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The person in the photo – the bald guy – is visiting a martial arts dojo for the very first time. He looks kind of astonished, doesn't he? Most people begin their martial arts training – just as any other new endeavor –with certain expectations. Those expectations may be more or less realistic, depending on how much a person knows about martial arts in general and the style they are training in, and also on how accurately the person sees themselves, but even if one has been interested in the martial arts for a while and has done some research on the particular style one is going to be practicing, there will always be surprises once one actually starts training.

If you expected to immediately find yourself in a full contact sparring match or defending against freestyle knife attacks, you may be frustrated at being asked to spend time – sometimes a lot of time – learning how to throw a straight punch or doing basic footwork without an attacker. On the other hand, if you were only thinking of the training as a fitness routine, the experience of being grabbed or asked to actually hit things (or people) might be jarring. No amount of watching others executing throws or sparring or taking breakfall or applying joint locks – or having them applied! – can fully prepare one for the experience of learning to do those things oneself. It can look so easy when the senior students do it, but feel impossibly difficult to do oneself. Add to that the unfamiliar environment, complete with formalities with which one is not familiar, new terminology – often in a foreign language – and being expected to work with strangers in ways that may feel scary, and one’s first weeks of training may prove somewhat overwhelming. A person with an athletic background may find themselves struggling to do the new movements they are being taught under these circumstances. On the other hand, someone who comes in thinking of themselves as unathletic or even clumsy may find themselves getting the hang of the techniques more easily than they had expected. All the rules about behavior when training – bowing, standing a certain way, addressing the teacher by a particular title – may seem pointless to some new students, the odd uniform may feel awkward, and the noise of a martial arts class may be jarring. However, some beginners may find themselves embracing the formalities and protocols, finding that having special terminology and a special uniform sets the training apart from ordinary gym workouts, and some may find the sounds of a dojo inspiring and exciting.

And of course there is always the issue of how one will respond to practicing techniques that can be seen as violent with other people. While no one should be terrorized by instructors or other students in their early training, it can still be disconcerting to have punches thrown at one (no matter how controlled), or to have a stranger apply a wrist lock. Until one learns to trust the people in one’s dojo, a degree of anxiety or even fear is only natural. And sometimes, how one responds to that fear can be surprising.

How about you? If you have been training in the martial arts, how did your early months of training differ from your expectations of how it would be? Was it more difficult to learn the techniques than you had expected, or easier? Did you find that you enjoyed the physical contact or did it take a lot of getting used to? And for those who have not yet begun their martial arts journey, what do you think those early steps along the road will be like for you? What hopes and fears are you carrying as you start out?

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