When I started martial arts forty years ago it had an esoteric oriental feel that was totally different to all the other sporting or physical activities out there at the time. It had a romance about it, a spiritual feel. When I first saw my first instructor Tatsuo Suzuki practicing I thought he looked incredible and that he had a distinctiveness that set what he did apart. Through training hard under him and others I managed to get my black belt and later opened one of the first clubs in the uk operated and taught by a non Japanese. The aim here wasn’t to make a fortune but to train more and to teach others what I loved. It was about passion and fun and definitely not about profit as that first club was freezing all year round. The eighties changed lots of that and all of us who had full time academies had to address the subject of making a profit. We had businesses that had to be serviced and staff who needed to get paid. As one of my students Nelson Clarke said ‘ If I don’t pay you then you wont be here in a years time, and I’ll lose out”. However, the thing was the passion not the profit.
Martial arts has kept it’s special place in peoples minds because it couldn’t be bought it had to be earned. As my reputation grew I taught over the years many influential and wealthy people. The thing that intrigued them and continues to intrigue them is that it can’t be bought. You can pay for the training but to get good you still have to train and fight hard. It’s a challenge that has to be met by you and no-one else. One student took me to a famous restaurant where the stars go for lunch. Everyone was there but as we got up to leave one of them said ‘ excuse me are you bob breen?’ I was a celebrity in a room full of celebrities! What a privilege to do the thing you love, keep your self respect and become a celebrity in your own right.
Now there are many companies and people advocating huge profits from teaching martial arts. For those giving a great service this if fine. However, I see many people who seem to have lost the martial art from their business in search of the porsche 911 that they covet. Now the money is the focus whereas it should be the martial art and the money or profit in, I agree, an uneasy balance. I went on one course where the trainer advocated signing parents up to contracts where they were tied in for a number of years. His approach was very extreme and came down to ‘well I’ve got a new Jeep and my son’s just bought a new ford bronco and we don’t give a damn. Let the credit agency or the bailiffs chase them for the money I’ve got my cheque’.
I just can’t see how this works as a long-term business strategy, or how it helps the image of martial arts. Where’s the morality? If people think that owning a big car is going to win them respect and admiration then we’re in a sad place. At meetings with students who are millionaires and billionaires when I’ve professed to be a businessman no one has paid any attention to what I have to say, when they knew I was a respected martial artist the whole room listened to my every word.
Money is great and helps us to live well and help others but it’s not the end of things. Real respect is based on what you do and how you live your life. Then doors are opened everywhere for you, In restaurants you get the best table, you get spontaneous hugs in the street. For many senior instructors there is a great cache in being ‘Sifu’ or ‘ Sensei’ in their local communities where they are treated with respect that money can’t buy. I hear great thing of people like Rick Young, Terry Barnett, Geoff Thompson, Paul Whitrod and the many other unsung teachers who I don’t know so well. This is a special place to be.
To all new instructors I’d just say that they should be as businesslike as possible and get the best input when starting a club so that they are financially educated and responsible. Have a good knowledge of sales techniques, as they really work, but realise that people don’t buy so well when you’re repeating a script similar to the one they’ve heard in Dixons or Curry’s. Your reputation is your best long-term sales tool. Then you get the repeat or referred business. Obviously for a club to function it has to pay its way. For you to enjoy it most it helps if you earn a good living, but don’t sell your soul for the money. Keep your passion and a sense of what’s right. Treat others as you’d like to be treated. One night over thirty five years ago a senior Karate instructor came to my club and watched me teach and said ‘don’t you get bored?” I thought; how can you get bored? You’re helping people, learning as you go along and it’s ever changing. Even then that instructors focus was on the money. They’ve gone on to huge financial success in martial arts, but for thirty years I bet they’ve been bored. Surely, that’s a fate worse than death. For me it’s a buzz just being around solid people every day. It’s hard to keep a level head, but, to live long and prosper you need to help others prosper and benefit too. Train hard-train smart.