Martial Arts Instructor News and Articles

John Graden

John Graden

Executive Director

John Graden led the martial arts into the modern era by creating the first professional association, trade journal & instructors certification program.

I have a question for you at the end, so read on, please.

While martial arts is a good influence for 99% of people, it was a not-so-good influence on me. The Florida Karate Academy was more about chasing the dragon than entering the dragon.

I went from being Student of the Year in 8th grade to five Fs and one C on my 10th-grade report card. I recall one of my teachers saying to me, “Your attitude has really turned bad since you started karate.”

The problem was simple. I knew from my first class that I was going to do this for the rest of my life. That was on February 12, 1974. 

The problem may have been simple, but I didn’t have a solution. I stopped caring about school. The only teachers I cared about wore white gis and a black belt.

According to scientists, we each have about seven to eight decades on this earth. I’ve burned through six of them and I want to make sure my last few are meaningful.

When I look back, I look more at seasons of life rather than decades of living.

High school was torture for me. Each day I’d get home, turn on my “stereo” and listen to the album Yessongs full blast. At the end of the opus Close to the Edge the vocal crescendo is, “Seasons will pass you by. I get up. I get down.” That line got me through high school. At least until I dropped out in 12th-grade.

Four years after earning my black belt in 1978, my instructor was killed in a plane crash while smuggling pot from Mexico. That was the end of the Walt Bone season. (That story is in Blood and Guts Dojo)

Two years later, both Joe Lewis and John Corcoran moved in with my friend Mike Anderson and joined him as two of my closest friends and mentors. That was a truly treasured season in my life.

In 1993, I created NAPMA. In 1996, I launched Martial Arts Professional magazine. That season came to a screeching halt in a courtroom in Oklahoma City where Century sued NAPMA into bankruptcy. I lost my business and my marriage.

I always try to turn a negative into a positive, so I launched the in 2003 and it’s been supporting my family ever since. I also married the woman of my dreams, so I would do it all again to get where I am now.

Enough about me, what about you? We all have seasons in life. Here are my questions about your seasons as a martial arts instructor

  1. Are you stuck in a season? 
  2. Are you moving forward or are you repeating the same year after year?
  3. Has your curriculum changed or are you in a perpetual loop of some traditional style? 

I was coaching a school owner last week and he said that he feels he has to honor his instructor by teaching the style the same way he was taught. 

My question was, “Is it more important to honor your students or honor your instructor?” After some silence, he replied, “I never thought of it that way.”

That is a telling trait of traditional martial arts instructors. The focus is more on retaining the past than forging the future

It’s a natural flow to fall into because it’s natural to teach the way we were taught.

However, in this post-COVID season, the schools that thrive will have a program that focuses on their students rather than focusing on the style.

Once I started to realize that I was contradicting myself in each class, I made the decision to scrap my tae kwon do curriculum

It didn’t feel right to demand students aim punches, hold them out and pull their other hand to their hip during the first half of the class. 

Then, during the second half, when they were sparring or doing pad work, I’d demand they snap their punches and pull their hand back to their face. That was the complete reversal of the demands in the first half.

Once I made the change, my retention sky-rocketed. It was a huge hit and the launch of a new season in my life as a very successful martial arts school owner.

Eventually, I knew I had more in me, so I sold my schools and launched NAPMA. 

  1. So what’s it going to be for you? 
  2. Do you feel you have more in you as well? 
  3. Do you think your program focuses more on students or maintaining a style?

I’m available if you’d like to explore this in a phone call. Just set an appointment. I’m sure you’ll get some value out of it.

When Combining Features and Benefits Gets Confusing

  1. “Hold the lunge punch out with your chin up.  This way you honor the art with good form.” (Is form more important than defense?)
  2. “Before you block, cross your arms and step forward. This way you can create power.” (Why does a block need power?)
  3. “When defending against multiple attackers, you want to stay on the outside and line them up so you’re only fighting one at a time. In kata though, you’re in the middle of an attack from six guys. And, if you get it wrong, you might not pass your belt exam.” This way you honor the art with good form. 

Your Assignment as an Intellectually Curious School Owner

Take another look at this list of benefits. Remove your sensei/master perspective and look at this with one goal in mind.

How can you provide these benefits in a more DIRECT, BAGGAGE-FREE, and EFFECTIVE process?

BENEFITS of most martial arts schools.

  • Fitness
  • Flexibility
  • Life Skills
  • Self-Defense
  • Sport
  • Friendship and Social

Notice Tyson’s hand is by his face, not his hip.

His chin is down instead of up.

His shoulder is up instead of pulled back.

His body is sideways to his opponent instead of squared off.

His legs are under his body not spread apart like he was riding a horse.

With this kind of form, he would fail his orange belt exam in most schools. 

How does that make any sense?

Sensei Tyson?

If Mike Tyson or a world champion kickboxer came to your school to teach your black belts. What do you think he would work on? Double punches, square blocks, and keeping your chin up?

I’m pretty sure he would emphasize head movement, how to snap your punches and a defense that does NOT include pulling your punch back to your hip.

I’m sure the students would learn advanced applications to adjust for different fighters. Notice I said advanced applications, not advanced strikes.

When you focus on application, you can apply that to almost any technique.

For instance, if the drill is about how to fight a taller fighter, the answer is more about footwork to stay on the outside until you can secure quick access. My brothers are 6′ 3″ and 6′ 4″ so I know something about fighting a taller opponent.

Drills that teach that application do not require complexity. They require simplicity.

The more complex a skill becomes, the less chance it can be used. Have you ever seen a double punch? Only in kata and here:

If you eliminated all kata and traditional skills, you could devote that time to drills and conditioning that would give your students a true advantage in sparring or self-defense.

Imagine teaching fewer skills that are easy to teach and learn than traditional skills and kata.

You could spend more time on the application of those skills rather than stepping up and down the classroom and holding blocks and punches out in the air, which leaves you wide open for a counterattack.

Rather than spending student’s time with the complexity and frustration of spending years perfecting the bad habits of pulling their hand back to their hip, keeping their chin up, aiming and holding a punch in the air, and blocking with power while stepping forward, your retention will improve. Your student quality will improve. Your curriculum consistency will improve.

This is the core of our white to black belt curriculum Empower Kickboxing.

It’s an old saying, but true. “Less is best.”

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  1. Dan Cuthbertson

    That was very insightful. I have a similar story, even down to the Joe Lewis influence on my instructor, Escalante. I am on my 43rd year of teaching and am excited about future modifications. Thank you for sharing your personal challenges.

  2. LT Wimberley

    No one should instruct based solely on their Art or instructors. That would just be mimicing what they had been told to do. Instructing is not a repeat what I do,, it is an interpretation adapted to the student based on many factors..
    I have been an educator for 5+ decades. Martial Artist for 4+ decades. Acquiring 3 degrees and 2 teaching credentials.
    It takes more than a course to be a good educator, and more than physical abilities to be a Martial Artist.
    I wish you well in your trade…I am curious what your program includes considering one of my degrees is a Masters in Education.
    Teaching as well as learning is a life long talent and endeavor.

    • John Graden

      You can see course content at