If you are a martial arts instructor today, odds are that you began teaching classes for your instructor shortly before or after you earned your black belt. You became a good teacher, but you were still under the control of your instructor, and you loyally taught and followed his syllabus.
This is usually a great period in our lives. We can teach without risk but, more importantly, we have gained control of a very important part of our new life and are in a position of power. People bow to us and call us Mr. or Ms. or a title of some sort that we associate with prestige, such as “Sensei.” That’s a big turnaround for many of us. That is the beauty of the martial arts. The arts provide you with a healthy way of redefining yourself and your future.
I was an 18-year-old bus boy clearing tables in a restaurant during the day and Mr. Graden, black belt teacher, at night. My days were filled with, “Graden, clear off table six, fast!” My nights were, “Mr. Graden, would you please speak to my son? He’s having trouble in school, and he looks up to you so much . . .” Which do you think appealed to me and fueled my ambition?
If you started your training in the 1970s, or maybe even the 1980s, because of the Kung Fu TV show and the many Kung Fu movies, there was what I call an “implied wisdom” in earning a black belt. As a black belt, especially a “master,” you were perceived as somehow knowing more about life than the average person. This image of the martial arts master as being a master of life was reinforced by the martial arts movies, television shows, and magazines.
To this day, that prestige has tremendous pull and attraction for martial artists. Why do you think black belts seem in such a rush to call themselves Master, Grand Master, Senior Master, or Supreme Grand Master? In the real world we have master mechanics, master sergeants, chess masters, and even chess grandmasters, but only martial artists insist on actually being called “Master.”
On the popular TV show Seinfeld, a small-time conductor insisted everyone, including his girlfriend, call him “maestro.” I wonder if sometimes we don’t generate some laughs ourselves with these titles.
In moving from a martial arts student to a martial arts school owner, a few things may have happened to you as an assistant teacher. Your instructor may have been “overusing” you and taking advantage of your loyalty. This is never pleasant, because you have to face some cold, hard realities, and your relationship with your instructor begins to change. Your spouse, family, or friends may have suggested that you were being exploited. They may have urged you to open your own martial arts school. Perhaps even a student offered to back you financially.
Being loyal, you decided to be upfront with your instructor and tell him you were considering opening a school. What was his reaction? Either he went for your throat or insisted you pay him a percentage of your lifetime earnings.
Why did he react that way? Odds are, because he went through the same cycle of moving from no control to total control about a decade before you, and then you threatened that control. He had you, his golden child, teaching classes. You symbolized his success as an instructor, but now you were making the biggest decision in your martial arts life without his control? Not without a fight you weren’t.
This is often the beginning of the end of your relationship with your instructor. If he can’t control you, he may perceive you as disloyal. Does this sound familiar? “I taught you everything you know. You owe me! How dare you take what I taught you and use it against me?” Mind you, he will probably view anything less than totally capitulating to his demands as working against him.
Contrast this with a college professor. If you attend law school, your law professor wants nothing more than for you to go out and be successful using what he taught you. That is his reward. He doesn’t ask for a percentage of your revenue.
One school owner would bring each student into his office right before he tested for black belt. He pulled a .38 revolver out of his drawer, set it on the desk, and explained, “Just to be clear. You will never, ever open a martial arts school in my area. Understood?”