RESPECT in Martial Arts
In the romanticized folklore of traditional martial arts values, the master instructor commanded respect through their deeds, their abilities and their profound learned wisdom and knowledge of philosophy and moral culture.
They led by example, gave sound advice and guidance, they were truly respected, educated in life, and more importantly showed respect and humility to all others, regardless of rank, position or perceived benefit to themselves.
Note for the purposes of this article, I use the term Master that can apply to any instructor, as the title is afforded at different levels by different organizations, some even afford it to themselves. Or any title which is allocated the same level of status, such as Guru, Grandmaster, Supreme Grandmaster, Great Grandmaster, Professor, Shihan, Hanshi … etc.
In the days when there weren’t so many, a Master was always spoken about in glowing terms by others who were also highly respected, not just their own students, followers or by virtue of self-propaganda.
These revered figured were seen to have reached a level that very few had scaled before them, and that only the most dedicated and brilliant would ever see if they lived long enough.
Students would willingly do anything for their master, showing overt signs of respect because they felt honored and privileged, not to gain favoritism or payment, not to seek attention, nor out of a sense of obligation nor because they were instructed to.
This respect would often flow on outside the dojang as well and lived on long after the Master has passed or the student may have stopped training.
In my observations from teaching students in schools all around the world for well over 30 years, students who are genuinely respectful and those schools who have a majority of respectful students, stem from an instructor who displays respect and humility to all.
Having said that, I believe respect is a value that is developed and reinforced in the home and by the parents and family unit. It is unlikely one would be disrespectful to their own parents yet respectful to others.
Many students/instructors will bow in class and recite the oath and tenets every day as a part of ceremonial obligation, without really having any intention of living them, or a clear working understanding of their practical application in society.
Whilst there are still a handful of highly skilled, highly ethical, and humble masters around, a sadder development of the modern martial arts culture and sportification of martial arts, is that the instructor has, in many cases, become a person who ‘demands’ rather than ‘commands’ respect.
A ‘respect me or else’ mentality is ingrained into the doctrine of their schools, where students are ‘forced’ to show obligatory forms of respect to conform with the schools ‘rules’, or risk sanctions, demotions or even expulsions.
The modern master often demands respect solely due to their martial arts rank, or position within an organization (often self-made), rather than their actual contribution to the betterment of society.
Outside of their martial arts school, that ‘respected’ master is often an egotistical, poorly educated and brash business man. Martial arts is merely the vehicle to gain respect, worship and status and feed their ego, with adulation that they probably wouldn’t receive anywhere else in the community. It can be very addictive for the psyche and eventually can overpower all the good initial intentions.
Some think respect is gained physically, where the seniors rough up, intimidate or constantly berate juniors, mistakenly thinking that fear creates respect.
Fear is not a form of respect and leads to eventual loathing, and ironically disrespect. Those who are bullied themselves inevitably go on to also become bullies. That is a caveman mentality of ignorant and uneducated people.
Sometimes a fabricated history, so far in the past that there are no witnesses or documented substantiation, has the followers convinced that their Master must be a brilliant exponent who came form the ‘old school’ of hard knocks, or walked straight of the set of ‘Kung Fu’.
Instructors have been known to vigorously protect their false status by jealously sheltering their students from other schools students or organizations for fear that they will be exposed as mere mortals (and often substandard exponents and unethical businessmen), and not the demi-gods they pretend to be.
Signs that instructors are developing a negative culture of egotistically ‘insisting respect’ include:
– Insists on respect to be shown to themselves, but does not insist it be shown to others, and shows little respect to others
– Addresses themselves as Master when introducing himself or in general conversation, especially to non-martial artists or those senior to themselves
– Master should be something other people call you if they deem you deserve it, not just because they have to.
This is not to be confused with listing your rank/title on official related items, documentation, advertising etc, where the information is to distinguish one from the general membership.
– Makes you put ‘their’ name on ‘your’ black belt or uniform, as if they ‘made’ you
– Punishes etiquette breaches without educating the culprit on how to improve
– Has their own photo at the front of the dojang that everyone MUST bow to, sometimes right there along side the Founder.
– Tells you only ‘their’ certificate’ has more value than any other Federation’s certificate, even when they printed it themselves.
– Rarely puts on a uniform and demonstrates their art, or passes down knowledge.
– Refuses to be a student in front of other students when senior ranks visits to teach, insisting on private training and closed testings only.
– Doesn’t show respect to lower ranked students or non martial artists
– Continually defames other instructors, never giving credit where it’s due
– Forbids you from interacting with students/instructors from other schools
– Charges exorbitant fees but provides a basic service, often whilst having their subordinates teach the classes without payment, as an ‘honor’.
‘Human beings come into the world with simple needs and desires. They need not become avaricious but ought to remain always humble and merciful, never compromise their principles, nor be swayed by selfish motives, to insure freedom and independence of Taekwon-Do so that it will be passed on in its pure form.’
In a society which is morally decaying at a rapid rate, the value of respect is being less and less emphasized in the way we speak to each other, act towards each other, the lyrics in our popular songs, the messages and photos shared on social media and the way we treat other human beings, race, cultures and religions.
A good martial arts school, led by a great martial arts leader is perhaps one of the last bastions where the ageless virtue of respect has a chance to flourish and grow, and to be ingrained into the student’s character.
Like nourishing fresh rain, respect flows downwards…….. as does acid rain.
For all the truly great Masters and instructors out there – keep up the great work and never lose sight of the positive influence you can have on your students.
Written by Michael Muleta, 8th Degree
B.Ed (PE/Sci), Adv Dip (Bus), Adv Dip (Mgmt)
Under Secretary – International Taekwon-Do Federation
President & Technical Director – United ITF Taekwon-Do Australia