In modern taekwondo, there seems no shortage of enticing programs ostensibly meant to bolster enthusiasm but, upon closer inspection, more likely intended to enhance student retention. Terms such as Black Belt Club, S.W.A.T. Team, Splits Club and S.T.O.R.M. Team, abound to name a few. Yet, what is it about these acronym-rich entities that bode poorly for the transmission of traditional taekwondo as the noble art that it was meant to be?
Being a successful school owner for almost two decades and throwing my entire adult life into practicing, teaching and writing about traditional taekwondo, I more than most know the value and, frankly, the necessity, of retaining students. Without the dedicated practitioners who cross the threshold of our dojang doors day in and day out, we would be left with nothing more than four square walls, some puzzle mat and an assortment of training gear; not a promising environment for the perpetuation of the Korean martial arts and certainly not a winning model for a competent instructor to earn a living.
Truth is there are critics out there who claim that money should never enter into the equation of conveying martial arts to those worthy of its virtues; that teaching taekwondo, karate-do, tangsoodo, or any other Asian discipline, should be done pro bono. While I strongly disagree with this concept, I disagree equally with the notion of relying on clever marketing gimmicks, if I may refer to them as such, for branding programs that should be a basic component of the standard taekwondo curriculum in the first place.
For instance, we as martial arts instructors should be encouraging all of our color belt students to reach for the coveted black belt at some point during their martial arts journey and not simply those who can afford to pay a fee in addition to their monthly tuition for the privilege of being members of a Black Belt Club. Presently, our school is home to well over one-hundred black belts with 80% of these being adults. Yet, I have never relied upon questionable schemes that segregate students predicated not on their level of proficiency, but rather on their ability to buy into a program of advancement based largely on club membership. Show me a white belt who does not sincerely wish to achieve the esteemed honor of earning a black belt and the absurdity of these labels quickly become apparent. It is incumbent upon masters and instructors alike to motivate students through a comprehensive curriculum of pure-form, traditional taekwondo skills supplemented by encouragement rather than on an alphabet soup of financially predatory programs albeit if they are, to some extent, benign.
Nevertheless, there are exceptions. Many schools have established a Leadership Team – a group of individuals, in our case adolescents, who wish to gain more from their taekwondo training than the standard routine can afford them. This desire is compounded by a requirement to perform community service on a quarterly basis and to begin the long, pedagogical process of learning how to teach taekwondo, not only practice it. Members of our Leadership Team train vigorously, assist with KickStart and Youth Training classes, enjoy culturally-related field trips and raise tens of thousands of dollars for local charities. They are absorbing highly valuable philanthropic skills, reaching out to the community and cultivating compassion for society in the process. However, even this worthy mission can be corrupted by exorbitant fees ranging, as I have heard, often into hundreds of dollars per month. We charge nothing above monthly tuition for participation in our Leadership Team where the member’s only contract is their commitment.
The desire to establish a commercially solvent martial arts school should be accompanied by the realization that traditional taekwondo training is simply not for everyone. Unfortunately, not all who begin will continue regardless of all the encouragement we can afford to give. With this in mind, for the school owner or manager with little or no business experience, it is easy to fall prey to illusory programs that mirror attempts by gyms and health clubs to secure membership. Lengthy annual contracts, limited schedules, abbreviated class time, delinquent fees, third-party billing companies, unnecessary clubs fees, the “dumbing-down” of the syllabus, all fall into this category. Some of these resources can prove indispensible to those unwilling or unable to take responsibility for the clerical component of their institute. However, financially-obligatory pacts that require individuals to pay tuition after termination of membership can prove onerous at best. I personally have never supported practices such as these and have enjoyed continuous growth every year since our school’s inception. Yes, it requires more work on the part of my staff and me, but as any martial arts school owner who truly appreciates what they do for a living can tell you, I am glad for it.
I realize I will receive criticism and push-back from a segment of my colleagues for revealing my views regarding the branding of programs that should be commonplace. Nevertheless, it has always been my opinion that students embrace traditional taekwondo as a vehicle intended to enrich their lives through the sincere practice of a disciplined martial art and not to be bludgeoned by dubious sales strategies that, if left unchecked, are certain to pollute the dojang.
In today’s world where money is often the measure of success, it is easy to allow dollars to trump tradition in the martial arts. And since, unlike other professions, taekwondo is not officially regulated, some individuals take advantage of this aberration. Yet, financial victory, technical excellence and community awareness are all within reach simply by offering students an uncorrupted, comprehensive curriculum in conjunction with a clear path to advancement that naturally results in student retention.
A taekwondo school as a viable business entity should stand in solemn tribute to the moral values we teach – courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit – and not be built on acrimonious, manipulative tactics meant to hold students against their will. Martial arts by their very nature, act a filter supporting those who personify discipline while discouraging those who consistently seek the easy way out. This process should not be subverted by unbridled greed stoked by a sea of superfluous programs.
Master Doug Cook, a 6th dan black belt, is head instructor of the Chosun Taekwondo Academy located in Warwick, New York, a senior student of Grandmaster Richard Chun, and author of three best-selling books entitled: Taekwondo…Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Warrior, Traditional Taekwondo - Core Techniques, History and Philosophy, and Taekwondo–A Path to Excellence, all published by YMAA of Boston. Master Cook and Grandmaster Chun have recently completed a new book, Taekwondo Black Belt Poomsae: Original Koryo and Koryo, targeted for publication in July of 2013. Master Cook can be reached for lectures, workshops or questions at www.chosuntkd.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.