Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Taekwon-Do Almost Killed Me

Headache; nausea; insomnia; weakness; dizziness; sexual dysfunction; drowsiness; dry mouth; sweating; temporarily increased thoughts of suicide among children and young adults.

Those are the side effects of an antidepressant I used to take. The first two weeks were hell. I was already suicidal. For those two weeks, the drugs made it worse.

I picked a date. I had a plan. It would all be over soon. But the medication started working as it should and my plans changed.

I was 22. I had never really been in charge of anything. I was barely able to run my own life, let alone a Taekwon-Do school. But I couldn’t let my instructor down. I had to keep the dojang going for him. I had the opportunity of a lifetime. I couldn’t say no.

I still don’t know why, but I could hardly stand to set foot inside my own bedroom. It felt oppressive, claustrophobic. I slept on the hard, narrow couch, a pile of dirty laundry beside it. I rarely left that couch, except to teach classes. There’s more to running a Taekwon-Do school than just teaching, but I neglected the business. I couldn’t handle it. Every day, I would cry. Out of fear. Out of pain. Out of wanting to find a way out.

I thought death was the only real escape. I was convinced.

I’m happy to say I’m better now.

Very few people know about what you’ve just read. I’ve kept it a secret from all but a few of my closest friends. I was afraid of the stigma attached to mental illness, even one as common as depression. I was afraid the people I knew wouldn’t look at me the same. I was afraid they would see me as broken or weak. I was afraid of seeing pity or disgust in their eyes. But I feel like I’m finally ready to share.

Too much, too soon

When I was 18, I joined a Taekwon-Do club that I enjoyed for a few years. The instructor was demanding, sometimes even stern, and had a particular way of doing things. And like his own instructor, he demanded loyalty. I didn’t mind at the time. In fact, that’s actually what I expected of the martial arts back then. A few people who had started training at the same time as me left the club because they got some bad vibes. I always gave the instructor the benefit of the doubt. You can’t please everybody all the time, right? Plus, he had a lot of technical knowledge and I was really enjoying my training.

That club was part of a larger chain, for lack of a better word, with its headquarters in another city. When I was 22, and a fairly fresh first degree black belt, that organization opened another school and asked my instructor to run it. He moved across the country and asked me to take over my local club. I had wanted to open my own dojang at some point in the future, but I didn’t feel like I was ready for that responsibility when it landed in my lap. On the other hand, when would I ever get the chance to have a fully-formed club handed to me? I couldn’t just let my dojang die. So I said yes.

A red flag should have gone up right away. Two other people had already been asked to take over the club and had said they weren’t prepared to handle the responsibility. I was choice number three. For some reason, I was OK with that.

I made a terrible decision. I was young, with no business experience, and I took on too much, too soon. I signed contracts with the parent organization and with my instructor, and committed a lot of money. As much as they told me otherwise, the arrangement was all about business. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a business relationship (it was a business we were dealing with, after all), but with no experience, I felt like I needed some very personal support. My instructor told me on many occasions that he could help answer any questions I had, and I still think he meant it, but I had no idea what questions to ask.

I had thought that taking over an existing club, the club that I had belonged to for years, would be an easy way to get into the game. I was wrong. Like a franchise, the parent organization had very specific guidelines and standards they expected me to meet, and procedures they expected me to follow. The students also had expectations of how the club was supposed to be run. They were used to the old instructor, but no two people are the same. I had big shoes to fill.

I wasn’t ready for any of that. I didn’t have the experience to handle the daily administration of an existing business while upholding someone else’s standards. I didn’t have the experience to be the personality and the leader that the students wanted me to be.

I made mistakes. A lot of them. Because I didn’t know what I was doing.

When my instructor asked me to take over the dojang, I was visiting him in his new city—the same city where the headquarters were. I said yes right away. In the airport later that day, waiting to go home, I felt so unprepared, so afraid, that my eyes welled up with tears. That should have been my first clue.

The cult of martial arts

The pressure of running a business with no experience definitely led to my depression. But I believe that pressure was compounded by something else. Something darker.

I kept my illness a secret, but the martial arts world has a dirty little secret of its own. It’s one that many experienced martial artists know, but one that very few people talk about: the martial arts are a breeding ground for toxic, cult-like environments.

Think about it: the martial arts attract a number of people who feel weak. These people may have been bullied or even abused. Martial arts make them feel strong and capable, like they are in control, like they can handle themselves. I know because I was one of them.

These people don’t have control over others in their day-to-day lives. But if they become martial arts instructors, they have power over hundreds of students. And the higher they climb in the ranks, the more power they get in their small corner of the world.

Going from a position of weakness to a position of power can do weird things to some people. Instead of having sympathy for weakness, they prey on it. They can control and manipulate others so they feel even more powerful. And the more power they get, the more they are able to structure their clubs like cults, with themselves as the supreme leaders.

I believe my former organization was built to be like a cult. The head instructor even said it himself. He once told me that to exercise influence over his students, he was purposely creating a “cult of personality.” I didn’t take him literally at the time.

They had me hooked. If there was black-belt flavoured Kool-Aid to drink, I would have guzzled it. And I believe they took advantage of that. I think they saw a young, loyal, malleable student and found an opportunity to have him run a failing school in their own image.

Of course it was a failing school. It had a few good years left in it, but why else would my instructor leave? Why else would he entrust his legacy to a 22-year-old first degree black belt with less than a year’s experience at teaching students and zero experience at running a business? Probably because he could build his new school and use me to still get money out of the old one as it died.

Being in a cult-like organization made me agree to take over the club; it’s what made my instructor ask in the first place. It’s what made me take on more than I could handle. It’s what made me afraid to ask for help even when I made mistakes because I was convinced that my instructor would yell at me for not knowing what to do. It’s what stressed me past my breaking point. It’s what made me want to kill myself.

How to know if your club is like a cult

My former organization is not an anomaly. There are cult-like schools all throughout the martial arts. They may be big or small. They may may operate in neat, professional-looking spaces or dingy basement dojangs. They may be from any type of martial art you can think of. There’s no one-size-fits-all.

Luckily, most martial arts schools provide decent, supportive environments for their students. But if your club has the following characteristics, you might want to consider whether it’s time to leave.

  • The instructor demands strict loyalty. His or her word can’t be questioned. And whatever you do, you can never suggest that the instructor might be doing something wrong.
  • The instructor overreacts to perceived betrayals or disobedience, sometimes making an example of the offending student.
  • You aren’t allowed to train at other clubs, or worse yet, in other martial arts.
  • Socializing with people from other clubs is a big no-no (my former club once kicked a guy out because his wife trained at another school).
  • The instructor often yells at you or other students.
  • The instructor regularly criticizes other clubs to help demonstrate how good his/hers is.
  • You feel like you have to walk on eggshells to keep your instructor happy.
  • There is a general attitude that your club is superior to all others.
  • You’re sometimes nervous about asking your instructor questions because you’re afraid he or she may react negatively.

If you feel like you are in a cult-like club, please get out. We can’t let these sorts of organizations continue to poison the martial arts. We can’t let anyone else get to the same place I was.

  • James Turpin

    Did I hear correctly that you recently made 4th dan? Congrats!

    • Thanks, but that’s a little premature. I’m not quite there yet.

      • James Turpin

        My bad! Must have heard the name wrong.

        • I stand corrected. It got announced to the Facebook world before I even knew about it.

  • Ricardo Castillo

    Why I left my first TKD organization. Don’t know if they’re that way now, they may have mellowed some. Plus, the attitude of some of these Korean masters didn’t help any. This was an excellent article. Thank you.

    • Thanks for reading. Glad to hear you got away from that sort of environment. In my experience, they don’t mellow, but I hope they have.

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  • William Lokesvararaja

    Dudeee, that list of characteristics confirmed all in my old ITF taekwon-do instructor. (do I use the capital correct?)
    I laughed my ass stink reading that list one my one.
    I guess he still having his cult run somewhere else.
    And there was someone like me, doing the exact opposite of what he forbided.

    • I’m glad you got out and are doing the exact opposite 🙂

      • William Lokesvararaja

        I enjoy your writing, I hope you write more 🙂

  • A left a martial arts organization around 2006. I remember every Do Jang had a picture of the Master on the wall. They had to bow to the flag, the picture, and everyone else. If you didn’t bow to the picture posted the wall you would be reprimanded. The master would make examples out of someone for doing the something wrong in front of everyone. When you bowed to him, you had to show the back of your head too. He would demand some of his head instructors to work at his house during Spring and summer time with out compensation. And this Tae kwon Do organization is well known. And it is located in the southwestern part of Pennsylvania. If you leave the organization your branded A betrayer or outcast. Speaking from experience…this has happened to me. Over 16 years blood, sweat, and tears. And been discarded like a piece of trash.