It’s been just over 2 years since we first opened K2C. As a lifetime martial artist with a fast developing passion for MMA, I had a goal to help create a space where martial arts styles could not only co-exist but also cross train in a facility customised to their needs. Having lived in Florida and seeing the martial arts ‘schools’ there, I couldn’t return to training in an old run down community hall without mats, toilets, changing rooms or heating, thus the concept of K2C was born. From concept to reality has been a long road but here we are.
On the journey, my personal martial arts career has taken a number of turns I wouldn’t have predicted. For one, I’ve become a kickboxing coach. Initially, this was a bit outside my comfort zone but I’m well in the groove now. I’ve also made a fairly significant shift from a traditional martial artist to a full contact martial artist. My own training schedule is mostly dominated by kickboxing, BJJ and MMA and in terms of how I train; it’s a far cry from what I had become accustomed to as a pure karate-ka.
I now find myself in a position where I’m coaching a new generation of both traditional and full contact martial artists and my experience of both sides of the tracks has shaped a number of conclusions I have about coaching. The following blog is a rant about what I feel the world of traditional can learn from full contact. Before possibly insulting fellow traditional martial arts instructors, I must stress that this rant is very generalised. You may already have adapted to include some of my suggestions in your training and if so, fair play. I’m merely highlighting the limitations from my experiences.
So here it goes:
Traditional Martial Arts, by their very nature, are technical and intricate. It takes patience and focus to be able to spend hours, weeks and years perfecting technique, to achieve grades and competition success. However, one thing that is rarely tested in my experience is physical fitness. Although fitness in inherently improved whilst practicing technique and sparring, there’s a whole different level of physical strength & endurance out there. Elements such as core strength, speed & agility, cardio vascular endurance and anaerobic thresholds are never fully pressed in a typical traditional class.
Take boxing for example. Apart from sparring, bag work and pad work, boxers must also practice skipping to build up cardio vascular endurance. Fighters will skip for twice as long as they’re expected to fight in one fight and vary the speed of skipping to mimic the intensity variations of a real fight. This practice is part of warm up and is a daily, grinding routine for boxers.
Another example is Strength & Conditioning for MMA. This is a completely separate practice session for MMA fighters where they test their bodies to absolute limits, pushing, pulling, lifting and jumping. Every single session is about finding the outer limits of your ability and going beyond. This session is normally completed 2 or 3 times weekly for 1 hour.
Now you might argue that traditional martial arts doesn’t require the same level of fitness and strength or perhaps that the technical nature of the art transcends brute force. While it is true that all things being equal, technique wins, to rest on your laurels with average physical fitness is backward thinking and naive.
I often like to compare group photographs of traditional karate clubs (as is my background) versus full contact clubs following a seminar or class. Have you ever noticed the differences in age demographic or the body shapes of those training? Make it easier; Count what percentage of each group has a 6 pack of abs or how many would fit in to a photograph of an Olympic boxing/taekwondo squad.
Now I know that last paragraph will insight anger and insult but let’s ask a few more questions first. As a traditional martial arts instructor, which age group would you like to see more of in your class? Which age group could you really get stuck into (technically and competitively), to push the boundaries of your art. Which age group would fly the flag for your discipline, would be heroes for young kids and a blank canvass for experienced black belts to influence? I’m talking about the age demographic 16-30 or what I will from here on refer to as ‘the athlete’. Would you agree that this age bracket is where most traditional martial arts students drift away? I think you’ll definitely agree it’s not the age range of the largest percentage of members in a group.
Why is that?
Can it be that exams and socializing tempt them to the dark side? Could it be work and family life gets in the way? No, it can’t. If that were the case, you would see the same dip in numbers across all sports/martial arts but you don’t. Go back to the group photographs and look at them again. I’m suggesting you’ll find all those prime ‘athletes’ are involved with disciplines that press their limits such as rugby, soccer, Muay Thai, MMA, running, weight-lifting, triathlon, skiing etc. Almost every soccer/gaa/rugby club in the country has an adult team (if not 2 or more). Each team takes approx. 15 adults in the prime of life. Yet most traditional martial arts groups wouldn’t have half of that membership for the same age bracket.
Is it because it’s a niche market? Again… no. Look at the volume of kids’ classes within martial arts. Karate or Taekwondo has been experienced my most Irish children at one point in their childhood and class sizes for kids classes by and large are very healthy and would rival any other sport. So what is it? Why is traditional not seen as a viable option for ‘the athlete’?
One word… “Fitness”
It’s what ‘the athlete’ cares about most. To cater for ‘the athlete’, you must first understand what he/she wants. If I’m 20 years old, I’m relatively injury free. I’m strong, fast and athletic. I feel invincible and I want to prove I can beat any challenge. I have 2 options Karate or MMA? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which one I’m going to enjoy more. Unfortunately traditional martial arts are known as the poorer cousins (fitness wise) to boxing, muay thai, bjj, mma etc. It’s a perception painted on all of us traditional instructors by years of neglecting the needs of a whole age demographic and now it’s back to bite us in the ass. Sure, we can have healthy numbers of kids taking classes. We can wear black belts and take pride in the knowledge and experience we have accumulated. The one thing we can’t expect to have though is the respect of ‘the athlete’. Why not? – Because traditional karate does not give you abs! It’s too slow moving and doesn’t challenge the physical fitness of ladies/gents in the prime of life – at least not to the same extent as the other disciplines. It’s no longer seen as a viable alternative for getting in the shape of your life during the prime of your life.
And furthermore, as a result, we’re missing the head stone of our pyramid, the icing on our cake, the jewel our crown. We don’t have nearly enough prime ‘athletes’ competing with fitness levels that shock spectators, inspire young teens and mobilise crowds of fans for our art. Imagine 100m sprinting as a sport without a solid age bracket 16 – 30. Why would anyone bother with running in a straight line without seeing how Usain Bolt smashes World records? Why would anyone take up boxing without having the opportunity to see the likes of Katie Taylor beat up the rest of the world? Who have we got in traditional karate? Chuck Norris? Karate Kid? Come on guys… let’s get real here.
Now there’s a vicious circle of causality that we’ve got to overcome if we want to reverse the typecasting associated with traditional martial arts. There are things like the organization of regular open tournaments, cooperation between associations, Olympic status, finding inspirational athletes to compete, getting more education of what we do etc. There’s no doubt that the lack of a proper stage for our current athletes falls short of inspiration for a new generation and that has a huge influence on attracting ‘the athlete’ also. However, fixing that and the other problems listed above are huge tasks and mostly out of our control for now. There is one thing that we can control and that’s how we run our classes. Here’s a list of things I think will contribute to traditional martial arts regaining its respect. It won’t change the world over night but the longest journey starts with but a single step.
1. Up the tempo
We’ve got to make the training more appealing to ‘the athlete’. This means more high tempo class planning. Put technical aspects into circuit training mode so that students can improve while building physical fitness. It takes time but over a few months, this will help get ‘the athlete’ to train with you.
2. Banish lecturing
Technical training needs to be done with the minimum of words. If ‘the athlete’ stops moving for any more than 30-60 seconds at a time during a training session, you’re going to lose them.
3. Encourage cross training
Incorporate cross training. Bring in a boxing coach for example, or strength & conditioning coach. Make your team fitter and stronger. Give them abs that ‘the athlete’ will be jealous of.
4. Make weight management a priority
Introduce weight classes to your training. Although weight classes are not in all associations and styles, it’s no excuse to relax and just eat regular food. Assume everybody who’s competing needs to be as lean as they can be and make that a priority – diet wise and cardio wise (skipping or running). Remember, ‘the athlete’ who turns up to try out your class will run a mile if everyone else training with you is out of shape.
Rafael Aghavyev – the role model I’ve chosen for my karate students
5. Find and promote a role model
Seek out and find ‘the athlete role model’ that you want your students to become. If there isn’t one within your art, choose someone from a different art. Once chosen, celebrate them. Hang a picture of them in your training space and encourage your students to watch videos of them. Learn about how they train. If you can have more than one, that’s even better.
6. (Although controversial) Forget the spiritual aspect
Within traditional karate (again, this is my background), there is a pseudo spiritual vein running through it. As instructors, we have been taught to preach the practice of a Zen-like disposition and “Seeking perfection of character” etc. Guess what ‘the athlete’ aged 16-30 thinks of this? It’s rubbish! If they want spiritual guidance, they’ll do Yoga or join the church of scientology. Let’s stick to what we’re qualified to do and teach them how to kick and punch like ninjas.
You may not agree with some or all of my suggestions. Again, these are opinions I’ve formed based on my experience and this is the mind-set with which I’m approaching my task of coaching the current generation of a traditional students.
What do you think? Are you ‘an athlete’ that has been turned off traditional martial arts for any of the reasons above? Are you an instructor who feels likewise? Do you think I’m going against the grain of tradition in my thinking? Have I gone too far? As ever, please comment below and get involved in the conversation. Ideas and conversations help us improve.