Evolve or Fade: Martial Arts in the Modern Era

by | Jul 7, 2024

Evolve or Fade: Martial Arts in the Modern Era

silhouette of a male fighter practicing a kata against a blue background

The Changing Landscape Of Martial Arts

If you’ve ever spent any time on forums, like I have, you have most likely found yourself knee-deep in a highly polarized topic thread where it can feel like a battle for hearts and minds is being waged in real time.

While generally, martial arts forums and threads discussing the many different facets, disciplines, and techniques of various martial arts and their individual merits are generally good-natured and lively discussions, one of the few topics common to these forums that raise the metaphorical boiling point is the effectiveness of different martial arts disciplines when applied to real world fighting scenarios.

I was fortunate to see the growth of the UFC in bringing the sport of Mixed Martial Arts to the masses. From a little-known PPV exclusive event in its first iteration to the multi-billion dollar entity it has become today, the UFC delivered on a promise to determine the ultimate combat discipline in a trial by combat situation. It answered age-old questions generations in the making about which discipline was the undisputed champion in toughness and practicality…or did it?

The truth is, MMA is a combat sport but a sport nonetheless. It has rules, rounds, and highly controlled scenarios. Real life combat has none of these things. Which brings me to my point, traditional martial arts are sometimes miscategorized or judged harshly based on a set of criteria that unfairly criticizes based on things read, heard, or told to us by others.

We’ve all heard the story of the karate black belt that got his butt kicked in a real fight when he went up against a random street tough. The funny thing is, when pressed can you recall this scenario playing out in real life in front of you or was it something you read one time, or something your older brother told you, or you heard it from a friend of a friend who was there?

If you’re being honest with yourself, you can probably admit that you have never seen a verified black belt of any discipline truly get “taught a lesson” by a random person that has zero fighting experience or discipline. Before you start going crazy over what I said, really think about the possibility of this scenario playing out. Anybody that has spent a significant time mastering the art of self-defense, regardless of discipline, has sparred, competed, learned how to take a punch or kick, and knows the mechanics of how to strike and quickly evade. So why do we so easily believe such a ludicrous scenario?

In a word, the watering down of traditional practices.

3 martial arts black belts practicing traditional katas

Why Traditional Practices Are Under Scrutiny

Without getting too deep into the history of martial arts in the west, let’s just state as a matter of course that the popularity of martial arts in the west really began to take off in a significant way in the 1980’s and that growth has yet to reach maturity as the landscape of different disciplines is growing at the same time.

During the early days of this initial rise in popularity, you had a few dedicated practitioners that shared the teachings they had learned over countless hours of mastering their crafts, many times having travelled to the birthplaces of various martial arts disciplines to learn from those that teach the most traditional versions of those disciplines and from masters that had gained reverence for their level of expertise in the craft.

As with most things, though, as demand increased for the next big thing in after-school activities, there was a booming market, spurred by the promise of revenue and profits and driven by the fact that there was so much opportunity and little competition for the hearts and minds of those looking to learn the next cool thing.

The natural consequence of this situation was an eventual oversaturation of the market. The need to not lose students to attrition soon became the priority. Cookie-cutter dojos were opening up in malls in every town across the United States, teaching an equally soulless form of martial arts that went through the motions of tradition but without the context of why.

These McDojo’s began turning out students ill-prepared for real-life scenarios by uninformed and sometimes uncaring instructors that saw them as a line on a balance sheet. It’s because of this reason alone that the well of traditional martial arts was forever poisoned for those disciplines most notably associated with these assembly-line martial arts schools.

The Misunderstood Nature of Martial Arts Rituals

Walking into a traditional dojo or martial arts gym for the first time can be a bit of a culture shock. While not all dojos or gyms are the same, there is a good chance that you will encounter an instructor giving a lesson to a group of highly engaged and focused students who use specific foreign terminology to refer to the rank of their instructors.

There’s bowing and synchronized forms being executed in unison and with precision. When taken all together, it can come across as very militaristic, or even worse, cultish.

In fact, one of the most common criticisms that face modern martial arts is that many view the practices and traditions taught within these training facilities as comparable to being in a cult. But why is that our default and where does this stigma come from?

Common Rituals And Their Purposes

I think one of the most effective places to start is by giving context to some of the rituals that seem to freak people out. Bowing? That’s just showing respect, folks. It’s no different than a handshake in Western culture. And that yelling? It’s called a kiai, and it’s not about intimidation – it’s about focusing your energy and breath.

Then there’s the belt system. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “Oh, that’s just a way to keep people paying for classes.” Wrong again. The belt system is about setting goals, marking progress, and motivating students.

If you’re with me so far, you can probably ascertain that certain rituals are a necessary part of the martial arts journey and experience. So, the rituals by itself are probably not the actual issue here. Maybe the problem lies in understanding why the cultural context of these traditions matter.

female silhouette practicing martial arts katas outside at sunrise

Cultural Context And Importance

Many of these rituals come from cultures where respect, discipline, and hierarchy are deeply ingrained. In Japan, for instance, bowing isn’t just for the dojo – it’s a part of everyday life. Would it shock you to learn that these rituals aren’t about control?

Here’s your light bulb moment – These rituals serve a real purpose in training. That strict discipline? It’s what keeps you from accidentally roundhouse-kicking your partner in the face. The respect for your sensei? This isn’t idol worship, instead, it’s a student’s acknowledgment of the trust they are imparting to their instructor when being taught potentially dangerous techniques.

Moreover, it is a reminder to the instructor of the responsibilities they have in protecting those who put their trust in them.

So, if it’s not the rituals themselves or the context of why those rituals are performed and the purpose they serve, what is really going on here?

Distinguishing Between Tradition And Cult-Like Behavior

Now I think we are getting to the real heart of the matter of why martial arts seem to get such a bad reputation from a very vocal cross-section of our modern society.

The cult-like reputation that plagues some martial arts circles isn’t entirely undeserved, thanks to a handful of bad actors who’ve turned tradition into a money-making scheme.

These con artists prey on vulnerable people, promising enlightenment for a price. They’re the ones pushing chi-powered knockouts and treating skepticism like blasphemy.

But let’s be clear: true martial arts tradition is the opposite of cult behavior. It encourages questions, respects your time and money, and empowers you to be independent.

If your dojo feels more like a cult than a school, it’s time to bow out. Real martial arts should make you stronger, not dependent on a guru’s guidance. But what about the effectiveness of traditional martial arts in a contemporary context? Has the veil been lifted to reveal outdated techniques that are simply not able to stand up to modern fighting methods?

Effectiveness of Traditional Techniques

a young martial arts student hip throwing an opponent

When it comes to martial arts effectiveness, there’s a prevailing belief that MMA reigns supreme. Many argue that its blend of various disciplines, coupled with intense sparring and competition, makes it the ultimate form of self-defense.

Traditional martial arts, on the other hand, are often viewed as outdated, too rigid, or lacking in practical application. But is this black-and-white view really accurate?

The Challenge From Modern Combat Sports

Truly, MMA has captured the public imagination. We’ve seen spectacular knockouts, submission victories, and grueling wars of attrition in the octagon. This has led many to believe that MMA techniques are inherently more effective than traditional martial arts moves. The argument goes that if it works against a trained fighter in a cage, it must work on the street, right?

We’ve bought into the idea that MMA fighters are these unbeatable warriors, capable of handling any physical threat with ease. After all, they train in multiple disciplines, spar regularly, and compete at the highest levels. Surely, they’d have no problem dealing with an untrained assailant?

Fighter punching a heavy bag

Adapting Traditional Techniques For Practical Application

Well, hold onto your gis, folks, because reality has a way of shattering our illusions. Let me tell you a story that might just change your perspective on the effectiveness of MMA in real-world scenarios.

Enter Anthony Smith, a UFC light heavyweight contender with a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In 2020, Smith found himself in a situation no one ever wants to be in – a home invasion. Now, you’d think a professional UFC fighter would make short work of an intruder, right? Wrong.

Smith described the encounter as “one of the toughest fights” he’s ever had. Despite his high-level MMA training, he struggled to subdue the intruder, Luke Haberman, a former high school wrestler. Smith threw everything he had at Haberman – punches, knees, elbows – but the guy just kept coming.

This real-world scenario differed significantly from the controlled environment of the octagon. Smith had to protect his family, consider the possibility of concealed weapons, and deal with the sheer terror of the situation. There were no rounds, no referee, and no tap-outs. The endurance required was different from anything he’d experienced in professional fights.

The incident shook Smith’s confidence, showing that even professional fighters can feel vulnerable in unexpected situations. As he put it, “You always just think you’re such a badass. I just don’t feel like one, feel insufficient a little bit. I didn’t know it was possible to be that terrified.”

So, what does this tell us? It shows that real-world violence is unpredictable and doesn’t play by the rules we see in combat sports. It also highlights that no martial art, whether it’s MMA or a traditional discipline, can fully prepare you for every possible scenario.

But here’s the kicker – this doesn’t mean training is useless. Far from it. Whether you’re practicing Jeet Kune Do, Muay Thai, BJJ, or MMA, you’re developing skills that could save your life. The key is understanding how to adapt these techniques to real-world situations.

All martial arts share common elements – improved reflexes, body awareness, and the ability to stay calm under pressure. These are invaluable in any self-defense scenario. Moreover, real-world situations often provide environmental advantages that you won’t find in a dojo or an octagon. That wall behind you? It could prevent a takedown. That barstool? Instant weapon.

The bottom line is this: effectiveness isn’t about which style you practice, but how you train and your ability to adapt. Whether you’re a traditionalist or an MMA enthusiast, the goal should be the same – to train in a way that prepares you for the unpredictability of real-world violence. Because when push comes to shove, it’s not about looking good or following rules – it’s about surviving.

Leadership in Modern Martial Arts Schools

Martial arts leadership is currently undergoing a major renovation, and it’s crucial to understand how these changes impact our dojos and students. Modern martial arts schools are finding ways to honor traditional practices while adapting to contemporary needs.

For many, these changes can be uncomfortable, but rest assured, this evolution doesn’t diminish our rich history; instead, it enhances it by making our disciplines more relevant and impactful in today’s world.

By consistently innovating our approach to teaching, learning, and applying skills, we’re ensuring that martial arts remain a valuable and relevant practice. Let’s explore how this balance of tradition and innovation plays out in leadership, business, and inclusivity.

Female Kickboxer Sparring with Instructor

Beyond Physical Mastery: Essential Leadership Skills

While physical prowess is undoubtedly important in martial arts, today’s instructors need to develop a broader set of skills. Flexibility and adaptability are key, not just in our bodies, but in our minds and teaching methods as well.

As leaders, we play a crucial role in developing the next generation of martial artists. This goes beyond teaching techniques; it’s about setting an example in how we handle challenges, treat others, and balance our martial arts practice with other aspects of life.

Consider how you’re demonstrating these qualities:

Adaptability: How do you adjust your teaching style for different learning types?
Problem-solving: Are you showing students how to apply martial arts principles to everyday challenges?
Communication: Can you effectively convey complex concepts to students of all levels and make it relatable to them?

Remember, the skills we model as leaders are often as impactful as the techniques we teach.

photo of two gloved arms about to hit each other

Balancing Tradition With Business Acumen

For dojo owners and aspiring instructors, it’s essential to recognize that running a martial arts school is both an art and a business. Modernization doesn’t mean abandoning tradition; it means finding new ways to communicate the value of our practices to a contemporary audience.

Here are some ways to strike this balance:

1. Utilize social media to share the philosophy behind your techniques

2. Offer virtual classes alongside traditional in-person training

3. Listen to your students and make sure you identify opportunities to help make martial arts traditions meaningful to their learning experience

As mentioned earlier in this article, one of the biggest criticisms that traditional martial arts gyms and dojos receive is that the only goal is to keep students enrolled as long as possible. It’s not that this goal is inappropriate, it’s the motivation behind it that matters.

We should want to keep innovating, growing, and enhancing the experience of learning for our students of all ages from Adults to kids. We should recognize our training as the service that it is and always find ways to allow our students to customize the experience they have with martial arts. We need to identify our students’ goals and tailor our programs to help them achieve those goals.

When you get this right, you not only keep your current students for the right reasons, you evangelize your students to be the biggest promoters of your business.

Remember, by integrating business skills with our martial arts expertise, we’re not selling out – we’re ensuring the longevity of our disciplines in a rapidly changing world.

Creating An Inclusive And Ethical Dojo Environment

The growth and survival of martial arts depend on expanding access to people from all walks of life. An inclusive dojo isn’t just about being welcoming; it’s about enriching our arts with diverse perspectives and experiences.

Ethical practices are equally important. Transparency in teaching methods, business practices, and expectations builds trust and respect among students and the broader community.

By fostering an inclusive and ethical environment, we’re not diluting our traditions – we’re strengthening them. We’re creating spaces where more people can experience the transformative power of martial arts, ensuring our disciplines continue to thrive and evolve.

Effective leadership in modern martial arts schools requires a delicate balance of honoring tradition and embracing innovation. By developing essential leadership skills, combining tradition with business acumen, and creating inclusive, ethical environments, we can ensure that our martial arts disciplines remain relevant, respected, and impactful in the modern world.

Final Thoughts – Embracing Change While Honoring Tradition

As we’ve explored throughout this article, the world of martial arts is at a crossroads. On one side, we have the rich traditions and time-tested techniques that have been passed down through generations. On the other, we face the challenges of a rapidly changing world that demands adaptation and innovation.

But here’s the thing – this isn’t an either/or situation. The path forward for martial arts isn’t about choosing between tradition and innovation; it’s about finding the sweet spot where both can coexist and thrive.

Remember the story of Anthony Smith, the UFC fighter who struggled in a real-life confrontation? That’s a perfect example of why we need both tradition and innovation. The controlled environment of MMA couldn’t fully prepare him for the chaos of a real-world attack. Yet, his training still gave him tools to handle the situation.

This is where the true strength of martial arts lies – in its ability to adapt while maintaining its core principles. The rituals and traditions we’ve discussed aren’t just for show. They instill discipline, respect, and a mindset that goes beyond just fighting techniques. At the same time, we need to be open to new training methods, business practices, and leadership styles that can make these traditions relevant and accessible in the modern world.

photograph of an MMA fighting ring

The Ongoing Evolution Of Martial Arts Practice And Leadership

As we look to the future, it’s clear that the evolution of martial arts is far from over. In fact, it’s just getting started. The martial arts leaders of tomorrow will need to be more than just skilled practitioners. They’ll need to be adaptable thinkers, ethical businesspeople, and inclusive community builders.

We’re moving towards a martial arts landscape where:

1. Training methods integrate traditional wisdom with modern sports science.
2. Dojos become hubs of personal development, not just physical training.
3. Leadership extends beyond the mat, influencing students’ lives in meaningful ways.
4. Business practices align with martial arts values, creating sustainable and ethical schools.
5. Diversity and inclusion become strengths, enriching our arts with varied perspectives and experiences.

This evolution isn’t about leaving the past behind. It’s about building on the solid foundation that traditional martial arts have laid down. It’s about taking the philosophies that have guided martial artists for centuries and finding new, relevant ways to apply them in our lives today.

To my fellow martial artists, school owners, and instructors, I say this: embrace this change. Be open to new ideas, but don’t lose sight of the core values that drew you to martial arts in the first place. Challenge yourself to grow not just as a practitioner, but as a leader and a person.

And to those considering starting their martial arts journey, I say: there’s never been a better time. You’re stepping into a world that honors its past while actively shaping its future. You have the opportunity to be part of this evolution, to learn not just how to fight, but how to live with discipline, respect, and purpose.

In the end, the goal of martial arts remains the same as it’s always been – to develop ourselves fully, to face life’s challenges with courage and wisdom, and to make a positive impact on the world around us. As we move forward, let’s carry the best of our traditions with us, using them as a compass to guide us into this exciting new era of martial arts.

The journey continues. Let’s make it count.