Is Taido Too Difficult To Be Popular?

In America, there are basically just two types of martial arts schools: big ones that make money and small ones that don’t. There are a lot of stereotypes regarding which extreme is better, but as with all flat generalizations, the reality is not so simple. In converse to the prevailing trend, there exist very large dojo that produce fantastic martial artists. There are also small clubs that accomplish very little.

My point is that the size of a dojo has little to do with its quality – whether in commercial martial arts schools or not-for-profit groups. The overall quality of a school and its students will always come down to the instructor.

Playing the Percentages

Every club wants to be successful, and every club defines success in a somewhat different fashion. Most instructors have an idea in their heads of an ideal number of students and level of achievement these students reach. Some instructors want to have a huge club. Some only want to teach a small number of dedicated students. Some instructors push their students to grade to higher and higher levels as often as possible. Others may leave it up to each individual.

No matter how many students we teach, a certain percentage will quit; a certain percentage will lack the motivation to rise above mediocrity; a certain percentage will become outwardly identifiable as great. If there were some objective measure of Taido greatness, I could probably show that student achievement follows some sort of bell curve.

Assuming this is true, only 20% of all Taido students would ever get “good.” The remaining 80% would either quit or just hang around indefinitely with no real improvement.

The law of averages suggests that our chances of reaching whatever numerical goals we set for ourselves increases directly proportionally to the number of students who join the class. In order to increase the number of great students, most instructors tend to assume that they need to teach more students. This assumption is based on the idea that the average percentage of students that have the capacity to become great is not going to change much. As a result, instructors focus on becoming popular in hopes of attracting those few great students.

To me, it makes more sense to work on altering the percentages.

Making Taido “Accessible”

In general, a reduction in standards for the purpose of inflating the perceived rate of achievement is called “dumbing down.” A major reason to dumb down your instruction and play up your numbers is economical. Assuming that certain special students will become great regardless of how poorly they are taught (these people are called naturals, and they are rare but not nonexistent), in a large enough sample, there will always be a few people in the dojo that really kick ass. This will inspire new folks to sign up in the hopes that they can reach the same level, but without quality instruction, it’s not going to happen. Some of these students will stick it out indefinitely, and others will quit, making way for new entries.

In a commercial setting, all of them pay. Having two hundred people pay tuition for one year is more lucrative than having 20 people pay tuition for ten years. The income derived from the initial sample is the same, but after a year, the larger dojo repeats the process. Working for numbers increases a dojo’s finances simply because more people are paying.

I believe that there should be no dumbing-down of Taido. Though Taido itself has the potential to be for everyone (e.g. popular), it won’t necessarily be the case that every dojo will suit every potential student. When I lived in Gunma, I traveled four hours each way to go to a dojo I liked. There are different ways to teach, and class atmosphere/personality is as much a factor for most students as the art they practice. Some people won’t be interested in the type of practice at a particular dojo, and some people may not be at an appropriate stage in their development to benefit from Taido.

How to Improve: Do Better

Doing good Taido is priority one for me. Since Taido is complicated and difficult, students will have to develop their capacities for complication and difficulty. As an instructor, I feel that it’s my responsibility to teach them how to do this. This doesn’t mean that I have to teach less Taido; it means that I have to teach Taido better.

There are advantages and disadvantages to growing a club. The advantage of larger numbers of students is… numerical. More students means more training partners and greater financial ability to provide a quality training environment. The disadvantages are logistical. It can be difficult to handle the administrivia with a large group of students, and there are times when students may not get enough individual attention. Especially in a situation where most students are beginners, it can be a real challenge for instructors to teach the basics accurately while also challenging the more-advanced students. This has been a challenge for me in the past when I was teaching almost solo.

We sometimes tend to think of smaller groups as having more “soul” and larger groups as sell-outs. Reversing the perspective, larger groups appear successful and smaller ones give the impression of being unprofessional, unreliable, and flaky. These are stereotypes that rest on long-standing traditions from a wide range of our experiences. They stem from heuristic polarities such as scarcity/abundance, quality/quantity, morality/popularity, etc. Most people learn from society that it is necessary to make a choice between their desires (thinking big) and their values (thinking right).

We can achieve both. I see no reason that a club cannot have a large enough number of students to benefit from the variety and strength that numbers afford, without losing the individual attention and quality we associate with smaller classes. As I mentioned above, it’s all a matter of percentages. Dumbing down results from assuming the percentage of students achieving greatness is fixed; We can realize the same output by increasing our success rate. In other words, we must change our percentages.

Doing so will always come back to this: we have to teach better. If we never change our methods – never grow or adapt – our success rate will remain constant, and the only way to ensure the success of more students will be to increase the total number of students. This also increases the number of failures, but you won’t see any dojo advertising that only 20 percent of their students ever moved beyond white belt.

Optimizing Taido Instruction

By teaching better and managing better, we can change these percentages. I don’t have the answers for this. We have to experiment within our own dojo to find the solutions that will work in our own situations. This is called “optimizing.” Every student and every dojo faces their own challenges, so no one cookie cutter curriculum or management style is going to work for all of them.

This is the challenge of a manager and instructor. By finding better ways to teach things that are complicated, we can make difficult concepts accessible to more students. Some students get certain aspects of Taido better than others. Georgia Tech is one of the best engineering schools in the world, so when I taught there, I never had to explain that unsoku controls the spacial relationship with the opponent. But scientifically-minded students have a hard time improvising, so we had to use a lot of games and drills to teach jissen.

By finding better ways to manage resources such as training time, space, equpment, and instructors, we can get the most benefit out of whatever numbers of students and instructors happen to be members of our clubs. Taido training has to include skill practice, physical development, and applied strategy, but no one class has to do everything. There’s no law that says everyone in a club has to be practicing the same things. We can cycle people through various types of training in ways that give everyone the best chance to improve.

The key is working towards what Bucky Fuller called “ephemeralization,” or doing more with less. The active agent of ephemeralization is synergy. From an organizational perspective, synergy manifests as collaboration; from a training perspective, it’s achieved by intelligent balancing (and cycling) of methods. Building a structure that supports these functions should be a continual project for Taido instructors.

Taido will always be hard, but it gets easier when it’s done correctly. The better we get at applying Taido to itself, the less we will find ourselves struggling with traditional debates like quality/quantity. Taido is all about oblique strategies to problem solving (hengi, anyone?). It’s going to take a little bit of mental-unsoku practice, but we can use our practice to discover solutions – it’s really only a matter of trying new things in the dojo and using what works.

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2 thoughts on “Is Taido Too Difficult To Be Popular?”

  1. Mr. Fossett,

    Once again, you’ve written an excellent article. When I first began teaching Yoshukai karate here in Roswell, I had very small classes of 20 in my youth class and 15 in my adult class. Over the years the program has grown to over 100 participants. You really hit the nail on the head when you said, “instructors focus on becoming popular in hopes of attracting those few great students.”

    I came from a small class of about 20 students and the individual attention I received definitely helped to hone my physical skill, but it wasn’t until I transferred to a bigger skill that I was able to increase my knowledge of our style. More people means more perspectives which in turn creates internal analysis of the information.

    Within our organization we have large “commercial” type schools as well as the smaller nuclear family type schools. I am kind of a hybrid since I teach at a rec center, but I have so many students. I try to run my school with commercial appeal but a small dojo philosophy. I have been able to do this because I never went into teaching karate as a supplement to my income. I teach it because I love it.

    The type of instructor also contributes to the image of “toughness” of a style. We have some very charismatic “Hollywood” type commercial dojo operators as well as hard core martial arts “live in a mountain” type instructors, too. I would have to say that I am again a hybrid between the two. People usually automatically assume that the flashy smiling jokey karate person is one of these McDojo type instructors with no real skill and assume the opposite of the “hard core” type guy. As far as a style’s image is concerned, that is up to each individual practioner. If they go to open tournaments and win in all the events then a positive rep as a well rounded style will develop. If they only win the sparring divisions then they are a “combat” style. If they only win the forms divisions then they are an artistic style.

    Once a school has grown, the key to maintaining quality is delegation. My senior Black Belt instructing staff have been training with me for almost 8 years. They have been there from the beginning and their philosophy is very similar to my own (in karate). I think that one of the problems people run into is the fact that knowledge can be passed from person to person but charisma cannot be transferred. For example, the things I say and do in class might work for me, but if someone else did them, it wouldn’t go over very well.

    Also, I harbor the same fears that things are getting too easy or watered down. Members of my own class tell me that I’m not as rough as I used to be. I think its because I learned that being a hard nosed karate man 24 hours a day is not going to help me perform my duty as a Yoshukai Black Belt which is to promote the growth and development of my style around the world. This is also a matter of perspective. My instructors tell me that I came up in a time much easier than they did. I think its human nature to do that. Anyway, terrific article. Please keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks for the comments marc.

    Once a school has grown, the key to maintaining quality is delegation.

    Absolutely. Delegation is absolutely necessary. But where I see some groups go wrong is in attempting to delegate responsibility without sharing the authority. In other words, many instructors seem to believe that their students are just dying to do more work with little or no recognition or other benefits.

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