Everyone talks about the martial arts community. They throw around marketing words like brotherhood, family and integrity. They say they teach martial arts in order to make a difference in someone's life. To inspire them. To give them confidence. To teach them real world skills. They say all of their students are like family, that no one is just a number on the mat. However, after being involved with other school owners for the last decade, I can only say one thing. They're all lying.
I belong to several martial arts groups on social media, some of which are only for instructors and school owners. The ones that are open to everyone of all experience levels are frustrating for someone looking to have a deep discussion about Budo, yet understandable. But no matter how understandable it is, there's only so many "Which style is better?" posts that I can take before I start removing myself from those groups. However, in a group that is solely comprised of instructors, you would think there would be some great discussions. Yet the more I observe, the more it becomes apparent that these groups are run by mega-school owners talking about the next marketing scheme or hustle to attempt to satisfy their ever-growing greed while looking down on anyone who doesn't have enrollment in the triple digits. After careful observation and numerous interactions, I can only come to one conclusion. The martial arts community as we know it is dead, and what we're left with is the martial arts industry.
They've also mentioned that part-time instructors are nowhere near as committed to their students as those who teach full-time, or that people resort to teaching part-time because they failed at running a full-time school. Let me give you some insight onto my situation before I completely tear that line of thinking apart.
From 2007-2015 I ran a very successful commercial school. At one point, I had over 100 students and 30 after school students. In June 2015, I walked away and honestly have never felt better. But why? To run a successful business, in any industry, you must adhere to supply and demand. If you supply what the public demands, you will have clientele. If there is no demand for what you're supplying, you won't. I had a very sport-centric program and was giving the public what they wanted. Yet I felt like a prisoner. I was afraid to teach what I truly believed in because I was afraid that it was not what the public wanted, and my enrollment would suffer. Which is exactly what happened when I began transitioning my program to what I teach now. I felt by offering after school and summer camp programs, day care essentially, that I was selling my soul just to be able to have a nice space to teach my core group of hardcore, dedicated budoka. And in June 2015, I finally had enough. I shut down my storefront and began teaching privately. I had a small group of dedicated students that followed me wherever I went, and I couldn't be more proud of their quality. But that quality was a result of the training I put them through once it no longer mattered who quit. I didn't have to worry that if someone stopped coming, I couldn't put food on the table. I could just train my students exactly how I was trained, and those who stayed would benefit.
Full-time school owners often remark at the freedom they have, to not have to punch a clock. They can make a living teaching martial arts. And that's great. Honestly, I am very happy for anyone who can make a living doing what they love, and in no way do I believe that my program is better than someone who runs a commercial school (on that premise alone). I will say, however, that the trend does seem to support the fact that those with triple-digit enrollment adhere to the law of supply and demand. And unfortunately, what this generation demands is to be handed a participation trophy, a pat on the back and a pretty piece of cloth around their waist. So generally speaking, successful commercial schools tend to offer a superficial curriculum that lacks any depth or higher training. You'll find that even the "masters" and "grandmasters" were awarded their ranks solely for their time training, learning some more forms and paying their dues to their governing body. But doing the same, mediocre level material for 30 years does not make you an advanced practitioner.
If you are one of the instructors who is lucky enough to have a triple-digit clientele that demands high-level, intensive combatives training, then you are my idol. Let me know where I need to relocate to, and I'll be on the next plane. Because it's not my area. My area is saturated with sport schools and BJJ.
And before you say "My school offers all of that," let me clarify what I mean by self defense training. Teaching defensive techniques against various attacks is not self defense. Unless you are breaking down the human body's natural, biological responses under duress and teaching how to harness and overcome them, you are not teaching self defense. Unless there is the possibility that a student can get hurt if they don't do a defense properly, creating a realistic and genuine response from the student, you are not teaching self defense. Unless you are training consistently under duress against a resisting attacker, you are not teaching self defense. Unless you are preparing your students for the physical trauma of being attacked (after all, you're only as good as the shot you can take), you are not teaching self defense. There's certainly more, but I hope you get my gist.
So that being said, just be honest with your students. Be proud of what you do, and own it. There's nothing wrong with any type of training, as long as you are not misleading about it. Your students deserve to know what they're learning, because if they try to tornado kick the guy with a gun and get shot, their blood is on your hands.
Johnny is 11-years-old and has been the victim of severe bullying. So much so that he has attempted suicide several times and is currently in the hospital being treated for self-inflicted wounds. We reached out to Johnny's family after learning about his situation on social media, and offered whatever assistance we could. Because he lives in another state, we could not bring him out to our school to offer him free lessons in order to boost his confidence and give him the tools he needed to defend himself. Therefore, we spent 3 weeks contacting martial arts schools in his local area to see if anyone would be willing to help. Guess what? Not a single instructor was willing to help Johnny unless he paid for classes or signed a long-term enrollment.
If this is what the martial arts community has come to, I am ashamed to call myself a martial artist. Everyone talks about wanting to help their community and make a difference in someone's life, yet when it's time to step up to the plate they all refused unless they got paid to do it. To those schools we spoke to, I say you are the lowest form of scum on this planet and are unworthy to be called a martial arts instructor! How dare you advertise that you support anti-bullying? I am absolutely livid that none of you could step down off your high horse and really help someone that needed it, all because you weren't getting paid. Some community.
There are small pockets of schools and associations that take the words "community" and "brotherhood" to heart, but unfortunately we are few and far between. Putting the situation with Johnny aside, the evidence to the death of the martial arts community is still overwhelming. Multi-style seminar attendance has plummeted over the last decade because instructors are so worried that their students may see something they like better than what they're currently learning that they'll quit and go somewhere else. There's no support. Therefore, the only seminars people go to are with instructors of the same or similar style. That way even if they are outclassed, and their students learn something they've never seen before, they can play it off as though the student just hasn't reached that point yet to be shown that material.
Instructors within the same town are all at each other's throats, constantly putting each other down to boost their own enrollment. When my father was in the hospital the day he passed away, I didn't have another instructor under me to cover my classes. You know what I did? I called another local school owner who was like family to me, and without a second thought he rushed over and taught my classes so I could be at my father's side. His school was 10 minutes away from mine, and he could've said anything to my students while I was gone. Not once did I have to worry that he was going to steal my students, because he is a true martial artist. How many of you are comfortable bringing in one of your "competitors" to cover your class? That is what community and brotherhood is about. That is what the martial arts used to be about. That is why I'm sitting here in the middle of the night, writing this article as I ache from what I've witnessed in these online groups calling themselves martial artists.
I'm sure I come across as some arrogant kid that doesn't know his place and should keep his mouth shut. But you know what? I care way too much about the arts to let them die at the hands of Martial Arts, Inc. I will continue to pour my heart out in articles like this, and I will continue to educate my students on the true meaning of Budo. Get used to seeing my name, because I'm not going anywhere.