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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Choosing A Martial Arts School, 3.5: Personal Development--Life Skills, Morals, Ethics

Martial arts have a reputation for being a vehicle for teaching far more than physical skills. While the rise of Mixed Martial Arts has lead some schools to de-emphasize (or ignore) the ideals that are supposedly part and parcel of the martial arts, there are still many schools that advertise themselves as teaching more than fighting skill. Discipline, self-esteem, confidence, honor, respect, courage, loyalty, and focus are held up as virtues that one can learn from the martial arts. Sometimes, they are attached to a chivalric code supposedly passed down through generations of the art's practitioners; sometimes they're just assumed as part of the practice.

Seeking a martial arts school to learn these kinds of things is challenging. Part of the challenge stems from the fact that, much like with self-defense, there are many martial arts schools that claim to teach these values. While you will find some hardcore self-defense or sport schools that openly eschew any kind of ethical teaching, they're in the minority.

The other part of the challenge is that these things are difficult to measure and assess. How do you decide if a martial arts school seems honorable? How do you know if they are teaching respect or successfully? It's easy to measure competitive success, but few schools have a pile of trophies or belts demonstrating how high the self-esteem of their student body is. These are, to a degree, esoteric and immeasurable qualities.

Finally, it can be argued that, much like fitness, the martial arts are neither the only, nor even the ideal, path to developing these qualities. The world is full of honorable, disciplined, respectful people who have never set foot in a martial arts school.

Going to a martial arts school to better yourself in these ways is very much a personal journey, and is going to require a great deal of personal effort on the part of the practitioner. The instructor you choose will be a guide, but you need to do the bulk of the work.

Let's examine some of the qualities that the martial arts purport to develop, and discuss how they might do so (if they do at all).


Martial arts schools claim to build confidence, and for the most part, that's true. They do. The problem is that a lot of them build a false confidence. Being confident, frankly, is easy. The Yellow Bamboo guys in this video are confident, and you can see how far it gets them.

I wrote an article for the PDR Team website a while back that covers this about as well as I'm likely to now. Go read it. Honestly, I'm not sure what else to say. Chasing confidence is a losing game. Chase competence, and you'll get confident along the way.


The question of whether or not it is possible to learn courage is a subject of endless debate. Some believe that courage is an innate quality. Some believe it can be taught. I come from the latter camp.

That said, the teaching of courage is like anything else; in order to teach something, you have to have a methodology for it. In my experience, a lot of martial arts schools that say they teach courage don't really have a system for doing so. There are exceptions, of course. In the PDR program, we have a well-researched and developed FEAR Management system that's integrated into our courses. Rodney King has some of this built into his Crazy Monkey Defense program. I believe Rhadi Ferguson has (or had) some material directly related to Judo on this subject, and it probably translates to other martial arts as well. I believe some of the Koryu have some meditative practices related to this.

But there are also plenty of schools whose entire method of teaching courage is simply to throw you into hard sparring, or who believe that courage is developed simply as a by-product of doing the art in question. Sometimes this works, but it can just as easily lead to greater fear and trauma as it can a manifestation of courage.

If you want to study a martial art in order to develop courage, it would be worth your time to consider what it is you're afraid of. For example--I took up Muay Thai because I was afraid of being punched in the face (I always assumed I'd move on and take up a grappling art after a few years...I'm still waiting on that). If you're afraid of being assaulted, taking a good self-defense program might be for you. Learning how to grapple necessitates learning how to deal with having someone very, very close to you, and being in some very claustrophobic situations.

Whatever fear it is that you're trying to confront, you want to find an environment that will let you challenge that fear, but will also support your working through it. The "trial by fire" method of fear management doesn't work well for many people, and confronting your fears un-intelligently can just lead to more trauma and misery in the long (and short) run.


There is an important distinction between discipline and self-discipline. Both can be learned through the martial arts, though some schools do one better than the other.

Discipline is the ability to jump when you are told to jump. If your instructor says "do this", you do it. No hesitation, no questions asked. Discipline is when you keep doing the same set of punches over and over again, because your instructor is standing there telling you to do it.

Self-discipline is the ability to make yourself jump because you need to. It is practicing that same sequences of punches over and over outside of class, not because you were told to, but because you know you suck at that sequence and you want to be better.

The martial arts can unquestionably teach discipline. I have been at schools that were run in a almost militaristic fashion. The students, children and adults, were trained to obey an instructor's command at a moments notice.

To be honest--if you are an adult, I'm not entirely sure how much value this has. Rory points out that this kind of mindset may actually be counter-productive to self-defense training. Frankly, if you're an adult who is incapable of taking orders from a superior, you may have bigger issues than needing to learn a martial art. Of course, I meet adults all the time who can't seem to follow directions, so who knows? Maybe more people need this than I think.

Self-discipline is valuable in the martial arts, but it's one of those chicken and egg questions. Many of the most skilled martial artists I know are incredibly self-disciplined. But did they learn that from the martial arts, or did they get great at martial arts because they were self-disciplined? I don't have a good answer.

Honor/Loyalty/Respect (Morality and Ethics)

Many martial arts purport to teach you how to be a better human being. Not in the sense of being stronger or faster, but in some sort of moral or ethical fashion. There is this idea that simply through the practice of the martial art, you will somehow learn these qualities.

I'm not really convinced of that. In fact, I'm wholly UN-convinced of it. I have met far too many martial artists who are unethical human beings to really believe that simply learning a martial art automatically makes you a good person. If it did, I wouldn't have stories about sons betraying their fathers, instructors having extra-martial affairs with their students, and a host of other examples of martial artists who did the wrong thing. Cults like local favorite Chung Moo Do/Oom Yung Doe wouldn't exist.

Can you learn to be a better person through studying the martial arts? I don't really think so.

You can learn to be a better person by training with good people. I've certainly learned a lot about ethics and morality from some of my martial arts instructors...both the good and bad ones.

Here's the thing--my assumption in this series of posts is that this work is being read by adults (I'll do a section on choosing a school for your kids later). Which means there's one of two possibilities:

1. You are a grown adult with some kind of moral compass in place already OR
2. You are a grown adult lacking a moral compass

If it's #2, I have no evidence that doing a martial art will help you.

If it's #1, then you are seeking someone who can mentor you in ethics, and that is a challenging thing. While many martial artists talk about ethics, not many provide much in the way of guidance or thought on the matter. You'll have to look very hard to find a legitimate, honest, mentor who will guide you in thinking about this kind of stuff. Or you will have to do some independent research. Honestly, you should do the research anyway. Don't just take someone's word for what the Code of Bushido or the Tao says...go read these things. And understand their place in history. Read the Hagakure if you want, but know who it was written by and why.

Educate the crap out of yourself, because you need to. And think a lot, because understanding ethics requires thinking a great deal.

I know that advice is rather in-specific, but frankly, I think this is a challenging goal to fulfill. You want to learn about loyalty? You don't need a martial art to do that. Honor? Some of the most honorable people I've ever known don't know how to throw a punch to save their lives. Respect? If you're an adult and can't show someone respect, bowing to a dude in white pajamas is unlikely to turn you around.

The best advice I can give you here is to educate yourself, do your research, and when you seek a teacher, caveat emptor. That's always good advice, but when you're seeking a moral guide, be REALLY careful. Some of the advice on seeking a spiritual mentor (a future post) will apply here.

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