June 18, 2024


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Courtesy in the Martial Arts by Master Ronald Stone

Courtesy in the Martial Arts by Master Ronald Stone

          One of the five tenents of the Korean Martial Arts is the concept of courtesy and as such is a major part of their training. Courtesy can be described as the act of politeness. Another definition would be

the demonstration of politeness in one’s attitude and behavior toward others.  It is an outward manifestation of how you behave towards another person and how you hold them in regard. In other words, courtesy is a considerate act relative to respect.  It is the opposite of thoughtless or rude behavior.

          The very name “Martial Arts” implies a military origin and as such follows many of the training, and behavioral principles of any military organization.  As such respect, courtesy and etiquette are integral to the formation, organization, and practice of such groups.  Just as there is a military code of conduct there is a martial arts code of conduct whether written or merely understood.

          It’s placement in training is not an accident. Etiquette, respect, and courtesy are the absolute fundamentals of military and martial arts training. Without courtesy, if no one is polite or respectful, talks over each other, or behaviors in an individualistic manner that ignores others in the group then the group devolves into a a free for all and chaos reigns.

          Imagine if you will, a battle where the officer orders an attack, and the troops all act and decide on an individual course of action without respect for authority.  Failure without success would be a guarantee.  Therefore, from day one of military training troops are taught to respect the rank and obey instruction even if they don’t necessarily respect the person.  To emphasize the importance of this actions such as saluting higher ranks, remaining silent in their presence unless addressed, standing at attention etc. are required.

           In like manner martial arts students learn that respect is a hallmark of their style.  Bowing to each other during class symbolizes a sense of courtesy that is shared between all members.  From white belt on you bow to higher ranks and black belts in turn bow back to white belts to demonstrate and reciprocate.

          It seems indisputable that in today’s society there is a decline of common courtesy in our culture possibly due to the following factors:

•        The rise of social media with its dehumanization of personal relationships),

•        The higher stress of modern lifestyles

•        Parents being forced by financial circumstances to have someone else raise their children (leaving them in daycare and public schools etc.),

•        Increase in violence in popular media

It appears to many that an appreciation for the value of courtesy is rapidly disappearing.  Martial arts instructors are in a unique position to have a positive effect on society at large by teaching courtesy to our students. This can be done in various ways.

          First, be a model to others.  Courtesy is never about “do as I say not         as I do.”

          Second, define it in terms that children can understand.

Third, provide ample opportunity for courtesy to be practiced in your classes.

Demonstrating courtesy merely means that you treat others with               dignity and that you show restraint in your personal interactions.  Children respect adults who mean what they say and practice what they preach. Such should be so when it comes to teaching courtesy   since younger children lack the ability to see situations from the perspectives of others. So, when teaching young children, it may be more effective to frame character lesson in a way that relates the consequences of lacking courtesy and the benefits of displaying courtesy in a personal context.

          Martial arts instructors should work to promote mutual concession and understanding.  They should be always polite to one another and

encourage the sense of justice, humanity, and fair play. Instructors should act according to decent manners & accepted etiquette, respect the possessions of others, and handle matters with fairness and sincerity.

Corrections should be handled with fairness and sincerity and be age appropriate.


          Basically, we should display and teach the concept of courtesy at every opportunity, not because we are being observed, or because we will be reprimanded if we don’t, but because it is just the right thing to do.

          Phrases you will hear within the dojang when someone is demonstrating courtesy are “Yes Sir,” “No Ma’am,” “Please,” “Thank you” and “You’re welcome.” These are the cornerstones of courtesy and respect. They indicate that you have good mental self-discipline and modesty

          One of the first rules of etiquette taught is learning to bow.  Many believe that you should look at the eyes of the person you are bowing to in case they attack you, but this actually shows disrespect and implies that you do not trust the person. Ask yourself, why are you bowing if you don’t trust them in the first place?  Remember also that a sincere bow is NOT a mere bob of the head.

          When martial artists shake hands, the left hand is also presented, fingers touching the right elbow, to show that nothing is being concealed. This show of respect can be demonstrated in all aspects of life, whether it is passing a weapon with both hands, the salt at the dinner table, or even handing over money.     

          When passing an unsheathed bladed weapon, the courteous way to do so is with the sharp edge facing back to you. The other way round may have historically ended badly as it is a challenge to a duel! Likewise, when performed in class the edge is also placed facing away from the most senior thing in the room, usually the national flags at the front.

          Quality instructors will bow to you and call you ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’ the same. If you show respect and self-discipline, you will be loved, welcomed, and treated as part of the family. The legendary Jigaro Kano’s made the fundamental point that, in competition, while each of us is trying to beat the other, we are both improving our understanding of the art. The art is the fundamental thing, and when we show respect for our partner, we are really showing respect for the art that we both love.

          Other rituals of respect follow the same logic. When we bow before entering the dojang, we show respect for the location specifically dedicated to our growth in the art. When we call our instructors “sir” or “ma’am,” we show respect for the person guiding us along our journey in the art. When we keep our belts from touching the ground, we show respect for the symbol of our progress in the art.

          Instructors take no egotistical pleasure in reminding a student to bow when you enter the dojang, or to call them “sir” or “ma’am.” These signs of courtesy are not ultimately for the instructor, but rather are a teaching device for the student. They are indications that you have accepted an invitation to a certain way of life; a way few others understand. They are the prerequisite to enter a deeper, truer, more complete form of self-understanding. So, for the students own sake, they should bow proudly when entering the dojang, look their instructors in the eye and call them “sir” or “ma’am,” and keep the belt off the floor even when no one is looking. In other words, don’t forget the importance of courtesy and behave in private as you would in public.

          Whenever one is offended by another person, even if is by mistake, they should apologize as soon as possible. If you offend someone while others are present, make sure that those who are or were present are aware of your apology to the person whom you offended. This would also be proper even later once you realize your error.

          Negative criticism is the act of expressing disapproval and of noting the problems or faults of another person. Constructive criticism is to analyze the work of others at his/her request, for the purpose of improving the outcome. Unlike negative criticism, constructive criticism always identifies positive as well as negative aspects, with suggestions for improvement. Did you know that there are over 20 types of criticisms? The three that mostly relate to the martial artist are the constructive, positive and negative categories. The goal of the martial arts instructor’s teaching of students is to instill in them a positive constructive energy. If you were to watch a class intently and break down the teaching methods of an instructor, there are a lot of different things happening within a class.

          Of course, there is the physical training, to which all students can relate. If a martial arts student was asked by an outsider what he/she is learning, the initial response would describe the techniques taught.

 A subsequent response by a higher-ranking belt student however might be to describe the mental aspects of the martial arts, such as meditation, focus, concentration, discipline, attitude and related items.

          Etiquette finally might be far down the list of considerations, and only a high-ranking black belt might think of mentioning it. Now that you are aware of where this is heading, the next time you go to class, listen closely to what the instructor is saying and how it is presented. How many times do you hear negativity? Compare that with all the constructive and positive comments. When is the last time, if ever, did you hear the instructor speak negatively? As black belts, we should have been mentally trained to think positively, so we should not speak negatively. By now, you should be sensitive to how criticism affects others and ourselves. Negative criticism is partially an effort to rid oneself of frustrations by venting inner feelings and transferring it to others.

          How many times did you complain about something or someone? Was it because you were frustrated over something you have no control over, such as traffic? Did the event leave you feeling helpless, frustrated and perhaps even anxious? A true martial artist refuses to let him/herself be negatively affected by anything unless it will have a positive or constructive result.

          Negative criticism is actually a demonstration of a lack of courtesy. Part of becoming a true martial artist is to learn to transform the negative and turn it into the positive because criticism and negativity affects your health as well as distancing you from harmony?  It shortens your life span; you don’t live as healthfully; it negatively affects your social life; it takes away from your enjoyment of life; you have less energy; it causes increased pain; and it increases the possibility of disease or poor health. Criticism affects your overall behavior and demeanor.

           In martial arts terms, your reaction to negativity will determine whether you will be a poor instructor or an instructor who inspires your students to do and say the correct things. Finally, when critiquing a student’s faults with a negative or discourteous comment, be sure that when giving such advice that you balance it by following up with a positive comment, such as: “to help improve this technique you should try doing it this way, instead of “you’re doing the technique all wrong, this is how it’s done.”

           While nearly all martial artists are aware of basic practices of etiquette and courtesy while in the dojang, few give even a passing thought to applying it in writing and speech.

          The author had a recent telephone conversation with a grandmaster of international fame.  This grandmaster used more profanity when referring to others within the first five minutes of the conversation than the author had heard in years.  All respect and confidence in this individual immediately disappeared making true the old axiom “How can I believe what you say when what you are speaks so loudly.”

          Whether right or wrong the discourteous manner of addressing me and others bespoke a poor martial arts training regardless of rank.  This sort of behavior is becoming ever more common in print and on social media.  One should remember the other saying “When you wrestle with pigs you both get dirty but only the pigs will be happy.”

          Years ago, in college the author was enjoying an after-dinner discussion with a group of student friends in the lobby when another joined our group.  Within minute, apparently disagreeing with my politics he informed me he was studying the martial arts and if AI didn’t shup up, he would take me apart.  I was furious but since there were girls present, I merely nodded and excused myself from the group and headed back to my dorm room.  As I left, I could hear him boasting of how he had “backed the coward down.”  Upon arriving at my room, I swallowed my pride and two glasses of Alka Seltzer.

          Two days later I answered a knock at my door. I opened it to face the same individual who immediately apologized.  He had heard untrue rumors about me that he believed and hated me before he ever met me.  He informed me he has since learned the truth and that I outranked him in the arts and could easily have killed him had I wished. I smiled and invited him in saying that it took a big man to apologize.  We later had a good relationship during college. 

          I might have won the fight, but I would have lost the war.  Being courteous might have been difficult for my John Wayne type ego but it led to a very satisfactory and more importantly peaceful resolution to the problem.

          Courtesy would be a tenent in all our lives.

About the author: R.W. Stone is a veterinarian in Florida.  He is an avid horseman, martial artist, best-selling western author, and a firearms enthusiast. Currently Stone is ranked a sixth dan in Haemukwan Hapkido, a third dan in Daehan Yudo and a second dan in Kukki TaeKwondo.  He is the Master Instructor at the American Dragon Martial Arts Academies in Ocoee, Florida. Read his daily thoughts on Martial Arts at www.facebook.com/groups/koreanmartialarts For more information on Hapkido visit www.haemukwan.com