Saturday, July 02, 2011

Should You Care About Your Styles Politics?

Just what are you talking about? Politics in Martial Arts?

I’ve meant to comment on this for a while, but have stayed out of the fray, as I usually do. Dojo Rat recently had two posts (Alex Gillis; “A Killing Art” and Alex Gillis on The Future of Tae Kwon Do) on a book by Alex Gillis, “A Killing Art, the Untold Story of Tae Kwon Do.” Striking Thoughts has now weighed in as well. The gist of the matter is that:
  • Tae Kwon Do (TKD) was formed from Shotokan
  • Tae Kwon Do is not thousands of years old nor did it spring from the Hwrang (sic usually Hwarang) warriors.
  • There was infighting to unify the Kwans (schools) into one art
  • There was a split between them between the sport approach and the more traditional
  • There are major politics and scandals today in the organizations
  • International politics, and Olympic politics are involved with TKD
  • TKD is “dying or dead” already
  • And so on.
Full disclosure: I have not read that book, but that may not matter for this post – I do intend to read it at some point. I will now approach the subject from a different perspective: 

Should you care? No, politics don’t matter!

If you are just starting out, have a fresh white belt on your hips (if you style uses belts), then no. It shouldn’t. It should not matter to you what association to which your school belongs, or who awarded your instructor’s instructor his 8th degree black belt. Or whatever. It matters not a whit, because what you’re probably learning is what you want, not something that has no bearing on you.
You are learning to kick, punch, block, strike, choke, break, and throw, and between you, your partners, and instructors, there should (and probably is) nothing but the time and enjoyment of learning. That’s all. And that’s as it should be.
You will learn and progress, be awarded rank, and learn more. You will test and train, and sweat, and begin to teach (most likely), what you’ve been taught, and then you will learn and know even more. And more.
And then…

It will begin to matter.

There WILL come a point at which you will start to hang with the “cool kids” (or old farts), and start hearing the gossip and talk, and finally start to know who’s who, and why so and so got promoted and so and so isn’t an instructor and why that guy switched to a different association. And why someone’s rank isn’t legit. But yours is, of course!
The politics will begin to infect your training, as it may morph into more teaching and time with the “masters” and the realization that this isn’t just a “character-building” art, but a big business for some, and it may affect you.
Politics has fractured almost every style or organization that grew large enough, or popular enough where there was money or fame to be had. Ed Parker’s Kenpo, Judo, Aikido, Shotokan, Wing Chun, TKD, Jeet Kune Do, etc. have all been affected by it. Some of them have been fractured beyond recognition, and others have actually improved because of it. It even plays a big part in MMA and so-called RBSD.
It will sneak up on you, and you may not even realize it until you read this.

What did you do about it, Nathan, you smarty-pants with all the answers?

For me, it wasn’t as much of an issue, because I saw myself as a martial artist, and not a TKD black belt/muay Thai teacher/etc. or instructor representing a particular style or system, but simply a martial artist. I am on the same path that millions have been on: learning, sharing, growing, and passing it on. I don’t believe in a large bureaucracy in martial arts any more than I believe it helps public education, religion, or running businesses. It gets in the way.
One instructor I recently chatted with on Twitter about this said that you get out of your organization what you put in. A very healthy attitude, and probably the right one, no matter what organization you’re involved with. I practice that in Scouts, where I am a leader, and have worked to improve what is being delivered to my son and the other boys, and down the line. When I was involved in teaching in formal martial arts schools, I did the same. I think I made a positive difference, from what I’ve heard, years later.
And then I left. It wasn’t just that I was going to have my first child, and realized that I couldn’t be a good parent and good instructor, but it was that it wasn’t a mutually beneficial relationship anymore. In other words, I wasn’t benefitting the organization, and it wasn’t what I wanted to needed anymore. So we parted ways, quite amicably.
I began doing what I love – teaching part-time, and to small groups. I got back to the essentials of what I loved, the instructor-student relationship, and to the joy of training and growing together with minimal formalities. If not for that, I would not have morphed and developed into the amazing martial artist I am (that WAS tongue in cheek, in case you’re spitting out your coffee now)! For me, it was the right move.

What should you do?

  • Do what is right for you – I am not against organizations. If they are true to their founding principles, and alive (in the sense that they grow and adapt as needed while maintaining integrity), then they are good. I have seen many martial arts associations that fit this mold. But not all stay that way. Sometimes the glue that holds it together is one person, and when he/she passes away or moves on (or is involved in a scandal), then the organization fractures or disintegrates.
  • If you stay, follow your heart and have integrity.
    • If you see room for improvement, do it – don’t tell, do. No one likes being told what to do by someone who’s not earned the right, or walked the walk. Prove it and live it, then share it.
    • Share concerns constructively. Just as they say that if you don’t vote, you have no right to criticize or complain, it you just bitch about your organization and don’t attempt to vote on or share your ideas for improvement, you’re part of the problem, not the solution. I have no respect for those who just undermine.
    • No gossip. Don’t do it!
    • Praise what’s good – nothing is worse than those who tear you down. But nothing is better than those who praise what is truly good, and encourage it’s repetition and growth. If you like the new belt ceremony and love what it’s doing for the self-esteem of the new guys, make sure you say it! If you think that the new training material is outstanding, tell everyone! And say why, so everyone can learn from it.
    • Assist in developing your art and association. There is nothing worse than stagnation. If there’s no adaptation, then a thing becomes dead. Even the US Constitution has an amendment process, and you should participation in rules, and syllabus changes if you can. Help…
  • If you leave, do it for the right reasons and move on the right way
    • Don’t bad-mouth your past, own it. You got your start from that system, organization, and art. Appreciate it!
    • Learn the lessons! Whether you like it or not, everything you do from here out is seen and understood through the prism of your past. Use that. Take what is good from everything you experience. Grow from it.
    • Set new goals, don’t be a belt-collector, learn something thoroughly. I don’t believe most can really learn 10 styles at once, or even two. At least not thoroughly.
Agree? Disagree? Tell me why in the comments, via email, or on Facebook. Thanks for reading. I’d encourage you to check out the linked posts at the beginning.
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Noah said...

Good post, Nathan! I have to say that martial arts politics tend to get on my nerves, and even at brown belt they seem to be nigh unavoidable. I got my start in one system of karate that was rather divided, politically, and so that left an impression on me (I loved the art, my dojo and my instructors, but it did plant that seed of possible political agendas in my mind). My current dojo deals with a little bit of martial arts politics by my Sensei does try and keep us shielded from it as much as possible since he doesn't like it either--he is very much of the mind that if what you are learning and teaching is effective then politics shouldn't matter. It is my hope that whenever I become an instructor in my own right that I am able to shield my students from unnecessary politics, not by hiding it from them but by warning them of it and explaining how little it really matters, in the end.

Rick said...

I've never heard of anything good ultimately coming from the big organizations. I think the only sustainable model is one teacher - one dojo.

Dojo Rat said...

Well, when I wrote the review of "A Killing Art" I wanted to point out how closely TKD was tied to the espionage of the cold war and Vietnam.

But Gillis points out how utterly corrupt the masters were at times, involved in kidnapping, beatings and torture.

I guess nothing has changed, look at the CIA's Black-site prisons.

The grand fault of TKD is that it became an Olympic sport. That is where the real political Bullcrap began, and led to the ultimate degradetion of TKD as an effective fighting style.

I say this as a Second Dan TKD Black Belt, Third Dan Kenpo.

TKD was a product of the 1970's and remains there.

Nathan at TDA Training said...

I kind of think that the dojo politics are inevitable, as they are a human institution, and we all have our own agendas. I think the best thing is what your instructor does - shield the students and focus on the art. But that only holds so long...

Agreed, to a point, but what if the student invites a friend, and you both get promoted, and... Ah, never mind!

I have dan grades in both ITF and WTF, and agree- the sport corruption changed the WTF and TKD to a large degree, for the worse, but has some positive aspects:
1) it's huge, and many people get exposed to the MA through it, and then move to something else, like training with us!
2) Its "success" has probably cause many others to shy away from wanted to get involved in it, or making their arts into sports as a result.

But I will say that the hope of TKD is instructors like you and me. When I had commercial schools, we didn't teach the WTF curriculum, just used them for certificates. We, as many instructors do, taught an effective blend of techniques to enhance what TKD started with. We adapted, blended, and built upon it in our own expression. Was it TKD? Sort of. But then, I've never really taught any style exactly as it was taught, but blended it with what my experiences taught me.

I think the only things stuck in the 70s are the corrupt organizations, but the arts themselves have moved on as a result of the real martial artists that learned them.