I don't know who needs to hear this, but...

I don’t know if you need to hear this, but you should know that you are under no obligation to continue to put up with abusive practices by a martial arts instructor who claims that they are necessary to “toughen you up” or “turn you into a warrior.” It feels so obvious to say, and yet I still meet people who have had this experience and still stayed on. I guess the cycle of abuse persists, even in the dojo.

In this essay, I intend to tackle the problem of the abusive martial-arts school by first describing the practices of a good school, and those of a toxic school, then by examining the history of the practice, at least in relationship to contemporary dojo/gym culture; second, and finally by establishing a set of clear parameters for the martial student so that they may understand when a school or an instructor is crossing over into behavior that constitutes unwarranted aggression.

Rigorous Schools vs. Abusive Schools

I would like to self-promote here, to tell you that CNUDojo is the ideal school; however, to do so would seem incredibly self-serving, and would bleed my message of its authenticity. I’ll just say that we’re supportive, but also push for student growth. That said, allow me to point toward another school, in which I have no financial investment: Shadowhouse South Jiu Jitsu in Brownwood, Texas.

Coach Wes, of Shadowhouse South, is one of a handful of instructors under whom I have trained (though not a lot) over the course of my martial education. I can tell you with all confidence that Coach Wes’s school represents a good example of what martial instruction should be.

That said, there is no question that training at Shadowhouse demands a willingness to suffer. Coach Wes, you see, understands that ease creates weak bodies and poor understanding of how to apply technique. The constant pressure from training partners, the degree to which he expects you to sweat, are all conducive to the central purpose of his establishment: preparing people to confront violence with minds and bodies hardened by hours of rigorous practice. And yet, within the struggle, he is supportive of his students, and friendly.

I grew to respect Coach Wes Copeland and his wife, Sarah, who functions as his assistant instructor, quite quickly. He offered common excuses little harbor, and stretched my limitations while under his tutelage. At no point did I feel cause to be afraid of his temper or manner; at no point did I feel like he would intentionally humiliate me for asking a question. I observed him offering reminders to those that might be developing an overinflated ego that there was always someone against whom they would struggle, but it was never done in a way that felt actually threatening. That is the kind of place that I want to train.

An abusive school is not one that cultivates suffering, or one in which a person finds his or her concept of self challenged by the cold fact of live resistance; an abusive school is one that prioritizes the instructor over the student. Although the preceding statement might seem oversimplified, I assure you, reader, that it’s not. Not really.

Compare Coach Wes’s school to another, theoretical, school: At this other school, students are told that they are training for self defense, but do not train against live resistance with any frequency. The instructor brooks no disagreement or critical question, as he (or possibly, she) sees these as challenges to his or her authority. This instructor may use physical force, without warning, to reassert that authority. He may wax long-windedly about glory days, and the marvelous feats he could perform, or how easily he vanquished his foes.

The above examples are a composite of several instructors I have met over the years; I’ve also trained students who left such schools only after some kind of major, bitter break with the instructor. The most dismaying thing about these students is that they often report that they believed that such treatment was either necessary for training in the martial arts, or warranted by the instructor’s (supposed) expertise.

How Abusive Practices Became an Accepted Part of the Dojo Hierarchy

When Funakoshi Gichin, the founder of Shotokan Karate, introduced Karate to Imperial Japan in 1917, it was, at least partly, in response to a mandate by the Japanese military government. Boxing, you see, had become a popular spectator sport in the nation; this created a problem for the government whose dogmatic propaganda was built on the pretext that all things native Japanese were superior to those that were occidental, or Western, in origin. While Kano Jigoro’s style, Kodokan Judo, was already a well established combat sport in the nation, it was a grappling art, and the ballistic appeal of Western boxing simply was a different flavor for which the Japanese population had developed quite a taste. Further, there was, at the time, no native Japanese striking art to compete with the people’s attention.

Karate was not a complete unknown to the Japanese before the advent of Funakoshi’s Shotokan style, but it was a style that was considered brutish, thuggish, and uncouth. What Funakoshi did was to, effectively, Japan-ify the art, making it more palatable to the sensibilities of the Japanese people. In many ways, it was marketed as a method of the lifelong pursuit of self-development, while still being an effective martial way equal to the techniques of Occidental boxing. A part of this conception of self-development was the practice of discipline in the dojo.

The concept of sensei, senpai and kohai in the dojo are inherently Japanese, and intensely more complicated than those of us who have appropriated this portion of the culture are likely to fully understand. In his books, both autobiographical and expository, Dave Lowry expounds on the intricacies of these relationships; I cannot recommend his texts highly enough. It sufficeth to say that the culture of the dojo is predicated on clearly delineated roles within an authoritarian hierarchy. In other words, you are expected to know your place in a Japanese dojo. Overlay, onto that preexisting structure, the ideologies of Imperial Japan who, when it was evident that the Allied powers were on the verge of winning the war, ordered its soldiers to engage in suicide runs, while simultaneously commanding its homefront citizens to defend against an invading Allied force with bamboo pikes.

In short, it is important to understand that Karate came into vogue in the Japanese culture at a time when the powers of the land would rather its citizens and soldiers symbolically self-immolate than witness the downfall of the Empire.

It was these sensei who taught the United States soldiers, and who, then, translated Karate to the United States. The Japanese elements of the dojo such as bowing (both from seiza and from standing) already were infused with an attitude of hierarchy; other elements, such as shouting at the students, the snappy military stances and call-and-response replies, these were added not from Japanese culture, but from the military culture of the United States, which came with its own embedded core of hierarchical expectations and protocol.

And so, the imported version of the dojo, as it appears in the United States, offers ripe opportunities for those who seek to aggrandize themselves. Already, the system could be easily corrupted by the egomaniacal instructor to elevate themselves to the level of prophet, and to degrade the students into blindly accepting sycophants.

Criteria for Choosing a Martial School

  • Choose a school where the teacher is friendly, but not slick. Trust your instincts. If you sense that friendliness is a front, and that something untrustworthy lurks beneath, you are allowed to excuse yourself from being under that person’s instruction.

  • Choose a school where the instructor will stretch, but not break you. This can be hard to define in the clearest terms, but you should be honest enough to recognize that we all tend toward laziness, and that an instructor who allows us our excuses is an enabler rather than an asset. We must also, however, understand the difference between legitimate reasons and excuses; on the opposite end of the laziness spectrum exist those instructors who berate their students into avoidable injuries on the pretext of “turning them into warriors.”

  • Choose a school that regularly engages in live resistance. If your martial-arts goals are more art than martial, then this one is not nearly as important. If, however, you expect to learn to fight from your martial instruction, then you should be engaging regularly in live sparring where your opponent is actively trying to overcome you. Drilling with intensity or resistance is valuable, but not a substitute for live sparring.

  • Choose a school where the instructor is subject to skepticism. If no evidence, other than the instructor’s word, can be supplied to validate his or her claims, then you should probably excuse yourself from training under this person.

No student should tolerate abuse by an instructor, whether it is a behavior that is inherited, or the result of the instructor’s own, personal shortcomings.