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People start in the martial arts
to learn self-defense, they stay
for many other reasons

High Student Overturn in Martial Arts Schools

For the record let us state right here and now, the martial arts are NOT for everyone. They are a very specialized form of long and hard work for vague goals that fit very well for some people and don't fit well at all with others. If the MAs are not your cup of tea, that's fine. Try them on and if they work for you great, if not, that's OK too. To those the "bug bites," the martial arts can become a lifelong journey of discovery, education, challenges and personal growth. The martial arts can be an ocean of endless discovery that is not only wide, but deep. Or they can be as shallow as a puddle ... it largely depends on the school.

It is commonly estimated in the U.S. alone, there are over a million people involved in the martial arts in any given year. What is not usually discussed, however, is the incredibly high overturn. Every year countless new people begin martial arts training, decide it is not for them and quit. The next year an entirely new crop of people do the same. Except in schools that promise a black belt in a year (for a few thousand dollars) very few of the people who begin in a martial arts school will achieve a black belt. Although numbers vary wildly, a common estimation is that only five out of a hundred people will remain through black belt. Even if these numbers are not exactly accurate, they do reflect the massive turnover of students in most commercial schools.

This begs the question: Why?

It should come as no surprise that school owners (especially those who claim that martial arts are a miracle cure-all for everyone) explain this dropout rate in terms of students not having the discipline, dedication or countless other whys that put the failure on the student. This tendency to blame the former student is usually enthusiastically endorsed by those who stay at the school. If you aren't caught up in the glee club attitude of it all, one might notice the psychic nature of this assessment. How can you know why someone does something unless you ask?

We have spent a lot of time talking to people, however, who were in the martial arts and quit. We asked them why. The response was pretty overwhelming. They weren't getting from it what they wanted. Most had been promised all kinds of things, and then the school failed to deliver. While they initially bought the stories and explanations they were given, over time cracks began to appear. And they realized they weren't getting what they were paying for.

In more experienced students or even black belts, "burn out" is very common. Although it is commonly ascribed to a waning interest in the martial arts, upon closer examination this weariness and cynicism often is more about school politics, policies, demands and organizational culture than the actual martial arts training itself. This is evidenced by the number of black belts who move onto other schools and systems and revel in the joy of tying on white belts again to learn.

Let's take a look at how this dissatisfaction develops if you attend a school to learn, for example, self-defense. We have a saying: While people may come to the martial arts to learn self-defense, they stay for other reasons. But self-defense is a very common reason to look into the martial arts. Being taught something else is a major reason why people quit early in the process. In a traditional martial arts school, working hard to learn a kata and then discovering you can find no practical self-defense application is a major turn off.

To begin with -- and this pisses a lot of snake-oil salesmen off when we say it -- martial arts training is NOT self-defense. Yes, martial arts techniques can be used to defend yourself. But self-defense is a subject unto itself with its own requirements and restrictions. We provide a fuller explanation on why martial arts are not synonymous with self-defense elsewhere.

This is not what you will hear when you walk into a martial arts school, however. You will almost immediately be told how effective what you will learn is for self-defense. This is the beginning of enticing you to pay for what they have -- instead of what you want. Congruent with learning how to defend yourself (as the sales pitch goes) is that you have to learn all this other stuff.  

While you might initially accept the explanations that what the school offers fulfills what you want, over time most people begin to both doubt the effectiveness of what they are being taught as self-defense and rebel against the extraneous requirements -- prerequisites that have little to do with self-defense (like lining up, calling someone "Master so-and-so" and bowing).  It is at this time we'd like to mention the involvement of pride...namely, your pride.

A large number of people hesitate to either question the effectiveness or the value of all the extraneous information they are being taught. When they do ask, the answers are bologna sandwiches. The stories and explanations that are so blithely offered don't make sense on one level, but most people don't know exactly what is wrong with what they are being told(2). As we are fond of saying, they don't know what's wrong, but they know something isn't right. Instead of saying "wait a minute" and making a scene, they shut up and accept the BS explanations. It's just not worth the time and effort to investigate each and every one.

After a while, however, these collectively become too much. Too many holes, too many things that don't sit right and too many examples of things not working as advertised. That is when pride can begin to creep in. Hurt pride that you let yourself be taken in by such an obvious fraud. Instead of demanding their money back or to be freed from their contract (stop paying the school), most people just slip away, let contracts expire and write off the whole experience as a lesson learned.

This is why we are such big proponents of discussing, observing and acquiring some basic knowledge before you go looking for a martial arts school. Know what you want and know what it looks like before you believe a salesman. Which brings us to our next point ...

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