Culture in the Martial Arts School: Commitment & Honor

What kind of martial art do you do? What place, country, nation, or people does it come from? How much do you know about the culture of that country, historically or contemporarily? Is your understanding simple, or is it deep and complex?

What kind of place do you live in? What are the values of the people in your specific locale? What kind of culture are you stepping into when you bow in for class? How does “dojo culture” differ from the wider culture your dojo is situated in?

Today, I want to talk about two deeper values that are common to many traditional martial arts: commitment and honor. I want to define these two values, and then talk about how YOU might be expected to SHOW those values in your school or training hall.

Obviously, all schools are different. These values may not be as important in your specific school. I’m going to talk about these ones because, in my nearly two decades of training, being a student and guest in dozens of schools, these are the ones that in my experience stand out across many styles, places, teachers, and schools.

Commitment and honor may seem like old-fashioned values, especially in cultures where competition is valued and many people believe that the “end justifies the means.” When you step into your training hall, you’re stepping smack dab into cultures where these values (for the most part) are highly valued. That can lead to confusion: how am I expected to behave?


Those who pass on a traditional style know one simple truth: martial arts live because we practice them. Without us, the art dies out and knowledge is lost. Many traditional martial arts instructors expect you to make a commitment to your training and to the style they teach.

What specific things does an instructor expect from a student that demonstrate commitment?

  • Show up to class regularly
  • Work hard while you are in class
  • Respect your teacher
  • Memorize (or commit to memory) certain sets of moves, forms, drills, etc that are favored by the style
  • See training as a long-term activity
  • Use the lessons from class in your everyday life
  • As an upper belt, give back to your art by helping teach it to others and keep it alive

If your teacher expects commitment, but you do not show it, problems can arise. To find out what your teacher expects, you can ask questions like, “How often should a student train?”


Often, historically, honor meant valuing something greater than oneself: a group or a code of behavior. Violating the code or betraying the group brought punishment down on the individual. Honor can be a tricky value, because it can easily turn into a situation of blind respect for and obedience to a person. This sort of situation can be taken advantage of.

Today, in the dojo setting, I think of honor as a deep respect for others, as well as adhering to general moral guidelines, such as don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t harm others. These moral guidelines are common in many cultures, eras, peoples, and even spiritual systems—isn’t it cool that humanity has so much we can agree on?!

Honor, like respect, should also work two ways. A good teacher honors her/his students by respecting their intelligence, life experiences, and desire to learn. A good teacher also honors students by responding to students thoughtfully and leading with integrity.

Many martial arts schools and instructors expect you to honor the school and the teacher by:

  • Respecting the words and judgment of your teacher
  • Taking action on suggestions/corrections that are made by your teacher
  • Not misusing martial arts or abusing the physical power you develop
  • Not speaking badly about the school or anyone in it
  • Being honest and open both inside and outside the dojo
  • Seeking to control your ego and act humbly
  • Having good character inside and outside the school
  • Carrying on certain school traditions

For the most serious and highest-ranked students who are trusted with teaching, honoring the school can also mean being very very careful about how you teach and how you are changing or shaping the art itself.


Sometimes these values are so intrinsic that we instructors have trouble expressing them to our students–or we just forget because they’re so obvious to us! Especially with kids, explicit instruction in what it means to commit (or honor or respect or show humility or persevere) can make a huge difference in their attitude towards training.

As a student, I am constantly evaluating the culture of any school I step into. I want to know what is expected of me, but I also think about whether or not I am willing to be a part of that culture.

As an instructor, I am constantly thinking about whether or not my expectations are fair to my students. I also think about how to make my expectations clear, especially when there may be a bit of “culture clash” going on.

Everyone has a culture. What’s yours?

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