How to Train at a New Martial Arts School or Gym

In the post about visiting another martial arts school, we looked at some do’s and don’ts for just that. Now let’s take the next step and see what happens once you enroll or start training at a new martial arts school. We’ll make a couple assumptions:

  • You only visited the school once or twice.
  • You talked to the teacher a bit and perhaps to some of the other students.
  • Other than that, your knowledge of that school is pretty limited.

This last bullet is the key point: you step into the new school with very limited information of how it works. Sure, there’s what the teacher and perhaps a couple others told you but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. What lies beneath the surface is all the things you actually need to know; the social dynamics and “rules of the land”. No teacher walks up to you in your first class to tell you that such and such is a good black belt but he has a tendency to crank on joint locks way too hard. Or that he absolutely hates it when students try to show off and lets them sweat it out afterwards.

Yet this is crucial information as you enter the school: You have a martial arts background, you have training, which means you’re accustomed to the dynamics of your own school. You know how to handle these things within your own environment. You learned it either the hard way (getting thumped on the head) or by observing your fellow students. But now you’re in another place where things are different. There are too many opportunities for somebody to hurt you, so you have to figure out how things work in this school.


Here are a couple things you can do to avoid these situations:

  • Learn the local etiquette. Bow or salute when it’s expected of you, show respect. If senior students or professional fighters get certain perks, don’t complain about it or demand the same for yourself. Stand in line with everybody else. In a nutshell, try to blend in.
  • Ask what to do. Before class starts, ask the teacher or another student a few questions: where should you stand during the salutation? How exactly do you salute? What else is expected of you? With just a couple of questions, you show good will and respect.
  • Don’t offer advice. People in general don’t appreciate unsolicited advice and martial artists, especially competitors, are no different. Don’t forget that you’re new in class. Nobody knows you and you don’t know what the other students have already learned. Your well meant advice can easily be seen as a veiled critique or trying to show you’re so much smarter than them.
  • Don’t criticize their way. Even if you disagree with a certain way of training or you feel a technique should be done differently, don’t say that out loud. Maybe the teacher hasn’t finished explaining everything about the technique yet. Or there are certain parameters that everybody already knows but you haven’t learned yet. It is your first class after all…
  • Show an interest in the style. This is the other side of the coin for the previous bullet: Not criticizing is passive; you don’t do something. Showing an interest is active, you consciously engage in a specific action. Asking a couple more details about a technique (don’t go overboard with this though), saying “Cool, I like this technique.” or “This is fun!” goes a long way in showing you’re there to learn and not to cause trouble.
  • Be low key. Remember the last time somebody brought a motormouth into your circle of friends? You didn’t like it and neither did everybody else. When you’re new in a group and the first thing you do is acting all hyper and forcing people to notice you, they might not try to punch your mouth shut. But you chances go way up of somebody thinking “Shees, somebody needs to take him down a notch.” and acting upon it. Remain low key until people see you’re actually a good guy and they won’t take offense at your enthusiasm.
  • Make friends. This should be self explanatory but if you’re going to train somewhere, why not jump at the chance to make new friends? You’re meeting new people who share your interests so there’s bound to be a couple of them whom you could befriend. This alone can help you avoid lots of trouble: if a student tries to test you, another is likely to step up and speak on your behalf.

By following these guidelines you can stay clear of a large amount of confrontations and problems with your new fellow students. I’ve found this to be especially true in muay Thai or MMA gyms where testosterone levels rise pretty high. But there is one qualifier for it to work: you have to be genuine. Fake it and they’ll eventually pick up on it or spot it right away as you step onto the mat. Just be yourself, be real and remember why you enrolled in that class in the first place: to learn something you’re interested in. Be respectful and open minded so the new group can accept you as one of theirs and you’ll have lots of fun training with them.

Now don’t get the idea that you should kowtow to the new teacher or your fellow practitioners in this new school. Not at all. The list above is meant to help you integrate into the school; acting like a sniveling weasel won’t get that done either. But the hard fact is that many practitioners become selfconscious when they see you already have a lot of skill. Your goal is to get along with them so you can enjoy the classes and don’t have to handle potentially dangerous situations all the time.

Feel free to leave some of your own experiences in the comments section.


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  1. Hi Wim

    One day my own gym closed down for the holidays and I asked my teacher if he was ok that I trained elsewhere to stay in shape. He appreciated this and even gave me some sound advice.

    Before going to this new club I already sent a message to the trainer telling him about my intentions and reasons to train with him. I also stressed the fact that I would be coming over with respectful and sportive intentions. I’ll never forget his answer : ‘Hi Steven. Just come over ! Greetings’.

    This way he knew a little about me before I even showed up and I had the greatest time there. I also implicated my present trainer with my intentions so I wouldn’t do anything behind his back. A clear win-win situation.



    • Yes, open communication is usually a great way to avoid any problems. Most teachers don’t have a problem with new students, or they wouldn’t hold public classes to begin with. But better to be a bit too polite than not polite at all.

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