6 Steps to be a Great Student

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Getting the most out of learning martial arts involves more than paying your fees and showing up. Being a great student allows you, your master and fellow students to have a qualitatively better experience. Being a great student doesn’t mean you’re the quickest to learn or have the best technique. Are you someone your instructor enjoys teaching? Do other students like working with you? If you disregard these things, you will not get as much from the training as you could. Even instructors are still students to the degree that they seek to improve something about what they do. This is what makes one a great martial arts student:

The Duties of the Great Student

1. Respect your instructor, help them do their best.
When you train in someone’s kwoon or dojo, respect what they say and do. The old saying is ‘When I say jump, you answer HOW HIGH?’ Also respect the instructor’s tone and pacing. Ask questions shows you’re interested, but too many will slow the class down. Distracting the teacher takes away from ideal teaching. Distracting other students takes away from ideal learning. If you need help, by all means, ask for it. Any time an instructor is distracted by students not paying attention, not listening or not protecting themself, the whole class loses. When students listen quietly, follow orders and practice diligently but safely the class moves forward, and the instructor is free to help everyone improve instead of just staying on task.

2. Trust but Verify.
Martial arts requires acceptance before you know why things work. If you doubt your master, you will doubt the technique. If you doubt the technique, you will hesitate. He who hesitates is lost. A student who hesitates because they haven’t built muscle memory is ok, but a student who hesitates because they don’t believe it will work or refuses to accept anything they don’t fully understand will never truly ‘get it’. You need a passable understanding to start doing something. In the act of doing, you will discover things such as what it feels like when it works, a number of ways it can mess up and whether it is something you can truly internalize and make your own. “A man who carries a cat by its tail learns things he can learn in no other way.” – Mark Twain. Aside from the disturbing imagery, here’s the point. You’ll never understand a technique without actually doing it and you will learn things in the doing and later trying to teach someone else that you will learn in no other way.

3. Respect fellow students.
When you work with other people, they need your focus and attention. If you lapse, they either don’t learn anything or someone gets hit needlessly. If they need more or less energy, power, speed, pay attention and do your best to put it out there. Don’t give someone a complex if they make a mistake. Don’t distract or joke around when your partner needs to focus.

4. Protect yourself
It’s not knitting, so you could get hit or jostled or your foot stepped on, right? Start slow with a new partner. Pay attention to your own distancing. Don’t depend entirely on someone else to keep you safe. When working on something new or tricky, tell them if you need the attack to be slower, harder, higher, lower, more committed. If someone else needs you to attack them, they have a lot of things on their mind. When they make little mistakes, you both need to make sure nobody gets hurt. For example, if you don’t pay attention when they should be countering, you are asking to get hit. Pay attention and do your part. If you do a bad breakfall or get hit when you shouldn’t, then say so, but don’t over-dramatize. Don’t make it all about you. Communicate, focus, be cool.

5. Internalize, go beyond emulation
The instructor shows you techniques, they explain how it works, they guide you to do it and they offer helpful corrections. Ideally, they also offer a forum to test the effectiveness of each new technique. But that’s as far as they can go and it’s only partway there. Ultimately, the student has to understand what they are doing, why it should work, how it should work, what is it really at all so that they are no longer trusting their master’s say-so, but know the truth as their very own. When its internalized, they can express it slightly differently for their body and still do the same move because they understand the essence of the thing. I then make each student teach it to someone newer. It makes them evaluate what they really know and if there are techniques they are doing without understanding why.

6. Go Beyond Competence to Mastery.
When students see and hear about a new technique, it’s a theory, like the theory of gravity. When you start using a technique, competence grows with practice until conscious thought gets out of the way and the technique flows from you when the opportunity arises. When students get very competent, they often stop there and seek something new. Mastery is more than being very, very competent. It means understanding something inside out, what is the nature of the technique, the Tao of the thing. Teaching others & helping them internalize it is how you move from competence to mastery of a thing.


I’ve received a lot of wisdom from different sources over the years. I teach Wing Chun, but I had a very interesting karate-ninjitsu instructor give the following advice long ago:

“Knowing and acting are one.”

The sensei wanted someone to show a newbie how to do a form. Someone piped up and said “I haven’t done it in a while, but I know it well.” He shook his head and said, “You don’t *know* anything truly except in the moment you are doing it. You are well acquainted with what you did an hour ago or yesterday, maybe a week ago. If you haven’t done something for 6 months, you *remember* knowing it. That’s not the same as having it at your fingers NOW.” Always keep your skills fresh so that your knowledge doesn’t go dormant or get confused.

Peace, Sifu Bill

About Sifu Bill Stewart

Sifu Bill Stewart is a master-level instructor in Wing Chun kung fu. As the son of a boxing champion, he brings 32 years of experience with various martial arts including Wing Chun to inform how he teaches self defense. He is also a UX designer, inventor, and business strategist.

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