I posted something that happened to me earlier this week on my Facebook page and it seemed to resonate with everybody so I figured it might be worth exploring it here on my blog. I’ve titled it “The Idiot’s Guide to Martial Arts for Those Who Don’t Practice Them” because, for the most part, that’s what all the stories I’ll tell here have in common: non-practitioners acting stupid. So for a change, this article isn’t aimed at you folks who regularly read my blog, but at those who don’t and know zip about martial arts.
First things first, here’s what happened a few days ago:
I was teaching sword techniques during a private session in the aerobics room of a gym in Brussels. We were using cheap beater swords: non-sharpened metal blades that can take some damage. Suddenly, a big, burly guy walks in on me and my student. As he walks straight at us, he starts talking and it went something like this:
Him: You want me to rush you with that sword?
Him: You want me to rush you with that sword?
He walks closer and gestures to my sword, extending a hand. I turn it away slightly to make sure he’s still out of range and can’t get to me without lunging.
Him: What are you doing?
Me: Just training a bit.
My student: Tai Chi Chuan.
Him: Oh, I don’t know that stuff. I’m a boxer.
Me: That’s very nice.
Me: Well, have a great day.
He gets the hint and leaves.
This isn’t the first such incident I’ve encountered and when I talk to fellow martial artists, they all nod their heads before sharing their own stories. Sometimes those stories end with a body lying on the floor, unconscious and injured, whereas other times everybody walks away in one piece. Even though the goal should always be the latter, things can always escalate into the former if a non-practitioner insists on being stupid. Given that people who practice punching and kicking each other for fun tend to be at least a little more competent at fighting than those who don’t, here are some guidelines for them on how to act around a martial artists
Don’t challenge him.
My boxer buddy from Brussels is the best example to illustrate this. Maybe he thought he was being funny. Maybe he genuinely wanted to play with the sword a bit. Who knows? What I do know is that I’m not giving my sword up to a guy who walks in uninvited into a private class and then proposes to attack me with it. To put it in his terms: what would he do if I walked into his boxing gym as he’s sparring and ask for his gloves so I could punch him with them? Or how about me going to the range and asking somebody for his gun so I can shoot him with it? Do you see the problem with this course of action?
So when you see a martial artist, don’t challenge him.
What do you have to prove to begin with?
Don’t touch his gear.
In the rec center where I used to teach, my training hours followed those of the indoor soccer teams that came to play tournaments, so we always ran into one team or the other in the changing rooms. One time, I came in with my training bag and sword bag and put everything down on the bench as usual. One of the soccer guys immediately comes over and extends his arm to grab the sword bag, saying “Hey, are those swords?”
I block his path and say “Yes.”
He then makes another move to try and grab them and I get in the way again. We lock eyes for a moment and he apparently sees something he doesn’t like, walks away, and leaves the changing room mumbling “asshole” under his breath.
Here’s the thing:
What would he have done had I just started rummaging through his sports bag and taken out his shoes and shin guards, tried them on, and practiced kicking a ball for a bit? Without asking, by the way. Just me walking up to a perfect stranger and grabbing his stuff as if it’s my own. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have liked it all that much. Even if I did, there’s no real danger.
In contrast, if I let him use my swords I’m responsible for whatever he does with them. According to the law here, I have to carry them in a case and put them in the trunk of my car out of easy reach whenever I transport them. I am only allowed to go straight to class and straight back home with them. I don’t get to go everywhere walking around with them. I’m also responsible for how they are used.
If I let Mr. SoccerMan do a couple Jedi light-saber moves he saw in the movies by twirling the sword around and it slips from his hands (because he has no training and doesn’t know what he’s doing..) and it injures a bystander, guess who’s going to be up for charges of negligence when the insurance companies and lawyers get involved? Yup, little old me.
So please keep your hands off the weapons. They’re not yours to begin with and even practice weapons can injure or kill (Hint: they’re still weapons.)
The same goes for all other martial arts gear:
- Don’t grab somebody’s boxing gloves so you can punch somebody with them because “you’re not gonna hit hard, really.”
- Don’t snatch the pads or kicking shields so you can play with them. You don’t know how to hold them and can injure both yourself and your buddy hitting them.
- When a martial artist walks to class carrying a lot of gear, don’t try to punch the kicking shield he’s holding with only one hand, because you can both get injured that way. The idiot who tried that didn’t expect me to anticipate his move (the grin on his face as I walked through the hall of the rec center spoke volumes…) and twist away from his punch, leaving him off balance and almost face-planting.
If you don’t understand this, I suggest you go to your local biker bar and sit on one of the bikes without asking permission.
Better yet, try to start it to take it for a spin. Let me know how that works out…
Don’t treat him like a circus monkey.
- “Hey, show me a fancy move!”
- “Wow, here’s a board: break it!”
- “I’m gonna punch you and you block everything, OK?”
These are some examples of requests I’ve received from people once they hear about my background. For some reason, they assume I’m their little circus monkey who has to perform for their pleasure on simple command. Now I understand if martial arts are a weird or mystical thing to you and it makes you enthusiastic. But wouldn’t it be a whole lot more polite to simply ask about it instead of ordering a complete stranger to dance to your tune?
Let’s reverse the situation and I’ll act like that when I hear about what you do:
- “You play football? Cool! Tackle that street light over there! “
- “I love basketball! Jump up and down a few times!”
I bet you don’t ask your friends who are into those sports those kinds of things.
Then why would a martial artist have to jump through the hoops you wouldn’t expect anybody else to go through? Especially if it can end badly for him.
If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s a story from my high school days:
I was sitting in class when suddenly another student grabs me from behind, puts a Stanley knife on my throat, and asks what I’m going to do about it with my martial arts training. I immediately grabbed his arm and pulled the blade away, but I still got cut. When he saw the blood, he apologized in shock and said he was just joking.
Sometimes, people want to see you do a trick they don’t really understand might get you killed…
Don’t ask stupid questions.
- “So you must be dangerous, right?”
- “Ooh, should I be scared of you?”
- “Can you kick that guy’s ass?”
- “Have you killed anyone?”
People like to say that there are no stupid questions, but I vehemently disagree with that statement. There are tons of stupid questions and these four are a part of that long list. Their stupidity lies in the implied reasoning of the person asking them. In order, for the above:
- Have I so far given you any reason to think I am dangerous? Have I acted in a manner that indicated I’m a loose cannon about to harm others?
- Before you knew I practice martial arts, have I done anything to scare you? If I didn’t then, why would you be scared of me now you know? I’m the same person as before.
- Who cares? Why do I have to prove myself?
- What is your morbid fascination with death and murderers about? Do you get off on being in their company? Why are you assuming I might be one?
Some of you might feel I’m exaggerating and should get over it. And you’re right, in and of itself this kind of thing isn’t a big deal. But if you encounter this kind of stupidity for 40 years straight, it gets old…
For martial artists: How do you handle this kind of idiocy?
I’ve been training for almost 30 years now and over time, my approach to this silliness has evolved into what it is today. I have a couple personal guidelines I try to follow. Maybe they can be helpful for you too, so here goes:
- Nobody touches my stuff unless I know them well. I’ve had too many idiots try to hurt me to let them touch any of my gear or weapons. My stuff is for me to practice with, not for them to play with. One time, a guy (who should have known better) threw a shuriken at me out of the blue, just to see if I would dodge it. He didn’t throw it hard, but I still got cut. If even practitioners can be that stupid, imagine what non-practitioners can do with gear they don’t know how to handle.
- Accept that when people hear you practice martial arts, it brings out the stupid. Over the years, I’ve heard all kinds of stupid comments and questions. Usually, I deflect them and don’t go into it because there’s really no upside in it for me. If they are sincere and want to know more about the arts, it will be clear in the kind of questions they ask. If they are just flapping their mouths, I’m under no obligation to oblige them and just move on.
- Have procedures in place. I know what I will do when somebody tries to take my weapons without my permission. I know what I will do when they try to hit me just for fun, to see if I’ll block it. That stuff has happened too often for me not to have procedures to handle it. Those procedures include de-escalating the issue, chastizing them for their actions, and keeping me safe from legal trouble. Make up your own procedures depending on the specific circumstances of your environment, but do make them. It’s easier that way.
- Don’t talk about it. If anything, this is the easiest solution and the one I apply all the time. People ask me what I do and I say I’m a Personal Trainer. What do I teach? Fitness and conditioning. I don’t mention the martial arts until I get to know the person better. When I’m at a party or amongst people I don’t know, I never mention it at all, even if somebody else brings up the topic. At the gym, when I do my stretching, people often come up to me and ask what I do. I just say I have a bad back and need to stretch more than others. As an example: after being together for years, my girlfriend’s family didn’t know I competed in the World Championships and got a Bronze medal. I simply don’t talk about martial arts when I’m with them. Not that they aren’t allowed to know, I just never brought it up because they have zero interest in it.
The reason why I do these things is that I train for myself. I don’t train for others. I don’t train to impress them or to be validated by them. I train because it gives me joy and it’s important to me. I don’t flaunt my training around, but I also don’t feel I should have to justify or explain it to anybody. In other words, it’s a private aspect of my life even though it takes up such a large part of it.
I’ve found that looking at it like this makes things much easier when I do encounter the kind of idiot I described here above.
If you have any of your own stories to share, feel free to add them in the comments section here below.