“Hi, I’m calling about a karate class for self defence, the Leisure Centre gave me this number, it’s for my nephew.”
“Can I ask how old your nephew is? The youngest I teach are thirteen years old.”
“Oh, he’s four.”
Despite my websites giving my minimum ages in several places, and having no photos of any pre-school children on any of my media, this type of enquiry regarding 4-6 year olds is the most common I get. If they are pre-school I tell them that I’m sorry but there is nobody I can recommend. If they are of primary school age I refer them to the local Judo group where I think the games and the contact will be good for the children (and I know they run a good youth programme).
Often my suggestion of Judo is rejected. They want their barely-shoe-tying offspring to learn self defence (or so they claim), or maybe have someone else instil discipline, self-control, and respect for elders, but they don’t like the idea that there might be contact or rough play. No, Karate or TKD (I also get asked if I know of any TKD clubs) are much safer options. No contact but happy smiling children marching obediently in silence to the command of an adult, or so the pictures seem to show. Every tired parent’s dream?
I should let this go. I should not get annoyed about the fact that karate is predominantly perceived as a crèche activity for children, or a safe no-contact form of exercise for parents and children to do side by side, because that probably does reflect the vast majority of karate available. Because I’m wearing the same uniform and using the same name I will naturally be placed in the same category.
With so much choice these days, advertising and the perception of keyboard warriors rule. Those who want to ‘fight’ or physically compete against others are drawn to Mixed Martial Arts, Muay Thai or Brazilian Ju Jitsu gyms or perhaps Boxing. All of which are disciplines visibly proven in their competitive arena. Others (especially those enrolled by their parents) might go towards Judo if they like competition and rough and tumble element but with perhaps more of the discipline aesthetic. Krav Maga tends to dominate the self defence market because of the gung-ho nature of its advertising.
The intake of your average karate class now, whatever the type of karate (sport, classical, traditional, practical, children’s, crèche, functional, applied, modern, combat…), is now subtly different to that perhaps of the first forty years of karate in the west. Now we seem to have a higher proportion of people that either come purely for the stimulation of a different form of exercise, or who like the idea of studying self defence but are put off by actual violence (although some people do choose based on proximity or recommendations as people do arrive ‘up for it’). Is this a bad thing? I don’t know. From my perspective I feel that the people who come to me are the ones I can help the most if they were too timid to try more overtly aggressive combat sports, but then they could just as easily have gone to a karate club that is, from my perspective, simply teaching them children’s exercises, and not learned there anything that might have helped them avoid, de-escalate or escape from real aggression and violence.
But how is that different from any of the other disciplines that they could have chosen? I’m not going to point a finger at any single art other than my own because I think all martial arts, in differing ways, suffer from the same issue of a huge diversity in club quality, approach and understanding.
I’ve seen a lot of different systems. I’ve seen a lot of different clubs. The good, the bad and the ugly; the deluded, the fantasists and the charlatans; the cults, the cocks and the c**ts. There’s a lot of interesting stuff out there. It’s no wonder Master Ken’s spoof of the martial arts community is so popular.
There is something for everyone out there, but if you want to find something that’s right for your needs you need to ask a lot of questions about what you really want to achieve, and be prepared to search for people who give you comprehensible explanations for what they are offering. There is nothing wrong with martial arts as a form of exercise, or as a crèche, so long as the instructor delivers that. When it boils down to it that’s how simple it is. Look past the style labels, look at clubs, talk to instructors, watch a class, talk to the students, talk to the parents, ask to see credentials and insurance, and then make an informed choice – you’re more likely to get what you want.