At the age of 34, I watched a PBS TV special on Aikido, and it was love at first sight. I was astounded and drawn by its graceful dance-like movements. I crafted a careful plan to overcome my anxiety over entering a martial arts dojo for the first time. I would fall in love, move from the Bay Area to Seattle, get married (yes, it did happen in that order), have a couple of children, and drag my family members with me to the dojo. My plan worked perfectly, and took just 14 years to execute.
While it was not the first time I paired love-at-first-sight, with an intermission of years before the first date, it was definitely a new record of procrastination for me. What was I afraid of? What most people are afraid of, when trying something new, especially in a crowd. Feeling like a dork, looking like a dork.
During my first years in martial arts, my self-dork-o’meter pegged the red zone about ten million times but, eventually, I realized that my concerns were absurd. First, why would I want to dedicate myself to something that was easy to learn. And if it wasn't easy to learn, why would I expect to not suck for a while. If I took up piano, or golf, or computer programming, I would expect to struggle for several years. I would also understand that I was starting a never-ending journey, and that I would expect to have fun and insights along the way that made the journey worthwhile. Second, after a few years experience in martial arts, I look at new students from the other side. When I look at a new student, I do not think, "They look like dorks." I think, "That’s what a new student looks like; I guess I have learned something along the way." Then I do a brief fantasy touchdown celebration and give a mental high-five to the new student for giving a sincere effort.
Tips for Newbies
Watching myself, and watching other new students, I have noticed a few things along the way. First, the most gung-ho new students, and sometimes the most talented, are often early dropouts. They hit the mat running, coming as often as possible. After a few months, they notice that martial arts training, as with everything else worth pursuing, is not a sprint, but a marathon. They start coming less often or think, "Hmm, I’m really busy, maybe I’ll take a little break and come back twice as determined." While you may need a break for practical reasons -- time, money, injury -- I don't believe that anybody is more determined the second time around. Or, if they don’t lose their enthusiasm, they have a bigger chance of getting injured by over-training before they get in shape. (The policies of USA Karate helps new students by limiting access to classes until they attain Blue Belt.)
Not all of the overly-enthusiastic new students become early dropouts. The exceptions are usually those who discover that martial arts is their calling. These people are easy to recognize, because they're eventually called “Sensei.”
The second thing that I've noticed along the way is that, if you’re afraid of looking dumb, the way to look even dumber is to pretend that you know more than you do. Maybe you trained somewhere else and believe that you should be treated as if you’re already an advanced student. If you are experienced and competent above your rank, your fellow students will figure that out. If you are experienced and not competent above your rank, your fellow students will figure that out even sooner.
I have found just one rationale that keeps me going during the initial awkward stage. Experience has taught me that, in three years, whether or not I train in martial arts, I’ll be three years older. You don’t have to take my word for it, you could look it up. What if, due to worrying about being a dork, I put off training for three more years? Then, in three years, I’ll still be a beginner. But, if I start now, in three years, I’ll have three years experience, and feel less like a dork. Go ahead and think that I just said the most obvious truism anyone could think of -- it’s still true.