There is a great line attributed to Winston Churchill that ‘if you are in your 20s and are not a Liberal, you don’t have a heart. If you are in your 40s and not a Conservative, you don’t have a brain.’ While I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with him, his message relates clearly to how your belief system can change at different stages of your life and career. 

Many of us went from the dungeon dojo to a more motivational school with a big emphasis on personal development. This attracted a huge kids’ market, but did it create better martial artists? I don’t think so. It’s pretty clear I’m not the only one, because we are seeing a return to a more adult-oriented and intense school, but not a return to the dungeon days of past. 

The first time I visited New York City, I got into an argument with a black belt who was my host for the weekend in his small townhouse outside the Bronx. It was 1992, and I was in the midst of a transition for my school from a school of adult fighters to a school of kids, with an emphasis on positive development. 

The argument rose from a conversation we had concerning his three-year-old son. I asked if he planned to have his kid take martial arts lessons. He made it clear that his son would learn to defend himself. I added that the martial arts are also really good for character development. The line had been drawn in the sand. He said he didn’t care about his kid “helping old ladies across the road.” He wanted his kid to be able to “knock someone on their ass” if needed. 

I regurgitated a line that I had heard at a seminar that, “The world didn’t need more fighters, it needed more respect and courtesy.” He scoffed at the notion. He said his kid gets plenty of good messages from his favorite TV shows like Sesame Street. The boy attended church each Sunday with his mom and attended a good school. All of them taught him to be respectful and polite. What they didn’t teach him was how to get out of a fight. He wanted his boy to be able to handle himself. I told him his approach to martial arts was “old-school thinking.” He laughed, and we agreed to disagree. 

Now, over a decade later, not only am I a dad, but I’ve also watched the martial arts evolve from a unique, cross-style vantage point. The more I think about it, the more I believe that my foul-mouthed friend had a point. 

I certainly don’t feel that the movement towards character development has been bad for schools; it has been great. However, when schools strays away from our core services and values, they become little more than motivational day care centers.