In the modern world, the term “martial arts” has come to mean many different things to many different people. In the United States alone, a student can have widely different experiences depending upon which institution and instructor they choose to train under. The term martial arts training is used today in such a general way that it can cover a wide variety of activities ranging from hard core training for self defense to relaxed, esoteric, almost meditative practices intended solely for health, relaxation and fitness. There is no longer a universal standard and goal for those training in the martial arts. Furthermore, there is little discussion of perhaps the most important issues, why do modern people practice martial arts and what is the relevance of such training in modern society?
The average student begins training with only a vague understanding of why they want to practice. More often than not, those that continue training do so for reasons different their initial motivations, even if they are only dimly aware of such a transformation in their attitudes. Those who become instructors invariably recall that as time passed the practice of their chosen martial art simply became both part of their life and a part of what makes them the person they are. It is often not something they think about or discuss. Thus, both among the instructor and the student there is almost universally a lack of conscious self awareness of precisely why they do what they do and it’s precise relevance to the world they live in.
Humans around the world first developed martial arts as a means of self-preservation, as the only defense against an often cruel and savage world. It was neither as recreation nor sport, but rather a matter of life or death. As individuals developed societies, martial arts logically developed into means of preserving and protecting the society, i.e. they became methods of warfare. Methods of fighting with swords, shields, spears, lances, axes, etc. had immediate relevance and utility to mankind for a great deal of our recorded history.
However, the relevance and meaning of martial arts training still changed as society evolved. Advances in warfare technology made many older battlefield methods either lessened in importance or completely obsolete. At the same time, increasingly urban lifestyles created a new need for both individual self defense and personal dueling methods. The average Renaissance gentleman certainly had practical need of sword fighting techniques to defend himself and his honor in the urban life he led, but very little need for battlefield training with armor and lances. Today, a student may similarly find utility in learning to defend against a knife attack but has absolutely no practical application for the sword fighting techniques the Renaissance gentleman may have used on many occasions. This appears not only to be a logical but also an obvious conclusion, yet how many martial arts students in the modern world still devote time and energy to the mastery of such archaic weaponry?
Clearly, history should teach us that the martial artist of the past lived in a world very few of us alive today would recognize or even understand. However, there is still a need for martial arts as a form of self preservation. Modern society remains violent and inhabited by professional criminals. The conditions we live under have changed, and thus the requirements for effective self defense training have also changed, but self defense skills are still essential for all people, regardless of their age, sex, social condition or profession. There is still a great relevance to martial arts training, though the technical composition of such training should naturally evolve as the world around us changes.
Physical education and other benefits
Is the only relevance of martial arts in the modern world self defense? While self defense is so frequently cited as the reason for martial arts training, the reality is that very few of the many so called “martial arts” offer anything remotely resembling realistic and practical self defense. One reason is because of the aforementioned lack of self awareness on the part of both the student and the instructor. In particular, instructors often conduct their classes exactly as their instructors conducted them. An unbroken chain of such behavior and the result is that what is being taught is what may have been totally relevant and practical a hundred years ago but which has absolutely no utility for the modern student. The student contributes to the problem by never actually coming to grips with their actual motivations in studying a martial arts, i.e. self defense, and never stop to question and reevaluate what they are doing.
There is another contributing factor to the dilemma of self defense training that is less clearly identified and relevant to the discussion. Martial arts instructors seldom verbalize but for the most part are quite aware that very few students are interested solely in self defense training. In the modern world, martial arts can also serve other purposes. There are many benefits to martial arts in addition to their effectiveness as self defense and everyone, regardless of age, sex or physical condition can benefit.
Men and women are social creatures, seeking both friendship and recreation. Almost every single martial arts student enjoys training at least in part because they make friends, they enjoy learning new things, they feel good when they practice, they learn new things about themselves, and because it becomes part of their lifestyle. Training can cultivate the shy and those who lack confidence. On the other hand, it can also instill discipline, teach personal responsibility, and can teach them to become self reliant, independent and positive.
Many martial arts students will be fortunate enough to never have to use their sills to defend themselves but will benefit from the recreational and physical education aspects of their training every day of their lives. The practice of martial arts also has many advantages that other forms of physical education do not offer. It is an activity that can be practiced alone, without any equipment and even in small areas. It is equally well suited to practice in large groups, with a wide variety of apparatus and in large training halls. I do not honestly believe that any other activity offers such a wide range of options. Furthermore, it can remain a challenging and interesting activity for many years or even a lifetime. A properly constructed martial arts program is inclusive, offering these benefits to a large segment of the population. A program that fails to take into consideration the importance of these factors will be doomed to failure. The key is, as with all things, balance. An effective program balances realistic self defense training with physical education and recreation.
If a martial art strives to be relevant and beneficial it offers its students self defense, physical education, and recreation. The core of a modern martial art offers a training program suitable to a wide population (ideally both male and female students between the ages of 14 and 40) which will improve and maintain health, teach body awareness and serve technically as the foundation for specialized training (e.g. combative, law enforcement and elite sport competition). The core training should consist of the basic movements including effective methods for self defense. In addition, as a form of recreation the core training program must also have a wide variety of techniques to keep interest. Modifications for children (under 13) and for executive (over 40) will be necessary but these programs should still conform to the same principles as the core program. Finally, modern martial arts training should include the development of ethics, self discipline and confidence. The instructor and training environment should strive to achieve these results.
If you know me or followed me on this blog, on facebook, etc., you probably know that when cornered, I will describe what I do as “Lion’s Roar San Da” (獅子吼散打拳法). “Lion’s Roar” was of course the original name of the method that split into Lama Pai, Hap Ga and Pak Hok Pai. My teacher, the late Chan Tai-San, had teachers in all three of these traditions and did a pretty comprehensive job recovering the tradition in his teachings.
The term “San Da” can be reasonably described as “free fighting” but more importantly, to me, it describes an ideology; a desire to be effective, to acquire material regardless of the source to improve that effectiveness, to train alive and to keep practical fighting at the forefront. It isn’t at all a new concept in Chinese martial arts, yet it is also very much an Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) approach.
The system I teach today, have been teaching for twenty years now, uses Chan Tai-San’s material as a core, while embracing a modern, San Da/MMA approach. I’ve certainly incorporated non Chan Tai-San material, that isn’t even the point. I’ve absorbed whatever I felt worked within the framework of the system I had to improve it. And I’ve been remarkably successful for twenty years now producing both fighters and simply skilled students.
My approach, my “secret”, to training my students and fighters is, not surprisingly, very much traditional Chinese martial arts. We embrace core concepts and have essential drills which reinforce these concepts. Drilling the same things (the fundamentals, more than just “basics”) over and over and over again is how we build skill. Of course, the difference between what I do and what many so-called traditional schools do currently is HOW I chose my concepts and drills.
People have often wanted to characterize me as “anti tradition” or “anti kung fu.” But the reality is anything but; what I am opposed to is watering down technique, teaching flowery nonsense, ineffective training, deceiving students and the carnival bullshit that has taken over the Chinese martial arts community. I’ve taken students with no other martial arts background, trained them in traditional Chinese martial arts techniques and tactics and put them in virtually every venue available to test them, and they’ve won. That’s hardly “anti kung fu” is it?
Nor have I “abandoned” my teacher! I’ve kept his methods alive and PROVEN THEM FOR TWENTY YEARS. I’ve also pointed out, even shown video of it!, that my sifu, when he was alive and well, was present when I was training fighters, saw how I was incorporating other material and not only took no issue with it, he approved of it. Not surprising when you remember that Chan Tai-San was first and foremost a fighter, much more than he was even a teacher.
Finally, I should note that over the years, I have almost never had a set technique curriculum. Al of the ranking I have done has been “informal.” That is because I stress “concepts” over “teachnique.” I stress intention (YI) over the shallow form (Ying). A shopping list of a few techniques is no substituted for an understanding of concept and application. In fact, it is exactly this limited thinking that has so watered down Chinese martial arts. They see the tree but never the forest.
My name is David A Ross and I am head instructor at New York San Da, one New York City’s oldest and best established kickboxing gyms. I opened the gym in Hell’s Kitchen (near the garment district NYC) more than a decade ago for one purpose. I had already been teaching martial arts since 1989 and knew that kickboxing and martial arts were great exercise and a great way to improve your life. I wanted people from all over, not just Manhattan, to enjoy the benefits of this training.
The basic kickboxing classes I offer combine elements of kung fu, Muay Thai, Taekwondo, Western boxing, san shou, san da, French savate and karate and are designed for beginners.
I also offer advanced martial arts classes focused on San Da / Thai boxing, Wrestling, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts.
A quick rant…..
At one point, martial arts schools were the fastest growing business in the United States. People decided to follow their dreams and used their life savings to open their school. Unfortunately, between 2009 and today, the martial arts industry has shrunk an astounding 50%. Half the schools that were open in 2009 have now shut their doors!
WHY? That’s the million dollar (in debt) question, isn’t it? Let’s take a look at an industry survey from one of the major martial arts business consulting organizations. I found the results both interesting and quite revealing.
Questions from the survey
How many active students do you teach?
0–200 students (75%)
The vast majority of respondents still have fewer than 200 students. You can read this a lot of ways. One positive, the industry clearly has room for growth. But watch when I pull up the next question!
What percentage of your students are children and ADULTS?
50% of their total active students are children. (83%)
30% or less of their total active students are adults. (57%)
This survey tells us that 83% of the schools in this study, and many are the “big earners” and the owners on the cutting edge of the industry, have less than 100 adults students. More than half have 60 adults or LESS!
The traditional martial arts industry model, which has been force fed down the throats of everyone who has ever owned a martial arts school and wanted to make it into a real business, has NEVER addressed the needs of an adult market! What is worse, the adult market is becoming even LESS interested in the traditional “add-ons”. That is, they are increasingly rejecting mysticism and elitism.
If you know me, you know that in my school EVERY SINGLE STUDENT IS AN ADULT. I do not teach anyone under the age of 16. My school has no uniforms, no belts, no kata, no one step sparring, no black belt clubs, no “SWAT” teams, NONE of the things the industry has been shoving down your throat for years.
You should also know that I offer one of the hardest workouts there is. People have puked during the warm up, even a few walked out. I don’t “water down” anything I do. And I strongly believe that most of my clients love my school precisely because I challenge them AND because they see RESULTS.
- ” I lost 38lbs in 5 months and it was purely down to this.”
- “Before going to Ny San Da, I was 230 lbs, and now im about 204 and lossing.”
- “Before I started at NY San Da I would get out of breath climbing the stairs from the subway. After just a few months of regular workouts I was able to breathe easily even when doing intense cardio work.”
- ” I have lost 40 pounds in the last year and a half.”
All real students who shared these on my facebook group.
Forms? Under various names in different traditions, form practice remains one of those topics that will generate not only a varied but also very heated discussion among martial artists. What role do forms play in martial arts training? Is it an outdated idea, whose purpose has passed us by?
I’ve certainly learned my fair share of forms; in systems such as Taekwondo, Karate, Hung Ga, and Lama Pai. I even picked up forms in places I only briefly studied or from friends; Dragon style, Praying Mantis, Long Fist, Baji… One of the greatest ironies of my life is, when I first heard about Chan Tai-San, I initially thought I’d just pick up a few “cool” forms from him and that would be it. Oh how wrong I was on that count.
In retrospect, my martial arts career had just as much training WITHOUT forms; the western boxing I did at the PAL, the few months of Judo I did as a child, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Muay Thai, all that mixed martial arts cross training…..
So, what can we say about forms training? Is it “practical”? In what sense? Or is it, like an outhouse, a function of a more primitive society, whose use we’ve long outgrown?
We can start with the most obvious; forms practice is NOT “fight training.” You can know a pile of forms, practice them daily, be excellent at them, and have NO ABILITY TO FIGHT AT ALL…..
While many people hold what they assume are “traditional” forms (many practice sets that have been SIGNIFICANTLY MODIFIED in very recent years and/or are actually very recent inventions and yet hold them to be “ancient secrets”) very close to their hearts; there IS a very strong argument that forms exist because martial arts were often practice by illiterate or semi-literate people and they were the best way to “catalog” the contents of a particular tradition. In this context, we ask if they are still relevant in an age when most of us can read and write and we have advanced storage systems. Most of us even carry a video camera with us wherever we go!
Of course, there is also something to be said for the fact that forms require us to perform the basics of our system hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. It is a sneaky but effective way to make us do those repetitions that many of us would normally avoid. I learned over 50 hand sets under Chan Tai-San, and in them I must have done the basics “fist seeds” hundreds of thousands of times!
If we view forms in this regard, there is something to be said for them. That is, if we also accept and assume they will be accompanied by just as much hands-on, practical, two person drilling. I’d suggest the challenge for the modern martial artist if finding the time to do this; today in traditional schools we more frequently see a lot of time devoted to solo technique practice and forms practice with very little time devoted to “alive” partner practice.
I’ve long suspected that forms practice has served another purpose. When I think back to those hours I spent with Chan Tai-San, him performing a technique, and my copying his movement, to remember the sequence and then replicate it over and over again. I was involved in movement study. I was learning to move, HOW to move, HOW to acquire new skills. I know that later in life, studying other things, many instructors found it fascinating how I could just watch something and then pick it up. This applied to ALL of Chan Tai-San’s senior students. I remember when YC Wong did a seminar in New York City, teaching a Pek Gwa set. Chan Tai-San’s seniors all picked up the set the first time YC Wong walked them through it. YC Wong commented that usually it took him 2 to 3 hours to teach this set, and we had all learned it in about 15 minutes….
The counter argument, the flip side, is that many people can NOT learn this way. Years of Chan Tai-San’s students trying to run their own schools demonstrated that many people aren’t only unable to learn this way, the ONLY way they can learn is by a slow, almost painful, “dumbing down” of the material.
And, of course, this still does not account/negate the fact that for fighting, you STILL need those hours of hands-on, practical two person drilling and sparring.
Improve your product and you don’t need gimmicks!
Opened my email to find a solicitation from one of the more famous (or should I say “infamous”) martial arts business gurus. To repeat an often used line on this blog “same crap, different box”! I’ve been in this industry almost 30 years and I don’t know which is worse, the fact that they are still trying to sell the same crap or just how bad that crap really is.
If as a martial arts instructor or school owner you’ve ever gotten the feeling that a potential client didn’t trust you and is treating you like a con man, you have our industry to blame. The cold, hard fact is that much of what the industry has been told to do is nothing more than gimmick and misdirection, bait and switch and just plain illogical.
- Lure them in with fitness then try to sell them a traditional program
- Lure them with something that is the latest fad, even if you are not qualified to teach it
- Lure them in with fear and promise to teach them self defense, only to teach point sparring and obsolete so called “traditional drills” which never worked in the first place
The average school owner would fail business 101 yet instead of focusing on the basics, things like customer service, they focus on the gimmicks. They puff their chests up with pride about their “traditional system” but in these times “traditional martial arts” has come to mean out of shape people who can’t even perform the basics correctly. They have gotten so into the gimmicks they have forgotten the basics.
Obviously, I don’t worry about uniforms, belts, ranking exams, lineage, kata, one step sparring, lion dancing, black belt clubs, S.W.A.T. teams, badges, pins, etc etc etc.
I worry about;
1) Offering a kick-butt workout where people have fun and see results
2) People learning correct technique, because people can see and feel the real thing.
3) My facility being clean and friendly. I repaint my school frequently. I replace heavy bags, lockers etc whenever there is anything the least wrong with them. My school is cleaned by a professional cleaning crew. I have spent money on real furniture, art and nice light fixtures, etc.
4) My staff being professional and efficient and most of all about CUSTOMER SERVICE.
We have no gimmicks, here’s your gloves, here’s your towel, you are going to sweat and you are going to learn to beat the crap out of a bag, you will have fun and we’ll go from there.
I don’t need any gimmicks to sign them up after that. I don’t even sell them. I show them what options they have and help them find the option that best fits their schedule.
The next time someone tries to sell you a new and improved extra special way to make money in this industry please remember that all the tricks in the world don’t replace a quality product.
I grew up in a traditional martial arts school, specifically the late Pong Ki Kim’s Moo Duk Kwan Taekwondo school. I received my 2nd Dan black belt, taught classes and helped with the school. Koreans without any doubt introduced many of the business ideas that shaped the martial arts industry in the 1980’s and the 1990’s. They were probably the first to approach their Dojang as a business.
In contrast, when I met the late Chan Tai-San, I was training in the completely traditional sense, with absolutely no business sense at all. Chan Tai-San never taught a group class and had a following because of his name, his reputation and because many Americans were still caught up in the mystique of Chinese martial arts. I began public classes for Chan Tai-San in the early 1990’s, but if I had taught them the way Chan Tai-San taught me, I would have failed miserably. That is just a cold, hard fact.
Like a lot of people of my generation, I slowly moved away from the traditional martial arts mindset and format. I trained with high level, well respected instructors and quickly realized they were simply men; the mystique wore thin quickly. The reality was, the world also began to change in regard to martial arts. There are a number of factors for this. Some blame the UFC/MMA for demonstrating the limitattions of traditional martial arts. Others note the lack of media devoted to traditional martial arts these days; we are no longer watching Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris movies, Shaw Brothers kung fu movies, or Ninja TV shows. We’re also living in a world where the internet and social media are integral to our lifestyles.
I was long skeptical of the advice the so called martial arts industry was giving school owners. They told instructors to make their classes easier, to water down their techniques and lower their expectations. The end result was that we lost the dedicated and instead attracted those with less commitment. We then wondered why people didn’t stay longer and make martial arts their way of life.
The industry tried to make us offer all things to all people. They sent us monthly DVD’s so we could learn to teach new classes. The reality was, they were telling us to teach things we didn’t know well nor were qualified to teach. We undermined our own credibility acting like used car salesmen.
As it became harder and harder to attract and retain adults, two things happened. First, the industry increasingly focused on classes for children. The result, we became baby sitters, dressing like ninja turtles, offering birthday parties and acting like clowns. Second, we made even harder to attract adults, as they were not attracted to a school with hundreds of children running around. We created a vicious cycle.
The industry’s response? As people ran for the door, they offered obstacles to slow down that process; belts, upgrades/upsells, black belt clubs, SWAT teams, leadership groups, etc. Rather than addressing the root cause; WHY were people losing interest and trying to leave. A happy student who loves what they do isn’t running for the door. WHY are they unhappy and unmotivated?
Put it another way; people may love vinyl records or CD’s. But in today’s world would a vinyl record or CD store be a viable business model? We’re offering Moo Duk Kwan or Tang Soo Do or Shaolin Kung Fu. We’re offering intangibles like “confidence” and “discipline.” We aren’t offering tangible benefits like weight loss and improved health. We are focusing on what our masters did decades ago, not on the customer experience every day.
We’ve convinced ourselves the people don’t want a hard workout. We ignore the fact that in the fitness industry right now, the fastest growing and most successful programs are the “extreme” workouts like cross fits. Extreme diets like Paleo are in the mainstream.
It’s time to evolve, or go extinct, the choice is yours…
NY Best Kickboxing
I Love Kickboxing! And martial arts instructors around the country should as well. In recent years, traditional martial arts schools have found it increasingly harder to attract adults. There are a lot of reasons for this change in trends, but the important conclusion is that the adult market is simply no longer attracted to the mysticism or elitism of traditional martial arts. Today’s adult market is looking for fitness and concrete, appreciable results. Considering they are already skeptical of the claims of most traditional martial artists, they are also reluctant to wear uniforms, practice forms or engage in things like one-step sparring.
Unfortunately, the word “kickboxing” makes a lot of traditional martial artists cringe. A few even use it like it is a pejorative. Frankly, that’s just stupid and short sighted and I will tell you why. Does your martial art include kicks? Does your martial art include punches? When you were training, you know back in the “good old days”, did you do push ups, sit ups, squats, lots of physical conditioning?
Well, my friend, take a deep breath, because that makes you a KICKBOXER! I don’t know why people have so much trouble with this concept. “Kickboxing” means a system composed of kicks and punches. That pretty much describes 85% of the martial arts being practiced today.
Do you think the clothing matters? Well, I’ve been in Karate Gi, Korean Taekwondo Dobook, snazy Chinese kung fu uniforms, etc and I’ve done plenty of kicks and punches in ALL OF THEM. Are you finding it hard to convince adults to dress up in a uniform? Especially women? Has anyone ever just told you outright that they feel silly in a uniform, or that it isn’t comfortable, or that they are concerned how they look in one? Isn’t it hard enough to get them to sign up, without adding the extra obstacle of trying to convince them that in addition to paying you money, they also have to buy some funny looking clothing from you and wear it every time they work out?
A class that is fitness based, focuses on teaching the basic kicking and punching on equipment, where the results are quickly apparent, and which allows people to wear whatever they are comfortable working out in is easily marketed to the adult market and is in fact what they are looking for. The “kickboxing format” attracts both men and women. Most importantly, it attracts people who normally would never consider a martial arts program.
At a business summit, I told a Taekwondo instructor who was having a little trouble with converting his school to kickboxing exactly what I just wrote above. I asked him what he taught people in his Taekwondo school? He taught them front kicks, side kicks, round kicks, back kicks. I told him that he’s still teaching those things in his “kickboxing” class. He’s just letting people wear what they feel comfortable in and putting them in front of a bag. I pointed out that when I was doing Taekwondo, under 9th degree black belt Pong Ki-Kim (who was a direct student of Moo Duk Kwan founder Hwang Kee) we had heavy bags in our Dojang and we certainly used them!
In fact, people are HAPPIER hitting and kicking bags than they are doing stuff in the air. And they can more quickly see results. Seeing results and being happy equals a happy student who is going to stay longer. They are also likely to tell their friends and refer a lot of new students. This isn’t rocket science people.
The kickboxing format also has strengths no other martial arts based format can boast. Despite the growth of Mixed Martial Arts, the public perception of martial arts is still kicking and punching. Kickboxing is also already established in the mainstream, i.e. women can and will do the classes. Finally, the kickboxing format not only produces readily apparent results, it is flexible enough to support a large and growing program.
While I still teach a complete martial arts system, including preparing students for fighting competitions, I use my kickboxing program as the entry level program for all my students. The program not only gets them in shape in an enjoyable way, it stresses basics. They are the same basics students need to advance to contact. However, since the basic level kickboxing class is non-contact it is appropriate for those who are simply looking for a great workout.
Why would I not want to have a class that lets everyone join, have a great time and allows me to sign up 45 to 65 new students PER MONTH?
Sound good to you?
1. The harder you train, the better you perform “for real”. This means as close to full contact as you can get and against resisting people. It is even better resisting people NOT from your own school/organization
2. You can talk about “reality” as much as you want, but if you are only training in your own school, you are very far away from it
3. Wrestling, grappling and/or “rolling” can be pretty much done full speed, full resistance and full on which is precisely why people who do these things are usually pretty good fighters.
4. A wrestler is a fighter, 9 out of 10 times pick the highs chool wrestler over the guy taking traditional martial arts classes in a fight
5. The only way you can train hard with striking is with padding. If you tell me you spar full contact without any pads/safety equipment, I will tell you flat out “no, you aren’t”. In fact, what you’ve just informed me is that you have NO IDEA what full contact is really about
6. Traditional Chinese martial arts has throws, trips, tie ups, sweeps and clinching. If you were told otherwise, you were lied to. If you aren’t learning and practicing these things, either your instructor is f-in with you or simply never learned things correctly
7. If you want to see real “internal”, look at a high performance athlete. 99% of the time they have never even heard of so-called “internal training”
8. The guys criticizing the performance of a fighter are always sitting in the cheap seats, have never fought and don’t train in gyms where there is any contact
9. People who constantly talk about “superior” traditional technique, “superior” internal techniques, make excuses about “rules”, or like to say “it’s just a sport” are also the people who seldom (if ever) play with contact, never venture outside their school to work with outsiders and certainly never will test their “theories” in a real combat sport
10. If you are not good at something, practicing it makes you uncomfortable, and if you prefer to never be doing it, it is likely EXACTLY what you should be training