The Golden Child of Martial Arts

In time, like me, many of you became the “golden child” of your martial arts school. You trained harder than anyone, and you were the best or one of the best students in the school.

By the time I was a first-degree brown belt, I rarely lost a sparring match against anyone other than my instructors. In fact, I refused to test for black belt, because it didn’t mean anything to me at the time. Keep in mind, this was a time of massive change in the martial arts industry. Full contact had begun, and many of the myths of the “deadly black belt” were being exposed as nothing more than fable. Forms were being questioned as useless, as many black belts were shown to be only average fighters reduced to desperate, wild swinging in the full-contact arena.

After Mr. Farrah left the school, I stopped coming to my brown belt class. I would show up at the end of the class when they were getting ready to spar. I would walk out onto the floor, spar, and then leave. My instructor, Walt Bone, who was an excellent black belt and teacher, finally expelled me from the school.

Nine months later, he let me back in, and I returned to the arts with a deeper appreciation of what they were. I have worked hard ever since to honor them. I became Mr. Bone’s highest-ranking black belt until his death in a plane crash on December 16, 1982 (in a strange twist, I took him to the airport when he flew home to Dallas to visit his mom over the holidays. When I got home, I told my roommate, “I will never see him again.” Just a week later he died in a small plane crash in Texas).

These stories illustrate the path that many of us have traveled. It typically starts with an extended state of being powerless and out of control. That’s our motivation to join the martial arts school. Though intimidation and violence existed within the martial arts school, the traditions and rules made it more meaningful, and we endured the pain to move into the inner circle. In the martial arts that inner circle is earned by gaining rank, which wins you Respect.

The Genesis of the Core Dynamics

I was lucky that my instructors never abused my loyalty. Every instructor I worked with – Hank Farrah, Walt Bone, and Joe Lewis – took me under his wing and made me a protégé. But, as the head of the world’s largest martial arts professional association (NAPMA), I’ve heard countless horror stories of master instructors abusing the loyalty of their top students. Guess who tend to be the top students? Guys and girls like you and me. 

Who are we? We are probably the only students in our white belt class that actually made black belt. My first night in karate class, Mr. Bone explained that less than four percent of us would make brown belt and that less than two percent of us would make black belt. I understood that he was challenging us to overcome the odds. I too feel black belt shouldn’t be easy, and I am a firm believer that pain is part of the training. I don’t dispute that. I am more curious about why we endured while others dropped out. What relation is there between our endurance and running a martial arts school as a business? 

We Have Similar Backgrounds. 

Regardless of our style or where we began to train, we martial arts school owners have similar backgrounds and motivations. I’ve discussed this with hundreds of black belts and a number of psychologists. Herein lies the genesis of the Core Dynamics. 

Why did we first join a martial arts school? Chuck Norris tells how having an alcoholic father was a major motivator for him to get into martial arts, and I think most career black belts have had a similar experience. Most of us joined a martial arts school because we had been bullied, beaten, or in some way intimidated or powerless for a long time, typically in our youth. This common denominator has a massive effect on our industry, not as much from a marketing standpoint as from a causation standpoint. 

An industry run by people out of oppressed, intimidating situations but who now see themselves as powerful “masters of the martial arts” is unique. It’s convoluted. As beneficial as it is for the individual, the transition from powerless to powerful in the martial arts often creates a new set of baggage. 

Most of us got into the martial arts because we were personally bullied, beaten, intimidated, and/or mistreated, or we were in an environment of tension, violence and/or abuse, particularly as kids. 

Interestingly, if you study successful people, a common theme is either mental or physical hardship or abuse as a child. Bill Clinton’s dad too was a raging alcoholic. Ted Turner’s dad arranged to blow his own brains out at a time he knew Ted would be the first to find him, so he could clean up the mess before his mom got home. 

Maybe your dad hit your mom, or your brother beat you, or you were the target of bullies. Whatever the situation, the end result was that you found yourself in a threatened place for an extended period of time. It was not your fault. You were just a kid. According to the doctors I’ve talked with, this creates a feeling of powerlessness because the scary things that are happening to you are out of your control. If you’re in such a situation for an extended period of time, the martial arts present an escape and a way to gain power and respect. 

If you joined a martial arts school in the 1970s like me, odds are your school was a dungeon dojo: a smelly place where students were “tortured” in the name of discipline. In these schools we discovered a world where beatings happened, but with a kind of perverse logic. 

There were clear rules and boundaries. Rather than a lack of control, the martial arts are all about control. If you took the beatings, followed the rules, and practiced your techniques, your rank within the organization would rise. With each step up the rank ladder, you moved closer to the inner circle of the school, which translates to the big R word: Respect. 

Respect is the word in the martial arts. Because a kid gets little of it, especially in the kind of environment described above, respect is very attractive. One of the first lessons you’re taught in martial arts school is respect. It is also clear that respect is related to rank. That’s a natural and necessary hierarchy in the martial arts, but boy is it appealing to a person who has been beaten down one way or another.

The Masters on Change

Here are some quotations regarding styles from three of the most influential martial artists in history:

“The art does not make the man. The man makes the art.” – Gichin Funakoshi

“You limit a style by labeling it.” – Bruce Lee

“The style serves the student. The student doesn’t serve the style.” – Joe Lewis

Despite my roots in tae kwon do, my responsibility is to my students, not tae kwon do, kickboxing, Joe Lewis Fighting Systems, or any other source of information. My job is to create the best black belts possible in a school that authentically represents what I believe in. In large part, that responsibility is expressed through my curriculum.

When Does a System Freeze?

The history of the arts, however, is the tendency to freeze a curriculum and then resist any change or suggestion of change. I love Shotokan and know that the reason I did so well in forms division was my adaptation of the core elements of Shotokan, which is deeper balance and more powerful and crisp blocks and punches than my root system of tae kwon do.

We have the great system of Shotokan because of the work of Gichin Funakoshi. In fact, the genesis of Shotokan is in the massive change Funakoshi’s made to Okinawan karate. He radically changed the recipe book, yet for the most part the book has not changed since.

It’s also entertaining to me to see modern Jeet Kune Do teachers argue over what is real JKD. If anyone didn’t want his system to freeze, it was Bruce Lee. He was way ahead of his time in his approach to creating a practical martial art that was not confined or restricted by history.

Joe Lewis is someone who has continually updated his material. Recently we trained one-on-one for the first time in over a decade. He had me fire some of the excellent Joe Lewis Fighting Systems’ combinations on the bag in my garage. He stopped me and started to show me how to throw a straight right hand. My mouth kind of dropped, my eyes got wide, and I shook my head in disbelief. He said, “What?” I said, “That is the exact opposite of what you taught me in the 80s!” He said, “What? I’m not supposed to evolve?” It was the perfect response.

Here was a 60-year-old black belt who was in his fourth decade as a worldwide recognized pioneer and superstar, but in his mind, he is in his fourth decade of evolution. While I’m on the subject of Joe Lewis, let me also mention this. Joe is a very traditional martial artist. I am, too. We don’t express our traditions by holding on to techniques or rituals. We express them by making sure our students: execute with proper form, can defend themselves and develop the tenacity to never quit.

Managing Conflicting Goals

When you finally open your own martial arts school, the control factor continues to be an influence. It is important to make follow-up calls to people who have inquired about your school but never joined.  In order to make these important calls, you need to get motivated.

Three o’clock rolls around, and you stare at that telephone, knowing it’s time to start. What do you do? You decide to drive to the printer’s to pick up your martial arts flyers and then shop for business supplies. By the end of the week, you realize you have not made a single call. You figure, “Hmmm. Maybe I need a time management course or to join National Association Of Professional Martial Artists Squared.” So you take your 10th time management course, although time management has nothing to do with it and stacking more boxes on your desk or shelves will certainly not change the outcome. The problem is the control factor.

Think about where you came from and where you are now. You have your martial arts business. People respect you. People bow to you and refer to you with a respectful title like Master. If you make the telephone calls about joining your school, the distinct prospect is that someone will just say no, and you can’t control that. So what do you do? Anything but make that call.

The control factor creates conflicting goals, and it paralyzes you. One positive goal that will improve your life is to grow your martial arts school, and making those calls is an important part of that growth. The other goal to have absolute control of your life prevents you from making those calls. Your goals conflict and cancel each other out.

Guess what? This happens to every one of us. It is the human experience. The key is to recognize it and then overcome the conflicting goals that are causing you to hesitate.

Remember, The Core Dynamics refer to the underlying forces that control the patterns of thought and behaviors that determine who we are. In this case, the underlying force, or Core Dynamic, is the control factor. How you handle the control factor is illustrated by your patterns of thought and behavior.

This is a key point. The most successful school owners have learned to manage the control factor and have overcome their conflicting goals. They realize and embrace the idea of short-term pain for long-term gain. The long-term gain of growing their school is a stronger goal that overcomes the short-term pain of making the phone calls. The reverse is to take the short-term gain of not making the calls and suffer the long-term pain of a struggling school.

The conflict that arises out of the control factor paralyzes most school owners. In a sense, they are now controlled by the control factor, which in truth puts him or her out of control (again). I call it protecting your puddle. I say puddle because that’s as big as your school will get as long as it stays in the comfort zone of control. The owner has done a good job of using the martial arts to grow as a person but is now in a new arena and, instead of breaking through the conflicting goals to continue to grow, he or she hides inside a new box.

Many owners will avoid making those calls by checking their email 20 times or “networking” with another owner who is also avoiding making follow-up calls. The truth is that success only comes from action. While you are taking your 10th time management course, the successful owners are busy making those marketing phone calls.

While you are doing what you can to avoid doing what you need to do, the successful owners are doing it. They are executing rather than planning or studying. Is studying important? Of course it is, but not during business hours or as an excuse to put off executing.

In the classic comic strip Doonesbury, the character Zonker Harris was a “professional student.” He stayed in school as long as possible to avoid entering the real world. I am a lifelong student myself, but I also know it’s easy to justify studying to avoid the real world of execution (here is a helpful rule: Spend at least five times as much time doing as studying).

The most successful school owners have learned to delegate, let go of control and try new ideas without fear of failure. They are not held back by their conflicting goals. They attack every day.