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On Martial Arts Values

Posted Jun 18 2009 12:11am

Pat Parker, over at Mokuren Dojo, posted a… let’s call it provocative article entitled, “Martial Arts Values.” Pat's article is essentially an extract of an article by Grandmaster Kim Soo called, "Martial Arts Poison." I’ll summarize the article briefly, and then try to address the few fundamental issues I have with the author’s assertions. If you're interested in reading the original article or Pat's extract, please do so. Pat goes on to ask a few questions:

What strengths or virtues do you think your martial arts practice has developed within you? How does your training or environment promote these virtues or strengths? Do you think your training has contributed to overdevelopment of any particular aspect of your personality?
Hopefully, this post will answer those questions, as well as articulate the problems that I have with the source article. First, I want to say that I understand I’m not a 10th Dan and founder of my own martial arts style. I am the father of two kids with another on the way and consider myself at least a 3rd Dan in raising kids, although I guess that’s debatable. It’s from this position, as a parent, that I write this post.

Grandmaster Kim Soo’s article asserts that, “When abused or misunderstood, or when seen as a way to power and control, martial arts can bring harm and regret to the unfortunate practitioner.” I don’t disagree with this statement. It seems reasonable. In fact, I would argue that anything, when abused or misunderstood, is harmful or negative.

This idea is further explained in the same paragraph: “The mental influence doesn’t come from the movements but from an instructor.” Again, I think this is self apparent, and don’t disagree. Coaches, Scout Masters, camp counselors, or any adult in a position of authority over a child is influential to that child, whether positively or negatively. Like it or not, adults are all role models for children. Whether we are good ones or bad ones is really the only choice we have.

To be clear, I don’t disagree with these initial statements in the article. It’s when we get to the real purpose of the article that I take issue. Grandmaster Kim Soo suggests that competitive arts, sparring, contact (in the form of “harsh body motion”), mental focus and trophies are bad, while all of the aspects of what I presume is typical Chayon-Ryu training, including the Training Hall Oath, formality, cleaning the school, and etiquette are good. What sparring, contact, mental focus and trophies have to do with formality, cleaning the school, etiquette, control of techniques and the Training Hall Oath is a little confusing to me. I find the implication that there is a relation to be misleading.

Grandmaster Kim Soo draws a correlation between sport, sparring, tournaments and these negative influences of aggression, dominance as well as spiritual and physical malaise. GM Soo somehow jumps from an emphasis on the instructor, to an emphasis on competition, sport and sparring. I disagree completely.

I wrote an article back in September, 2007 entitled, “ Why We Do This.” In that article, I go into why I believe that sport oriented arts, in the article specifically BJJ, but I could just as easily have said Judo or many other styles with similar philosophies, are excellent for children. To add to what I said there, the importance in all of that of having a good coach/mentor is critical. Any parent who has been involved in little league knows that there are healthy, positive teams and unhealthy, negative ones. It’s not the competition; it’s the coach. Giving that competitive spirit focus and balancing that competitive spirit with sportsmanship is what a good coach does for the players. Teaching lessons to the players about preparation, team spirit, work ethic and responsibility are what being involved in a quality youth sport program teaches the kids.

Grandmaster Kim Soo says, “The instructor interested in assisting students become better human beings, build their characters, develop their self-esteem, confidence, sincerity, humility and responsibility is not likely to have trophies lining the front windows of the school.” I’m not sure that trophies are indicative of a bad school. Displaying the trophies prominently… I don’t know. That would depend upon the culture of that particular style. The implication, however, is that these trophy-lined windows equate to aggression, arrogance, self-doubt, irresponsibility and insincerity. He goes on in that same paragraph to contrast these negative traits and competition to a “traditional class” in which one will see “formality, etiquette, non-violent behavior, full control of techniques, forms of old Grandmasters, student cleaning of the dojang, and a Training Hall Oath,” as though the trophies will preclude any of these things.

Ultimately, my real problem with this particular article is the specious nature of the argument. I agree with the Grandmaster’s premise that we need to be cognizant of the adults with whom we entrust the shaping our children. I agree that a good mentor, coach or teacher makes a tremendous amount of difference in the development of that child, and that a bad one could be very detrimental to that child.

Where I disagree is in the definition of a good instructor and a bad one. A good coach or instructor doesn’t deny or ignore the competitive spirit of his students; he refines that spirit, gives it a constructive outlet and tempers it with sportsmanship, teamwork and perspective. A good instructor doesn’t inflate a student’s self-esteem artificially with false achievement by awarding rank not based upon actual ability; he will encourage and motivate that student to EARN his rank, and he understands that true self esteem is a by product of actual achievement and real, demonstrable skill. A good instructor doesn’t squash or retard the ego of a student; he balances that ego with respect and humility. The ego exists in all people. Ego isn’t a bad thing. Ego is our desire to succeed, to improve. Unchecked ego is the problem, and that’s where a good instructor makes all the difference.
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