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Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Loyalty to Your Instructor

Though I die and die again a hundred times,
That my bones turn to dust, whether my soul remains or not,
Ever loyal to my Lord, how can this red heart ever fade away?

—Jeong Mong-ju, a.k.a Po-Eun

I’ve read several translations of this poem. If you’re a black belt, or have at least researched the interpretations of the patterns up to black belt, then you’ll probably recognize a simplified, but  much less poetic version: “I would not serve a second master though I might be crucified a hundred times.”

In Taekwon-Do, as in many martial arts, loyalty to your instructor is emphasized. But, like a lot of the things I’ve been writing about, the interpretation of “loyalty” can vary greatly. Some instructors seem to demand little more than paying attention in class and trying your best to learn the material. For others, loyalty means much, much more.

I’ve seen too many instructors who demand a sense of loyalty that goes well beyond most other business relationships that exist nowadays. They forbid students from training at other clubs (sometimes even disapproving of training in other martial arts). They demand that students help out around the dojang or at club events. They ask these things because this is apparently how dedicated students behave.

It’s as if they’re trying to preserve some aspect  of a feudal Asian culture because that’s what martial arts are about. If you dress up in funny pyjamas and coloured belts, then you must have to pretend to be a samurai, right?

Where did this come from?

As with a lot of what we do in TKD, this seems to be an import from Karate. A number of Karate instructors seem to make the same demands, and have for some time. And I’d be willing to bet that instructors in other martial arts do it as well.

This may have its roots in actual Japanese and Korean culture. Or, like other aspects of Shotokan karate—and taekwon-do by extension—it may have come from the military. I don’t really know. And I don’t really care. I don’t think it has any place in a modern dojang.

This attitude of demanding loyalty  to the point of excluding other teachers has existed in the martial arts scene for some time now. But rejecting it is not a modern idea. In his book Karate-Do: My Way of Life, Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan karate, said of his two main teachers:

Both Azato and his good friend Itosu shared at least one quality of greatness: They suffered from no petty jealousy of other masters. They would present me to other masters of their acquaintance, urging me to learn from each the techniques at which they excelled. Ordinary Karate instructors, in my experience, are reluctant to allow their pupils to study under instructors of other schools, but this was far from true of either Azato or Itosu.

Here, we see that this attitude existed in Funakoshi’s time, but that his instructors (some very influential men in the Karate world) didn’t share it.

Those who cannot learn from history…

If these men didn’t believe in such “petty jealousy” in the martial arts more than a hundred years ago, why are we still carrying on the tradition today?

Well, for one reason, old habits die hard. When students become instructors, they mimic the people who taught them. This is what they know.

For another reason, preaching loyalty to your instructor is good for business.

Make no mistake about it, teaching taekwon-do is a business. Whether your school is a for-profit or a not-for-profit outfit, whether it has ten students or a thousand, you have to charge something to keep the lights on. And to be able to keep charging money, you need students to charge.

Demanding loyalty to the instructor is good for business because it keeps students from discovering things that they think are better. It keeps them believing that your school is the best because they don’t know how other schools operate. It keeps them from questioning the instructor if they find a difference of opinion. And it keeps them from splitting their time between two martial arts, which means that they’ll hopefully spend more time in the dojang.

“Loyalty” is also one of the tools that instructors use to get their students to volunteer to do things for them. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all in favour of volunteering to help an organization that you care about. But when you volunteer your time or skills not because you want to, but because it’s expected of you, that doesn’t sit right with me.

I won’t go into detail, because I could write another entire article on this, but I have seen instructors set the expectation that students are to do things like help clean the dojang, and organize and help out at club events and tournaments. Not just that some students want to volunteer, but that they’re made to feel like they have to volunteer. Some clubs also set the expectation that when you reach black belt, you are to help teach for free. It’s also not uncommon for instructors to ask their students to provide professional services for free (like giving legal advice, providing printing or anything else that parents and adult students do), or at least at a discount, to help the club.

This is also good for business because it allows instructors to do more than they would be able to do alone. It frees up both time and finances. Many clubs would not be able to flourish without this type of volunteerism through loyalty. If it’s freely offered, great. But it shouldn’t be expected.

Who’s serving whom?

You don’t automatically owe your instructor anything just by taking TKD lessons from them. This isn’t medieval Asia, and you aren’t paying for lessons through servitude. You’re paying in cash. You are paying for a service and your instructor owes that service to you, not the other way around.

If you were taking piano lessons from someone, would you think it was right if they demanded that you not learn any musical skills elsewhere, or that you clean the piano every day? I don’t know about you, but that would make me pretty uncomfortable. So why do we think it’s OK in our taekwon-do clubs?

In other sports and activities, students are often encouraged to learn from other coaches and instructors. It’s how people share knowledge and improve their skills. In other service industries, the service provider is expected to provide the amenities and manpower to make the clients as comfortable as possible.

Many clubs are tight-knit, and you may develop good relationships with the instructor and other students over time. And I believe that’s a good thing. That sense of camaraderie is part of what makes TKD training so fun. If you feel a sense of personal loyalty because of that relationship, then that’s normal. But that loyalty is on you; it shouldn’t be expected. It’s no different than what you would extend to another friend (if this type of business relationship even reaches true friendship status).

Always be loyal…  to your students

If there’s anything I want you to take away from this article, it’s this: loyalty to your instructor can keep you from becoming better at taekwon-do, or at martial arts in general. No two coaches are the same. And no two people will respond identically to the same coach. If another instructor can teach you something better than your regular instructor can, why not learn from his/her knowledge?

Your regular instructor may be great, but if another instructor can teach you something that will take your sparring to the next level, take advantage of that. If you can further your own skills by cross-training in another art, then why not?

If you really love your club, you don’t have to leave it to learn from others. But on the other hand, if you’ve found something you honestly feel is better, you don’t owe it to your instructor to stay.

Instructors, if you truly want your students to get better, allow them to learn from others. If you want them to stay at your club, then become the best instructor you can. Make them want to stay because they’ve seen other clubs and truly love yours, not because they feel like they owe it to you.

In the Encyclopedia, General Choi wrote that “A good student must be willing to sacrifice for his/her art and instructor,” and “Always be loyal, never criticize the instructor, Taekwon-Do or teaching methods.” I realize that what I’ve written here contradicts this.

Instead of “always be loyal,” I would say, “don’t be an idiot. If you’re going to criticize your instructor, Taekwon-Do or teaching methods, choose the appropriate time and place, and do it in a constructive, civil fashion.” As for sacrificing: no. You’re paying for lessons, so you should only give what you genuinely want to, and it’s not the instructor’s place to make you do anything.

The Encyclopedia also says, “If a student adopts a technique from another dojang and the instructor disapproves of it the student must discard it immediately or train at the gym where the technique was learned.”

As much as General Choi liked his military discipline, even he seemed to be open to the idea of learning from other instructors (even if there is a hint of doubt there). Which makes sense. He wanted to spread TKD as far as possible, not keep it insular.

I can essentially agree with his statement. I like to be open for discussion about techniques. But if I’ve designed a curriculum, it’s so that I can teach things consistently to all my students. I’m all in favour of changing things up if I learn something new, but I wouldn’t want one student doing something that I disagree with while I’m trying to teach the rest of the students the opposite. To me, that’s not a question of loyalty. That’s just good coaching.

When it comes to loyalty, it, like respect, must be earned. Loyalty can’t be demanded in a modern business setting. Not if we really want to keep our students happy. Instructors owe their loyalty to their students, not the other way around.