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8 Qualities of a Great Martial Arts Student

Chris Miller and Ken Gullette after a regional tournament in Keokuk, 2006.
I began teaching Tai Chi, Hsing-I and Bagua in 1997. At that point, I had already been a student of martial arts for 24 years. It becomes quickly obvious that being a teacher is a lot different than being a student, although both are learning experiences. Teaching a martial art is a great way to learn at a deeper level. 

When I began teaching, I was practicing and teaching Yang Tai Chi, Hsing-I, Bagua and Qigong. Questions from students made me study harder and do research, and I found some glaring holes in the curriculum of the style I was teaching. That ended up to be a good thing because it led me to Chen Tai Chi.

As I taught for a while, I realized there are qualities that great students bring to class that make it a lot more enjoyable for the teacher -- qualities that indicate the student is serious about the martial arts and will become a great martial artist. 

Here are my Top 8 Qualities of a Great Martial Arts Student:

1. Empty Your Cup. One thing a teacher does NOT like to hear is, "But this is the way my old teacher taught me," or "This is the way we did it in karate (or TKD or insert the name of any other style here). 

If you want to study the old art, go to the old teacher. Leave it at the door when you enter a different class. Learn new things and you just might like it better. Use your old style to inform your new experience. Fold it into your new insights. Otherwise, go back to the other style. 

2. Leave Your Ego at the Door. A good teacher is a good coach. He or she will bark at you sometimes because your teacher wants you to improve. I've been in classes where the teacher never gives specific, personal advice to students. Usually, the students are not very good. A demanding, picky teacher will make you a better martial artist.

I was in a workshop a couple of weeks ago, where Chen Huixian was coaching us on movements in Laojia Yilu. She said something and I began experimenting with sinking the hips on a movement. Across the class, she shouted, "Ken, you're doing this." Then she demonstrated the way I was exagerrating the movement. "DON'T DO THAT!" she said. It cracked me up, because she was being a good coach and that's the way I talk to my own students. If she had not coached me, I might have continued doing it incorrectly. Her coaching made me better. So check your ego at the door and accept criticism from your coach. You benefit in the end. Each time I was offered advice at the workshop, I said "thank you," and I meant it. 

We all have a different vision of ourselves in our minds than what we are actually doing. We all think we look like Chen Xiaoxang or Bruce Lee when we move. To the teacher, we may look like Charlie Chaplin. The teacher is being paid to teach you, so let the teacher help you and accept each critique gratefully. That's how you improve.

3. Bring SPIRIT to every class. When a teacher takes the time and effort to teach, it is disheartening when a student acts slow, lethargic and tired. Sometimes, students just go through the motions as if they are simply going through the moves but don't intend to do it perfectly.

Okay, so you've had a rough day. You want to go home and relax. Fine. So do I. During class, a great student will bring 100% and understand that the instructor wants you to attack the material and attempt perfection with every movement. Martial arts are about spirit. What spirit are you bringing to practice?

4. Know the Difference Between Quality and Quantity. You are tired of practicing this technique or this form for the hundredth time. You want to move on to something more advanced, more flashy. You learn the choreography of one form and then begin the next one. 

The great martial arts student understands that when you pay your dues and put in the sweat equity of practicing one movement, one fighting application, one form, one strategy over and over and over, hundreds, even thousands of times, that's when quality finds you.

Learning more forms and more styles is the sign of a martial artist who cannot do any of them right. A great student knows that too much too soon is not the path to quality. Nothing tips me off to a mediocre martial artist more than their announcement to me that they have studied this style, plus that style, plus wing chun, plus that style, because I know that their skill is a mile wide and an inch deep.

5. Keep Practicing the Basics. The tendency for a lot of us is to stop practicing basic techniques as we learn more. The truth is, it takes years to get a movement or technique right. It takes years to apply the right body mechanics and to truly internalize a movement or technique. A great student remains sharp on techniques he learned as a novice and works them into regular practices. One of the best practicing methods is to divide the material you've learned into a list that enables you to practice everything in your system at least once a week or more.

In my practices, where students learn Xingyi, Taiji and Bagua, there is a lot of material as you progress over the years. The best students divide the material and work on some of it every day. Perhaps the daily practice also includes the current material, but older, more basic material is also part of it. Every week, you end up practicing everything at least once.

It is not a positive thing when an advanced student is asked to show a new student a technique and the advanced student does not remember it. A good teacher points the way. A good student stays sharp on the material. It's up to you.

At one tournament I attended, I was watching black belt competition and there was a tie in the forms competition. The judges were sneaky. They asked the martial artists who tied to perform the very first form they learned in their system to break the tie.

One of the black belts performed his first form very well. The other had a hard time remembering and fumbled it. That made all the difference. If you had to make a bet, which do you think is the better martial artist?

6. Treat Practice Material Like a College Class. In college, most of the work and research is done outside of class. For great martial arts students, the same is true. This requires not just physical practice, but thinking and research. What does this movement mean? How do the body mechanics apply? What is the history of this art or this form? How does it relate to other techniques and principles I've learned?

Technology makes research a lot easier. You can learn a lot about practically anything with a few clicks of a mouse. It can unlock new knowledge and a deeper understanding.

The danger of this is that you are influenced too much by what you find. If you see a YouTube video showing someone doing a form differently than your teacher, don't copy what you see in the video. Look at it, try to understand it, but talk about it with your teacher before you make changes in your form. Resist the tendency to change it because something is flashier. In the world of the internal arts, every teacher does certain moves differently. It can be confusing. Don't insult your teacher by suddenly performing a movement differently because of a YouTube video.

Practice at home and look deeper as you practice. Study, apply the mechanics in different ways. Treat your art the way you would treat a class in your major. If you let your teacher do all the thinking and demonstrating for you, what would your grade likely be at the end of the semester? How well will you know the material?

In a martial arts class, you learn what to do to take that next step forward. It can be very exciting when the light bulb turns on. But the real work takes place at home. Great students know this.

Also, I can tell you one metaphysical certainty -- when a teacher sees that a student has been practicing on his own, the respect for that student rises. When it is clear a student has not been practicing, the teacher wonders why he bothers teaching the student. It's a fact, Jack.

7. Learn from Defeat. Don't Let Defeat Stop You. I've had some very promising young students in the past who have attended tournaments, competed with other students at their level, and did not win. Sometimes, the defeat causes them to leave the arts.

I have also heard that some Chen Tai Chi students who travel to study in the Chen Village return to America and give up the art because the quality they saw in the village, and the hard work it takes to develop skill, causes them to ask, "Why bother?"

I have given promotion tests to students several times and have stopped the test midway through because it was obvious the student was not ready to promote. A couple of students have quit over this instead of learning a hard lesson about being prepared. I do not give promotions freely. They must be earned, and that takes hard work, study, and preparation. It takes mental toughness. So does disappointment.

Progress in a martial art is all about taking baby steps and constantly learning about yourself. I have always been a proponent of tournaments because, except for being in a real self-defense situation, which I hope none of us have to experience, nothing else makes you put it on the line like competition. You learn about yourself by putting yourself on the line. How do you feel? How do you respond to pressure? If this guy is trying to punch or kick you or take you down, how do you handle it? What scores did you receive from judges on your form? 

The next logical question is, "What do I need to do to make the next experience better?"

A lot of internal arts people turn up their noses at tournaments. And yet, the top masters always promote the tournaments they won. All of them do.

The best feedback I ever received was when I lost in a tournament. One judge scored me especially low at a few tournaments, so I asked her why. She gave me an explanation that enlightened me and made me practice differently. I began winning more. I put it on the line, and learned something that made a difference.

Don't let defeat stop you. Learn from it. Learn about yourself. Use it as a ladder to reach the next level, mentally and physically.

8. Make the Philosophy a Way of Life. A good martial art should make you more peaceful, more connected to the people and the world around you. Great students make this attitude a way of life. That does not mean you ignore cheats, frauds, or criminals. It does not mean that you tolerate mistreatment or cruelty. It does not make you passive. Just the opposite. You should develop the confidence to be who you are, to treat everyone as equals, to respect others, but also to seek justice and to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

In a world full of political heat, a world that makes it very easy to stir up emotions with the quick typing of a message online, it is troubling to see people who claim to be One with the Universe putting negative political comments out to the world. It is far better to ask yourself before every comment made in person or online, "Am I living my philosophy by saying or writing this?"

Making the philosophy a way of life is difficult. We are only human and fall short of our goals. But the effort is noble, and a great martial arts student will try.


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kahan singh

very nice sir g

Larry Hilton

I have been a student and instructor and the professor of martial arts for 55 years I truly agree with your eight statements very well done. Professor Larry Hilton Nippon Ketsugo Ryu Jujitsu/ Kenpo

Ken Gullette

Thanks, Larry. May you practice 55 more years! :)


I am just beginning martial arts and I want to be a great student. I really appreciate you sharing your insights into this. It is very useful and helpful. Thank you. *virtual bow of respect*

Ken Gullette

Good luck with your training. It's a wonderful thing. I have been at it for 46 years and I still love it. If you ever have any issues or questions, you can ask me about it.


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