In a previous FIGHT! article, we outlined the top things to look for when determining whether an MMA gym was right for you. Choosing a gym is a major step in beginning your training but a lot of hard work will lie ahead once you make your decision.

Regardless of whether you’ve trained traditional martial arts or have never attended a class in your life, you’re going to realize within the first five minutes of your first training session that you’re not in Kansas anymore.

FIGHT! Magazine  November 2008
FIGHT! Magazine November 2008

There are a lot of people who watch The Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV and think to themselves: “You know, I can do that!” While fighting is by no means easy, it’s comparatively easy in relation to the training that serves as a prelude. Fighters aren’t paid just for one night of fighting, as they are also being compensated for the hours of blood, sweat, and tears that were invested in getting prepared for combat

While training isn’t easy, here are some simple rules to follow that can help you with the transition.

1. Check your ego at the door and keep a low profile – You’re not going to be able to survive and thrive at an MMA school if you’re an insecure person. Maybe tall tales worked in high school and maybe it makes sense to embellish when you’re trying to pick up a chick at a bar, but you’re going to be a joke if you go into a school and start self-promoting. Nobody is going to care that you were a fifth-degree black belt at your local Karate McDojo when you were twelve. And that fight you won by the monkey bars when you were in second grade? It’s meaningless to someone who has fought and won a real MMA fight. Believe it or not, you’ll gain more respect and make more friends at your school the more humble you are. Nobody is going to want to train with you or help you if you’re considered the Marlon Sims of your gym.

2. Remember that you’re there to learn, not teach – It doesn’t matter that you’ve watched every UFC since UFC I in 1993; you’re still not qualified to teach mixed martial arts. Some things you learn might not make sense, and if you are transitioning from another art, some of the new things you’ll learn might contradict the old stuff. There’s a reason why you’re a student and an instructor is the instructor. Let them do their job. If you come off as a know-it-all there’s a good chance you’ll become a running joke at your gym. Nobody at your gym is going to expect you to be an instant superstar so long as you don’t carry yourself like one.

3. Address your instructors in a proper fashion – The biggest transition I had when coming over from a Kung Fu school to an MMA school was the proper etiquette when interacting with instructors. The idea of not referring to my instructors as “Master” took some time getting used to. That being said, it’s probably still not a good idea to refer to your head instructors by their first name while on the mat, even if they say it’s okay. Nobody is going to get upset if you call them “sir” or “ma’am.”

The best thing you can do is just ask the head instructor of the school what the proper etiquette is in regard to speaking with instructors. During the first day of my MMA training, I simply asked the head instructor, “What’s the proper title I should refer to you as?” It’s the type of question nobody will get mad at you for asking and one that could help you garner respect.

4. Start working on your cardio before you sign up at a gym – I found that the biggest difference between traditional martial arts and mixed martial arts was the attention paid to conditioning. Many fitness gyms have hired MMA instructors because the sport has made a name for itself in regards to its cross-training methods. If you’ve trained in traditional styles or have never trained before, be prepared for a shock. Unless you’re between the ages of 18-22 or are simply already in great shape, your body is going to hate you after your first MMA class. Don’t be surprised if you feel a need to puke or if you come home with the worst cramps of your life.

At the gyms I’ve trained at, I’ve seen a lot of people that watched an episode of TUF and showed up at the gym looking to be the next UFC champion. The vast majority of those people never returned after their first class because they were completely oblivious to the dedication to conditioning.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to use scare tactics here and discourage you from training. That’s because while the cardio demands can be tough, if you work on your cardio for two weeks or more before starting at a gym, you’ll have a much easier time.

5. What happens in the gym stays in the gym – At bigger gyms, there’s a good chance you’ll be around at least a few pro or high-level amateur fighters. While you won’t have to sign a confidentiality form, it’s an unwritten rule that you shouldn’t run to the Underground forum in order to break the news that your gym’s top fighter has been walking around in a knee brace for the last two weeks.

When rolling or sparring, it’s also a big no-no to talk about who got the best of each other. If you’re a white belt that happened to tap out a purple belt, you have a right to feel good about yourself but you’re going to need to contain that excitement. Needless to say, it’s not okay to do the Tito Ortiz grave digging routine after you get over someone in sparring or while rolling. It’s also not acceptable to go on the Sherdog forums and respond to a thread about a fighter by saying, “Yeah, well, I train with him and he got tapped out by a white belt last week.”

You’ll be surprised how much gossip passes through a gym but you need to treat everything you hear as if you’ve heard it off the record. You don’t want to leak information to a reporter about a fighter signed to make his UFC debut or a fighter just chosen for the next installment of The Ultimate Fighter, unless, of course, you’re e-mailing the information to me. In which case, I can promise you full anonymity.

6. Don’t book your own fights – At any respectable MMA gym, amateur fighters are not allowed to fight without the consent of their gym. It’s okay to tell your instructors that your long-term goal is to fight outside of the gym in competition; however, it’s at the gym’s discretion to decide when you’re ready for a fight. Some wannabe gyms will allow anyone who trains to fight simply because they are desperate to get their name out there any way they can. But no legitimate gym is going to allow an amateur fighter to book his or her own fights. You’re going to have to prove in training that you have what it takes.

If a gym is legitimate, it means that many sacrifices have been made to build the program up and that a lot of pride goes into how the gym is represented outside of the school. A head instructor has every right to be concerned about the name of his or her gym because it’s their livelihood. That means they don’t want someone taking fights on their own and getting tooled while representing the school at a show. Furthermore, any trainer worth their salt has the well-being of their fighter in mind at all times. You don’t want to train at a gym that will allow anyone who automatically considers anyone to train to be a fighter because you don’t want someone taking liberties with your health.

7. Hygiene, hygiene, hygiene – There’s nothing worse than going to jiu-jitsu class and being assigned to roll with someone who smells like a stale hoagie. However, it’s something that’s inevitable if you train jiu-jitsu for an extended period of time. The thing is you don’t want to be that guy (or gal)! If you work behind a desk all day, chances are you don’t need to shower before you train. However, if you’re a landscaper or involved with any other job that involves sweating all day, you need to make sure you grab a shower before you hit the gym. Nobody is going to want to spar or roll with you if you’re showing up to class looking like “Pigpen” from Charlie Brown.

If you’re new to jiu-jitsu, you need to be especially concerned about your skin. If you have a sudden outbreak, do not take it lightly. The last thing you want to do is roll with someone training for a competition and then pass staph infection onto them. If there’s something on your skin that you’re not sure about, your best bet is to have it looked at by a doctor. Tell them that you’re taking jiu-jitsu. If they don’t understand what jiu-jitsu is, tell them it’s similar to wrestling. Most doctors have examined an amateur wrestler at one point in their life and they understand how close contact can pass certain things on.

If you can’t get to a doctor, call it to the attention to your trainer before the start of class. He or she may take a look at it and decide it’s nothing and simply ask you to cover it up. Or, they might tell you it’s okay to do drills but not okay to roll with anyone. I’m telling you, if you pass something onto someone that has invested months of time training for an event and you’re the reason they can’t compete, they are going to act as if you’ve just given them HIV.

You also need to make sure you keep your toenails and fingernails trimmed. If you have long hair, people will appreciate it if you pull it back. Nobody wants to go home with long hairs on them and be accused by their significant other of cheating.

8. Don’t solicit your gym for business – The number one way for someone’s relationship with their gym to go sour is by approaching instructors about business deals. At certain traditional martial arts gyms I’ve trained at, there were written rules preventing students from soliciting instructors. The theory in traditional martial arts is that a student should do everything in their power to help their school and not try to profit from it. However, I have seen a few students cross the line and do business deals with their Senseis or Masters and without fail, the deal ended with the student having to leave the school.

Most real MMA gyms do not subscribe to the traditional ideals of older martial arts styles but pitching business ideas is still a bad idea. If your job is fixing air conditioners and the air conditioner at your school is broke, don’t volunteer to fix it unless you’re willing to do it for free. Even if you offer a discount, an instructor might take offense.

The problem is that a lot of people are so enthusiastic about MMA that they just want to have a bigger role than merely a student. If you’re looking to become a bigger part of your gym, my first piece of advice is to make sure you’re a good student by showing up to class consistently, applying strong technique, and being a positive influence within the school’s student body.

The following article is appearing courtesy of content partner FIGHT! magazine. The article below appeared in FIGHT!’s October issue featuring Josh Barnett on the cover. This month’s issue, featuring Miguel Torres on the cover, is currently available in major bookstores and on newsstands all over the United States. You can also subscribe to FIGHT! and receive 12-monthly issues for $18.95 by visiting the magazine’s website and clicking on the “Subscriptions” link.