The Core Dynamics of a Martial Arts Instructor

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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.

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