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.

Have you ever had a prospect come to you and ask, “Do you teach [your style]? Me neither, with the exception of people who had trained before. Most students know nothing about styles. They especially don’t know the complexity that most styles pride themselves in. People don’t know about styles because people don’t care about styles. They only care about their experience and the benefits of that experience.

Was the ONLY reason that you were raised in your style is simply that the school was the closest that you could afford? That certainly was the case for me and my brothers. Had we been raised in a different style, I’m sure we would have thought it was the best as well.

Have you ever told your students that your style is the best because of of…? I did too. We have to convince students that all the extra baggage we’re about to unload on them is worth it because “our style is the best.”

Here’s the kicker. If my style is the best, how can your style be the best? It can’t be because no style is the best.

The BEST thing I ever did for my school was to throw out the style. I mean everything. I stopped teaching front, back, crane, cat, and every other stance but fighting and horse. I focused on footwork rather than mastering these rigid, clunky kata stances.

I stopped teaching all traditional blocks and replaced them with the blocks that we used in sparring and self-defense. Instead of a rigid upright position with our chin up ala’ kata, we focused on head movement by slipping and weaving. I always felt like my head was being teed up like a golf ball during kata. Have you ever seen a self-defense situation where the defender takes a full step forward to execute a block? Me neither.

I kept all of the kicks but stopped requiring the difficult ones for rank. We did them in class, but it was no longer a belt requirement to do a jump spinning back kick for blue belt. This way, the less athletic 40-year old was not at a disadvantage compared to a 16-year old hotshot. The difficult kicks became a fun, athletic challenge more than an embarrassing belt exam exhibition.

I replaced traditional kata (which I loved) with fighting forms. They accomplished everything a kata did but were far more fluid and fun. Rather than “hiding the self-defense” secrets in the complex movement of a kata, the fighting forms were direct and clear. By the way, why would anyone teach “hidden self-defense?”

For the record, I was the 1984 US Open Korean Forms Champion and Center Judge for the first WAKO World Kata Championship in Munich. I loved kata, but it’s not about me. It’s about my students.

Overall, the effect of the change was congruency. It makes no sense to me to spend the first half of a class teaching students to pull their hands back to their hip and keep their head up and then when it comes time to do pad work and spar, we tell them to, “Keep your hands up! Move!”

The result of the change was 50+ students in white belt class. Our school exploded with much higher retention and enrollments.

We could integrate a new student into the class in less than four minutes. There was no more of this, “You wouldn’t actually use this stance and block, but in a few years, you’ll understand how to apply it. It just takes practice and discipline.”


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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