How NOT To Treat A New Martial Arts Student With Previous Experience

How to NOT treat a new martial arts student

How To Not Treat A Student: Exhibit A

Back when I first arrived in Austin, I was looking for a place to continue my own training, while also looking for a place to teach my own classes.

I’d been training mostly in the Korean arts at the time, and wanted to continue doing tae kwon do and also learn more hapkido. So I went in search of such a school.

As it turns out, I found a school that offered exactly what I was looking for, and not too far from me. The ads for the studio showed a guy in a suitably martial pose, holding a staff and doing some sort of Billy Jack style kick all at once.

“Cool,” I thought. “This guy has seen the Billy Jack movies.” So, I drove out to the school.

When I entered, I found an attractive if granola girl-ish young lady behind a counter who was obviously restocking their retail area. “Hi,” she asked me with a look that said she might be. “How can I help you?” she continued, with a look that said she probably wouldn’t.

“I just stopped by to check out the school, and I was wondering if the instructor was around.”

“Oh, he doesn’t normally speak with new students.” She somehow managed to get all breathy when she said ‘he.’ “But, I can show you around if you like, and answer all your questions.”

I asked the obvious question. “So, do you work here?”

“Sort of. We all volunteer to help out in the dojang.”

Now I was getting subtle but unmistakable Manson family vibes, but I quickly dismissed them since I was visiting a martial art school. I mean, no telling what sort of weirdness you might run into in the quest for martial knowledge – I’d seen every episode of Kung-Fu on TV… and I’d been doing traditional Korean martial arts for years. So, I knew there might be some strangeness.

I followed the flower girl around the school, asking questions about classes, the styles they taught, and the “master” instructor. He was once a direct disciple of some Korean instructor, but later broke off and started his own thing.

The girl turned to me and smiled. “By the way, we’ll be closed next week for our annual remodeling. All the students are required to help out. So, if you enroll today you can come by next week and help paint.”

I did my best to avoid looking at this chick like she was already high on paint fumes, then smiled and replied. “Sure, that’d be great! Any chance I could speak to the instructor…?”

“Oh, he doesn’t usually speak to new students.” This time, a sort of dreamy look in her eyes when she said ‘he.’ Dreamier, rather. Dreamy seemed to be her default mental state.

“Well, I’m kind of trying to make a decision here, and I’d really like to speak with him before I make my decision.” In other words, I want to speak with the owner of the circus, not the monkey. Help me out here, Squeaky Fromme.

She placed a finger to her temple and looked like she was thinking hard. For some time. Drugs will do that to you. Finally, she snapped back to the conversation. “Well, I suppose I could see if he’d speak to you. Let me check.”

Five minutes later I’m sitting in a chair that obviously had the legs shortened to afford the guy behind the desk the luxury of looking down at anyone who sat there. I’m nervously looking around the office while this middle-aged guy with a receding hairline and a pony tail is sitting across the desk from me, his eyes boring a hole in my forehead.

He didn’t greet me when I walked in. Just stared. I couldn’t tell if he was pissed off or just meditating in an angry way.

“Nice office you have here.” Still staring. No response.

So, I continued. “I, um, already have a black belt in Shotokan, and I’m a red belt in tae kwon do. That’s why I wanted to speak with you. About my previous experience.”

More staring. In fact, it’s been about three minutes already, and this guy has. Not. Blinked. Or. Moved.

I, being the intrepid seeker of martial arts knowledge that I am, kept talking. By this time, I was starting to show verbal signs of Stockholm syndrome.

“So, I’d like to continue training… in tae kwon do and hapkido… and I see that’s what you teach… more or less… and, er *cough* well, I was kind of hoping that I could keep my rank, or at least be able to move a little faster through your curriculum, based on my previous experience.”

Now, understand that I’d done my homework on this school. They did the exact same forms my previous instructor taught.

“No,” he finally replied. Hey, it speaks.

“I already know all the forms you practice.”

“We don’t do that here.” More staring. No elucidation. Still hasn’t blinked.

“Okay… well, I suppose I can deal with that. Can you tell me about the classes and curriculum you teach?” Still with the eyes boring holes in my forehead. Still looking pissed off, like I’d been stealing kisses from his sister – the one that I suspected he’d married when they were both fourteen.

Staring for about another 30 seconds. It seemed longer. Much longer. Even with my acknowledged social awkwardness and ineptitude, I knew this was loooooong past getting awkward. We were well into the realm of dialogue between Mike Meyers and Vicki the park ranger in So I Married An Axe Murderer.

Phil Hartman

Then, suddenly after making me feel extremely uncomfortable for five minutes, the instructor started talking to me like a normal human being. He explained everything about the classes and answered all my questions. Which was even more weird.

No, I never enrolled at that school. In fact, I tried to avoid even driving by it, for fear that I’d be abducted by their cult members.

How To Not Treat A Student: Exhibit B

A few years later I decided that I might want to expand my martial horizons and take up tai chi (I later discovered that I have about as much patience for tai chi as I have for watching paint dry, which I find to be about as exciting – not to knock tai chi, I just have ADD).

So, after looking around town for a suitable tai chi school I settled on one not too far from me that had daytime classes, which was a plus since I was running my own school by that time.

I stopped in during the day, and found the instructor and what was apparently one of his senior students working out. As I walked in, they paused and walked over to speak with me.

“Can I help you?”

I introduced myself with a smile and a handshake. “Sure, I teach tae kwon do, but I’d like to start exploring the Chinese martial arts. Can you tell me about what you teach?”

“We teach the Yang style of tai chi.” Looks at his student and rolls his eyes. What the hell?

Rude gesture

I decided to ignore it. “I was watching what you were doing right as I walked in, and I see some similarities in the stances I’m familiar with. Do you think that will help me pick up the forms?”

Turns and rolls his eyes again when he thinks I’m not paying attention. Student chuckles. I’m starting to figure out that this guy is a jackass.

Besides, this is NOT the way you treat an instructor who is visiting your school, regardless of his style. You always treat instructors from other styles with respect, so long as they’re being polite – at least, that’s how I was taught. By my mother, my father, and by my previous instructors as well. Basic courtesy says you don’t make fun of a guest. End of discussion.

At any rate, I continue to be polite while these guys are rolling their eyes at me and having a private laugh every few seconds. Shortly, I end the conversation and thank him for his time. And as with Mr. Unblinking Billy Jack, I never go near that school again.

How Not To Treat A Potential Student: Exhibit C

Like a lot of karate guys who saw the light, I’ve been doing jiu-jitsu on and off since the late nineties. I’m still not that good at it, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that I don’t actually like doing BJJ. I just do it because I know I need to do it.

So, I tend to train it for a while, get comfortable with being mildly proficient, and then stop training until I realize I’m out of practice… at which point I start up again. Probably not the best way to gain any lasting skill in a complex and nuanced martial art.

At any rate, early on in my somewhat checkered career as a BJJ student I decided to check out a local school. The guy who ran it was a black belt, and this was back in the day when there weren’t BJJ black belts teaching on every corner. At the time, I’d trained with a friend who was a purple belt for a while, but I wanted to get more serious about it (even though I more or less hated doing it).

So, I stopped by the school and spoke with the instructor, explaining that I owned a tae kwon do school, but that I was interested in learning jiu-jitsu, and that I had very little experience. He was very nice, if a bit full of himself… but nice, nonetheless. I paid for a month of classes and showed up the next day.

I said hi to the instructor, put on my gi, and got on the mat. There were about 15 or so students already warming up and stretching, so I found some mat space and started quietly doing the same.

About 15 seconds later, the instructor comes out on the mat. “Mike, come here for a second.” I jumped up and walked over.

“Yes sir?”

“Let’s see what you’ve got.” Then, in front of the entire room, this guy proceeded to whip the snot out of me for the next five minutes. He probably submitted me at least ten times before he was done. It was an obvious and clear physical message that he was the boss and that he had little if any respect for me.

Neck crank

Now, granted, I know what it’s like the first time you glove up in a fighter’s gym. I’d walked into enough boxing and kickboxing gyms and had my nose bloodied enough to know that you keep your head down and shut up when you’re the new guy.

But, this wasn’t a fighter’s gym. It was a regular jiu-jitsu school, with a bunch of regular people – professional types – working out for fun. Heck, I was there for fun. At least, I was until that first class.

However, I took it in stride and laughed it off. After he was done with me, I smiled and acknowledged that he’d wiped the floor with me. And, I came back for a few more lessons, just to show that I wasn’t going to be intimidated. But, after realizing that the guy was more or less a jerk to everybody, I left and never went back.

The Lesson Is Simple…

It’s not hard to get what I’m getting at here – common courtesy should be commonplace in your school, and extended to everyone. In all of the above situations, I obviously wasn’t there to challenge anyone, or to cause trouble, or to give anyone any grief in any way. I made it clear I was interested in taking classes, I was up front about my previous experience, and I showed every bit of politeness imaginable.

Yet, in each case I was treated like someone who was unwelcome. Whether the instructors above felt threatened, or if I perhaps rubbed them the wrong way, or if I just shouldn’t have mentioned anything about my previous experience – I don’t know.

But, what I do know is that I’ve had probably a dozen black belts from other styles or systems come to train with me at my schools over the years, and each time I’ve done my best to treat them with respect and courtesy as students. And, in many cases I learned just as much from them as they did from me.

Look, does it hurt your bottom line if you chase off a student or two every once in a while? Probably not. However, you never know what you’re losing when you lose a student. They might have turned out to become a real asset to your school – who knows?

The moral of the story is that you need to watch what people with previous experience do when they come in your school, before you make a snap judgment and treat them poorly. Not everyone who walks in your studio wants a challenge match. Instead, chances are good that if someone walks in with previous experience, they’re just there to learn.

Besides… if an instructor is that threatened by someone who comes to them with previous experience in another style, what does that say about them? Not much, in my estimation. And after many such experiences, I simply won’t train with someone who won’t show basic courtesy and respect to another person.

And I’d hazard a guess to say that you wouldn’t, either. So, think about this article the next time someone comes to you from another style or school, and remember to extend them the same courtesies you would give to any brand new student.


  1. Eugene Shewchuk on April 16, 2014 at 10:37 am

    A very informative, and entertaining read! Enjoy your artcicles!

  2. Mike Massie on April 16, 2014 at 2:25 pm


  3. Randy Brown on April 18, 2014 at 12:03 am

    Thanks for writing this and sharing your experiences. A few years ago I decided to take up BJJ to fill in the gaps with my stand up game. As I entered a local school, I explained to the instructor that I had been practicing and teaching San Shou/Kung Fu for about 12 years. I wanted to be up front as I don’t appreciate when someone with experience comes to my school and lies about their background. I made it clear that I wanted to start as a new student, with an empty cup, and that I had nothing to prove.

    My first class was OK, he was not the greatest teacher, but I wanted to learn the art so I decided to turn a blind eye to some things that normally I would be picky about. When it comes time to roll, I am continuing to drill on the sidelines. I go back for my second class and things were quite different.

    I was still supposed to be in the ‘probation’ period of no rolling for a few weeks. The instructor decides after we are done drilling, that I am ready to participate in the rolling. Then each of his students proceeds to try and wipe the floor with me. The teacher finally had his go at me as well. I fared ok for not knowing anything about ground fighting, but I left with a ripped ear, broken toe, bruised ribs, and my elbow slightly worse for wear.

    What happened to being a beginner and starting from the bottom? I know I am partially to blame, but it’s not in my nature to just lie down and let people beat on me. I ended up walking away from that school and never looking back. 1.5 years after that I found a good place and have been training there ever since. I have always been treated with respect, and I didn’t start rolling until I knew some basics; it has been great.

    Since then, I have become an affiliate and brought a BJJ program into my school. I have hosted my instructor for multiple workshops with my students and continue to support him. This could have been the first guy…

  4. Mike Massie on April 21, 2014 at 7:44 am

    Randy, I think some instructors are just insecure. I also think that at some schools, they just like to haze guys who they see as traditionalists or who have done mostly stand-up. And, some people are just jackasses. You obviously made the right choice, and it’s great that you found a good school.

    Anyway, chances are if you had stayed at the first school, something else would have come up that would have soured the relationship. How does that saying go? “If you want to see a person’s character, watch how they treat people who can do nothing for them.”

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