Attaining a black belt is the ultimate martial arts achievement.
It’s better to learn Tai Chi from a Chinese teacher.
All fights go to the ground.
When we hear myths like this being bandied around, how are we supposed to fight them – and make people see that they are false?
Well for Neil Hall, co-founder of LCTKD (formerly London Chinatown TaeKwonDo), this is actually the wrong question. Martial arts myths are powerful and pervasive – and not something we can easily “fight” against.
His advice is to understand them, and use them to connect and engage with potential beginners – who often start off with nothing but a fragmented collection of perceptions they’ve gleaned from movies, the Internet and friends.
For Neil, there are two broad types of martial arts myth.
The first type is negative myths – things that frighten people away from the martial arts. Examples might include, Only young people / men / super-fit / flexible people can do martial arts (and that’s not me); or Martial arts will make my child (or me) become violent. It’s helpful for you to be aware of these fears, and be able to put people’s minds at rest.
Both the positive and the negative myths can be manipulated to draw students into your club.
But this can be done for different reasons. An unethical approach would be to use myths simply to exploit students’ naivety – to get their money, or control them in some other way.
An ethical approach however, would be more along the lines of understanding that (as Neil says),
Effective – and indeed essential – marketing relies on understanding that you need to communicate with people who already have powerful perceptions, and if you don’t take those conceptions as your starting point you will not attract new students.
It’s like talking to someone who speaks very little of your language. You can’t engage that person in a complex discourse. First you have to find out just how much they can understand of what you are saying.
And given that this second approach will be the one of potential interest to readers of this blog, here are ten ethical reasons Neil would give for exploiting (or as he puts it: playing) popular martial arts myths to build your student membership.
1. It increases your reach and influence
This is the heart of Neil’s argument. He says,
If you don’t get people through the door, you have nobody to influence. Sure, you can carry on ranting about your own particular ideas on the Internet, but who’s going to listen to you?
If people come to you for long enough, then maybe you can challenge some of the myths. But in order to do that, you actually have to get them through your door in the first place. And if you don’t succeed, who will rid them of their misperceptions then?
The more students you have, the more reach and influence you have – to them, their families and friends, and ultimately the wider community. And if you don’t reach them, someone else may do so instead – for good or for bad.
2. It enables you to spend more time making a difference through your art
So has Neil sold out, compared with a pure-hearted teacher who disdains marketing, and has very few students as a result?
The issue of making money from martial arts can be thorny and emotive. But it doesn’t have to be a binary either/or choice.
It’s possible to promote your school well, make a living from martial arts and at the same time create benefits for the local community. This is no different to other forms of paid work which can deliver social good, such as working for a charity or the public sector.
Finding paid work which integrates our passions, values and need to be of service is a rare blessing in the modern world. Making a living from martial arts can also offer time and opportunity to develop your own practice and understanding; rather than fitting martial arts around other work as so many of us do.
3. “Playing perceptions” is normal human behaviour.
When you update your CV (resume), you probably don’t lie – but you will certainly do your best to promote the positive aspects, and downplay or hide the negatives. The same rules apply in making new friends, dating and so on.
I believe that it’s possible to reach out to potential students, filled with their own misconceptions, without sacrificing your integrity. When people portray this as somehow not being “true” they don’t see the reality of their own situation. People often tell me that they don’t have anything to do with the playing of perceptions, and yet their very conversation is littered with it. They just don’t realise they are doing it, because perception, and sometimes myth, has become so embedded they treat it as the truth.
Read the website from any class with a critical eye, and you will see perceptions at work. Listen to martial artists speak, and you will hear perceptions at work. I am not recommending that martial arts teachers deliberately distort the truth, only that they recognise that, like it or not, they too are in a world dominated by perceptions, and that they communicate effectively with potential beginners by first understanding the perceptions that potential beginners have, and take those perceptions as their starting point.
4. It’s often hard to get and retain students; and so good schools need all the help they can get.
You will lose approximately one third of your students every year. Not because you are a bad teacher, but because life gets in the way. They get old, they get sick, they get injured, they get a different job, they get tired of it, or they just don’t like it. It doesn’t matter how good you are. Martial arts schools, and individual classes, that do well understand that they will lose a third of their students every year, and accept that they must replenish that number.
You can say: “I’m not going to chase newcomers. If people leave, they leave. I don’t actually need the money, because I have another job and this is my hobby, so I’ll just go on with the ones I’ve got.” The trouble is, that’s not much use – leaving is contagious. Once numbers drop below 7 or 8, you hit a problem with the atmosphere becoming a bit flat. And sadly, small classes are not popular either with current students or beginners, so people become more likely to leave and beginners less likely to join. You may be the best teacher in the world, but pretty soon your class doesn’t even cover its own costs.
5. Promoting a martial arts school is tough
Most people are not that interested in learning a martial art – let alone sincerely committing for years. For many people, it’s just a fun leisure activity – perhaps one of several.
Another hard truth is that most beginners, or the parents of younger students couldn’t care less about your credentials or ability to teach. A lot of people won’t even care which art you teach. .
In fact, the number one criterion for choosing a martial arts style / club is often convenience – the time, location and day of lessons.
As Neil says, So how exactly do you make your classes succeed? Well, you’ve got to be good at persuading people to come!
And this is where playing the myths can come in . . .
6. Beginners will come to you with a head full of myths and misinformation anyway
Neil advises that it can be a mistake to aim your marketing materials at other martial artists. To draw in beginners, you need to address people who know little or nothing about the martial arts, other than the various myths they may have picked up over the years.
Even if people have done a bit of research, it’s probably from the Internet which peddles as much myth and untruth, as genuine information Here’s a typical story from Neil:
A group of teenagers asked: “do you teach MMA?”
“Well, not any more,” I explained. “Why do you ask?
“Because we really want to do MMA.”
“Oh, I see, have you done any MMA training?”
“No, we just really like it.”
“What is it about MMA that attracts you?”
“Well, it’s real martial arts . . .”
7. People like stories and myths, and respond well to them
As a martial arts practitioner, you know very well that a black belt is not necessarily such a big deal, and that its value depends on all kinds of contingencies – not least who gave it to you. But a school which advertises a “Black belt club” is going to tap right into the heart of that popular mystique and desire around the idea of a black belt.
Pretty legends can also appeal to students. It’s probably not true that Wing Chun was created by a woman, inspired by a fight between a crane and a snake. It’s certainly not true that Karate was developed by heroic Okinawan peasants to fight the Samurai unarmed. But some schools use these stories to good effect, to add colour to their heritage.
Other schools make use of romanticised imagery relating to the Samurai or the Ninja, or other iconic figures to make their art seem appealing and exciting to prospective students.
8. Other schools are playing the myths; and if you don’t do it yourself, they can have an advantage over you.
One very successful worldwide martial arts system proclaims on its website that it has proved to be the most effective martial arts system in the world.
It also says: Because it’s a noncontact, nonfighting, noncompetitive art that stresses mental, physical, emotional and social development, [it] promotes nonviolent resolutions to conflict.
If you’re a serious martial artist, these statements may ring some alarm bells. Not least, you might wonder how a noncontact art could truly be the most effective martial arts system in the world.
But for a beginner who has no idea which style to choose – or who is scared of getting injured in class – or who is attracted by the idea of nonviolent conflict resolution – this marketing is superb, and likely to be successful.
Obviously you don’t want to lie. But going back to points 1 and 2, the question has to be – if you believe your own martial art has more to offer than the competition – is it right to do nothing and let students be drawn in by such promises, without having a go at your own competing (ethical) narrative . . .?
9. People have been exploiting martial arts myths to promote their schools for centuries
Samurai thinker, Izawa Nagahide said, some time in the period 1711-1732:
Among the vulgar are those who use sword technique to show off to people. They say the founder of their sword technique, so and so, made a pilgrimage to some shrine and prayed for artistry, and the spirit appeared and transmitted it to him.
Or some say they learned it in a dream vision, or that they attained the art of the sword by studying Zen. And some say they learned it from a goblin, on some mountain. These are all big lies…. People concoct such things to fool people and make money. This is extremely repugnant
– Source: Training the Samurai Mind; A Bushido Sourcebook, Edited and translated by Thomas Cleary. Page 119
It looks like little has changed!
10. Students are often not that interested in the “truth” anyway
Many of the “truths” which seem important in one light, may not even be of much interest to most students. Neil says,
So why get all worked up about it? Why bother finding out, doing all the research that’s needed to differentiate truth from myth? Can you even do that? How many fights do actually go to ground? Did your martial art actually come from where you said? You might be able to establish that it’s not as simple as you had previously claimed, but giving a definitive alternative might be impossible.
Even if you believed it, why would you actively tell people that your lineage didn’t matter all that much, or your art isn’t any more effective than the one they teach down the road?
Most of your contact with students comes in class, not in lectures on the theory or history of martial arts (and if you put these on, most of your students won’t come). So what you have is just a moment amidst a bustle of activity.
And in the end, most of your students won’t much care anyway.. This is a martial arts school, not the history department of a university . . .
I find Neil’s ideas fascinating and intriguing.
My own sensei teaches that everything in life can have an in and a yo aspect (in-yo is the Japanese loose equivalent of yin-yang). Manipulation is a good example. We tend to assume that manipulation is a bad thing; but in fact it isn’t intrinsically good or bad. No one would criticise a loving parent for influencing (manipulating) their young child to eat their dinner. The way an instructor builds your confidence over time is a form of (positive) manipulation.
There’s so much potential for harmful manipulation in the martial arts. One worrying example is where students are led to believe that their training has made them formidable fighters, and given a false sense of security.
So all of the points above are valid if we’re seeking to do good – but they can also have a dark side, if we play myths in a way that could harm students or others.
In any case, this gives us food for thought. And perhaps the key takeaway is: don’t dismiss playing the myths out of hand, as immoral or beneath you – instead, consider using it as a valuable tool to ethically promote your art and help others.
Part Two of this article will give some specific advice on how to play with positive and negative myths in your efforts to recruit new students . . .
This article is based on Neil R Hall’s talk at the Martial Arts Studies Research Network 2016 Annual Conference at Cardiff University.
With a diverse background including community work, international consultancy, and senior positions in local and regional government – including Head of External Relations for the Mayor of London – Neil R. Hall worked for many years on the development of London’s Chinatown. It was his longstanding relationship with the Chinese Community Centre that brought about the establishment of LCTKD, a Chinatown martial arts school he co-founded in late 2004, and which went on to become Chinatown’s largest and longest standing martial arts school. In 2011 Neil became the Director of the international Institute for Advanced Integrated Martial Arts. He spends his time between his responsibilities at LCTKD (including teaching 4 martial arts), at the Institute, where he is working on an on-line martial arts instructor programme, and writing and consulting on martial arts.