Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Martial Arts Will Always Be There

This post is meant as both an affirmation and as a warning.

As an instructor, I have seen many students choose to walk away from the path of training in the martial arts.  I will readily admit that this path is not for everyone. Many students have very good reasons that they are unable or unwilling to continue their training.  It is not the reasons of these students that I wish to discuss, though.  Instead, it is the students’ justification of these reasons to the instructor that I wish to look into in more detail.

First, let me be very clear.  I am a martial arts instructor. I have dedicated my life to doing so.  Therefore, if you ask me whether I am okay with your child quitting martial arts to pursue baseball, or hockey, or any other activity, I will always tell you the same thing: No.  I certainly am not okay with that.  I am a martial arts instructor, and I think your child should take martial arts.  I mention this specific example because it allows me to further clarify my stance through personal experiences with two different students who basically quit for the same reasons, but handled it very differently.  Both of these students had achieved their black belts. 

The first student never spoke to me directly, but instead relied on his mother to handle things.  The mother explained to me that Tang Soo Do was very important to them, but they felt that they needed to devote more time to hockey and baseball, and because of the schedule of those activities, they would be unable to continue training.  I simply listened and replied with, “What you are telling me is that hockey and baseball are higher priorities to you than Tang Soo Do is right now.”  The mother seemed mildly offended by this, insisted it was not the case, and wanted me to agree with her and validate her decision.  She wanted to justify it to me, and wanted me to go along with it.  I did not.  In the end, this changed neither the outcome, nor the students’ reasons for quitting, but nonetheless I held firm.

The second student had successfully tested for her 2nd degree black belt, but had not yet been promoted.  Shortly after the results had been made known, she approached me directly, without the assistance of a parent.  She informed me that she did not feel it was appropriate for her to accept her promotion, because she had made the decision to drop out of Tang Soo Do to pursue competitive running instead.  I agreed with her that it was not right to accept her promotion, and she never was promoted. The real point here, though, is that while I did not even remotely agree with her decision (I am still a martial arts instructor), I did and still do respect the fact the she had made a decision, understood both her reasons for doing so and the ramifications inherent to that decision, and felt no real need to justify that decision to me, and it didn’t truly matter whether I agreed with her or not. We had formed both a mutual understanding and a mutual respect. Neither of us truly accepted the other’s point of view on the issue, but we did understand both ourselves and each other, and, as Sun Tzu tells us, there is no losing in that situation.  

More and more often, I am experiencing more of the first type of student and less of the second.  Perhaps this is my own failing as a teacher, and if so, it is something that I must strive to fix.  As I do hear more students (or their parents) justify their reasons for quitting, though, I am beginning to notice a common thread. They feel that “martial arts will always be there”, and it is therefore okay to step away, because they can always come back.

Here is the affirmation:

Yes, we will be there.  Yes, you can come back.

Here is the warning:

Statistically, you probably won’t come back, and if you do, you probably won’t stay.

A student may leave for months, or even years, and may decide that he or she wishes to return to training.  I am the last person to stand in this student’s way. If you truly want to come back, we will be there when you do.  If you leave again, and wish to come back, we will be there when you come back. If you do this in a constantly repeating cycle, we will STILL be there when you decide that the path of the martial arts is truly one you wish to follow.  Martial arts will always be there.

On the other hand, what you may fail to realize is that coming back is hard.  While we have always been there, you have not.  You will find other things to fill the time you once used to train, and changing that will be hard.  Many of your peers may have moved beyond you in terms of both rank and skill, and that will be hard to accept.  Your own skills will not be as sharp as you remember them to be, and that will be hard to handle as well.  While the belt you wear around your waist may not have changed, you will nevertheless in many ways be approaching your school and instructor as a white belt once again.  You will be asked to prove that you have earned the belt you wear, and this, too, will be hard. The dynamic of your class will have changed, and it will be hard for you to find your place again in that new dynamic. While martial arts will always be there, the longer you stay away, the harder it will be for you to find your way back to them.

I can already hear the echoes of justification, so let me tell you what I hear and what I think when you say “Martial Arts will always be there.”

What I hear: I have other priorities above martial arts right now.  That’s okay, right?

What I think: Maybe. There are some priorities I accept above martial arts, and others I don’t. Just be honest with yourself and your instructor about what those priorities are. Regardless, I'm still a martial arts instructor, so I'll still think you should make training a priority and show up to class now and again.

What I hear: I’m bored with my training, and want to try something new. That isn’t a problem for you, is it?

What I think: Yes, that is a problem for me.  You are simultaneously telling me I’m not an interesting enough instructor for you to stick around and that you believe something “new” will have more value for you than something you need to work hard at for your entire life.  You’ve missed the point, and if you’re bored, it’s probably your fault.

What I hear: You’ll always take me back, so it's okay for me to take my training for granted.

What I think: I will always take you back, because martial arts will always be there. Unless, of course, too many people accept that way of thinking.  Then….they won’t.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.