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Martial Arts Clubs vs. Schools

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Martial Arts Clubs vs. Schools: Which Is Better?

 Written July 10th, 2014

 <Insert obligatory quote here> — Someone with something smart to say

There seems to be an unofficial debate between which establishment of martial arts serves as a better environment for martial arts practitioners; amateur clubs, or professional schools?  Whether you are wondering where to start your martial arts experience, or have already had experience with one, or both of these kinds of establishments, you most likely have an opinion on the question for this write-up; which is better?  Martial arts clubs or martial arts schools?

When I say clubs, I mean amateur clubs that lack the organization of professional schools, examples of which include collegiate Wushu clubs, which I mentioned in my previous write-up “Collegiate Wushu in the United States: What It Means for US Wushu”.  And by “professional schools”, I mean established studios and academies with “certified” instructors, whether or not their credentials are legitimate.  And because I am most familiar with Chinese Wushu, or Chinese martial arts, I will relegate most of my discussion to establishments focused on this style of practice.  In this context, I am primarily referring to the practice of modern Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport.  In terms of clubs, I will also use the collegiate Wushu community in the US as a prime example to support my points, since this is where most of my experience with clubs lies, in comparison to professional schools.  Right away, let me point out that I can’t fully answer this question, at least not for everybody.  The idea of “better” is an idea based on opinion, and while I do have my own opinion, it may not be the same as everyone else’s.  In the end, like the other questions I’ve posed in previous write-ups, it’s all a matter of personal preference.  For this question, I will divide my discussion into three areas of skill level, environment, and politics.

Also, before I begin to tackle this question, I would like to point out that I am being EXTREMELY general with the points I make here.  I understand that not all the statements and observations I make apply to all martial arts clubs and schools.  However, the purpose of this write-up is to familiarize readers with the distinctions between club and school, and how each can be an incentive or a deterrent to joining either of these kinds of groups.

In terms of skill level, there seems to be a clear drop-off between professional schools and amateur level clubs.  Again, I am being extremely general with this observation, but this is observation is not without idle support.  The factors that result in this can primarily be attributed to the unequal access of resources available to both kinds of establishments, namely the individuals that make up the organizations of both martial arts schools and clubs.  Professional schools usually have “professional” instructors.  In the case of modern Wushu schools, instructors are known as coaches, due to modern Wushu’s sportive nature.  Many of these coaches have some manner of certification, or have previous experience training under professionals, or both.  Some are even former professional athletes and coaches that have come directly from China, arguably the best equipped and best knowledgeable place for the sport, due to its grassroots nature.  With these individuals as the best resources for professional schools, more often than not, these schools with professional level instructors and coaches have been able to turnout students with a higher level skill than that of amateur clubs.  Unfortunately, many clubs lack such resources, and thus can’t produce the same kind of output.

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Clubs are also typically managed by those without the same level of knowledge and experience as that of professionals.  This results in the difference of skill level.  In “Collegiate Wushu in the United States: What It Means for US Wushu”, I said that this is also why many coaches of professional Wushu schools see amateur clubs, like that of collegiate Wushu in the US, as inferior.  Were amateur clubs given the same access to the resources that professional schools have, this difference would be evened out and much more debatable, but as it is, clubs are at a disadvantage.  Many that support professional schools would most likely use this as the determining factor to conclude that professional schools are “better.”  However, as we’ve established, there are other factors to take into consideration, and these are not simply restricted to which group is “better” at practicing.

The kind of environment that each kind of establishment offers is also an important factor to consider.  For this discussion, environment can be divided into separate kinds of factors, such as the physical venue of the establishment, and the kind of people it has.  Professional schools usually offer some semblance of a class structure, which helps to establish the formality and professionalism needed between students and instructors.  These training session are usually limited to one hour, which in my opinion, is not enough to fully master the basics and fundamentals of a style, let alone achieve an expert level, regardless of how often one is training.  Personally, by limiting the practice time to one hour, I feel that students are getting gypped, as others like Mark Moran have said, regardless of how much money they are paying, because I am under the assumption that students are coming to seriously learn martial arts, not another feel-good physical activity.  Yet this structure allows these schools to operate optimally with few business problems, so it persists.  Again, part of this is because of the resources that professional schools have, which amateur clubs often lack.  This includes the aforementioned coaches that give quality to instruction and practice.  Professional schools are also on average better equipped and supplied to meet the needs of practice.  By contrast, martial arts clubs are extremely limited in what they can do, and consequently in what they can offer, by whatever funding they have or don’t have.  Because of this, clubs also lack the same level of organization that professional schools usually have.  However, there is also the other factor of environment; the people.

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The people around you, namely fellow students or practitioners, can also be a determining factor, when it comes to a good place to practice.  For professional schools, classes and programs with various practices are geared for various age groups, from young children, to teens, to adults.  However, the most profitable, and therefore primary demographic of most professional schools, is that of children.  I said before in “Collegiate Wushu in the United States: What It Means for US Wushu” that the classes and programs of most professional martial arts schools generally serve as something for parents to babysit their kids with.  And this provides a great business opportunity, for those that that know how to take advantage of it.  It is important to understand that, regardless of whether or not these “professional” instructors truly are certified, or are even deserving of the title, they are also businesspeople.  They are taking the practice of martial arts and making it into an industry to make money, by setting up their own schools.  There isn’t just a teacher-student relationship within martial arts schools, there is also a customer relationship; by receiving fees and tuitions from students, instructors are essentially providing a service by teaching.  As such, these instructors are able to make a living.  Many of these instructors run schools that are heavily achievement-based, often adopting the popular belt ranking system for commercial purposes, which make their business practice questionable; these schools are commonly referred to as “McDojos” or “black belt mills.”  This commonly results in the watering down of the practice of martial arts for a usually inattentive and less mature audience, and the giving out of belts to give students in order to satisfy a sense of achievement, and hopefully keep them as long-term customers.  Many fraudulent instructors are of course attributed to this kind of practice, but respectable instructors are also guilty of this.  In the case of professional Wushu coaches and professional Wushu schools, many of these coaches are professional Wushu athletes from China, who specialized in and are only familiar with the practice of Wushu, and do not know any other trade; thus, they trapped in this business, and oftentimes trapped in this kind of practice.

Conversely, I also said in “Collegiate Wushu in the United States: What It Means for US Wushu” that clubs, like collegiate Wushu clubs, are normally focused on one specific group or demographic.  Though some clubs are profit-based, and thus operate like schools, many are nonprofit, and use whatever funding they have to only support the practice of martial arts, and not a living.  This structure in turn allows for a more focused and serious level of practice.  Not only do more focused groups, like the example of collegiate Wushu clubs, garner genuine and serious interest in practice, but it can also provide great returns in club members that can give back and further promotion of the martial art and sport.  And finally, there is the last area of discussion; politics.

Politics is a very sensitive topic of discussion, especially when it comes to sports and competitive circuits.  Wushu is no exception.  The idea that there are certain biases of powerful individuals to influence outcomes in a certain direction, and that competition results are “rigged” to some degree, is something that is somewhat considered taboo in open conversation.  And if you know someone, namely someone in a position of power, chances are they can, and will, help you, whether or not you are willing to accept their help, or can control it at all.  Modern Wushu has an unfortunate history of corruption and politics, where results are often swayed in one direction or another.  Many judges and coaches are guilty of this, though again, much of this goes unspoken, at least publically, due to the immoral and underhanded nature of the practice, but it does not go completely unnoticed.  Like most other sport and competitive circuits, these kinds of dealings are most prominent in the professional competition circuit of modern Wushu, which in turn often involves professional Wushu schools and studios.  And again, the individuals behind these professional schools, the instructors and coaches are forced to play this kind of game, if they wish to be successful at all competitively.  In “No Medal for You: Why (I Feel) Olympic Wushu is No Longer worth It”, I said that these individuals understandably strive for this “success” in order to make a living, which is especially difficult in the martial arts industry.  However, this drive for “success” has been so perverted and corrupted by politics, that it often achieves its goal at the expense of the fair representation and promotion of the martial arts and their competitive circuits.  Yet there are certain areas and groups that go untouched by this kind of corruption.

As an example, I would like to use the collegiate Wushu community in the US, as I did in “Collegiate Wushu in the United States: What It Means for US Wushu.”  Recently, I have had positive experiences personally with the collegiate US Wushu community, which proved to be a introduce the college demographic to Wushu, provided a viable future for US Wushu, but most importantly for this discussion, also provided a strong community and network for US Wushu.  After writing that write-up, reception involved some observations that brought up some negatives in the history of collegiate US Wushu, which I was not aware of at the time.  Apparently, there was some initial animosity between collegiate groups in competition, namely the East and West Coast regions of the US.  So, like the professional Wushu circuit in the US, there existed some degree of competitive tension between teams and groups.  However, I would like to point out that in my personal experiences; this kind of enmity was completely absent.  As I said in “Collegiate Wushu in the United States: What It Means for US Wushu”, there was a lot of friendly and social exchange in the collegiate US Wushu community        , but most importantly, it lacked the corrupt politics that the professional Wushu circuit in the US is so pervaded with.

Given my personal opinion, which is solely based on my personal experience, I have found that while the amateur club environments lack many of the things that professional schools and studios have, they still offer valuable things that the professional environment lacks.  At present, I have found myself in an awkward position, having been trained from, and therefore partially obligated to a professional academy out of a sense of loyalty, and currently involved with the collegiate US Wushu community since I’ve started at university.  My observations may obviously differ from others’ opinions and personal experiences, and others may of course disagree with me.  Once again, because my observations are general, they don’t necessarily apply to every school and club.  However, as I stated before at the beginning, this write-up was not necessarily meant to answer the question of which is better, clubs or schools, but to offer some insight from a personal perspective.  While there is no true answer for everybody, I hope this helped to reach a more educated opinion in this debate.

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