“Are you a black belt?”
It is an accepted truth that this is always the first question anybody will ask upon finding out you practise martial arts. But what is the second question? I asked my clubmates to share their experiences.
If we refer to Shoto Budo as karate, then Kate being greeted with with “Oooh Ka-ra-te" and then a stereotypical “karate chop” will be familiar. Even worse is the startlingly unoriginal question of “do you do wax on wax off?”. According to Wikipedia, the Karate Kid was released way back in 1984 yet it seems to have cast a long shadow over karate in the public perception. I’ve no idea if any clubs or organisations subscribe to Mr Miyagi’s teaching methods but suffice it to say it’s not something we do.
Paul, Emma and I have all experienced this so how to change that view? Paul deals with this by explaining that whilst karate is the base, Shoto Budo is a wider study of many martial arts and that there is a desire for the skills to be practical in a real-world situation.
Furthering this, Emma finds that once she explains it's based on self-defence, most people ask to be taught something. Once people get past the whole wax on, wax off thing, they're genuinely interested in what we do.
Mentioning karate may evoke images of Joe Esposito belting out “You’re the Best Around” and I often avoid calling it karate, usually to avoid any wax based discussion. That brings up the next challenge of what to call it, with me sometimes saying “self-defence” and sometimes “mixed martial arts” but the latter has its own connotations of cage fighting. That in turn leads to explanations that we’re not involved in competitive fighting.
As Jamie comments, this can lead to “is it like Tae Kwon Do?”. Perhaps it is the recent Olympic exposure and Team GB success in the sport that has increased the awareness of this Korean art. It has become a frame of reference for the wider public. Indeed, I am often asked “are you still doing Tae Kwon Do?”.
Once the self-defence element is established, that leads into Jamie and Julie’s question, namely “could you defend yourself in a real fight?”, as opposed to in a fake fight I suppose. I wonder what people mean by this. Do they mean in a one-on-one confrontation? Any martial art skill should help if we are unfortunate enough to be in such a situation but of course there are limits. There are so many intangibles that whilst martial arts skill could win out, sometimes it would not, such as multiple attackers, surroundings or vast differences in size and strength between the participants.
If anything, the skill is to avoid the conflict in the first place and to be safe. If we had to engage in a physical confrontation, the aim is still to keep safe rather than demonstrating a series of technique or win a fight as if it were a UFC contest.
In a similar vein John gets asked “so what you do if I did this?” which is always a dangerous one. The temptation is to then demonstrate, or as Emma suggests, rise to their level. I will admit that I may have applied the occasional wristlock to colleagues at work when I’ve been asked this.
This may explain why, along with Susan and Emma, I get greeted with comments from colleagues like “I’d better not mess with you then”. Whilst it would be tempting to use this perception to my advantage in meetings, I’m not sure I would actually do anything. Having said that, in a previous job I had a manager who trained in Tae Kwon Do and I joined his class during a work trip which has since allowed me to say “you wouldn’t be the first boss I’ve punched”. That gets you some interesting looks…
Jamie plays on this and tells people “I have a saying that martial artists are the most likely pacifists, because they are aware of the destructive power that they wield.”
Emma argues that if she is feeling particularly self-righteous she will say something like I'd only use it to defend myself so unless you're planning on attacking me you have nothing to worry about…but only if she is in a bit of an arsey mood. Surely not!
So what conclusions can we draw from these questions? Karate maybe still has a bit of an image problem, partly stemming from the movies. It feels like there is still a mysticism around martial arts, as if training unlocks some magical powers. The nuances of different martial arts all merge into one so whilst the names Tae Kwon Do, Karate, Judo and so are known the skills are not. MMA conjures up a specific image about the UFC. Practitioners are considered perhaps to be “hard”. That’s a horrible word that again conjures up a specific image and if anyone in our club is not “hard”, it’s me.
Given so many pre-conceived notions, it will take some effort to get across the very real benefits of training. The fitness, the flexibility and yes, the self-defence skills make martial arts such a worthwhile endeavour and this is a message we all need to work to convey. By removing the mystic or hard perceptions, I believe more people can be encouraged to try martial arts and benefit from that training. It will be a long journey against stereotypes but our own experiences in BMAC with the women’s self-defence class shows that it can be done.
Now we just need to spread the word.
This movie has a lot to answer for!
The BMAC blog began in 2013 to chart one member's journey to black belt.