QUANTITY VS. QUALITY: Which Is The True Measure Of Your Success?
By IKKF Founder, Hanshi C. Bruce Heilman
For most dojo owners today, there seems to be a never ending supply of Martial Arts Magazines arriving in the mail. The old standbys like Black Belt and Inside Kung fu have transformed themselves and bear little resemblance to their earlier roots, now seeming to focus mostly on the grappling arts. Many of the other old standbys have disappeared such as Inside Karate, Official Karate, Bugin, etc. In their place have developed a new generation of "Professional Magazines" such as Martial Arts Professional and Martial Arts Success.
The new magazines focus can be described as almost all "business". The article's content addresses such topics as: maximizing retail sales, promotion, success strategies, after school programs, staff development, telephone sales techniques, student retention, cutting-edge technologies, establishing a happy feel-good curriculum, providing student incentives and rewards, how to think and perform like a Fortune 500 CEO, developing an integrative arts curriculum, keys to persuasion, piercing the adult market, curriculum development to enhance student retention, and on and on! In fact one has to look hard and long to find any articles that focus on what most of us would define as "martial arts". Now don't get me wrong - I have nothing against the new magazines and their focus on marketing, sales, etc. There is a time and place for everything. I just happen to have a problem with the measure of success in the "new martial arts industry" - number of students and school revenues. The question that keeps coming into my mind is - what has happened to the art?
Quantity vs. Quality:
I can clearly remember the "old days" when many of the traditional dojos were housed in sub-par facilities and the focus was that "only one in a thousand deserve a black belt and it was the instructors role to "weed out" the students over time". I don't think that any realistic person today would fail to recognize that the ways of the 60' and 70's were not very student friendly times at all. However, on the other side, a major measure of the success of these earlier dojos was the "quality" of the students. The programs were in many ways a "trial by fire" approach. I also think that few will argue that the vast majority of the early Dojo Heads were not very good business people. In fact it was generally considered a "sin" to actually teach martial arts for "money" as it was strongly felt that one taught the arts from the heart and that teaching for money would only weaken the art. With all its faults, this approach did turn out a number of excellent top quality martial artists, many of whom are still with us today. Also during this time, there was a strong focus to style integrity and a belief that one had to "earn" their black belt and it should have some relationship to ones ability to use their skills to protect themselves and their family.
Today, we have large multi-location "martial art businesses" that seemed to be geared to doing everything necessary to keeping the student happy and a paying member. In order to accomplish this, one is expected to adjust (water down) the curriculum to make it easier for the student to maintain a steady rank progression. The classes are to be designed to be "high energy" (fun and games), offer a varied curriculum and have a focus on "life skills". Rank progression is expected to be at regular time intervals in order to keep the student happy and satisfied with their "progress". In fact, black belt testing seems to have become a thing of the past as it has now, at many studios, turned in to a "Black Belt Extravaganza" (an event to show off the performances of the new black belts before a paying audience of family and friends).
As you can tell from the direction of this article, I am not a fan of the new generation of modern martial arts studios. In fact, while I believe that the various martial arts management organizations have helped bring the dojos of the early years into the modern business world, I do feel that they also are doing more harm than good. I will try to discuss this belief in more detail below.
First let me state that, having a large martial arts school (both in number of students and facility size) does not mean that the owner has "sold out". In fact I know of many large traditionally focused dojos that continue to turn out high quality students and apply modern business practices. There very existence points out that one does not have to compromise the quality of the art or one's standards to have a profitable school and support one's family. What I find in these dojos, is a belief that there is a value in the traditional ways. Expecting quality from your students is not an exception in these dojos. Also there is a belief that one still has to earn their promotions. Personally, I believe that traditional martial arts training in a "dojo" with a curriculum based on expected quality, provides a very important opportunity for the student to encounter "obstacles" (failures) and learn how to overcome them (successes) to meet their goals. This learned ability (discipline) to overcome our limitations and become successful, clearly is something that relates to one's everyday life experiences. This belief in expected student quality means that not every student will have what it takes to become a black belt - a point that I do not see as a problem.
The programs that I have a problem with are unfortunately in the vast majority of todays modern studios. It seem ironic that over the last twenty years the view has changed from the old days of teaching the arts for the love of the art, to a 180 degree shift to the modern school of using the arts as a means to make money. It seems that most modern programs seem to bear more resemblance to "dance studios" that anything to do with the martial arts.
Maybe I am just too "old fashioned", but I do not accept the view that the measure of one's success in teaching the martial arts is primarily based on ones student numbers and gross revenues. These new programs have in my opinion, sold-out the art. In many programs, the curriculum has "evolved" to a point that is it hard to define what it is and if it has any relationship to martial arts as we know them. There is also a belief that each and every student is suitable to attain a black belt and that if the student does not progress at a regular level, it is the fault of the program and not of the student. Further, connections to the roots of their "arts", the style organizations, have been set aside as these only interfere with the dojo owners ability to adapt their programs to keep them current (latest fads). Children's programs have become so watered down that it is not uncommon to see 7 year old 3rd Dans running around with so many award patches on their uniforms that they look like race car drivers. Finally, for many the latest fad (abet profitable) is to have "after school programs" for kids. In short they are nothing more than day care for children.
In short, the very success of the various martial arts professional organizations has led to a situation where individuals with limited martial arts skills can become "successful". This success requires adherence to a strict formula for organizing, marketing and operating ones program. this approach has resulted in the creation of a modern "mass-market martial arts program". If an individual follows these guidelines, they can have a large number of students and be financially successful. From a pure business perspective, this is the correct approach to take as the customers (students and parents) are being given exactly what they want. The students want a fun activity and the parents want a place to drop off their kids for a while. Combine this with a "no failure" curriculum and you have a winning combination, and as long as both are happy, the customer will continue to maintain their membership - but at what harm to the arts?
True Measure Of Success:
I submit to you that student numbers and gross revenues are not the measure that we as traditionalists should accept as a measure on one's true success in teaching the martial arts.
Yes, it is a fact of life that for a dojo to stay open it must be able to meet its expenses at the minimum and I believe that good teachers have every right to make a monetary return for their effort. However, I feel that far too many dojo owners are falling into the trap of accepting the quantity vs. quality measure of success.
We as the teachers of the traditional arts, must open our eyes and place value on what we are doing. Our success is measured in the quality of our students regardless of the number. We are students of history and have no problem recognizing the value/contributions of the old Masters, the vast majority of which only had a handful of students and were by no means financially successful as a result of teaching the arts, yet we seem to have a problem using these same measures as a value of our success.
As I travel around the country I have have the opportunity to visit numerous traditional schools, most of which are considered "small" by todays standards - yet these programs (dojos) are keeping the arts alive for the current and future generations. These dojos are instructed by qualified, skilled practitioners who believe that the arts can help mold an individual and develop self-discipline. These programs are basically looking for a few good men and women to carry on the arts. These are programs which respect and cherish the roots of their arts. They are programs that believe that one should set themselves apart by the level of their skills rather than by the unique design of their uniform. These are programs who are part of a tradition, not a fad. In many instances, the dojo owners have full time jobs outside of the arts in order to "support their dojos" because they believe in what they are doing and that it can make a difference (it has in their lives and it can do the same for others). These are the dojos and the individuals who hold the future of the arts in their hands. In time, the fad of the mass-market programs will run its course, and the traditional dojos will still be around.
I have also noticed what may be a new trend in the traditional arts, that is a number of the senior teachers have closed down their previous "commercial dojos" and have opted instead to have a smaller program focusing on more intense training for serious students. In some cases these individuals have build their own "backyard dojos" where they can focus on just training and teaching - a situation that many of us seniors would envy.
Thus, in conclusion, I believe that the Art is still around and that it is alive and well - just not very visible to the general mass public. The Art resides in the numerous traditional dojos (both large and small) located throughout this county. These dojos may not be in the mainstream of the mass-marketed programs, but they are the location of quality, honor, integrity and the preservation of the old ways taught to us by our teachers.