Traditional martial arts in the modern world

2 Oct

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


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