So what if they’re laughing at me

Thanks to Pete, Peggy, Emily, Jon, and Shihan for breaking a bottle of champagne over the comment section. 

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.

So my question is, how do you overcome the self-ridicule, and the fear of ridicule from others? And, do you have any tips for beginning students? Please comment, below.

(If you wish to contribute a question. You may either write it, or pass it to me:

3 Responses to So what if they’re laughing at me

  1. Emily says:

    That was a wonderful post, Mr. Bloom! Very insightful!

    I started karate when I was very young. What stands out the most in my memory about my first time in a dojo: that I was scared witless of the big scary teachers and that it took several visits, in which my mom would drag me back despite my horribly shy whimpering, before they actually got a gi on me (I’m glad she kept dragging me back).

    We have several home videos of early belt tests and other such demonstrations from my earliest karate years. I laugh every time I watch them because I was a totally spacy student and I often needed direction from older sempai. It’s so funny to see Little Emily daydreaming in class with her loose fists and lazy stances — the very behaviors that I now am taught to discourage. How in the world did I come to change so much? How did I go from being too shy to try something new to being more confident, even sometimes adventuresome?

    The Go Do Shin says to “Never forget the spirit of first beginnings.” The truth is, karate (like life) is full of first beginnings. The more I grow in karate, the more often I feel like Little Emily again. And look at Soke Saito: he is always discovering new things about karate, that’s why there’s always changes in kata interpretations and such.

    So to any timid beginners: it may feel like Shihan and your sensei and sempai and even all your dojo mates are constantly seeing your mistakes. But please realize that everyone else is in a constant “beginner state” as well, and everyone else is just as concerned with their own performance as you are with yours. So don’t worry so much about what others are thinking. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be concerned with pleasing Shihan, but also remember that YOU were the one who wanted to do karate in the first place. Worry about pleasing yourself. What’s the quality of the experience that you’re going to create for yourself in karate? How can you make yourself proud?

    More than likely, someday soon you’ll be looking back at home videos of Little You, and you’ll be surprised at how far the baby steps you’re taking now have brought you!

  2. Joni Sharrah says:

    Both Gary and Emily have brought up some interesting insights into what fears a beginner must overcome in order to truly benefit from the lessons in the dojo.

    When I remember my first experiences in the dojo, my only understanding of martial arts at the time came from watching and admiring Bruce Lee in the movie “Enter the Dragon”.

    As a young adult who just finished a 2 year tour skating with Ice Capades, I had no fear of learning the physical skills of martial arts.

    My greatest fear in martial arts training was feeling as though the mundane repetitions of blocks, strikes, and kicks would not provide me the skills necessary to defend against attackers.

    In short, I wanted to learn how to protect myself, to stop running in fear, to be confident and to feel safe in any situation.

    As a youngster growing up in San Francisco and then later as a young lady on tour through the continental United States, I found myself being the target of people, mostly strange men, who would try to trap or chase me to do what ever awful thing they had in mind to me.

    In all the stranger-danger cases no one was ever able to trap or physically hurt me because I could sense their bad intentions and could run like the wind to keep myself safe.

    The night before my first official karate class, I was in a convenience store and as I was making my purchase, two strange men followed me around the store. When I completed my purchase, they followed me to my car. As I was getting into the car they began tugging at the car handle trying to force their way in. Locking the doors at the same moment prevented them from harming me, but this scary situation created a resolve in me to find a way to stop living in fear of physical assault.

    So, the next day, I was a beginner. Uniforms were hard to come by and took weeks to arrive, so in leotards, tight, and leg-warmers, I began my first class.

    Submitting myself to the physical training of karate was natural for me. Being a life-long athlete, former professional ice-skater, and committed to a healthy life-style gave me an edge in the dojo.

    The most difficult part of training was the military aspect of discipline doled out by the drill-sargent type instructor.

    There was no room for emotion in the class not even the display of positive of emotion was accepted. Pushing aside the desire to smile, laugh, or cry was the hardest part of my initial training.

    Self-expression needed to be repressed. Permission needed to be granted to speak, to ask questions, to breath.

    In this situation we were not given any room to notice what others might be thinking. We were all so focused on meeting the standard of physical, emotional, and spiritual discipline caring what others might be thinking or feeling seemed to be non-existent.

    Today, in our modern society, we are always trying to be aware of what others are thinking or feeling. It’s become common for parents and teachers alike to ask, “how does that make you feel?” It is also common today for educators and parents to try to protect their students from humility or public embarrassment.

    The lesson of humility is one of the greatest gifts that can be derived from training in traditional karate-do. Putting aside your ego and vanity and checking your emotions and personal desires at the door before training is essential.

    For all students of martial arts I recommend that you set realistic goals for yourself. Do not compare yourself or your progress to others. Realize that progress takes frequent attendance, a positive attitude, and a commitment to your own success both on and off the mat.

    Once a beginner starts practicing consistently outside the scheduled classes, they will make steady progress and their confidence will grow. Eventually, the lessons will take root and whatever fears a student began with will be overcome.

  3. Jon says:

    Great article Gary, and the insights left above have a lot of wisdom in them and I can only echo some of what has been written.

    I think that the concern of what others are thinking about us when we practice Karate affects us all to some extent. For myself, I am petrified to ‘perform’ for others; I was the guy at the high school dance on the sidelines always hiding and too self-conscious to participate. I didn’t start martial arts training until I was 30 years old and equated kata to a dance I had to perform for others. I nearly quit because of it. One of my Sempai saw that struggle and gave me this famous quote:

    “We would worry less about what others think of us if we realized how seldom they do.” – Ethel Barrett

    That gave me some perspective; every individual on that mat has some concern for their own performance, and for most that takes up of their own focus. Whatever I happen to be doing is probably to others just background noise. It’s certainly not the central focus of everyone in the Dojo. The Instructors notice all of us, coach, and correct, and help us get past our self-focused concerns.

    I didn’t end up quitting, and have learned that overcoming a fear to perform for others is an essential lesson of Karate-do that travels far beyond the Dojo. As karate-ka we are challenged in any number of ways to break out of our comfort zones on our personal growth path in the art, and in life. My own belief is that when Karate-do has no challenge, or is comfortable, than I must not be growing anymore.

    And may that day never come.

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