Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One…

In which RVA talks about martial arts instructors…

Sometime ago, a friend was telling me about a feud in his martial arts school.  The instructor of his instructor (I’ll call him Granddad because martial arts takes itself too seriously) had a falling out with a student.  This student left Granddad’s tutelage and renounced all his teachings.  There was cussing, there was shouting, there was bad blood.  This was also in the infancy of the internet, so the personal feud spilled over onto the sparsely-populated message boards.  Granddad’s (now former) student left the system.

Lo and behold, some of the remaining students learned that less than a year later, this student had opened a school and was teaching as the head instructor.  The students were furious.  They started talking of rolling up to his school and explaining a few things to him.  They started talking about how this was an insult to Granddad and their system and their lineage and on and on and on.

My friend conveyed this story to me in an effort to show the quality of his style’s membership, and to speak to their deep loyalty to the system.  When I told him, all I heard was about blind zealotry, he was a bit taken aback.  He was further taken aback when I explained how concerning I found it that somebody would be willing to go on the offensive against a person for being a parting with an instructor and then trying to copy their work.

It may come as a surprise to some people but the martial arts are not in any way regulated.  You can open a karate school, a kung fu school, a jiu-jitsu school, any kind of school you want tomorrow and that is perfectly legal.  Assuming you have the business license, assuming you have the insurance and all of that, there’s nothing stopping you from just starting your own school and teaching classes.  Nothing stopping you, legally.

Now, if you try to claim a proprietary style, that’s a different story.  If you claim instructor ship in an established system – say American Kempo or Gracie Jiu-jitsu – then there can be legal repercussions.  The custodians of that system can step in and send a cease-and-desist letter, and even sue.  But that has more to do with business infringement on an intellectual property than any kind of age-old martial arts honor system.

The martial arts are and always have been a business.  An instructor has to eat, has to pay rent, has to pay taxes.  As such, they need tuition.  This means they have to strike a balance that all business proprietors must strike: the exclusivity to control one’s operations paired off against the need to invite a consistent clientele.  This is true of today and it is true of a hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago.  The clientele might have changed, the context of what needs to be paid and what needs to be offered might have changed, but you have an individual with a specialized skill who has to offer this skill in exchange for goods and services.  And thus, the balance must be struck.

But you see, there in lies the issue.  The individual is offering a specialized skill.  And that specialized skill is NOT the martial art.

Ed Parker of American Kempo fame is quoted as saying “When pure knuckles meet pure flesh, that’s pure karate, regardless of who does it or what style they are using”.  Or a similar anonymous quote “A jab is just a jab”.  Bruce Lee talked more than once about how there’s only one system of fighting because human beings all have the same weapons (two hands, two elbows, two knees, etc).  For this reason, you see many of the same techniques from one martial art to the next.  An Osotogari in Judo is largely the same if not identical to a hip throw as seen in catch wrestling and sambo and karate and on and on.  A boxing jab is nigh-identical to a leading straight seen in karate, kung fu, etc.  Martial arts will differ on the details and the details are definitely important: a Muay Thai teep kick is not the same as a Tae Kwon Do front kick, though they look similar.

But anybody can throw together a system of moves and call it a martial art.  That was never the hard part, especially today where any fool can google a list of techniques in a given style.  Want to know all the moves and forms in Shotokan Karate?  It’s all a few keystrokes away.  Heck, you can find diagrams and videos showing them to you.  The moves aren’t the hard part.  The hard part is learning them.  The hard part, for the instructor, is teaching them.

The service being provided at the martial arts school isn’t the martial art, but the teaching of the martial art.

What separates a good martial arts instructor from subpar and poor instructors is their ability to convey knowledge efficiently and effortlessly.  They are there to shave time off your learning but giving you hints and tricks and details that would take you years to learn on your own, if ever.  They aren’t teaching you something you couldn’t figure out; they are teaching you in a more efficient way.

Too many martial artists – instructors and students alike – put too much emphasis on the martial art side of the designation and not enough on the instructor part of the designation.  This is part of why I and other non-traditionalists are eschewing terms like ‘sensei’ and ‘sifu’ because that seems to actively obfuscate the real-world role they play: that of teacher and trainer and coach.

Going back to my friend at the start of this post, I explained this to him.  So Granddad’s student denounced his teachings and went and opened his own school.  Was he claiming to teach Granddad’s system?  If so, then threaten legal action (that’s kind of how our country works).  If he wasn’t, then who gives a damn?  Have a smile and a Coke and go on with your day.

If the student wasn’t claiming to teach Granddad’s system, then he was conveying punches and kicks but not teaching method.  It would forever be a weakened and watered-down system, forever relegated to – at best – subpar performance based not on understanding and expertise but on rote actions.  These yahoo would never be a good teacher.  He might achieve a modicum of success only if he kept scamming people and traveled the scene as any fly-by-night master does.  He’s nothing new, and experience suggests he simply wouldn’t last.  His student body would dwindle and he’d be out of business in no time (as discussed, martial arts are a business and new businesses fail all the damn time).

One possible scenario is that through sheer pressure, this guy does begin to learn how to teach.  He wizens up and realizes what it takes to be a good instructor and maybe, just maybe, he’ll realize that Granddad knew more than he gives him credit for.  That’s a lot to hope for, but it’s more likely than him succeeding based of a half-baked understanding of martial arts.

So what if you don’t do martial arts?  How does this apply to you?  Simple: what do you think you offer, versus what do you actually offer?  What are you paying for, versus what do you think you are paying for?  MacDonalds doesn’t have the best food, so why are they so successful?  They aren’t offering food; they are offering convenience.  That cleaning service your husband or wife wants to hire; are they offering a cleaner house than you can manage, or are they offering one less thing to argue about with your spouse?  Is your kid’s little league coach solely a baseball instructor or are they a positive role model?

Don’t mistake what you are paying for, for what you are getting.

Author: Robert V Aldrich

Author. Speaker. Cancer Researcher. Martial Artist. Illustrator. Cat dad. Nerd.

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