Tag Archives: writing martial arts

Q&A: Tenth Degree Black Belt Takes Awhile

not sure if this is the right blog to ask this question but its the closest one that i know of, i have a character who started doing Karate at the minimum age (Age 6 from what i see) and so i want to know what is the minimum realistic age for him to become a first degree all the way through tenth degree black belt?

Assuming we work from the commercial martial arts school metric (which is the quickest), it’ll be around 45 years. A black belt past a certain rank (anywhere between two and five) will need to start journeying Japan on a semi-regular basis in order to be tested for their next belt ranks. And if they’re not, their master is the one who is making the pilgrimage. That also assumes the belt testing for the higher echelons is handed by one master, which it may not be. It something like eight official karate strands recognized by the World Karate Federation, and more unofficial. So, your character doesn’t just know karate.

That assumes the school goes to ten.

That assumes this is the belt system used by the school. (The classic martial arts legend is that in the old days, you trained so long that your belt turned black and that was when you achieved mastery.)

Assuming they allow any underage student to test for black belt. (Some schools don’t. If not, minimum age for a tenth degree is 63.)

Assuming they don’t have specific time constraints on your belt progression that has nothing to do with curriculum and everything to do with X amount of time spent in the school before they’ll consider it.

Your martial arts master is the one who decides when you get to test. If they say you’re not ready then you’re not testing. It is possible to fail the belt rank test, at any level. Commercial martial arts schools hold rank tests at specific intervals, usually spaced two to four months apart depending on belt rank level. You’ve got to be ready when the time comes, or you’ll have to wait until the next round. The Ernie Reyes school held black belt tests twice per year, but they were a large organization with over a hundred testing participants. In smaller organizations, it may happen less often. Usually, there’s a pretest before they allow you to test for your black belt. You can fail the pretest, and they reserve the right to fail you out of training prior to the test at any time.

Forty-five years training is a generous estimate. You’re not likely to hit tenth degree until you are eighty years old. Achieving mastery is a lifelong process. This is better than the traditional Chinese method for establishing a new martial art, which was go around and beat all the other masters in duels.

Trust me, having your ass handed to you by a sixty year old man is not a fun experience. It.. will also happen. Tradition in martial arts is you get tested in combat, to go up in rank you defeat those at rank, to become a master you defeat yours. “Now, I am the Master” is not just a trope, it’s tradition. (Not today, obviously. It used to be, in some cases.)

You’d reach the point around second or third degree in the higher ranks (and depending on style proliferation) where you’d be making the trip to Japan in order to be trained and tested by the school’s Grandmaster. A high ranking black belt would need to be at least partially fluent or speak passable Japanese, even if they could not read it. This is true for most Japanese martial arts, and for other martial arts too.

In the Ernie Reyes Organization, there is a monetary cost to testing. That metric rises by around a hundred dollars per black belt stripe. Fourth degree test costs around 400-500 dollars. Again, this is assuming a commercial martial arts school, not a school that is specifically training for active combat. If the school is training you for active combat, it’ll all take a lot longer.

In modern era combat, karate does not work unless it is modified. I got that from a Shotokan master who was also a Police Officer, and tested for his last black belt rank in Japan. (Third or Fourth degree.) He knew what he was talking about, and he was in his late thirties.

I was a third degree in Taekwondo by the time I was eighteen, but that’s out of a commercial system and that’s actually unusual. When looking at third degree tests, usually, they’re in their early to mid twenties.

In a traditional school, you can usually age your black belt rank per decade. First degree in the tens, second in the twenties, third in thirties, fourth in the forties, etc. 35-40 is the lowest age for a martial arts master, younger than that they’re usually technically good but not spiritually good and the spiritual component is what’s necessary.

Realistically, your character will never see tenth degree. When we talk tenth degree black belt in a martial arts system, that’s a number you can count on one hand and they may not exist at all. I’ve trained with seventh degree black belts and order grand masters in hosted seminars, but I’ve never seen a tenth degree.

The upper echelons past around rank five are spiritual journeys rather than technical or acquired skills, and this is especially true of tenth degree. You’ll get there when you get there, if you get there at all. That also assumes commercial approach rather than traditional, because traditional means you’re lucky if you see black belt at all. Ever. My shotokan master, one of his adult brown belts had been in training for about seven years, and his green belt training for five. Under this system, it could easily take ten years to reach black belt and you wouldn’t see a black belt testing under eighteen. (Not just danger, also maturity.)

The more sacred the belt ranks are in the system, the longer time it will take to reach and the harder it will be to reach them. However, those are the systems where the rank means something.

I’ll tell you right now, most martial artists at twelve who hold the rank of black belt aren’t actually worth anything on a technical level. (I say that having been a thirteen year old black belt.) The belt rank means something else in the commercial system. A child who got their black belt at twelve will be great by the time they’re twenty if they keep training, but they aren’t right now.

The amount of time necessary with traditional martial arts for rank progression is pretty much the reason why martial artists have the reputation for being godlike. The problem martial arts have in the modern era is they still have their place but combat moves too quickly for that kind of specialization. The counters are being developed while your character is training, so a hard counter will exist when they’re ready to put their skills into practice. However, many professionals train in martial arts because of the health and mental benefits and the flexibility the additions or alternative skill sets provide.

Traditional martial arts is not fair, it is not quick, and it takes decades of work. Commercial martial arts is/can be quick, but it’s balancing the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment with money. That is survival, and martial arts schools cannot or will have great difficulty surviving in the US without the commercial/business side. Usually, the first two black belt ranks get sacrificed to the commercial because kids are where most commercial martial arts schools make their money. That first black belt test is all important to the school, to the kid, and their parents. It’s an achievement, it’s a journey, and it looks great on a college application. It is real, but it means something else than what it would mean in a traditional system to someone who trained for ten years. Five years is much more reasonable/palatable to a parent and a child than ten. (That’s a long time, you’ll still have something like a 60% drop off between the kids who come for a few months to those who stay.) I know, that information kills the mystique some.

Understand, that every black belt earned their rank by the metric set for them. The question is do others agree, and the answer is usually no when we’re discussing more stringent systems. A lot of really popular martial arts will have that accusation leveled against them by others, and a lot of popular schools will as well. That their business model produces inferior students. Whether that is true or not is a matter of opinion and the opinions are diverse. I suggest carrying that knowledge with you into your fiction.

If you can’t tell me or anyone in your book which version of Karate they are practicing, then that’s where you should start working. Karate also gets used in the US as a catchall term for martial arts, just FYI.


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Q&A: Conditioning is the Punishment

Sorry if you’ve already answered this, but does hitting/hurting your student as training help teach them anything?

I think we did a run on this really recently. Children in Combat, Child Soldiers, Writing Training, Writing Assassins, are usually good tags for the beat downs on abusive training methods.

The basic issue: people do get hit in training, fact of life.

The kind of scenarios people who’ve never done martial arts imagine happening? Those don’t. At least, not in a way you’d learn anything from.

Now, I won’t say the sorts of evil instructors to be found in all The Karate Kid movies don’t exist. The mentality gotten out of Cobra Kai dojo, for example, is real. ‘No pain no gain’ taken to extremities is also real. However, the difference between mentality and a uncontrolled beatdowns is vast. With characters that engage in violence the mentality they manifest and their approach in how they use their skills and who they use them on is the deciding factor in “good” versus “bad”.

When it comes to training, pain in martial arts functions a lot like sticking your hand on a hot burner. The point of “ouch” is to teach you not to do that anymore. This is contact training. Everything you do is going to hurt, or at least, it will at first. This is like the pain your receive when you walk into a wall. You get thrown by your partner and forget to slap the mat? That’ll hurt. 10/10 you’ll try to remember to slap when you land next time. (Which is better than landing on your head.)

However, your muscles hurting when you do a pushup versus your instructor kicking you across the room when you did something wrong are nowhere near equivalent. Number 2 is a lot of wasted effort for the teacher. They can get ahead by combining the stuff their students don’t like to do but need to and what they want to do in a carrot and stick system.  This is pretty much how punishment in a martial arts class works, how it works on a sports team, and how it works in the military. Using the fun stuff as a carrot and conditioning as a stick, you can trick most of your students into focusing on the boring repetitions in between the two. The boring repetitions are most of what you’ll be doing when training to fight. Practice makes perfect, perfect practice makes perfect, and, as Bruce Lee said, fear the man who has practiced the same kick a thousand times instead of the one who has practiced a thousand kicks.

The big reward everyone is eager to get into (and treats as most important) in martial training is sparring. Everyone knows sparring, everyone loves sparring in concept. Everyone is eager to put together what they’ve learned in the ring and hit the other guy.

This is why sparring is a reward. Sparring is mostly superfluous, it’s the biscuit in your meal. Learning techniques, repetition, and conditioning are the main course. Conditioning is like your vegetables. Most kids don’t want to eat their vegetables.

Now, you’re always going to have to eat some vegetables and you’ll always get your biscuit. In the beginning though, punishment in training is basically your teacher putting more vegetables on your plate with the promise of maybe getting another biscuit if you eat everything.

You know what 90% of punishment is going to be in a martial arts dojo when you mess up? Pushups. Situps. Burpees. Wind Sprints. Oh, and you don’t get to have any sparring.

Trust me, sending a teenager on a lap around the track is a great means of motivating them to pay attention. This is especially true when the assistant goes with them, nagging the whole way. And hey, bonus points if you make them responsible for each other.

“Guys, Lionel missed the turn again. Y’all know what that means. To the wall and back. First one in doesn’t have to drop and give me ten. Go.”

Cue groans.

That’ll hurt, but the punishment doubles as a means of adding in extra conditioning and gets the students to work harder in order to avoid it.

Punching the bag is going to hurt if you forgot to tighten your fists and lock your wrist, if you do what teacher says then it’s gonna hurt a lot less the next time you hit it. Pairing up and kicking each other in the stomach (lightly) is going to hurt, but the point is to train the student to expel air and tighten their abdominals on the moment of contact so they won’t get bowled over by a sucker punch.

You know that moment where a character tries to punch another in an Anime and end up slamming their fist into rock hard abs? And it does nothing? That’s not just the muscles, that’s the result of training to tighten your stomach against impact. Your muscles are your body’s version of armor. That’s what the exercise is training you to do.

You’re going to get hurt in sparring (not broken limbs and bloody noses hurt) because contact hurts. You’re going to get some bruises learning to block because contact hurts. Stretching hurts, but it’ll hurt a lot more if you try to force someone into full splits (with long term detriment) versus letting them develop into it incrementally. You push a little further each day, going a little past the point where you’re comfortable but not to the point of real pain.

You’ll learn how to handle that pain naturally, just over the course of your training. Develop higher tolerance to pain as a result and learn to distinguish between real pain versus inconvenient pain.

However, forcing someone is the worst approach.

Forcing a kid, even a naturally flexible one, to do full splits will wreck them to the point they probably will never be able to do a full split. You’ll tear the muscles in their legs, and that damage is mostly permanent. A kid who can do full splits can, potentially, do really high kicks like a vertical sidekick. However, tear the muscles in their legs and you’ll limit how high they’ll ever be able to kick.

This is why you don’t abuse your students during training. There are means of motivation perfectly able to achieve better results than punching a kid in the face because they did something wrong. Why do that when you can develop their wind instead? Conditioning when your body is already tired is one way to break past the artificial limits your brain sets based on what you believe you can do. A new student will hate it, I guarantee you. They will not want to do it and the threat of wind sprints when they’re tire is enough to motivate them.

Punishment for technical screw ups in martial arts is always dual edged. The student may not see it, but there’s a secondary purpose to the training method. Conditioning is a great example.

Take the class’ least favorite thing and make that your stick. Imagine it like someone combining gym with all your classes, the worse you do in school then the more you get to run.

How motivated would you be to pass French if everyone who got a C or lower on the test had to go run up a really steep hill? Then, had to attend an extra study hour?

Welcome to martial arts and military training. Why would we physically abuse you when you’ll do it to yourself instead? Oh, and you’ll end up in better shape afterwards. Better shape means more stamina, more endurance, better wind, and the ability to fight longer. It’s a win, win. The more times you mess up, the more often you run up the hill.

If I can punish you and improve you at the same time, why wouldn’t I go with that method? It also always works, versus hitting a student which only works for a limited amount of time before you need to escalate. Also it lasts longer and will carry over into tomorrow, and they’ll still have to get right back to training without needing a week off.

Your muscles will still hurt tomorrow and you’ll still have to train. This comes with the added benefits of not only building your endurance but teaching you to dig deep for new reserves and work through exhaustion. You’re going to hate me, but you’ll be in much better shape by the end of the week and that ability to focus when completely spent may save your life.


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In movie sword fights, there’s always a lot of parrying, but it feels like that would damage the swords a lot, especially in those situations where the combatants just press their swords against each other in a strength struggle. Do real sword fights involve a lot of parrying?

They do, but it looks different from movie parrying. You’re right in that it would, did, and does damage the swords a great deal which is why it’s not the preferred method in real sword fights. The technique you’re describing has been termed as Flynning (after actor Errol Flynn) and the Tropes page has a pretty good description of it versus some discussion of real fencing. It’s important to remember that the point of a movie is primarily to entertain. While it has no connection to actual swordfighting, Flynning is a great deal of fun to watch and much more visually interesting than traditional swordplay.

One of the most accurate gun fights in film is in Michael Mann’s Heat with the bank robbery. The sequence was universally panned by audiences as not being “exciting” enough.

Finding a comfortable middle between entertainment and reality is something each writer will struggle with. However, luckily for you, you’re not working with a visual medium.

Lots of fencers, especially HEMA fencers, will tell you that movie sword fights are stupid. In the real world, when two knights ended up in a movie style blade lock they wouldn’t monologue. One would just punch the other. It’s one of many reasons why you wear gauntlets.

One of the great flaws in how a lot of writers structure their fight scenes, particularly with weapons, is that they get very focused on the weapon itself and forget about the other body parts involved.

Two warriors ending up in a blade lock seems like the perfect time in the movieverse for a monologue. They’re nose to nose, too close to actually stab each other. If you disengage at that distance, one or the other has to back up to use their swords again. If you’re thinking only about the sword and not say disengaging into a head bash or a punch because this is a sword duel and sword duels only ever involve swords, then it’s not going to occur to you.

In the real world, combat doesn’t wait five minutes for punchy dialogue. Someone talking means they’re either A) trying to distract in order to create an opening or B) are distracted themselves which means there is an opening.

You do, however, parry a great deal and not just in sword fighting but also in hand to hand. The parry is a key part of defense and creating openings by which you attack. In combat flow a basic attack is countered by the parry which allows the defender to remain on the defense or take up the offense with a counterattack. So, think about parrying not as clashing and banging but deflection.

It’s easiest to think of this kind of defense and offense as applications of pressure. Physics are ultimately key in understanding a lot of the defensive concepts that are the core across multiple disciplines. While everyone does it differently, the concepts remain the same.

Blocks and parries are two separate move sets.

The block takes the hit.

The parry is a defensive move that creates openings in the enemy’s guard when your opponent attacks.

So, what happens when you lean into someone else? You lay your weight on top of them/against them? Or when two people pull on a rope? If two people lean into each other, they can stay upright even though they’re off balance. This is what the blade lock is, the basic theory that Hollywood is using and it requires two people to be interested in applying the same pressure against each other. But what happens when one person just lets go? The other person loses balance, they fall over, and possibly go all the way to the ground. It’s rarely this dramatic, but that’s the concept. You take the path of least resistance,

Your parry is your give. This is where the attacker who fights without control gets into trouble. If you’ve totally committed to your strike or over-committed then you find the expected resistance no longer there and you come forward into the enemy’s counter.

What you’ll notice in sword combat is that the blade catches but then it rotates, turning the other blade aside. After that, the counterattack comes.

Real fencing is also fast. Most of the time, it’s over in only a few moves. For a real head trip, go look up Olympic Fencing on YouTube. Assume every time the buzzer sounds is a kill.

You’ll notice when you watch fencing videos, like those below, that the movements tend to be fairly tight compared to movies where the swords are swung in wide arcs. Part of the reason why movies and plays do this is so the sword can be seen by the audience, but it’s worth remembering that the bigger the motion then the more tiring it is. Also, the greater the opening it creates in the defense and the more distance the blade/fists/legs have to go in order to connect. The same technical reasons which make big slow motions so great for audience viewing are the same ones which will screw you over in a real fight.

There is a strategy which comes in at the higher levels with blocks, parries, counters, and feints. The upper levels involve bringing multiple concepts together to seamlessly move from one state (defensive) to another (offensive), and often involve tricking opponents through body language and false attacks (feints) into making choices bad for their health.

TLDR: parries are part and parcel to the foundations of martial arts across the board, not just fencing.


Some Fencing Videos:

Longsword Techniques:
zornhau, oben abnehmen, duplieren, mutieren

More Swords from IndenSchwertkamf

A Glossary of Fencing Terms from Wikipedia

Fencing Strategy and Tactics: Counter-Time from SelbergFencing, a discussion of parries as an offensive action from Master Charles Selberg. (I’d check out his whole channel and watch his discussions about fencing strategy, techniques, and their purpose.)

As always check out Matt Easton’s channel Scholagladitoria for in depth discussions on HEMA, Fencing, Medieval Weaponry, and Hollywood mistakes.

And Skallagrim for the same.

We also have a swords tag for more references, resources, and our thoughts on different issues.

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Would you say the ranking system is different depending on the style of Tae Kwon Do? My Sabumnim is a 4th degree in Chang Moo Kwan, Tae Kwon Do. According to the manual she’s provided, Kyobumnim is a 3rd degree instructor and Sabumnim is 4th degree or higher.

Yes, different schools sometimes choose terminology for ranking based on well, what their masters feel like. It can be confusing. The Ernie Reyes school uses five basic ranks for their black belts:

Choganim – (Assistant Instructor) for first degree

Busabumnim – (Instructor) for second degree

Sabumnim – (Head Instructor) for third

Bukwanjangnim – (Master Instructor) for fourth

Kwanjangnim – (Master) for fifth and higher

It’s worth knowing for piecing this apart that The Ernie Reyes West Coast World Martial Arts Association is a franchised organization, it has multiple schools throughout the California Bay Area (upwards of fifteen to twenty) and adjoining schools in other states such as Reno, Nevada and Oregon. We have somewhere around twenty Master Instructors with countless ranking black belts beneath it for different schools. The Organization is large enough to rent spaces and host it’s own in-house tournaments, having upwards of a few hundred students participating. Each black belt rank has a specialized and recognizable uniform which goes with it, which makes identification on sight ridiculously easy for both the students and the masters. Anything under 5th degree and you know immediately which level of black belt you’re looking at, in addition with what level of respect to accord them. The uniforms have become more segregated over the years as more 4th and 5th degrees have been added to the ranks.

What’s important to know about the uniforms is that the West Coast organization’s tournaments and events essentially function on free labor. Most of the black belts who show up are not paid to be there and there are too many of them for all the masters involved to recognize a student on sight. When you’ve got something like a fifty to a hundred black belts split between twelve different schools and all studying under different masters, it’d be difficult to tell them apart from the other lower belt ranks. The uniforms make that easier. You’re short on a judge for a round or board holder for a test? You can look up into the stands and just nab one of the loitering third degrees, easily recognizable in their red uniforms. If you can’t find one, then you check the pants for second degrees. If you can’t find those (which you will), then you still have easily identifiable first degrees who can be co-opted into working for free.

And yes, I have had a fourth degree walk past and have us stand up because they recognized the top part of our uniforms while we were in the stands to check our pants. Or simply grab one of the friends who was sitting with us when they ran short on a volunteer. The more masters, instructors, assistant instructors who know who you are or can recognize you on sight then the more likely you are to be put to work.

The reverse is also true: if a student is in trouble and needs to locate a master then they look for the men and women in white and gold. If they just need an authority figure, then they can almost immediately locate one of the eyesores in red or red with blue and white stripes. This becomes very helpful specifically in an auditorium or a high school gym when it’s packed and/or difficult to see.

So, it isn’t hyperbole. It’s an anecdote.

The uniforms allow for quick and easy exertion of authority over complete strangers, communicating information about a student/instructor’s experience level more quickly than a glance at the number of stripes on a belt. Otherwise there’s absolutely zero guarantee that the old man or woman climbing the steps is anything higher than a first degree while the sixteen-year-old standing next to him is automatically some lower belt rank. People come to martial arts at all different ages, so it’s not a good visual indicator of rank, experience, or authority. And even if the black belts at second and above have forgoed their belts and uniform tops, you can still locate them by their pants. (Yes, some first degrees stash their tops and belts after they’re done competing for exactly this reason.)

I suspect the titles were streamlined down over time simply because it’s easier to remember for the large number of students who pass through the organization every four years or so.

The flashy uniforms do put other martial artists from different disciplines or even the same ones off though.

Different schools/organizations/traditions are going to have different approaches which conflict. I’m sure there are even some in our audience who are WEST COAST? YEAH!!! or WEST COAST? BAD!!!!

Martial arts are like everything else, people will bicker over the correct way to do something until the cows come home. It’s probably worth knowing or remembering that your average martial artist is a nerd like any other kind. Usually a little more secretive depending on tradition and, sometimes, they fight over the purist view.

Your school may be closer to the Korean tradition than mine was. Taekwondo is a massively popular martial art the world over, one of the most popular. It has widespread appeal and widespread leads to a lot of diversity, including in tradition and even naming conventions.

So yeah, different schools do things their own way.


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In my story, there are three sixteen year old girls who have all been training in martial arts for a few years. One of them is tiny and underweight, one of them is average size and the other is tall and heavily muscled. How would their fighting styles differ?

This post is going to cover a few different aspects of the martial arts lifestyle to help you with your characters. You can take it or leave it as what works for you. I’m going to assume this ask is non-fantasy. Some of this post is going to relate to different emerging personalities, the realities of teenagers and the physical effects of martial arts training, and some of the truths about trainee retention. I’m going to assume that by a few years, you mean three.

If they’re all training on the same martial art, then their fighting style is going to be mostly the same. What differs is outlook. Let’s talk about that.

(Try to remember these are generalizations before you leap up with the torches.)

First Things First:

If they’re all training on the same martial art and at the same school, then their fighting style is going to be the same. There’s going to be some minute differences in approach, but the martial art molds itself to the body during training. You learn what works best for you. However, it’s not going to be like an anime. Anime choose to differentiate fighting styles among characters for a very specific reason: they need to be visually distinct and visually interesting. Since neither of these are qualities you have to worry about when working with a written format, don’t worry about it.

See, when you don’t know what you’re looking at, it all looks pretty much the same doesn’t it?

The rest is below the cut.


The Small One:

You won’t find many martial artists who are underweight.

Physical exertion requires a substantial energy output; your characters will be training 3 to 4 times a week, and working out on the weekends. This is on top of having a body that is growing and changing, one that requires more food already. All three will find they have a substantial need for food, leaning toward a high protein diet. Even if they’re doing no other sports, you won’t find one that’s underweight. This is on top of the muscle gain and muscle weighs more than fat. If the short one is 4”10 and 5”2, she’ll be weighing in around 100 to 120 pounds (she may even get as high as 130 if her martial art involves a lot of weight lifting) and she’ll be stocky like a gymnast. Basically, take whatever the average weight is for her height and tack on 10-15 pounds of muscle.

Like dehydration, malnutrition is a no good, very bad thing for someone who spends a lot of time working out. Fatigue, sluggishness, dizziness, and other difficulties can hamstring performance and endanger the student. If they’re showing signs, especially over prolonged period, their instructor will take them and their parents aside to discuss the issue.

You’re characters will find that they are hungry, often. Keeping snacks in the backpack like Luna Bar or Powerbars isn’t uncommon and they’ll probably carry a water bottle with them or pack their lunch with a gatorade. This is a common symptom for all athletes, so don’t take it too hard. Their body is used to expending a lot of energy and needs a greater intake of food in order to keep up. This is why so many ex-athletes explode in size the minute they stop working out, the body doesn’t need as much food but the cravings remain. Even appetite suppressants like caffeine or other stimulants will only curb it so much.

On small bodies, it shows the quickest as there are only so many places to fit the extra weight. This doesn’t mean fat, it just means a little stocky.

Because of the nature of the training, all three of them are going to develop a similar body type.

Spend a little time watching athletes. Whether it’s runners, MMA fighters, golf professionals, or others, they all share one thing in common: at a quick glance, the people training in them all tend to look similar. This is because different kinds of physical exercise change the shape of the body, you’ll get a little variation but similar body types eventually emerge. It’s the training regimen, really.

It’s something you don’t hear a lot about outside the fitness circuit because most people assume all sports training is the same and has the same result. It’s also what causes a lot of people to freak out when they start working out because you will initially gain weight (muscle), instead of losing it.

The smallest martial artists are usually the most aggressive

They’re also really fast, have an excellent base (they’re difficult to throw or knock over), and a great sense of balance. Sometimes, they have great hand to eye coordination. This is a result of simply having less mass to move and creating less inertia.

Shorter people are used to being treated as powerless and inconsequential. They’re always forced to look up at everyone. Really short folks are often mistaken as children, even offered child menus when they go to restaurants before the server notices they’re an adult. I’ve trained with some really short martial artists and have had a few tiny friends, it happens. Someone who is short is used to having to fight for the respect of people around them, they’re used to thinking of themselves as at a disadvantage against larger opponents (and everyone is larger). On the martial arts floor, this results in taking the initiative, being more outwardly aggressive, moving in first and not giving an inch once you’ve got the fight secured. They go right for the jugular and they go fast because they don’t believe they have the luxury of screwing around. Often, before they really get a grip on using their own natural advantages they may feel like they have to work twice as hard to be just as good.

In sparring, she’s most likely to close the distance quickly. She might lead with her legs, but more likely she’ll rush hands first to break the guard. Once inside the hand range, she can use the closeness to limit her opponent’s movements and options while retaining most of her own. (Suck it reach!) When it comes to throws, she will dominate. Small people who understand how to use their base are better off being close to their opponent, they don’t gain much staying at range. They’re harder to knock over, difficult to pick up, and great at destabilization of larger opponents.

Common traits:

Pride: this person has worked very hard to get where they are and earn respect. Even if they started with natural advantages like natural flexibility and a great sense of balance, it won’t feel like it. Despite an encouraging environment, every step has been a personal battle against their own sense of inadequacy and they’ve earned every bit of it. Of the three, they are most likely to be proudest of their skills and least likely to quit until they’ve achieved their goal (what is that goal? Self-defense? Black belt?).

Determination: Martial arts takes a lot of time and effort, it takes commitment. Of the three, this character might have had the slowest start and felt like the weakest link in the class. These are tough feelings to overcome. Depending on the martial system, three years is a long time and training is beginning to require more time, more commitment.

Projected Aggression: regardless of size, all martial artist in a hard style must learn to project aggression. However, smaller individuals often learn faster than others as it is another form of intimidation that’s separate from size. Simply standing in a corner, she’ll radiate aggression, confidence, and authority. These will all make her come across as larger than she is.

The Jock Mentality: Though of the three, at this age she’ll have what (American) society finds most desirable for women (delicacy, size), this character will also be used to being infantilized, devalued, and disregarded. She is idealized (“wow, you’re so small”, “I could fit you in the palm of my hand”, “I wish I were so tiny”, “how do you stay so thin?”) and desirable, while her thoughts and opinions are ignored. If she’s not content to stay in the spot society has given her, she’ll have fight to be heard and fight to be taken seriously. Most sports but especially combat sports, have an important side effect on the brain: they make you feel powerful. The fill you with the belief you can back it up, that you don’t need to be intimidated by people larger than you.

If she’s lasted three years, then she’ll be at the point where her training is getting hardcore and she’s ready to meet the challenge. Of the three, she’s the one whose life experiences have primed her to be the most hardcore.

The Tall One:

She’s not going to be heavily muscled due to the subcutaneous layer of fat and she won’t be any more heavily muscled than the other two if she doesn’t do anything to earn it. At her age, she is most likely going to be lean, bordering on skinny. With a short body, where the muscle has fewer places to grow, with a tall body the muscle has more room to spread out. Gangly is the term I’d pick, at sixteen she’s still growing into her body and growing into herself. She sticks out in the crowd, is probably taller than most of the guys in her year, and she may feel awkward, even clumsy as her hormones start raging. While she will always have been in a position of power (i.e. intimidating because you have to look up at her) and good at sports, it’s those very qualities which may make her question her own femininity and womanhood. Where the Small One’s insecurities kick in about respect, the Tall One doesn’t really worry about that, she does have problems with being typecast. If she steps outside of sports, she’ll find clothes aren’t made to fit her body type. Makeup may make her feel foolish and she’ll be bombarded with images everyday about how (even though models are 5”10), small, delicate features and tiny bodies are normal while she just keeps growing. The Small One, most likely, doesn’t suffer from a lack of interest from boys (though she may drive them off after opening her mouth). The Tall One may feel like no one likes her and that she isn’t attractive (though this probably isn’t true, it’s just teenage boys are idiots and aren’t likely to admit their less culturally acceptable crushes for fear of being laughed at by their friends).

However, because she is used to being looked up to (literally), this character isn’t going to suffer confidence issues or insecurities in other aspects of her life. She’s used to being noticed. She’s used to being listened to and intimidating shorter individuals (of both genders) into silence.

Expectation versus Reality:

When it comes to most sports, taller people are believed to (and in the beginning do) have a natural advantage over everyone else. They’re expected to take part in sports like volleyball and basketball. Often, when meeting a taller person, the first question someone asks is “what sport do you play?”. They are expected to do a sport and, worse, they’re expected to be good at it. When placed at a crossroads, she may be struggling with continuing martial arts in favor of pursuing a different non-sporty path.

This character may be used to being the best due to her natural advantages, but she’s hitting the stage in her training where things are heating up. More is being asked of her, greater technical proficiency is required. Where things were easy before, now they’re getting tougher. When traditional martial arts move into the higher ranks, they begin to ask for greater technical control and speed over raw power. While she is intimidating and has greater reach, she’s the slowest fighter of the three. Having a large, tall body, she’s going to have to work harder at control her body, she’s going to have to drop deeper into her stances than her friends, all while her body is at it’s most awkward stage. In the beginning, she was good but now she’s behind the rest of the class and the character she’s used to protecting (the Small One) is moving up, and may be turning into the star. The Small One doesn’t need her protection anymore and this may lead the Tall One to feeling a little lost. She may also be getting pressure at school to switch to one of the school sports.

She may not be used to struggle or feelings of inadequacy. It’s something she’ll have to face.

It’s worth remembering that even though tall people are expected to be good at sports, this isn’t necessarily true. Due to her age, her body is growing, shifting, and changing. It’ll be more awkward for her than her friends because she may be going through rapid growth spurts. When that happens, everything about the way she moves suddenly changes. She may have awkward balance and her coordination may suffer if she doesn’t constantly work at it. Martial arts are very reliant on balance, so these are physical challenges she faces daily with each practice. She’ll improve and once she stops growing these will no longer be an issue, but while they are it probably hurts her confidence.

Of the three: most likely to be thinking about quitting.

For fighting style: she’s most likely to lean toward fighting on the defensive. Her tactics and strategy in sparring are going to revolve around keeping her opponent away and at range where they can’t strike at her. The closer she gets to an opponent and the closer an opponent gets to her, the more advantages she cedes to them. If she’s on a martial art with kicks, she’ll probably lead with her legs. If not, then she’ll work at ensuring those extra centimeters of difference in her arms really matter. She may have difficulty fighting in very close quarters because lankiness requires room for the wind up. If she’s on a martial art that includes grappling in the sparring, then, as the tallest girl in the class, she’s most likely to get tossed. (Yeah, if you’re thinking the biggest is best at throwing and grappling while standing, the answer is haha, no.)

Miss Midsize

The problem with being average is that you’re not worth remembering.

Between the really tall friend and the really short one, this character is most likely used to being ignored. If you want to take the height metaphor, they’re middling in all things. Due to being medium in height, they don’t feel the Small One’s intense need to work hard and compete but they also didn’t have the Tall One’s strong and obvious natural advantages at the start of their training. They were average and if they want to be anything other than average; it’s going to be up to them to change.

They’ve never been the most desirable member of the group (for that we have the small one) or the one everyone immediately notices (for that we have the Tall One) and they’re trapped between two interesting characters with very strong personalities. You’re going to have work hard to differentiate their personality from their friends, they might have always had the Tall One to speak for them and stuck as the Small One’s slightly awkward friend. Again, she’ll need to be differentiated from her friends.

Middle characters often suffer this problem. By using the Law of Threes (three sisters, three Fates, three etc), you’re essentially installing a center against two opposing opposites. Pulling from literary tradition, Midsize is the anchor point in the friendship between Small and Tall. She balances them out and this is reflected in her training and fighting style. She doesn’t commit fully to either offense or defense. She tries to do a little bit of both, all the time. However, because she’s the glue, she’s most likely to be overlooked and thus the most likely to want to strike out on her own.

This may result in her outright quitting the school or choosing to go into an aspect of the martial art that’s separate from the other two like teaching, training for tournaments, exhibition, tricking, etc. I suggest digging into the art part of martial arts. A character whose focus is on technical proficiency and beautiful technique, for reference both Jet Li and Jackie Chan are exhibitionist martial artists. So are most of the stunt actors you’ll see in movies. Martial art as performance art, not martial art as combat.

Performing martial artists usually pick up extra extra-curricular activities in: gymnastics and dance to increase their competitive performance.

Dance and gymnastic moves don’t really work in actual fighting, but they are essential to the performance art in competition.

As for fighting style: she’s average, she fights like you’d expect a martial artist from her school to fight. If that’s not an answer, then you need to do more research.

Here are some things you should think about in regards to martial arts schools:

1) Martial arts training represents a serious time commitment.

Martial arts costs: time, money, and (for minors) requires parental support, a lot of parental support. When you’re thinking about martial arts, you have to understand that it’s almost exactly like doing a competitive school sponsored sport. Except, you have to foot the bill for it yourself. This is: car rides to training practices, you can carpool but you’ve got to get there, 3 to 4 times a week in the afternoons or evenings and waking up at 5am so you can make 6am or 7am practices on the weekends.

The kids who most often make it to black belt are the kids whose parents are involved in their lives or who have an instructor take an interest (with an acquiescing parent) to help them make it. These are the kids with parents who support their children, who come to their practices, and become involved in the martial arts school’s community. For minors, any private sports program (by it’s nature) requires a strong support network. This doesn’t have to be family, but it usually is.

Some martial arts schools have paths and programs for low-income families. However, getting to class is often left to the student and, if they have no parent to take them, they’ve got to do it on their own via some other means of transportation. These students, you’ll lose to other factors like part-time jobs which conflict with the training schedule.

The third important point: when dealing with minors, it’s common for martial arts schools in the U.S. to require and push for academic excellence in their students. In order to stay training at the school, they need to maintain a C average or better. My martial arts school ran it’s own variation of the Honor Roll, it had little ceremonies, handed out patches, and celebrated the kids who did well in school. Excellence is a habit to take to all aspects of life, not just technique. Now, I did know instructors who would go the extra mile and tutor or get one of the more academically minded students to tutor a student who was struggling in school.

Time. Energy. Effort. Time, energy, and effort doing something you will receive little to no recognition for outside a very select group of people. Friends outside the school will think it’s cool, but ultimately they won’t care and may not even remember the specifics of the martial art you’re practicing.

The greatest drop off of students occurs within the first three months. The second major drop off is after the increased time commitment of training for black belt. The third is right after completion of the first belt degree. Keep them past that and they’ll most likely be with you until they graduate from high school.

The lowest number of trainees in a martial arts school are usually the older teenagers. Freshman year in high school represents an increased time commitment at school between homework, a social life, and other extracurricular activities. Teenagers represent the gap, they’re a sort of no-man’s land between the kids who’ve been training since they were littles (between five and eight years) and the adult class. The greatest number of teenagers will most likely be in the black belt class and the rest are shuffled in with the evening adult class(es).

Your teens haven’t been training long enough in most systems to make it to black belt, so they’re likely in the middle of a transition. And, from their perspective, this might mean training with the “old” people (which could be embarrassing if they’ve got a crush on one of the teen assistant instructors or an up and comer in the black belt class).

In short, as average suburban teens, they’d be at a crossroads.

2) Martial Arts cost money

$225 a year is a good estimate, but it can be more and will go up as you go up in rank. That’s outside of fees for testing, gear, uniforms, and gas. A martial arts school is a business, not a charity. It has to make money to pay its staff, rent on the building, costs, etc.  So, figure out who in your story is paying for it.

No really.

If you’re a minor, you need parental consent and their signature on the release forms. No, not forged. The instructor and school owner are going to want to meet your parents at least once.