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The world is changing very fast.
Big will not beat small anymore.
It will be the fast beating the slow
                Rupert Murdoch

An Open Message To MA School Owners

On this page:
The Letter

On 5/10/08 I posted the following letter to the "Animal List"

Before posting it I had asked hundreds of martial artists the question "What direction do you think the martial arts are going?." That question got many answers, but not one of them had considered the influence of factors outside the martial arts.

Realize that it has been 20 years since my first book was published (1989). And that prior to that publication date, I'd been involved in martial arts, fighting and self-defense for an additional 20 years. (As of 2008 I'm 48, while I had been fighting previously, my introduction to the martial arts was at 10). In the nearly four decades, I've seen a lot of -- not only fads -- but trends and directional changes occur in the martial arts world.

Now in your mind a fad and a trend might not be different. But I do see a huge difference. A fad is something that is very popular for a short time. A trend is a deep and profound change in a field.

One of the bigger trends is turning 'the martial arts' into a commercial endeavor. I can think of no other sport that has so lowered its standards to increase popularity; while at the same time insisting that it is still maintaining the highest of standards or effectiveness and/or tradition. Whether you agree with this assessment or not there exists the very real fact that martial arts has become a big business.

And that takes it out of an insular niche.

In the many years I have been in this field, the only thing that has proven itself to be consistent is 'change.' And right now, I see a big change coming down the pike way for martial arts schools and instructors. No matter what you think about me because of what I have said in these pages, I offer you this information. It is what I think is going to be occurring to the martial arts in the near future.

My recommendation is that you start planning now for what I suspect is going to be a huge change in the market. If you plan to survive, I'd seriously recommend you start taking steps now.

The Letter 5/10/08

I've not only asked the List and talked with folks on the phone, but Toma sent the question out to other folks and what I'm getting is back is pretty consistent with what I thought I'd see.

And that dear chitlins is folks not looking at the big picture.

Okay remember how I used to bag on the martial arts in my earlier books? In fact, Maude asked me if I would change anything in my earlier writing and I told her how it would be that very thing. I told her I would not blanket condemn the MA for their failure for doing what they claimed they could do - namely work in fights. (Calm down Tristan ... we're getting there). Here's the rub, I often joke that people like Tristan, Sam and Lee Gray all made me eat my words raw. As in 'pass the ketchup.'  Well the truth of the matter is that they proved me right. To the point where I now ask people "When you say karate, do you mean the 97% of crap that will fail miserably in a fight OR are you talking about the 3% that will break you in half?"

The reason I have to ask is BOTH will swear up and down what they are doing is Karate. And this includes to the point of putting qualifiers on it such as 'REAL,' 'traditional,' 'good,' 'true,' etc., etc..

When I say that I have been made to eat crow, that is because after nearly 30 years in the martial arts, I finally saw people who's version of Karate STILL had the component parts that made it effective. 30 years of seeing shitty karate? Yes, my first lessons in 'karate' was when I was 10 and I proceeded to get my ass kicked the first time I used it in a fight. So yours truly went off into Chinese, Filipino and Indonesian arts that were ... shall we say ... particularly anal about effective body mechanics.  It was at the first BBQ when I saw Tristan do his kata that I stood up, pointed and roared "THAT WOULD WORK!!!" And that was the first time I had EVER said that about karate -- after the ass kickings I received for trying to use what I had been taught as 'karate.'

Why did I say that? Because the kata was just chock fulla of little subtle movements and details on structure that would generate all KINDS of nasty, sneaky and -- oh so very effective -- force. And it don't matter whether it is used in the kata, in competition or in a fight ... effective force is effective force. Physics is physics. And effective movement is effective movement. So too is effective 'bunkai' (application), but that's another -- all be it related -- story.

Once you've seen someone move like this, a HUGE vista opens up before you. Stuff that never made sense before, stuff that never worked before suddenly goes PING!  You quickly become like a mad scientist in your lab (dojo) doing all kinds of bizarre and obscure experiments while cackling insanely.

Okay changing tracks here for a second. Remember how I mentioned that certain folks had proven me right about what is being taught as the 'martial arts?'  Here's the problem, any time you come up with a term to distinguish stuff you're going to get
a) argument
b) misunderstanding
c) con artists, the biased and the merely ignorant who are going to claim 'Me Too!", "Does too/Does not!" and of course "We are the TRUE (fill in the blank) -- they're not"

It is point C that I'd really like to look at conceptually because they seriously affect A and B. Off the top of my head, I can point to about sixteen different topics where what I am about to say has happened. Therefore, obviously it is a VERY human reaction.

First off anytime there is a group identity, you immediately get a distinction "Insiders and Outsiders". Those who are inside the group (and 'know what's REALLY going on') and those who don't. This is the first of many distinctions. HOWEVER, being dog shit basic, I will also point out: It is one that everyone I have talked to has initially overlooked.

BIG and did I mention BIG issue here. If you are an 'insider' you start making all kinds of distinctions both within the group and between you and 'outsiders'. That last one is the issue. What commonly happens is that a person on the inside gets so caught up within the distinctions inside the group that they forget that the outsiders are in fact, the majority of the people on the planet. As such what the outsiders think MATTERS. In fact, what the outsiders think and see is -- if not more accurate -- then at least more important definition of a subject than those inside. Because THAT is how the subject is defined, NOT by the insiders.

And man does that cause a shit storm. Because the insiders HATE being grouped together with 'those other people who are giving us a bad name.' I mean pick a topic. The faithful and the fanatics. The mainstream Mormon Church vs. the Fundamentalist Mormons. The Shiites and Sunnis. The moderates vs. the radicals of any group. Try dealing with ANY ethnic group about distinctions within that group. And of course 'real martial arts' vs. commercialized, watered-down and sports based, etc..

These are VERY strong distinctions made within the groups that aren't clearly understood by 'outsiders.'  Talk about confusing. EVERY ONE in these groups makes distinctions between themselves and the 'others' in the larger group. Insiders become outsiders in the larger group. It's human nature. And to those people in the group these distinctions are VERY important.

But ya know what? Those who are truly outside that group DON'T CARE about all the subtle shadings, distinctions, rivalries and infighting inside a group. All they see is the bigger picture, for good or bad.

Since all sides are claiming -- and with equal fervor -- that they are the 'real whatever,' people are going to lump them all together and say "That's what it is." They aren't about to worry about the subtle and often slippery distinctions that insiders use. So bottom line, if you identify yourself with a group, you're going to be judged by both the good and bad of the WHOLE group, not just your particular niche.

So what does this have to do with the question I asked? Real simple, the question I asked has been exclusively answered from an insider's perspective. More specifically from people's particular niche. Nobody has looked at what has been going on outside the martial arts and considered what the influence that is going to have.

And believe me chitlins, it's going to be a biggie. I tell you this because  when I asked what is going to happen to the martial arts I'm not just asking about in your particular niche, I'm talking about the WHOLE subject ... and that includes people/schools that you sniff at in distain and say "Well, what they are doing isn't REAL (fill in the blank)."

Now before I go on I want to introduce a concept that SAM WALKER came up with , remember SAM WALKER ... and did I mention that this is Sam's idea NOT mine?  Using the Japanese styles as kind of the measuring stick (I do this because the trends in the MA are very strongly influenced by this factor) Sam came up with three important distinction as to what is being taught as karate.

1) Commercialized
2) Traditional
3) Classic

These distinctions can be broken down thusly
1) What is being taught in strip mall, franchised McDojos
2) What was taught AFTER WWII in the schools and too the masses in Japan's
   school system (And I will qualify as primarily focused on punching and
3) What was taught pre-WWII and is far more complete and versatile in attack

"But wait" I hear you say "What about MMA?" Don't worry we'll get there.

The distinctions between these are not only very important, but better yet ... demonstrable. Yes boys and girls,  when the "Well that's what teach" crowd starts crowing you can actually demonstrate "No you don't, you teach this." And you can do this because basically we're talking about -- and I don't care how you say it's --
the dumbing down of systems
the sportification of systems
the simplification of systems
the emphasizing only one aspect of systems
the loss of understanding of fundamentals that make it work (e.g. stances)
the commercialization of systems
the mass production of systems
the marketing of systems or
the tournament influences on systems
the politicizing of -- by creating an organization -- the systems

Now let me ask you something, how many times have you encountered someone from a school who claims they teach 'traditional' martial arts? WTF does that mean. I mean face it, no matter how good or bad what that school teaches is, it's called 'traditional.'  Here's the rub -- and why I think Sam's summation is so brilliant -- in about 97% of the karate schools, what is being taught is, in fact, Post WWII version of karate. And that is what was watered down and taught to school children in Japan. The extremely effective elements of 'classical karate' were stripped out and punching and kicking were emphasized over everything else. To the point that these days even in Japan, most of what you see the 'masters' doing is this kind of karate. It's all about punching and kicking and speed and power.

Side note: I just got off the phone with Montie and he gave me a really good way to explain the difference between traditional and classical. He asked me if when I was talking about Classical, if I was talking about an apprenticeship. Then he mentioned the undergrad program vs. the graduate program. In the undergrad program you sat in a lecture hall with lots of other people and were expected to be a sponge and absorb mass information. Whereas in the graduate program it was more of a round table, interaction. Classical training is more the apprenticeship moving onto graduate work, whereas traditional is more the school system, mass dumping of information into the student base. Classical tends to be smaller, more one-on-one, more complete, where traditional is more mass production of a basically watered down product.

A few years ago we were discussing on list a concept that Kelly Worden called "Kiddie Karate." And Tristan got bent. The simple fact is, Tristan, using this form of identification, the karate you know is 'Classical.' It is a complete system that still has the component parts that not only allow, but emphasize the myriad ways a move can be used both offensively and defensively. It was not watered down for teaching in the public school system. And it most definitely ISN'T the even more watered down, ineffective, get-your-black-belt-in-a-year-guaranteed 'speed teaching,' commercialized  crap that currently makes up the majority of what is being taught as karate. I say that a classical system is a complete system because from the beginning, moves are allowed to have multiple applications OTHER than just punching and kicking.

How uncommon is this? Well, if you go to these traditional/commercialized schools EVERY move in the kata is defined as either a punch/kick or a block against a punch kick. There is no grabbing, no throwing, no twisting, no joint locks, no pulling, rending, tearing, trapping, head butts, shoulder/hip bumps, take downs, offensive leg trapping or ways to deal with any of these. And face it, some of the explanations of traditional/commercialized systems are just downright stupid. (My personal favorite one is you're fighting two opponents, that's why you turn this way). Here's the thing, traditional and commercialized systems -- after years and years of telling you it is a punch or a kick -- later on try to apply (an often  made up) bunkai to the forms. But even if it is a real application (that was) what they are doing has lost the components to make it function. The example I use is that he grabs, you twist yourself into an armlock by spinning around and then hit him from one of the forms. It's always struck me as an incredibly stupid and dangerous move because you literally put your arm behind your back and if he hasn't let go, you're screwed. That is what is taught 'traditionally' it is assumed that in the turn you will break out of his grip (bad fuckin' assumption). However, the classical version is that you not only break free, but you reverse the grip. Now, when you spin around you're not only pulling the guy off balance, but you are sucking him into your counter attack. WAY more effective and workable ... and it's in classic karate, but it was lost in traditional and commercialized.

And now ... at long last ... we get to what I am seeing coming down the pike way for the martial arts.

Everybody that I have spoken to about this subject has been looking at the question from an insider's point of view. Nobody has been looking outside. In fact, if you can imagine a group of people standing around looking at a spot in the road, nobody has looked up to see the steam roller bearing down on them.

When Dianna was in the hospital we were talking about this and I couldn't identify why I felt that classic training is going to be the next trend. I sensed it in my water, but I didn't know why. Dianna looked up and said two words that NOBODY else has considered ... The Economy.

Warren Buffet said this recession is going to be longer and deeper. I heard another economist say "We're looking at economic problems the likes of which we haven't seen since the Depression." Hello boys and girls.

A HUGE trend that I have seen in the last 10 years is the 'commercialization' of the martial arts. By this I don't just mean the dumbing down of the martial arts, I mean the martial arts, not only as a business, but the sole means of income. In short, it's become a serious money making machine. Franchising, licensing, DVD programs, seminars, cardio-karate, black belt clubs, equipment and of course, day care for Tiny Tigers, Little Dragons, Kid Kickers and MA for Kids.

Putting it mildly, these programs are going to be in some deep shit when it comes down to making house payments or keeping Little Johnny  and Little Janie in a business based martial arts school. What I am going to predict, however, is that small YMCA, Rec center, university based and garage based programs -- which tend to be more Classical in nature -- that are WAY cheaper than business based programs are going to weather these economic hard times a whole lot better. People who are not making their house payments via their MA business are not going to suffer as much as programs that have a huge overhead and are geared more towards separating students from their money.

Now a flip side of this is that those who really do have the "MA bug" will still stay in the martial arts. HOWEVER, and this again is where I'm thinking we're going to be heading; we're now talking about limited discretionary income. And that means, that people will want a whole lot more for their money.

And that, I think, is going to strongly influence the quality of the information being taught. I suspect, that schools that cannot offer a quality product -- whether it be in physical effectiveness or actually delivering on those vaguely defined benefits you see written on schools windows  -- are going to start folding faster than a guy with a small dick in a game of strip poker. If money is hard to come by, you'd better be selling a quality product that delivers on the promise. Otherwise all but the extremely devoted to you personally (or who have a lot invested in their rank/title) are going to pull up stakes and go somewhere else.

Now I said I'd come back to the MMA ... and to tell you the truth, since Sam told me about his model, I've thought about a couple of other variations that need to be thrown in. Montie called it "open source," I'm thinking Hybrid AND MMA. (And yes Montie, I'll argue they are different).

First off whoever said that most people aren't interested in getting involved in the MMA, I think that person is right. HOWEVER, ever notice something about the movies that came out the depression? The were big extravaganzas ... in short, they were escapism. I think the gladiatorial appeal of MMA will continue, not in spite of, but because of the economy. People want something that makes them feel excited and jazzed. In fact, although they are called 'mixed martial arts' I think they will continue to grow more and more into a related spectator sport. But I don't think that they are actually reflective as to what will be happening in the larger martial arts 'world.'

What I will predict is that many traditional/commercialized styles will attempt to fix themselves by pulling in more and more stuff from outside sources. A form of hybrid, but lacking the understandings of effective movement, they're still going to remain 'mushy.' I suspect it's going to be too little too late.

My point of all of this, is if you are an instructor -- whether in a commercialized or traditional program --  you might want to consider starting to review what you are going to do. I think the boomtimes of the martial arts (and the ensuing lowering of standards) are over.  I think you're going to have to start providing a higher quality product. Something that people will still want to pay for in economic hard times. This is of course if you expect your school to survive the coming crunch. Either that or sell the school now and get out now.

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