The (Martial) Artist’s Way: What to think about before starting

One of my wonderful PhD supervisors here in Sydney asked me a bunch of questions about what martial arts to get her kids to learn and suggested it would be helpful to get all my comments in one post so here I go:

I’ve trained in taekwondo for more than twenty years in various countries and was taught by over 40 coaches (only two were female) with some former Olympians / Asian Games / ASEAN Games medallists and military guys. If I had a favorite part, it was poomsae (forms / patterns that simulate a fight) and all the kicking drills. I never competed despite some cajoling by some coaches because I felt like I already have to compete so much at work with all these art fellowships and competitions that I just wanted something for myself. I picked taekwondo because it was one of the most available and standardised, so wherever I am in the world, there would be a dojang to train in. I don’t think there is a “best” martial art despite what some people say. I have nothing against any of them and just stuck with one as you gotta commit so you can progress in your skills. I think having a good coach that instills the right values and proper skills in you as well as training consistently are the most important things. 

Here are the martial arts I’ve tried:

• Taekwondo (mostly kicks) / Hapkido (a bit of everything, including traditional weapons…I find this to be one of the more balanced martial arts) / Karate (mostly striking) / Kung fu or wushu (training methods inspired by old Chinese philosophies; a lot of animal mimicry and traditional weapons) / Aikido (self-defense that also protects the attackers from injury) —These are all great and usually easy to find a gym to train in if you’re in a major city.

• Kendo (swords) and capoeira (There’s singing and musical instruments which hits my Filipino side, and I find that capoeristas tend to be the friendliest and most socially well-adjusted martial artists.) — These are great, too, though I have a harder time finding studios and may try them out if I find one nearby.

• Judo has a lot of flipping and jujitsu a lot of grappling and I’m not so keen on these as I don’t like the idea of my head hitting the mat or touching a bunch of sweaty guys, but go for it if it’s your thing.

• I’m also throwing in Eskrima/Kali/Arnis/Silat and other Southeast Asian martial arts as someone who did some of these for gym class growing up, though these are more niche and I recommend these for older kids. I sometimes do arnis and capoeira to cross-train with taekwondo. I like giving arnis sticks to my taekwondo coaches as goodbye presents, too. 

I personally recommend any of the martial arts with a strong belt system—these develop discipline and perseverance in kids because they know they have to go through a certain training period before progressing to the next step which is a great metaphor for life. Many coaches will incorporate some lessons from other martial arts; for example, I often trained hapkido self-defense moves in taekwondo. Some people think martial arts are not practical but these are about self-control and not getting into a fight to begin with. Most of the deadliest people I know are the most zen and have the highest emotional intelligence and empathy. 

For me, the location of the studio was very important because it meant I could train more consistently. The dojang I got my first degree black belt in was three blocks away from design school in New York and the one I got my second degree black belt was six doors down from my first art residency in Seoul so I trained almost everyday. I don’t think being a black belt is the end of anything or that I’m the best at anything, but it does signal some level of competency and more importantly, a sense of transcendence and the beginning of something bigger. 

Over the years I’ve seen that many people (myself included) get into martial arts because of problems—either external ones such as issues at work or school or in relationships, or internal ones such as behavioral issues and anger problems, etc. Martial arts is great because you learn to take hits and keep going despite setbacks, and most importantly, to learn and master oneself. I’ve had depression twice as an adult and taekwondo was the one of the things that pulled me from the abyss. I knew growth was happening when instead of bringing my depression to training, I ended up bringing what I learned in martial arts to the real world, and now I feel like I can take on anything. As a woman who’s more on the femme side and seems too happy in training (nothing makes me happier than the sound of my foot hitting a kickpad), no one is more shocked that I “graduated” than me, but that’s just because I kept at it and didn’t see the black belt as the end. (On a side note, never ask “How long does it take to get a black belt?” to a coach. It irritates the beejezus out of them and from what I’ve seen, those were my classmates who usually don’t achieve it because they never stuck around long enough and were too impatient.) It took me 13 years to get my black belt because I travelled a lot and had to unlearn some things from the previous studio, and so on. 

While the coaches are obviously important, I also don’t want to place excessive value on them, as I would learn later on as an adult. The guru-fication of masters (hello Cobra Kai) feels like how Gwyneth Paltrow gooped yoga; the best coaches I’ve had taught me to be self-reliant and resilient even when I left the studio and the country. 

I think the best thing about martial arts is traning a sense of responsibility for yourself and for others, and knowing that everything in life is part of your overall training to be a good human. You know when you’ve progressed a bit when you’re assigned to teach someone who is new to class, and some of the most humbling moments I’ve had were having to help teach kids with behavioral issues, or in one class, a mom and her young son who were a survivors of domestic violence.

As a kid, I had some romanticised notion where I thought of martial artists as the most well-rounded people in society (i.e. not just kick-smart, but also book-smart and current events-smart). We do not live in an ideal world and so while I love taekwondo to bits there have been not-so-happy times, such as being around the dumb jock and/or sexist archetypes, those who turned out to be conspiracy theorists (LOL), and a mild sexual harassment case nine years ago in New York that was quite traumatising and gave me PTSD for years afterward and almost made me give up the sport. I think this is partly an effect of the extreme commercialisation of martial arts (and everything else in our neoliberal world) that prioritises belt progress and competition above overall character development and education; I imagine there are academic papers out there that write about athletes’ bodies being used for political gains in events like the Olympics only to toss them aside once they’ve earned their medals, for example. But it has brought me some of my best friends in the world; a sixth sense of showing up, following through and finishing what I started; and I think this has protected me as a woman in the art world (and any world) especially as someone who has lived and worked in many countries in challenging situations. I have never had to hurt anyone and I hope I never have to, and that’s when you know your training worked.

Some other things to think about when finding a gym/studio/dojo/dojang:

• Coach – Obviously they must keep students safe, train them with honor, start and end class on time, etc. I like the studios with assistant coaches especially if the class Is large. 

• Culture – Some studios are designed to get students to compete and rack up medals, while some are mainly for fitness. I am an old lady and choose the latter.

• Alignment with the international governing body (e.g. World Taekwondo, World Karate Federation, etc.) as these are how they standardize the curriculum so you know it’s legit. If you or your kid transfers to another studio then at least you’re not starting entirely from scratch. 

• Practical things like equipment and uniforms and whether you have the budget to buy and maintain them

One can debate forever as to which martial art is the best one for you and your kid, but I think the most important thing after trying some classes and narrowing your choices is to begin. The second most important thing is to see it to the end and get your black belt. The third most important thing is to keep going even after. Now isn’t that what we must do in life as well?

I hope this helps! Get your kids (or yourself) into martial arts!

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