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A Lesson in Perspective: Herbie Thompson

by | Offline Marketing & Sales

Setting Expectations for Martial Arts Students Upfront

Authority is highly influenced by emotion.

While your staff and students may intellectually understand that you are the boss and master instructor, they have to feel it, not think it.

It’s the emotional connection that anchors your authority on a deep level.

If there is one powerful moment in your role as a professional martial arts instructor, it’s in the enrollment conference.

While the parents may see you as the master black belt, they usually don’t have an authoritative reverence at this early stage.

The enrollment conference is a seminal moment for you to establish your authority and gain the respect and gratitude of the family you’re dealing with.

Presenting the programs and their cost to parents can be tense at times. Some parents want to negotiate. Others might object to the agreement. Some want a safety net in case their child wants to quit.

While it’s important that you are prepared to overcome any objections, it’s when the bottom line is signed and the initial investment is completed that you have a critical window to demonstrate your authority.

Many owners complete the transaction and gush with statements like, “Awesome. It’s great to have you on board. Johnny, you did an awesome job tonight. High five! Thanks Mrs. Jones it’s great to have Johnny as part of our family. Let me know if I can help with anything.”


Who has the role of authority here? Mrs. Jones and her credit card. That was a missed opportunity.

Let’s try again. You would adjust this script to the age and circumstance, but here is an authority template for the enrollment conference.

Mom has just enrolled Johnny into the program.

You, “Johnny. You want to learn Empower Kickboxing, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good. I want you to understand that your mom just enrolled you into a six month program. You are going to learn a lot of great skills and lessons. It’s going to be fun and sometimes it’s going to be hard. That’s the good part because that means you’re learning. So you have to pay attention and practice at home 20-minutes a day when you don’t have class.

Are you going to work hard and practice?”

“Yes sir.”

“I’m glad. Your classes are Monday and Wednesday at 5pm. When are your classes?”

“Monday and Wednesday at 5pm.”

“Good. You’re a smart guy. That means that you have to be ready to come to class by 4:30 on Monday and Wednesdays so that you’re not late. Will you do that?”

“Yes sir.”

“No matter what you are doing, you will be ready by 4:30, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good. The first lesson is integrity. Integrity means that you do what you say you are going to do. You keep your promises. You promise to work hard and be ready for class, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“No matter what you’re doing. Right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Great. We’re going to be so proud of you. Your mom just enrolled you, so please turn to her and say, ‘Thank you mom.”

“Thank you mom.”

“Alright. When someone does something good for you, you always say thank you. That’s called gratitude. What’s it called?”


“Correct. So you’ve learned two important lessons today. Integrity and gratitude. What does integrity mean?

“Keeping your promises.”

“Yes. What does gratitude mean?”

“Saying thank you.”

“You got it! You are going to do great, I can tell already.”

“Remember, your class is…”

“Monday and Wednesday at 5pm.”

“When will you be ready to come to class?”


“You have a good head on your shoulders Johnny. You’re going to be good at this.”

“Because you’ve showed your mom gratitude and you’re going to keep your promises, here is a school t-shirt for you to wear. Every time you put it on, I want you to think of integrity and gratitude. Will you do that?”

“Yes sir.”

“I just gave you a shirt. How do you show gratitude?”

“Thank you sir.”

As taught in the MATA Certification program, it’s also a good idea to let mom know that it’s important that she control what Johnny is doing around 4:30 which is the agreed upon to be ready for class.

If Johnny is playing with his friends or deep in a video game, it’s going to be harder to get him to get ready than if he is cleaning his bedroom or something he’d like to leave to go to class.

Keep in mind that mom is watching this happen before her eyes. What have you done to establish your authority?

  1. You’ve provided her with a language pattern that both her and Johnny understand. This is huge.
  2. You’ve given mom the “integrity” framework to deal with any reluctance to go to class.
  3. You’ve provided her with a strategy to engage Johnny in less fun activities so that going to class is an easy decision.
  4. You’ve laid out when Johnny should get ready for class without complaint.
  5. Before her eyes, you taught her son important lessons with real world examples. No doubt, your authority sky-rocketed in her eyes and in her heart.

Look for places where you can make these kinds of strong emotional connections.

Demonstrate true authority and leadership. That will last much longer than a trite, shallow compliments like “Awesome! Good job.”

This will help your students to understand how and why they are training with the best school.

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Chapter 10

Drinking the Karate Kool-Aid™

The 1974, Florida Karate Championships were held in St. Petersburg, and I begged my dad to take me.

To his full credit, he drove me to this and many other events in the years before I had a driver’s license.

This trip though was tough. It was during the gas crisis of the seventies. It wasn’t unusual to have to wait twenty to thirty minutes in line to get gas.

Once you got to the pumps, you might just get a few gallons. To compound the stress, we were getting lost trying to find the event, but Dad didn’t complain. 

Dad was excited because Joe Lewis was going to fight an exhibition fight that night.

Dad read my karate magazines and knew who Bill “Superfoot” Wallace and Joe Lewis were.

On the drive over, he kept saying the blacks would take the sport over because they were faster. He said, “Once Lewis and Superfoot are gone, that will be it. The blacks will dominate.” 

I disagreed. I believed that a karate expert didn’t need speed or power. He had the secrets of karate. Of course, I didn’t think that if the other guy had the secrets of karate as well, then speed could be a factor. What did I know? I was just pumped up teen.

The man Joe fought that night was Herbie Thompson. Herbie was a tough black man from the ghettos of Miami. (There is a chapter on Herbie in the appendix) Tough as he was, Joe Lewis dominated the fight, and speed had nothing to do with it. Lewis was fast, but his power decided the outcome of most of his fights.

That day, Walt Bone won both the fighting and forms divisions with Hank Farrah coming in third place, and all of it was in Official Karate magazine six months later. I was so proud of my school.


Herbie Thompson

For years, as a young competitor on the Florida karate tournament circuit, I would see Herbie Thompson compete in the black belt fighting division.

The circuit was racially charged in those days, with Thompson the respected and feared leader of a group of black fighters from Miami. Though he was respectful and friendly with Walt Bone, he was rarely friends with anyone he faced in the ring. 

He threw trophies and chairs if he didn’t win first place and always seemed ready to explode into a street fighting rage if things didn’t go his way. 

One time we had a black belt team competition between our school and a team led by Thompson.

I was just a brown belt and was settling in to watch what I knew would be a rough, volatile series of matches when Mr. Bone motioned me to come over. 

He instructed me to follow him into the locker room where he pulled out a black belt and told me to put it on. I had been instantly recruited onto an adult team of black belts at seventeen. I was terrified.

In the first fight, our biggest fighter got his nose broken six feet out of bounds by a blatantly illegal punch. We got the penalty point, but he got a trip to the hospital.

After cleaning up the blood, in the next fight Don Sturiano got knocked out of the match with a powerful kick to the back, which nearly crippled him. I was next. I survived, but I lost a lot of points. 

In the final match, Walt Bone was up against Herbie Thompson. We were way behind in points, but Walt regained the points, and we won the team competition.

Thompson went nuts. While excluding Bone from the tirade, he kicked things, spewed foul language, and threw his equipment across the room.

In a sport based upon principles of respect and courtesy, this was disturbing and, in our view, disgraceful. 

Fast-forward twenty years. For my magazine, Martial Arts Professional, we did a profile on Thompson. What I discovered was a great lesson in perspective.

We asked him about the “old days” when he would throw a tantrum after losing. His response was as revealing as it was unexpected. 

We discovered that for over thirty years, Herbie Thompson had dedicated his life to using the martial arts to save children in the roughest inner-city communities of Miami from a life of crime.

He has mentored hundreds of kids and has probably saved as many lives. 

He explained that he would load as many kids into a van as possible and drive them out of Miami on Saturdays to a karate tournament.

Some of the kids competed and some watched, but all were out of harm’s way for the day. He was using distance as the defense to keep these kids out of the battlefield in the streets of Miami.

However, between the gas and the entry fees, by the time the tournament started, he was out of money.

If he didn’t win the cash prize for first place, he couldn’t feed the kids, and he would have to borrow money for gas to get the kids home.

His story instantly reframed our perception that he was a disrespectful jerk when, in fact, he was a desperate hero to these children, many of whom run their own martial arts schools today.

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