One question martial artists hear all the time is: "Do you think you can beat them up?" followed by the asker pointing to the biggest, baddest-looking person in the room.
There's also, "Could you break that tree/board/desk/etc. with a chop?"
And of course, there's the question that commonly follows the demonstration of a self-defense technique: "But what if…. (insert some random occurrence that's less likely to happen than winning the lottery while being struck by lightning) happens?"
(The answers usually are, in order, "Why would I," "Why would I," and, "Well, then, I guess you're toast – but I think the odds of you being attacked by a rollerblading BJJ master who's wielding double shotguns are comfortable low.")
Despite all these zany common questions, we're rarely asked the question that matters most: "What is the #1 thing martial arts instructors instill in their students?"
I won't keep you in suspense. In our school, the número uno virtue is POLITNESS. Yep, you read that right. From the "Yes sirs" and "Yes ma'ams" to silence when the instructor is speaking, the character education lessons to the helping hand you offer your sparring partner after you knock them down, the removal of shoes before stepping on the mat to the presentation of a well-tied belt and clean uniform, our school is all about politeness. To paraphrase my Sensei, the goal is to create students who are role models of politeness both in and out of class.
Now, if the student is a polite person, is there any point in teaching them how to defend themselves? Punching someone in the face or kicking them in the groin is not very polite, after all. But, it is also true that most fights begin as verbal altercations before they turn physical. Being polite – knowing when to hold your tongue or back down, instead of returning insult for insult – can stop fights before punches are needed. That skill is much tougher than learning how to punch hard or kick high. We only teach violence as a last resort.
Why is politeness so important? As martial arts instructors, we need to change the public's perception of martial artists from the two extremes people usually think of: 1) bare-knuckle brawlers who spend hours whacking each other, who boast brute strength and brain damage in equal measure, and, 2) $3,000-per-month Super Ninja Club members who got a black belt after one month and couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper bag.
Instead of either of these, we need to be perceived as well-rounded individuals who can defend themselves and their loved ones if needed.
Times have changed since we started teaching martial arts. Equipment and automation has improved, and we work on life skills in addition to kicking. Dojos are expected to be cleaner and nicer, and classes are not just for "macho" dudes anymore. The end product should be the same, though: polite individuals who can handle all that life throws at them!
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