As I was preparing to do a Taekwon-Do demonstration at an elementary school a boy, who was about eight years old, came into the dressing room. When he saw that I practice Taekwon-Do he proudly told me that he too was training in Taekwon-Do, that he was a yellow belt and that when he got his black belt he would quit! That comment shocked me. What a sad commentary that someone who enjoys an activity, while still a novice, would be planning to give it up. Why was he even thinking of quitting and why was the black belt the milepost at which he would stop? I didn't have the opportunity to determine why the boy had his "agenda", but I did determine that he was training at a location renowned for its commercialism.
Some commercial martial arts schools maintain very high martial art standards and produce high caliber, dedicated martial artists. Unfortunately, others put their profit motives ahead of their martial art standards. Such martial businesses will often employ trite tactics to attract and keep their students. Moreover, such "schools" will generally set standards that have mass appeal, or that are easily attainable over time, in order to ensure their financial stability. Ironically those strategies merely devalue the martial art experience, by diluting or trivializing it, and they will ultimately loose long-term student due to disappointment and demoralization. This treatise will examine some of the divergences between martial arts and commercial perspectives.
MISGUIDED GOALS, BOGUS REWARDS, CONTRACTS AND OTHER CULPRITS
"WE ARE A BLACK BELT SCHOOL"
Often, in their promotional literature or advertising materials, commercial martial arts schools will use catch phrases such as "WE ARE A BLACK BELT SCHOOL" or "LET US HELP YOU ATTAIN YOUR GOAL OF BECOMING A BLACK BELT". On the surface such statements seem quite acceptable and even noble. Although those statements are delightful marketing tools, they are, unfortunately, a martial arts formula for disaster. The growth gained from ones martial art journey ought to be presented as the goal and the black belt merely a milepost along the way. Labeling a school as a BLACK BELT SCHOOL, or identifying the black belt as the goal, may very well help sell membership but it also devalues the overall martial arts experience because it relegates the art, and the overall experience, to being less important than a piece of black cloth.
If a school dedicates itself to the systematic delivery of a quality curriculum, with high standards, it will most inevitably produce black belts. More importantly, it will produce dedicated, quality martial artists who practice the art because they revel in its substance and not because they are pursuing an adornment for their waist. If a school defines the black belt as a student's goal, why would a student continue to practice and train after reaching black belt as the goal has been met?
To continue striving at an activity, after one's goal is accomplished, brings a demoralizing sense of futility and redundancy. Small wonder then that so many schools find that their students often leave upon, or shortly after, attaining their black belt. The seeds for their departure were planted on the day that their instructor identified their goal as being the achievement of the black belt! In so doing, the instructor had done both the school and the student a phenomenal disservice.
"THE BLACK BELT CLUB IS A REWARD FOR COMMITMENT TO YOUR SCHOOL"
Among the marketing gimmicks the Black Belt Club is one of the most abused. Many schools have such clubs that profess to reward a student for showing commitment to the school by granting them special privileges if they join the Black Belt Club. Also, such schools usually indicate that the membership will have positive implications toward the student achieving their black belt goal. That would be a noble approach if the Black Belt Club were only offered to those who show special attributes such as exceptional effort, superb application of skills or other accomplishments or endeavours and if it were done so at no additional cost or without requiring additional financial commitment. Unfortunately, all to often, the Black Belt Club's principal distinction is that it offers a uniform or badge as a "visual reward" that others don't get and most often the "added benefits" are of token value. In that form, the Black Belt Club is simply another type of contract that further lengthens the obligatory tuition fee or payment period.
"CONTRACTS SHOW COMMITMENT TO THE SCHOOL"
Another martial business tool is the use of contracts that bind students to periods of training. Often, the contracts are touting as a show of commitment or loyalty to a school. Nothing could be further from the truth; contracts simply impose a legal obligation to pay, nothing more. True commitment or loyalty are demonstrated when students enthusiastically continue to train solely out of the desire to do so and not due to the legal obligation imposed by a contract. Essentially, contracts are used either for administrative expediency or due to a school's insecurity over its product. Many resent contracts and, ironically, they may actually drive away numerous students.
"SHOW YOUR BLACK BELT SPIRIT"
Often schools will try to motivate students into participating in activities that would be lucrative, or in the school's business interest, by claiming that such support show's black belt spirit. If the black belt symbolizes persistent resolve and the dogged determination to relentlessly pursue ones objectives, it is a mockery of such ideals to try to exploit them for commercial purposes. It is quite acceptable for a school to display its black belts as examples, models or mentors and to expect them to support the school's promotional activities. However, true "black belt spirit" is something spontaneous that cannot be coerced and that should never be gratuitously exploited.
"MARTIAL ARTS TEACH SELF-DISCIPLINE"
One of the catch phrases most frequently used in martial arts advertisements, aimed at parents, is that "martial arts will teach children self discipline and self control". It is true that the practice of a martial art requires a high degree of self-discipline and that prolonged practice of a martial art will serve to amplify one's self control. However, for students to benefit from a martial art they must already have some measure of self-discipline and the willingness to participate and to continue. Martial arts shouldn't be sold as a panacea that will cure all behavioral ills or socialize every individual. Someone without a modicum of decency, someone totally lacking self-control or someone who is completely inconsiderate of others will not likely do well in a martial art. On the other hand, individuals with attention deficit problems, with poor self-control, with low self-esteem or with timid natures may benefit immensely from a quality martial art program. The schools best suited for such individuals are those that are interested in dealing with the special challenges posed by such circumstances and that have a class structure conducive for such a task.
PROFIT AT THE EXPENSE OF EXCELLENCE
A FORMULA FOR MEDIOCRITY
Mediocrity is the antithesis of excellence. Yet, martial art schools that are motivated by business interests, as opposed to martial arts standards, often fall into the practice of adjusting standards rather than loose customers. Consequently, their "standards" merely reflect the lowest common denominator and result in mediocrity. What distinguishes Olympic athletes, from their weekend counterparts, is the very high caliber of performance that the Olympic athletes achieve through intense and relentless training. Lowing the intensity of training, due to its inconvenience or discomfort, might well increase participation rates but it certainly would not produce the same high caliber of performance. Some schools employ an "observe everything, overlook a great deal and adjust a small amount" approach for fear of upsetting students due to over correction. Ironically, the demoralization caused by students realizing that they are mediocre will likely cause higher overall drop out rates than will the demands or rigors of high standards.
Aristotle said: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit". In order to produce martial artists, capable of performing physical and mental feats at the level of art, they must habitually push themselves and practice at the limits of their abilities. That will inevitably not appeal to everyone and it will result in a certain level of attrition, which must be accepted as a normal part of human endeavour. Lowering standards in order to retain clientele relegates a martial arts school to the unenviable status of "Mc Dojo" and is a contravention of the most fundamental tenets or philosophies of any credible martial art.
PROMOTION VERSUS PROGRESSION
In most traditional Martial Arts, advancement through the ranks is governed by a clearly defined set of perquisites for promotion. Typically, requirements include a minimum time component, a level of technical proficiency and the attainment of the mental attitude appropriate for the rank in question. Hence, the belt ranks are like quality control indicators or progression signposts.
The high standards of physical fitness and technical proficiency normally required by a martial art are not easily attainable by everyone. Martial businesses that put profit priorities ahead of martial art standards may choose to award rank advancements based on floor time versus on technical proficiency. That not only make a mockery of the art, but it also demoralizes those students who've learned the required course materials and voluntarily maintained high standards. Also, the students that are granted promotions, primarily based on floor time, are robbed of the sense of accomplishment that is earned from overcoming difficulties while striving to attain a challenging goal. Therefore, promotions based on anything but real progress will have an overall detrimental effect on the student population's moral and ultimately on the school's reputation.
To best understand why promotions must be correlated to actual progress one need only consider analogous situations. How many of us would willingly fly on an airplane piloted by someone who was given a pilot's license for merely showing up at class? Or, how many of us would be willing to submit to surgery at the hands of someone who was given a surgical diploma for time spent in class versus for having demonstrated an understanding of the requisite course material and the technical ability to operate? Why then should it be considered acceptable to promote martial artists as a function of anything but legitimate progress or proficiency?
MARTIAL ARTS AND MONEY
Large commercial martial arts schools not only have the potential to have successful and high caliber programs but, due to their substantial resources, they have the opportunity to significantly and positively impact their communities. The general public may well be naive as to the more subtle aspects of martial arts however most people are quite capable of discerning a community spirited organization from one that is purely profit motivated, greedy and self serving.
No amount of gimmickry can consistently and successfully sell a mediocre product. Martial Arts schools seeking commercial success would do well to remember that. The very best marketing tool that one can have when selling a product is having a good product. Therefore the best way to attain commercial viability as a martial arts school is to consistently offer a good martial art program and to maintain high standards. The few clients that are lost due to the rigors of those standards will be more than offset by the influx of students resulting from the reputation the school will ultimately gain from its excellence.
Abraham Lincoln once said, "If I was given eight hours to chop down a tree. I would spend seven hours sharpening my ax." Clearly the message is that when faced with a task preparation is paramount. So too is the case for martial arts instructors or school owners; if great attention is paid to preparation of the school's product the remainder will take care of itself or at the very least it will require little further effort.
LITTLE THINGS MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing a growing commercial school is the need to balance growth with the ability to properly attend to details. In the long term, students are more likely to be offended by superficial "feel good" programs or "out of the can" hype and are more likely to appreciate simple and genuine gestures that matter to them individually. Often, it is little details that make student feel more like family than clients so little things matter a lot. Instructors that take the time to tend to details, pertaining to their students, will likely find their efforts rewarded with a high degree of respect and loyalty from their students. Commercial schools have greater financial resources, thus they have greater opportunity to dedicate personnel resources to tending to the details that students will appreciate. However, they should resist gimmickry that students might interpret as shallow, inconsequential or patronizing. Instructors should always remember "a great forest can be set on fire by a small spark" and that just like great accomplishment can grow from the smallest seed of inspiration, so to abject discontent can grow from slight neglect.
GREED THE FORBIDDEN FACTOR
Martial arts and commerce are not doomed to be incompatible rivals. However if greed becomes part of the equation, and commerce is allowed to prevail at the expense of the art, the results are disastrous. If promotions are issued primarily based on "floor time" and technical proficiency is relegated to insignificance the resulting ranks that are issued are effectively meaningless. What is worse however is that students are left feeling cheated and deprived of the fabulous sense of accomplishment that accompanies a hard fought goal. However, martial arts and commerce can peacefully coexist as long as martial art standards are the dominant partner in the relationship.
Albert owns and teaches at the family oriented, not for profit, Sandalwood Martial Arts in Victoria BC Canada. He holds a black belt rank in Taekwon-Do and between work, teaching and raising a family he finds time to write.
Mr. Labossiere can be reached by e-mail at alabossi at yahoo.ca