfere with class.  The bigger the class or seminar, however, the less you can afford to let a minority of students hold up the proceedings with what-if questions.  If you’re working with a cup-is-full guy in training drills or as a teacher, know when to encourage that person (politely but firmly) that there’s work to be done.

There is a darker side to this guy, however.  In its worst incarnations, this behavior becomes like dojo-storming, in which a student (and especially an attendee at a seminar, where attendance is more likely to include folks off the street and even enemies of the school or teacher in question) is gunning for the teacher. He wants to make that instructor look bad in front of the other students.  Such “gunslingers” will openly deride, contradict, or disobey the teacher in a seminar.  In mild cases this manifests itself as a swaggering student who tells the teacher, “That stuff won’t work.”

We’ve all heard stories in which a teacher dealt with such impudence by beating on the student in question, proving that his “stuff works” by dealing out some pain.  This is not  the proper response from a mature adult, however, no matter how morally just or emotionally satisfying it can be.  A true professional deals with such issues by informing the student in question to leave and, if he does not leave, either shows him the door or calls the authorities to do the same.  Your ability to put this jerk on his posterior is not in question.  The propriety with which you conduct yourself in class is what matters, no matter which side of the student-teacher relationship you occupy.


If you see yourself in any of “these guys,” please don’t worry.  This is not a passive-aggressive attempt to shame you.  This article is drawn from personal experience as the misbehaving student, not the offended training parter.  We have ALL been “that guy” at one time or another, especially when we were just starting out.  The martial arts and training in them would not be so ripe for satire and criticism if they were not also heavy with misbehavior.

Any number of excuses can be made for failing to comport yourself with courtesy and respect while training in the martial arts.  Some will even be valid.  Even if there is a reason for your behavior, treating your training partners  or teacher rudely is never a sign of strength or knowledge.  Mature adults are not impressed by how many times you managed to hurt yourself — or others — in the course of your training, for the overwhelming majority of your fellow martial artists have responsibilities.  Mature adults are not impressed by how much you think you know compared to others, because there is always someone who knows more.

For every obsessive martial artist who lives, breathes, and bleeds his art, there are a hundred family men and women who need to learn to defend themselves and then go home intact and in good health.  Anything you do that interferes with that goal does not make you better, tougher, more able, or the superior martial artist.  Any neglect of yourself that diminishes your fellow students’ class experience, likewise, does not make you special.

These things simply makes you “that guy.”

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10 thoughts on “Don’t Be That Guy: Etiquette in Martial Arts Classes

  1. I’ve been accused a few times of too much force used when training with others from outside the system (Lion’s Roar Kempo), but it always stems from working out with those who train only for tournament tag sparing and not real self-defense. I’ve never hurt anyone other than a bruise here and there in training and always though if you can’t take a controled punch in practice, how in the hell will you stand up against someone in a fight where they’re hitting to hurt you?

  2. I’ve trained with every single one of these guys. The “too much force guy” was 6’6″ and 190lbs of muscle and he used to fire full force thai knees at 90lb girls holding the pads. Finally the only person that would hold pads for the guy was me, and it sucked. However he had a terrible guard so he paid for it.

    The “my cup is full guy” was one of those guys who “trains’ at half a dozen or more clubs simultaneously, maybe once every two months at each. He learned the worst of every style 😉

    The “infectious disease guy” was actually an opponent in a tournament and I got a skin infection from him. He had such bad acne he didn’t know he had a skin infection until my coach told his coach. 6 weeks of liver-killing drugs and a couple bottles of corticosteroids cleared that up, and I learned to use a perscription antifungal shampoo all over my body after sparring or fighting strangers with similar skin, which has prevented any similar experiences.

    The “lack of control” guy was me for so long that I don’t hold that one against anyone. For goodness sakes, we’re learning to fight, not learning to dance.

  3. What’s the problem with using more force then necessary? (of course as long as you don’t injure your opponent).
    I’ve fought against people who didn’t use force more than once, and most of the time it lead to me not being able to apply whatever technique we were training because I just couldn’t learn the techniques properly without resistance.
    Also being hit when your guard is lacking makes you improve it quicker than being lightly touched.

  4. The problem with using more force than is *appropriate* to the drill is that it is done far more often to make the practitioner (falsely) feel more powerful, rather than out of any sense of helping the training partner. Good training involves adequate resistance, yes, but when you strike with far more power than your training partner expects, out of context of the drill, of course you will blast him. We’re not talking about freestyle sparring or fully live resistance training, but the part of training that requires less than full contact for students to learn proper body mechanics. Training full contact right from the start invariably leads to sloppy mechanics.

  5. These are great points, and this should really be required reading in gyms and dojos. However, I would like to point out that herpes (and many other diseases) cannot be transmitted by blood. With hepatitis, depending on the variety, you should worry more about handwashing (A and E are only transmitted by fecal contamination), for example. And not all people with Hepatitis B are infectious. You raise important points about infectious disease and responsibility, but it’s better to be informed about actual risk.

  6. I would agree there are many nuances and nuisances that encompass being that guy in any aspect mentioned the worst one is having to realize that you are one of those guys at times. The only way it becomes a problem is if it goes unrecognized and is not correct for the greater good of training. “The problem with using more force than is *appropriate* to the drill is that it is done far more often to make the practitioner (falsely) feel more powerful, rather than out of any sense of helping the training partner. Good training involves adequate resistance, yes, but when you strike with far more power than your training partner expects, out of context of the drill, of course you will blast him. We’re not talking about freestyle sparring or fully live resistance training, but the part of training that requires less than full contact for students to learn proper body mechanics. Training full contact right from the start invariably leads to sloppy mechanics.”—-This would have fit in the article well!

  7. I’ve had it with people who don’t clip their nails. It’s come to the point that once every 2 times I go to muay thai, someone’s front kick makes me start bleeding, or they scratch me on the neck when we’re clinching, as if they’re fighting for their dear life. And then, they apologize. That doesn’t count for anything.

    Went yesterday, my head hurt cause the day before I got kicked quite hard in the temple when I didn’t expect it. I asked the guy I was about to spar with (boxing) to keep it light. What do you know, he comes full force with a straight right. I told him again not to go hard, he did the exact same thing, so I just went on the bags.

  8. Doing a wing chun drill, we were told to palm eachother in the chest at some point, but my training partner decided to punch me right in the centre of the chest hard. After that day, my chest developed a permanent popping / clicking sound as something has busted in the middle.

    It put me off doing martial arts.

  9. I train at a really quality school and put a lot of trust in the man who owns it/runs it.

    I haven’t been a consistent attendee though so I’m a novice, and I’m the ‘lack of control’ guy.

    There’s someone there though that even though I’m trying my best, he will lose patience after I unintentionally miss/hit too hard multiple times and he’ll hit me pretty hard in return. The only way I can figure out how to avoid it is to stay moving very slow. This is a recent development. I have to work with him sometimes and so now I feel like I need to learn better control quickly so he won’t keep doing that.

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