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This question is more about etiquette. Years ago I took some martial art classes that focused on striking. The other day I tried an intro class to Sambo. Overall it went well. The last thing we did was a "fun game" (words instructor used) where we saw who could tag their partner on the knee without having theirs tagged. We rotated partners and at one point I ended up with a guy who seemed to have a lot of experience in some grappling martial art. He started putting me in headlocks and clinches. We didn't cover these in class. I said to him "aren't we doing the knee slap drill?" and he said "we're just messing around".

First, if the instructor says "game to touch other person's knee" is it pretty clear the idea isn't to put your partner in a headlock, even if he didn't explicitly prohibit it?

What (if anything) should I say to the partner or instructor?

As an aside a long time ago I took an intro judo class. The instructor asked 2 senior students to give a demo. They agreed not to use sweeps but one did anyway. When he pointed this out, the instructor said "it's against the rules to speak". I thought this was bad sportsmanship.

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  • A knee slap drill seems perfectly compatible with clinching. Maybe it's what the instructor had in mind, maybe it's not, but it's the kind of thing I would find perfectly normal and desirable in a Sambo class. It's probably just a warm-up anyway, and light clinching is one of the best warm-ups. Commented Jun 1, 2022 at 12:04

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Anyone who is not doing what the instructor is asking the class to do is disrespecting the instructor, the partner, and the class. It is most inappropriate to have the student - a new one - be introduced to a new technique, then expect them to execute it effectively as if they were an expert.

You should learn a technique the first time in a favorable environment with no distraction. Of course that's not realistic, but realism isn't the goal at first. When you get more proficient, then it is time to introduce variations to help you deal with the unfavorable environment and distractions in real life.

Think of it like this: ever get lost and ask someone for directions and, with helpfulness in their intentions, you get explicit details down to all the nearby stores, color of the buildings, landmarks you'll pass, signs for this and that?

All you need is the basic "go this way 10 blocks, left on main St 5 blocks, right on 1st st 3 blocks"

To much information will overload the beginner.

It's disrespectful to the class, because they're seeing you doing something different. That's a distraction. Some will do what you're doing, others will get confused.

It's disrespectful to the instructor because you may be jumping ahead, sending a not-so-subtle message "I'm doing what I think you want me to do", or "I know better than you".

I'm sure you understand all this, that's why you're here asking.

I said all that in case there are folks who read this and do what your partner is doing, however well-intentioned they think they may be; but also to give you the justification you need to tell your partner to just stick to the instructions, you're having a hard enough time without the distraction. If it doesn't work, avoid the partner in the future, or, finally have a private convo with the instructor.

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    I agree "it's more realistic" is a terrible argument in any class. There wouldn't be a class if you could just jump into a real situation and learn that way.
    – plantoplan
    Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 22:45
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Short answer

I would like to mention five takeaways for you that these situations exemplify and are important for every martial arts student before I go into the specifics of the described situations:

  1. Instructors are humans.
  2. Therefore, even if they should be more explicit and explain their decisions and forms better this is often not the case.
  3. Therefore, it is partly your own responsibility to ask if any questions are open, even if it is hard for beginners to know the questions in the first place.
  4. There is often/always a good reason behind what and how they do it even if it is not mentioned and the best practice is to ask instructors why they do what they do/how they do it.
  5. If they cannot or are unwilling to answer this explicit question, they are bad instructors.

Long answer

General remarks on expectations vs. reality in martial arts

1. Unwritten rules: If the place is very competitive and playing rough, full of young people with too much energy, it may well be that this is the way how they train and that the unwritten rule is "that which is not forbidden is allowed". I myself came to some places that trained this way and did not make any difference between strong, experienced people or others with weak physique and obviously less experience. This can be very intimidating and not that much fun for inexperienced players but it often also means that the training there is high-level and if you stick to it, it will benefit your game in the long run. The "messing around" comment fits this attitude perfectly.

2. Hierarchy of rules: When I read your second anecdote at the bottom, I immediately thought that the instructor was correct, in a sense: When you talk in a fight, you can get disqualified and immediately lose the competition. It doesn't matter if it was unfair at that moment (and it was), the more important lesson to be learned here was that whatever happens, you should never complain in a fight. And the instructor decided that this is what was more important here. There are little breaks of rules all the time and you won't get anywhere if you do not learn to get over it and fight. I, personally, prefer to explain these situations and my decision to the group after the fight has ended. Not every instructor thinks this way.

3. Sambo is itself pretty rough. At first sight, it may be very similar to Judo but it in fact is much more straight to the point about winning, less about education and values than Judo. Therefore, entry into an established group without much experience or physical training may not be what the group is good for. But if you bite through it may well be worth it.

That being said, everything comes down to your own ideas and values versus what is lived in the respective places. Yes, martial arts are about mutual respect. But it is also - first and foremost to many - learning how to win in a sports match and especially for grapplers it is often about the direct physical contest. So if your goal is more about having fun and some relaxed rolling, maybe these places were simply not fitting you and your goal as they were too competitive. I know for sure that there are Judo places that fit a more relaxed attitude but cannot vouch for Sambo as I lack the experience there.

On the exercise and situation specifically

As @DaveLiepmann pointed out in his comment, purely slapping the knees might be a nice little exercise for beginners to learn footwork and hand-eye coordination. But if you add a little "messing around", ie. not-too-serious clinching and control, it suddenly becomes a very good warming up exercise for grapplers that is physically challenging and both intuitive for beginners as it only involves basic brawling and a clear goal without too many technicalities and fun for more advanced players as it is a bit out of the box.

Thus, keep an open mind and never presuppose anything. It is always a good idea to be open about new input and possible advantages of ideas, input, and exercises that are completely new to you. What this should have taught you is to ask very specifically about what is allowed when confronted with new groups/exercises since there are very few instructors that are fully explicit about it after some decades of using the same drills over and over. It is hard to keep in mind that not everyone takes all these details for granted that so became blood and bone to you.

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  • That's a lot of theory, if I get your point it's that the instructor did a bad job at explaining?
    – plantoplan
    Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 22:54
  • @plantoplan: Yes and no. On one hand, in an ideal world, he should have been more explicit regarding the rules, especially considering that there were new people around. On the other hand, as I am an instructor myself, I know that it is incredibly hard to have every contingent possibility in mind when it comes to training forms you do regularly in your group and it is also your own responsibility to ask if something was not explicitly mentioned. In fact, you should keep in mind that only the very best of the best are absolutely accurate and adequate in their explanations of training forms. Commented Jun 3, 2022 at 10:23
  • Thus, the answer comes down to a) instructors are humans, b) therefore, even if they should be more explicit and explain their decisions and forms better this is often not the case and c) there is often/always a good reason behind what and how they do it even if it is not mentioned and the best practice is to ask instructors for why they do what/how they do it. If they cannot answer this explicit question, they are bad instructors. Commented Jun 3, 2022 at 10:26
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First, if the instructor says "game to touch other person's knee" is it pretty clear the idea isn't to put your partner in a headlock, even if he didn't explicitly prohibit it?

No, it's not clear. In some contexts, it's encouraged to creatively interpret instructions. In others, this undermines the purpose of the activity.

What (if anything) should I say to the partner or instructor?

Is this a game that is regularly used? If so, then you might want to understand exactly what the parameters are. If not, just let it go.

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  • May I ask what's "not clear"? Do you think the instructor should say at the end of explaining each drill "don't use other moves aside from the moves I just told you to"? It may be different in grappling but in striking you wouldn't decide to just kick your partner when you're supposed to be practicing a back fist drill, for example.
    – plantoplan
    Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 22:47
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    @plantoplan You described this situation as a "fun game" in the instructors words, which I would interpret as less structured than a drill, but I don't have a way to divine your instructor's intention. Just because someone is behaving unexpectedly does not mean they are doing something wrong.
    – mattm
    Commented Jun 3, 2022 at 2:36

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