Traditional vs. Modern approaches to the Martial Arts
by Ken Reinstein
"...it has been estimated that more than 500,000 Americans are currently registering for lessons in the various Martial Arts each year. The majority of these clubs and schools teach only fighting and self-defense techniques, and our data reveals that this type of training enhances the negative personality traits of people who are already delinquent... Traditional martial art philosophy places great emphasis on respect for others, humility, confidence, responsibility, honesty, perseverance, and honor. This philosophy is an integral part of traditional Martial Arts training sessions."
(Excerpt from Michael E. Trulson, 'Martial Arts Training: A Novel 'Cure' for Juvenile Delinquency,' Human Relations, Vol. 39, No. 12.)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The Martial Arts show perfectly how notions of "new and modern" are not always better. Traditional Martial Arts training always places principles of morality, virtue, peace, and goodness above fighting. So-called "modern" approaches to the Martial Arts disregard the arts' foundations and teach fighting techniques only (the dojo run by the ex-Green Beret in the movie "The Karate Kid" is an example of a "modern" school). While someone who has trained in non-traditional karate may be an exceptional fighter, he or she has been conditioned to view all conflict as a "fight or flight"-or worse-a "fight or die" scenario. "When two tigers fight, one will die, and the other will be severely wounded." Enough said.
Traditional Martial Arts teach that peaceful alternatives or solutions can be found for almost any conflict. Such thinking sounds boring-there is no "thrill of victory." For this reason, all of the hype surrounding the Martial Arts is focused on modern karate. When karate is criticized as too violent-or worse, as only violence-all Martial Arts and martial artists are smeared with the same brush. Such generalities do a disservice to the traditional Martial Arts.
True karate is not a violent activity, nor is it solely a system of self-defense, nor, as many mistakenly believe, does it preach exotic Eastern religious values. It is also anything but boring. Traditional Martial Arts develop the creativity to approach all kinds of human interaction uniquely and effectively. Most of the time no one is hurt, and everyone may be the better for it. If this sounds abstruse, it is. The benefits of traditional Martial Arts training, unlike modern training, cannot be easily described; they have to be experienced.
While the teacher in a traditional Martial Arts program will be able to share methods of self-defense with students, there is an even greater emphasis on using karate properly and responsibly. The lessons of discipline, respect, and virtue go hand-in-hand with traditional Martial Arts training; they are not a secondary adjunct contrived artificially to counterbalance the violence of fighting.
So why is karate exposed to more heat than light? Pop culture is largely responsible. Movies, comic books, advertisements, and video games starring motley casts of characters (almost always men) with bulging biceps, scarred and sneering faces, and villainous names have punched and kicked their way into mainstream acceptance. Perception is reality. Many instructors capitalize on karate's "bad boy" image and the growing fear of violence and disregard the most basic tenet of all traditional Martial Arts programs: the perfection of character.
Finding the right school for your child - "Where should I go?"
There are many answers to this question. Unlike other searches, looking through the Yellow Pages is not necessarily the best recourse. The Yellow Pages does not offer a complete list of schools; it only includes schools that wish to be listed. Many good schools choose not to advertise, nor have to. Be aware that schools with bold and splashy advertisements claiming a "world champion" teacher does not necessarily guarantee quality instruction, nor will that world champion always be there to teach.
It is important to realize that the Martial Arts style you choose is unimportant. It is far better to train under a good, qualified instructor in an unpopular or unusual style than under a poor instructor in a popular style.
This cannot be emphasized enough. Many instructors see the commercial value in rising violence statistics, or they appeal to students at the Martial Arts' most base level with the hackneyed plug "100% guaranteed effective." While this kind of advertising does not necessarily reflect on the quality of the instruction, it is important to realize that such claims are contrived to make the student believe that one style is somehow "better" or "more effective" than others-usually interpreted to mean more violent and deadly. No martial art is intrinsically superior to any other. All Martial Arts are "100% guaranteed effective." Effectiveness depends on the ability of the practitioner, not the art itself. Of far greater importance are the benefits of training: physical coordination, better health and fitness, discipline, improved concentration, and decreased aggression. These are some of the real benefits of traditional Martial Arts training, as many students will tell you.
Finding the right school should always be the first concern of anyone who wishes to begin training. This step is not the same as finding the right school for, say, swimming. A swim coach who is certified in water safety and swimming instruction can teach you how to swim well. The same argument could be made for tennis pros, baseball coaches, or almost any instructor for that matter. Sports seek the perfection of athletic performance, and nothing more. Not so for the Martial Arts, for they are not a sport. A certified black belt instructor may train one efficiently in the use of fighting techniques, but if the discipline-and this is a term that carries many meanings in the Martial Arts-that comes with learning the Martial Arts is not taught, then there is the danger of using the arts irresponsibly and not experiencing many of the benefits.
Go for a test drive
You wouldn't buy a car without driving it first, would you? A good Martial Arts teacher will allow parents and prospective students to observe classes before making the decision to join. Some schools give complimentary introductory courses, allowing parents and prospective students time to decide. Payments cover a few months of classes at most, so there is plenty of time to decide if the class is right for you and your child.
Parents should make sure that classes are directed by certified black belt instructors. Instructors should have experience working with both children and adults. Those who do are most likely to have the patience and tolerance needed for working with young people. Use common sense as well. Is the facility safe and clean? Do the instructors conduct themselves professionally and show an enthusiasm for working with children? Are the instructors available to talk and answer your questions? Is there an emphasis on good behavior and self-control?
"Aren't the Martial Arts too violent for my child?"
No. Unfortunately, violence is the most glamorized and publicized aspect of the Martial Arts. Fighting is only a very small fraction of what true Martial Arts are all about. What you see in almost any movie starring Bruce Lee, Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, or Jackie Chan is only about fighting. The real aim of the traditional Martial Arts-an aim that transcends mere fighting-is the perfection of character. That takes a lifetime to unfold (and is hard to depict in movies!).
Of course, this sounds daunting, even pretentious. No one joins a karate class thinking "I want to perfect my character!"
One joins to learn self-defense or to get in shape. Under the proper instruction and after a period of time, a very subtle change occurs. The student realizes that there is far more to the Martial Arts than just fighting. When a student is aware of his or her fighting abilities, he or she is unlikely to use them. People who get in a fight, any kind of fight, do so because they feel they have to prove something about themselves that has been untested or is unknown to them. The accomplished martial artist will create alternatives to violent conflict. When push comes to shove, the accomplished martial artist feels no shame in being shoved. There is no reason to prove what he or she already knows. He or she can walk away knowing that had there been a fight, he or she would have won. For children, such knowledge can be empowering. At a time when they are especially vulnerable to peer pressure as well as the internal pressures of finding their own limitations, Martial Arts instills within them the awareness that there are always options in any given situation. Whether it's a taunt from a playground bully, a dare from friends to steal candy from the drugstore, or a teacher's direct question, the student of Martial Arts will develop the courage to make personal decisions as to the proper course of action. Self-confidence and self-esteem are the ultimate results.
"Everyone seems aggressively on the defensive these days. A rampant 'make my day' ethic expressed at various levels of the culture may be largely to blame for both the rise in teen crime and its increasing callousness, says Deborah Prothrow-Stith, an assistant dean at the Harvard School of Public Health. Our national icons tend to be men who excel at violence, from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood."
(Excerpt from David Gelman, 'The Violence in Our Heads,' Newsweek, August 2, 1993.)
"The problem with kids today is..."
There is an expression that says, "When you point an accusing finger, there are three more pointing right back at you." Children and adolescents are not inherently bad; their behavior reflects their upbringing. If parents and adults do not act as good role models, then such accusations are hypocritical and groundless. Children and adolescents do look for role models. A traditional Martial Arts instructor, like a parent, teacher, or family friend-is among the best qualified. He or she works with children and adolescents and sets examples for them in both word and action.
The instructors make it very clear to children that Martial Arts is not to be used irresponsibly, nor will a few lessons make them expert fighters. Anything less would give them a false sense of security. Instead, the lessons focus on the harmony of working together with the instructors and with fellow students. While children find the workouts fun and entertaining, there are equal emphases on discipline and self-control which carry over to their daily lives, as many parents will tell you. Furthermore, by working together children learn teamwork and can overcome shyness or insecurity. A good instructor always praises a child's individual effort since the Martial Arts are not about competition, but rather about personal challenge.
Having boys and girls work together erases some of the culturally ingrained conceptions that they may have about gender differences. Psychologists have shown that boys tend to believe that their successes in sports are due to ability, whereas girls believe that their successes are due to luck. Furthermore, sports are divided by gender: little league and bobby sox, boys' and girls' swimming, etc. Boys and girls rarely, if ever, work with and compete against each other in organized play. Since greater attention is almost always given to boys' sports, girls tend to feel like second-class athletes.
In traditional Martial Arts training, this is not the case. There are no "girls" Martial Arts, nor "boys" Martial Arts. Working together, children realize that ability has everything to do with the person and nothing to do with gender. At quality Martial Arts schools, all children, regardless of gender, height, weight, age, temperament, or intelligence work together in a supervised and safe arena.
"The goal of maintaining a peaceful nature even in the most explosive circumstances is the object of intense study for every would-be karate person, and the manifestation of this nature is the measure of the karate master."
(Excerpt from Marilyn Cerny, 'Understanding Karate,' Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, September, 1981.)
Giving peace a chance
Gichin Funakoshi, a pioneer and founder of Japanese-Okinawan karate, frowned on using physical self-defense, even as a last resort. As a young man, he was once accosted by several muggers. He could have easily defended himself and severely beaten them. Instead, he chose to give up his money, protesting that he was only one weak man against several stronger men. The muggers agreed and left with his money, narrowly escaping a beating by the resourceful Funakoshi. Funakoshi's teachers were proud of him, for he demonstrated the true essence of the Martial Arts. No one was hurt. Despite never having entered a violent altercation, he is considered one of the most accomplished karate masters of the modern era.
"To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the highest skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill."
"Achieving fitness is a way of life, not a fad or a brief change in one's way of doing things And, an early start is imperative... Physical education should be a unique opportunity for increasing fitness with all children involved in tasks and activities which challenge their musculoskeletal and cardiopulmonary systems."
(Excerpt from American Academy of Pediatrics: Committee on Pediatric Aspects of Physical Fitness, Recreation, and Sports, 'Fitness in the Preschool Child,' Pediatrics, Vol. 67, No. 6, June, 1981.)"Discipline" (ugh!)
"Discipline" is among the most unfortunate of words. For many it means "punishment." Merely saying it invokes images of Marine drill sergeants. Many of us can remember spankings, walking the long, lonely halls to detention, or being sent to bed without any supper. "Discipline" has not only become limited in meaning, but clichéd as well.
In the Martial Arts, discipline can be defined as "to train to proper conduct." The definition is open-ended because it has different applications to different people. Perhaps the child beginning the Martial Arts has poor concentration, or is clumsy, hyperactive, overly-aggressive, or overweight. It does not really matter what the challenge is, if indeed there is one. If the child already has good concentration or sound hand-eye coordination, then the traditional Martial Arts will develop and improve those gifts. The Martial Arts will provide a structured environment for the child to overcome limitations constructively or enhance the abilities he or she already has. This is discipline, Martial Arts-style. It is about change, growth, and personal development.
"The reasons why people begin Martial Arts training are frequently illiberal: for self-defense, or to cure an ailment, or as an outlet for aggression, or because of social inducements. Once they have been training for a while, their motivations usually undergo some subtle change. By the time one has been actively training for a year or two, the reasons tend to converge into a single rationale: I'm training to perfect my mastery of the art. What emerges is the sense of a lifelong quest for perfection, wherein each moment is intrinsically satisfying, but the experience is framed as a part of an unlimited pursuit of growth and improved expression."
(Excerpt from Donald N. Levine, 'The Liberal Arts and the Martial Arts,' Liberal Education, Vol. 70, No. 3.)
"What kinds of changes are we talking about?"
There is a joke that goes, "How many Martial Arts masters does it take to change a light bulb?" The answer is, "Only one, but that light bulb must want to change first." The Martial Arts instructor is there to share the art, not to force it upon the student. The benefits of the Martial Arts manifest themselves when the student is willing. Whole-hearted commitment will bring dramatic changes in personal growth, such as changes in attitude and changes in character, as well as improvements in physical fitness. Some changes come quickly, but most are very gradual. Those coming to the Martial Arts looking for a quick fix may be disappointed.
Disappointment with the traditional Martial Arts is not that uncommon-Americans are so accustomed to instant gratification that it's taken for granted. We have instant coffee, microwave pizza, overnight delivery, and even one-hour printing and developing. Children are no different.
They also expect immediate gratification, which can be, to say the least, exasperating for any parent. For this reason, the Martial Arts can be the solution, not part of the problem. The Martial Arts provide students a way of gauging progress like no other activity. As they progress, training becomes more challenging, fun, and exciting. By seeing a noticeable increase in their strengths or a disappearance of their weaknesses, students gain self-esteem. With encouragement, they push themselves to higher plateaus. Consciously or unconsciously, they inevitably realize that patience and diligence have their rewards. When people feel good about themselves, they develop healthy attitudes that are apparent in the good times, the not-so-good times, and at their highest level, in the worst of times.
"I do not think badly of others when they treat me unkindly. Rather, I feel gratitude towards them for giving me the opportunity to train myself to handle adversity."
Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido
The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude to me is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill.
The remarkable thing is you have a choice every day regarding the attitude you will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past...we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable...
The only thing we can do is play on the string we have, and that is our attitude.
I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you... You are in charge of your attitude.
"You may train for a long, long time, but if you merely move your hands and feet and jump up and down like a puppet, learning karate is not very different from learning to dance. You will never have reached the heart of the matter; you will have failed to grasp the quintessence of karate-do."
"For the uncontrolled there is no wisdom, nor for the uncontrolled is there the power of concentration; and for one without concentration there is no peace. And for the unpeaceful, how can there be happiness?"
"Softness triumphs over hardness, feebleness over strength. What is more malleable is always superior over that which is immovable. This is the principle of controlling things by going along with them, of mastery through adaptation."