In the 1970s and 80s, large sport martial arts events drew large amounts of adult black belt competitors. Go to the hotel bar at a national karate tournament and you will hear conversations about the good old days, when adult black belts fought in divisions that had 80 competitors. When forms competitors had better martial arts technique, when groin kicks were legal and they used plaster as hand wraps. OK, the last two don’t sound so “good” but it’s what they did.
So what happened? What happened to the sport, that caused tournaments to rarely get 80 total black belt fighters, let alone in one division? Why does it look more like a gymnastics event rather than a display of martial arts skills? Well, there are a lot of factors but they all revolve around Daniel LaRusso.
In the 70’s, children competing in tournaments was rare. Most large national tournaments at that time drew thousands of competitors and the majority were adults. Children divisions were so rare that martial arts tournaments didn’t have divisions for them. Sure there were a few tournaments that had kids divisions but not many.
In the early 80s, children’s divisions became more common but still rare. So rare that Ernie Reyes Jr once competed in the adult black belt forms division when he was 9 or 10 because there wasn’t a black belt kids division. Think about that for a second. Here is a kid who isn’t even a teenager yet competing with the adults because there is no one his age or rank at a tournament. By the mid-80s, black belt kids divisions became more common place. This adjustment by promoters shows that more and more kids began to practice martial arts. Why? What made children want to become martial artists? The answer…entertainment.
In March 1984, Black belt magazine has an article by Richard Byrne and Victoria DeMarco, detailing how to teach children martial arts. At this time martial arts schools were failing. Enrollment was down and school owners were trying to find new ways to boost new memberships. This article shows that most instructors don’t know how to teach children. It also shows that school owners were trying new things to stay in business. Many tried to make their schools in to health clubs with saunas, steam rooms, tanning salons and weight lifting equipment. Other martial arts schools began to market to children. Owners used self-discipline, self-confidence and anti-bullying as promotional tools to change the perception of martial arts as a strictly combat activity. In the Feb 1984 issue of Black belt magazine, there is an article written about how the new martial arts schools will be more health club than dojo. But then, fast forward to October 1984, Karate Illustrated wrote an article titled “The Karate Kid: Are we headed for another boom?”
Those are two completely different perspectives on the future of martial arts instructions, and it changed in 8 months. Why? Well in June of 1984, the Karate Kid was releases. It was a mega hit, becoming the fifth highest grossing film of the year! With the success of this movie more kids enrolled in to martial arts. So with this new approach you have to cater to your new clients. Today, most schools cater towards children and their needs while adult classes are less of a priority. Most martial arts schools are comprised of people under the age of 14. That is a complete role reversal from the 1970s.
Well that’s all fine and dandy but how did this hurt sport karate? Wouldn’t the inclusion of children make our sport better? The answer is not exactly. With this new clientele, a new way of teaching began and with this new way of teaching came some side effects. Let’s explore, based on fictional character “Bob the Martial artist”.
Bob: “Man, I can’t keep this kids attention for 90 minutes. They are getting really antsy. You know what, no more 90 minute classes. From now on I will have 45 to 30 minute classes. Children can’t train as hard as adults, no more 500 jumping jacks and 200 kicks will do 50 jumping jacks and 10 kicks.” (side effect: Bob isn’t training along with his students because he has to instruct and its too easy for him. So he doesn’t get better and his skills diminish a little.)
BOOM! The Teenage mutant ninja turtles take the country by storm.
Bob:”Wow, another increase in enrollment. These turtles have given me a great idea. What if one Saturday a month I have school Pizza parties. Also, let’s incorporate costume and birthday parties at the karate school on the weekends. By doing this our students will bring friends and we can possibly increase our enrollment. Great business idea!” (side effect: can’t go to tournaments on the weekend because i have an obligation to the school)
Bob: “I’m so tired; I taught six classes for 5 days straight. I have don’t have any energy to train. To be honest, I really haven’t trained a lot the last few months so I won’t compete at this weekend’s tournament. I’ll just take my students, judge and coach. Can’t go out there and have that young hungry 16 year old beat me in front of my students. No, sir!” (side effect: Bob stops training, so he doesn’t compete. Without him competing it doesn’t motivate his students to compete.)
Bob: “Wow, little Johnny just lost 7-0. I hope he doesn’t get discouraged. Oh great, his mom is babying him right now. I hope he doesn’t want to quit training. But what do you expect because every time I try to push johnny in practice, mom gets upset and wants me to ease up on him. What to do, what to do? I know! Instead of using that loss as a teachable moment about overcoming deficiencies and working harder, I’ll just stop having my children compete in tournaments. We can’t destroy the kids’ self-esteem so let’s ease up on how hard we push them. We have to keep them happy and so they don’t quit.”
That instructor might have been a world class competitor. He competed all across the country and trained every day. But because their school saw a financial gain, they made decisions to invest their energy into their school and not their sport. I can’t blame them for that but it subsequently hurt sport martial arts. The school is what puts a roof over their head and food in their belly. Competition is just entertainment. Livelihood outweighs entertainment.
The fear of losing martial arts students caused instructors to change the curriculum, stop training and to stop having their students compete. All of this has led to the decline of the amount of competitors at martial arts events and the subsequent watering down of our sport. Sport martial arts has become stagnant and stale. Thanks Daniel Son!