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Fitting in


Chickens in a barnyard have a pecking order; who get to peck who on the head. The top chicken pecks everyone and never gets pecked. The bottom chicken always gets pecked and never gets to peck anyone. When a new chicken is added to the flock, all the chickens start pecking each other on the head until the new chicken finds its place in the pecking order. Human groups, such as a class of martial arts students, have a pecking order. When you join the group, the pecking process starts again until your place in the pecking order is established.

Finding your place in the hierarchy of a class

When you first start a new job, you want to fit in with the workgroup, but you feel awkward. The same holds true for the first time you start training in a martial arts class. It is also an established group of people who have adjusted to each other and get along in a civilized manner. As a new student, even if you have had previous experience in the martial arts, you want to make a good impression. Although fitting into a new class may be awkward, there are some things you can do to make the process go smoothly.

Be yourself

First, be yourself! If you are a nice person, everyone will recognize it and will warm to you. If you are an obnoxious person and try to hide it, while people may be fooled for a short time, they will quickly figure you out and feel betrayed by your behavior, and will make you feel like an outsider for as long as you remain with the school. If you let your obnoxiousness show from the beginning, the group will quickly learn how to deal with it and you will have your place within the group, probably near the bottom.

Don't try to impress

You shouldn’t try to impress anyone, neither instructor nor fellow students. It is natural to want to impress but resist the impulse. If you are a beginner, your fellow classmates will think you are a showoff. If you are experienced, they will think you are trying to put them down. Remember, the class was doing just fine before you arrived. You want to blend in with them, not try to force them to conform to you.

When you are performing techniques, quietly do your best. If you are a beginner, do not complain about not being able to do them properly, no one expects you do learn quickly. If you are experienced, don’t make remarks about how your previous way of doing it was better. If you are experienced, you will be expected to have some difficulty in learning a different way of doing things. If you are experienced and pick up things quickly, you won’t be expected to perform things in a way that makes everyone else look bad. Once the other students see that you are an ordinary person, they will readily accept you.

Don't be overly exuberant

Do not be a wallflower who doesn’t associate with other students, but also do not be overly exuberant. Be pleasant and polite, but check your ebullience at the door. Do not make jokes or spout off when the instructor asks questions, or when in friendly conversation with other students. Just be one of the students and let your personality and effort speak for themselves. After a few weeks, you will have built up enough good will to let your true self shine through.

Find the leaders

As a new student, you will want to learn about the culture of the school, about what the instructor expects of students, and about what upsets or impresses the instructor. In any school, there is the way things are supposed to work, and the way things actually work. As a new student, it is up to you to pick up these things without appearing to be prying or nosy.

Start out by determining which people appear to be plugged into the happenings in the school. This may not be the senior students, as one would expect. Some people know what is happening while others think they know what is happening. Seniority in a martial art class is determined by the belt rank, not by knowledge or leadership qualities. There is the “official” way something should be done, but the ones “in the know” know the way it should be done if you want to get it done quickly.

Once you find the ones “in the know,” approach them with a simple question about how the school operates. Do not ask direct personal questions, such as “Is the instructor a good teacher?” Instead, ask indirect process questions, such as “Does the instructor mind if students ask questions?” Chances are that the people you ask will add some of the information you are seeking so you will find personal information without coming across as being nosy.

Influence the leaders

To find who has the most influence in a school, listen to who the students quote the most. They may always say “the instructor said…” but sometimes you will hear many people saying, “Alice said.” While the instructor may be the boss, it is obvious that the students have much respect for Alice’s opinion.

Once you find the people who are highly respected by students and the ones who have the ear of the instructor, work with them as much as you can and always strive to do your best when they are around or watching. Instead of showing off in front of the instructor or telling the instructor how great you are (which may make you look bad in the mind of the instructor), develop a group of people who will tell the instructor how great you are. Buzz created by others is more valuable than buzz created by you.

Be a leader

Don’t be pushy or arrogant, just take advantage of every opportunity to lead and be a good leader. Once people see that you get things done and give credit when it is due, they will seek you out as a leader, and you move up faster the hierarchy of the school.

Ignore critics

Some say that all this attention to fitting in is neither needed nor desired, that you should just train in the martial arts without worrying about class “politics.” This is only the wishful thinking of idealists who think there is such as place as Utopia. In the real world, power controls how everything operates. The ones with power rule, the ones without it serve the ones with it. That is the way it is, and no amount of wishful thinking will ever change it. If you want to be successful in your martial art, you will have to learn the power structure and politics of your school and its organization, and learn how to fit into them and use them to your benefit.

If you are merely a student, you will always be—merely a student.

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