How to Train in a Martial Art When You Already Have Experience in Another Style

Over the years I’ve dealt with many students who wanted to train at my dojo but already had experience in another style, with mixed results. It can be challenging to switch styles and reprogram your body to a different curriculum. And the more experience you have, the more challenging it can be. As a result, most of them either don’t sign up or don’t last long. That being said, the ones that do usually have a great attitude and bring an excellent training ethic to the mats.

If you are martial artist in this situation, here is a list of guidelines for training in a new style that will help you get the most out of your training without being disrespectful or interrupting the dojo’s class structure.

1. Keep an open mind. Try your best to perform the technique as demonstrated. The new style may have similar techniques or even the same technique with slight differences. While it may be easier to just resort to the method you’ve always used, you’re there to learn the new style, not showcase your old one. Look for the advantages that this new method may present. You may be surprised if you give it an honest chance.

2. Be respectful when questioning differences. Because of your prior experience, you may wonder why things are done differently. While it’s ok to ask technical questions specific to a technique in class to make sure you get it right, but it can be disruptive to question the differences openly during class with regards to your prior training. Even if done politely, it can take more time to explain answers to these questions, which can hold up the class’s training time. As for integrating your new learning with your old, this is something that you do yourself outside of class. If you don’t think a particular techniques fits into your martial arts schema, note that in your head, but don’t bring any special attention to the fact in class.

3. Don’t act like an instructor. If you are an instructor in your old style, you may find it difficult to just be a student on someone else’s mats. But that is what is expected of you, unless you have worked out an arrangement with your new Sensei. Don’t try to help other students as you train with them. You may think you know what you’re doing, but you probably don’t know all the nuances of the new style and there is a good chance that by “helping” you’re disrupting the learning process by imparting information in a way that conflicts with the Sensei’s teachings.

4. Be cautious and considerate when integrating your prior training. Some open-minded Senseis might be willing to let you practice your prior training, generally not during class, but perhaps during open mat time. If you’re going to do so, it’s better to restrict this to solo training or working with advanced students or instructors. Lower level students may be confused by the introduction of different concepts, or they may not be equipped to handle a particular techniques safely.

Some students with prior experience go so far as to keep their prior training under wraps, which I can respect. It doesn’t really work with me because I can usually tell, but I like that they have the attitude of wanting to be treated like any other student. As the old zen saying goes, “If you want to fill your cup, first you must empty it.”

Anyone out there in the blogosphere have any interesting stories of dealing with students with prior training, good or bad?

Comments (5)

5 thoughts on “How to Train in a Martial Art When You Already Have Experience in Another Style

  1. I can't really say much, since I am still a brown belt in my own style, however, I just wanted to say this was an excellent post. I like the points you address, and I will definitely use this as a guideline if I ever decide to cross-train in another martial art.

  2. Interesting topic. As to difficulty adjusting to other styles: I have just the opposite experience. When I train in a different style or art the fact I have experience in JJ generally helps me a great deal adjusting to new techniques and ways of thinking. When I’m training in kali I tend to pick up most of the techniques pretty quickly (except the sinawali or double stick which is still a pain to get right) even though it’s primarily a weapons-based system while I have a background in a predominantly unarmed style. I attribute this to the fact that the practice of any martial art requires coordination of the whole body; since this is a universal trait of the MA it’s far easier for an experienced martial artist to learn a new style than a novice. A possible downside to having prior experience is, as you pointed out, stubbornness and a strict adherence to the principles of one’s own style. For me that’s not really a problem: while I do, almost instinctively, evaluate the pro’s and con’s of new techniques and tactics I also realize that a) respect is vital (when someone allows you into his or her dojo you owe them respect and it’s a sign of bad manners to openly question them) and b) judging too quickly leads to slower learning and will result in you missing out on key points that you’d get when you weren’t so narrow minded.

    When I attend seminars I always try to copy the instructor as closely as I can and to ask questions whenever I’m getting stuck. Most instructors appreciate this as long as you don’t pretend to know better or try to be a smartass, also I find it rather presumptuous to question the value of customs and techniques they’ve probably been practicing for years. When in Rome act like a Roman: emerge yourself in a totally new environment, embrace the experience and retain what you can use. When training elsewhere I try to focus more on the pros than the cons: while in my mind some techniques are inherently better than others every style has something to offer as long as you’re receptive to it. In the end you’ll find there are more similarities between styles than there are differences and you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you dismiss other’s experience and knowledge just because you’re so comfortable with what you know.

    As to your question: while I’m not an instructor (not a full-fledged one anyway) in our dojo we do have some people who train or trained in other styles. Since our system is basically a blend of quite a few styles with JJ as the base everyone will find familiar elements and this can only work to their advantage. Sometimes they do tend to be prejudiced but if you explain why you do it a certain way usually they understand and accept it. One of our students is a soldier and he learned quite a bit about knife-fighting and defense: our knife-defense system is basically a mixture of kali and JJ while his is a generic close-combat brand somewhat similar to krav maga. While he prefers hard blocks to stop thrusts or slashes we prefer evasion and parrying, combining them with immediate counterattacks to the eyes and knees. To him this way of training is rather foreign and awkward but as I explained to him hard blocks are fine against committed attacks against someone with a little experience they’ll leave you dangerously open. If someone tries to stab you in the neck and you block hard karate-style he could fake you or change direction in mid-flight, redirecting the knife to another target. While his way certainly has some validity, especially against novices, and is probably easier to learn I do feel the kali way has more to offer in terms of protection and effectiveness against somewhat more savvy opponents. In any case your training can only be strengthed by experience in other styles but if you’re not willing to temporarily suspend judgment and allow yourself to be open to the experience you’ll never reap the benefits.


  3. Great post and great advice/guidelines. But it's difficult advice for human beings to follow– that's why you pretty much said it all in the first paragraph: "most of them either don't sign up or don't last very long." That has been my experience, too. And I also agree, the ones who do last can be great; it's the good attitude they bring.

    I would only add that sometimes people with a little knowledge have more trouble in a new martial art than those with a lot of knowledge. Students in the kyu ranks have worked hard for some basic physical skills, but don't yet have a good perspective on how far they still have to go. They can find changes much more difficult to accept, and are often more attached to their rank. Over the years, I've had many more complaints of "Why can't I keep wearing my yellow belt?" (well, for one thing, we don't use a yellow belt in our style…) than I've had black belts wanting to flaunt their previous rank and knowledge. The more experienced cross-trainers almost always start out being proper and respectful. It's just that, when it comes right down to it, it's hard to change, it's hard to relinquish control, and it's hard not to teach your partners what you think you already know (think about it: there are plenty of true beginners who can't resist "teaching" their partners, so imagine how much harder for someone with years of experience!).

    Thanks for your blog.

  4. It's true that people with a little experience (kyu ranks) are more likely going to have more etiquette type problems, I've found that myself too, unless their experience was from so long ago that they barely remember it.

  5. For me it's simple: when I have time to spare for extra training I always look for complimentary arts to develop new skills and strenghten my weaknesses. Why would I want to train in a style that is similar to my own? If you have experience in one style of kickboxing you're not going to learn much when you switch to another since the base is pretty much the same, if on the other hand you pick a style that is good at grappling and groundfighting you'll learn alot since you're completely out of your comfortzone and area of expertise. This also helps with the displine and humility related problems you mentioned: if I don't know the first thing about this new art why on earth would I even try to 'teach' others or be a hardass who knows better? If I train with weapons (a relatively new thing for me) I basically shut up and concentrate on what my guru says, I'm not going to pretend my unarmed skills (which are considerable) somehow carry over into armed combat because this is complete and utter nonsense. If on the other hand I'd pick another unarmed style I probably would be inclined to share my view or 'correct' others, as mentioned this is only human but in the end you won't gain much from this attitude. This is why I don't study similar styles. I can only think of one good reason to change this habbit and that is for teachers in one style to become better at what they do, to discover the background and origin of their art and to better evaluate the pro's and con's of each technique with respect to variation and differences in approach in other schools.

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