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Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Building Character: Martial Arts Are No Better Than Other Sports

“She’s doing better in school… I’m really impressed with the discipline that’s involved with the sport.”

The person who said that has to be talking about martial arts, right?

When we sell the idea of the martial arts, we use words like “discipline”, “focus”, “respect” and “self-confidence”. We talk about how kids will be better behaved at home and do better in school. All of these words describe how the martial arts build us into better people. This idea of becoming better humans through martial arts is one thing that separates us from other sports and activities.

But what if I told you the sport in the quote above was basketball? It’s true. Someone I know said that about her daughter’s basketball training.

Maybe that doesn’t come as such a shock to you. Or maybe it does.

The thing is, the martial arts don’t have a monopoly on discipline. Or on building character in general. Despite the way we market our arts, we aren’t the monarchs of trying to develop better people through physical activity.

There’s nothing wrong with promoting personal growth through martial arts. What parent doesn’t want better-behaved kids? What teenager or adult doesn’t want more focus and self-confidence? And it can happen. I’ve seen it happen and so have many others. But no matter how many times we’ve heard the messages, we shouldn’t kid ourselves into believing that the martial arts are somehow superior to other sports in this area.

The same life skills that can be learned through martial arts can also be learned through football, basketball, hockey, baseball or gymnastics. Things like determination, discipline, and the ability to overcome adversity are necessary to succeed in any sport. Most coaches I’ve seen will emphasize respect for coaches and other players. And when people succeed in sports, it often helps their self-confidence.

Learning some respect

The skills learned come partly from the activity itself and partly from the coach or instructor. Many martial arts instructors tell their students to respect senior belts, and to do so by following proper protocol and etiquette rules in the dojang. Coaches of other sports can do essentially the same thing (and often do). But there’s nothing inherent in any sport or martial art that says a student will learn respect. It all depends on on the coaching style; on how the coach leads the group.

If I wanted to, I could teach taekwon-do in a way that encourages people to behave like absolute brats. But that behaviour wouldn’t reflect one ounce on their physical skills. If I taught those students well, they could still be amazing at taekwon-do.

That’s an extreme example, but there’s nothing inherent in things like bowing, for example, that somehow makes me better at the martial arts. And that means that those things are by-products of the martial arts, not part of the arts themselves. I could choose to teach my students only to be good at the physical art of taekwon-do, or I could try to help them develop into better people as well. It’s completely up to my coaching style, not to the martial art.

Similarly, a soccer coach could teach their athletes to win at all costs. Or that same coach could emphasize things like respect and teamwork while still leading the team to victory.

Discipline ≠ self-discipline

“But,” I hear some people cry, “if coaches in other sports try to teach their athletes to be good people, why are some athletes from other sports such jerks sometimes?” It’s because some people are just jerks. The activity really has nothing to do with it.

We promote the martial arts as a way to build character, but I’ve met my share of martial artists who were pretty terrible humans. That reflects on them, not on the arts they practice. No single physical activity is going to mold people into completely different people. That takes an entire social structure. Good coaches can help people learn to develop some positive characteristics, but we aren’t miracle workers.

People also have to work to change things for themselves.

For every kid I’ve seen in the martial arts whose behaviour improved at home and in school, I’ve seen others who were already well-behaved beforehand, or who improved their behaviour in the dojang but not outside its walls. Kids in this last group learn that to succeed in the activity they like, they have to behave in class. But for many people, the martial arts don’t really extend beyond the dojang floor. These kids have no incentive to change their behaviour at large.

This can extend to adults as well. Some adult students will improve their self-confidence and focus in all areas of their life. Others will show an improvement in class, but not in the real world.

Remember that discipline and self-discipline are not the same thing. Discipline is external; self-discipline is internal. Students have a structure to follow under the martial arts or any organized sport. Some people will thrive in that structure and learn to improve their self-discipline outside of that context. Others won’t. It has little to do with the activities themselves, and more to do with the participants.

So by all means, keep promoting the martial arts as a way to help build things like discipline, respect and self-confidence. But let’s stop pretending we hold the key to the one true path to enlightenment. We’re not that special.