Wednesday, August 18, 2010

[Karate] Where Are All the Adults?

When did the study of the martial arts become child's play? When I first started training in the 80s in Tae Kwon Do, I was 15 and the youngest in a class of about ten. These days, at least in Syracuse, minors studying the martial arts seem to outnumber adults by a significant margin at many of the dojos I've visited. More, in looking at the websites for schools around the country, the training of children seems to be the most heavily-marketed program.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not averse to children being trained in the martial arts. If a five-year-old can muster the attention span and tenacity to pay attention in class and begin to master the basic stances, strikes and blocks, they might as well start their training. Kids have too much free time anyway - put some of that excess time and energy to work. Of course, to go along with that, you need to have instructors of sufficient quantity and training to ensure that the little 'uns learn to execute the techniques correctly, or they're just building bad habits.

I'm also not averse to martial arts schools marketing their services to meet the demand - and if the demand is coming from kids (and their parents) who want kid-friendly classes, pizza-parties, special fun events and so forth, I'm fine with that. Because it takes money to operate a school, and generally speaking, the better the school is at operating as a business, the better the facility, the more flexible the schedule, and the more likely that the school will be around for the long-term to continue offering its services. None of that guarantees that the training will be high-quality, but neither does it preclude it. A bad sensei can teach poorly at a successful, well-outfitted dojo or at a simple, austere dojo. A good one can, too.

And whether or not kids train, or whether the dojos are fancy or simple, is all beside the point of my initial question - where are the adults? Why don't more adults want to get the health benefits, the mental focus, the flexibility and the fun of the martial arts?

One reason actually might be the kids, through no fault of theirs. If people start to think of the martial arts as something that only kids do, it may turn them off from signing up as adults. Then, of course, it's still somewhat foreign to many Americans, despite being firmly entrenched in the U.S. since the 60s. Certainly there's only a small percentage of Americans who understand the martial arts (and many different perspectives within the martial arts community besides). For those who think of the martial arts as "running around in white pajamas yelling 'Hi-yah!' it probably never enters their consideration to train, themselves. Moreover, most Americans' exposure to the martial arts is from Hollywood, which likely makes it seem fantastical and implausible, such that, again, it wouldn't occur to them to participate themselves.

All of which explains, at least in part, the roughly 98% of Americans who don't train in the martial arts (to quote a figure from a recent article in the Syracuse Newspapers that was itself undocumented and probably came directly out of some journalist's rectum, but it sounds plausible to me). There's another factor, however, and that's attrition.

For various reasons of misunderstanding, business, and cultural attitudes, the black belt has been held up in American martial arts as the holy grail of training. It's as if the martial arts has a point at which the student would be told, "You've learned everything there is to learn - congratulations, you're done!" and sent on their way with their nice new black belt. Many schools these days emphasize the black belt as exactly that - a goal to be achieved. An endgame. A completion point.

I had always been taught that the black belt marked a beginning, rather than an end. Advancing through the kyu ranks (the colored belts, in dojos that use them) is the martial arts equivalent of grade school - you're mastering the basics that you need to learn before you can really begin to learn. It's similar to how children need to learn reading, writing, and critical thinking skills, along with general knowledge of history, literature, mathematics, language, and science. Only then can that student really begin to learn. Only when we reach black belt do we as martial artists have the foundation that's needed to really begin to achieve deep understanding and technical excellence.

In the "black belt schools," however, so much emphasis is put on achieving the black belt over so many years that by the time the student gets to that point, it's fully ingrained in them that achieving that goal is the completion of their journey. And what do many of them do? They wander off, instead of continuing to pursue that elusive level of excellence. One local school I'm familiar with has produced some 700 black belts in the twenty years that it's been open, but only a couple dozen seem to be actively training. That's an incredibly high attrition rate and speaks, I think, to the challenge of the "black belt school" mindset and its overall impact on the number of active adults in the martial arts community.

So that's where the adults are - they're watching football and baseball and other "American" sports, they're taking their kids to karate, or they're reflecting on their glory days of training, back when they got their black belts and then quit. I'm not sure what to do about it, or whether TO do anything about it, but it does seem to me that a lot of adults are missing out on some great experiences.

1 comment:

  1. Mike,

    I think that karate as typically taught today is just not that interesting to adults. In an effort to create marketable youth programs, instructors have gradually changed what is taught to appeal to kids. Most places teach the resulting "kids' karate" to their adult students - the same technique, the same drills, the same shallow concepts, etc. In fairness, this is probably all these instructors learned themselves. They may be very good at it, but it is still just very basic karate, if that.

    I personally would be bored to death with what most places teach also, so I can't blame adults for not giving modern karate a chance. Adults need to be taught how to train and then given free reign to do so, using the training methods of their school as a reference - this is lacking in most schools where adult students continue to be spoon-fed a curriculum that is just a superficial extension to what the kids learn.

    The question is, what do modern karate schools offer advanced students other than increased rank and position in the dojo? Are they really teaching anything new to them - or giving them the tools and opportunity to explore for themselves? This is what gives adults a reason to train.

    The dojo I train at in Okinawa is all adult and all advanced (mostly 6th dan plus). What keeps such people there is the opportunity for continual self-driven research and study with like-minded advanced practitioners. It is not a cultural thing - I believe that such an environment would be equally attractive to adults here, but it takes decades to produce and the need to foster a kids' program to pay the bills will always get in the way. Unfortunately, I think that such an environment will not come out of commercial schools - it is simply in too much conflict with what it takes to create a great youth program and adult programs don't present the business opportunity to merit the effort to build.

    A short answer to your question, I believe, is simply that kids's programs are dramatically different from adult programs at a fundamental level, and that building both in quality is impossible in the same facility. Commercial dojos wanting to survive in a competitive market will naturally and reasonably choose to focus on kids. We shouldn't expect them to also offer great adult programs and therefore shouldn't expect many adults to take up long-term training with them.

    A few adults will enjoy such superficial training, either because they don't know any better, or because it meets other needs than learning true karate. Others will find what they are looking for off the beaten path among non-commercial dojos catering to adult practice. In both cases, the numbers will naturally be small since exposure for adult training is low.

    Most adult students are either training because of their kids or because they trained themselves as kids. What they know of karate is kids karate, and that's what they look for. The lucky few (I consider myself one, thankfully) will have seen a glimpse of the real depth of karate, and these will be the people who will train correctly and who we count on the keep such adult-focused training alive.