My thoughts, opinions and experiences in Karate
In the old days, it was harder. If a person wanted to learn from an instructor, they had to prove themselves worthy first. There are many stories of students having to wait for months before being accepted into a dojo, or having been rejected outright many times, before their persistence proved that they had the staying power and determination required to be capable of the rigorous training regime. And once accepted, the students still often did not get to join the real training, but maybe got some very basic instruction and then spent the rest of their time at the dojo looking on as others trained, or even just cleaning up in the dojo. Again, a test to determine their worthiness.
The point is that training and learning from a Sensei was never taken for granted. It was a hard-earned privilege, and the student was left in no doubt that the privilege could be taken away at any time if they did not live up to expectations. No-one had the right to train just because they paid their training fee. Students that were lazy or had a bad attitude were asked to leave the dojo.
Nowadays, it seems to be very different. Instead of people applying to become the student of a Sensei, instructors now have to advertise to attract students. There is competition from so many other martial arts, and from so many other sports and activities. Instructors run special offers of free classes, or even a free karate-gi when the student joins. And when they are in the door, the instructor seems to have to work hard to keep them there.
There have to be regular gradings, and woe betide any instructor who dares to not allow Little Johnny not take part in the gradings, no matter how many classes he has missed, or how lazy he is in class. For the younger kids and "little tigers", there are often boy-scout-style merit badges for everything from learning to punch, block and kick, to learning how to bow or tie their belt properly. And regular competitions give the students a chance to win a shiny (plastic) medal. They help keep the students motivated and coming to the dojo, and they also provide an income for the instructor, who charges for each event. For parents, it must sometimes feel like there is something extra to pay for every week, but they pay up, because Little Johnny is learning to defend himself. At least, they hope so. Whether they are really learning anything of value or not is debatable in many dojos.
Younger kids? It is not so long ago that people used to lie about their age because the dojo wouldn't accept students under 18. When I started karate I was lucky: my Sensei allowed people train in his "real" classes from the age of 16.
Dojos have become businesses, and students have become customers. And therein lies the problem. Businesses need customers, we have to keep them happy. And customers can make demands of businesses. So the customer (student) calls the shots instead of the Sensei.
I am not saying that we shouldn't run our dojos as businesses. Nor am I saying that we shouldn't teach young children. Having instructors who are able to focus all their time and energy on karate as professional instructors improves their standard far more than the instructor who works all day and can only train two or three times per week. This is surely something to be encouraged and supported. In order to be able to afford to be a professional, an instructor needs a lot of students, and the biggest market for students is children.
So maybe we need big dojos and lots of students. Maybe we need to try to retain these students as much as possible. Maybe we need to teach children. But do we need to pander to the students? Do we really need to keep giving them belts and badges and medals to keep them happy? I don't actually think so.
My way is a little different. Having said that, I am neither a full-time instructor, dependent on karate for my income, nor am I the twice-a-week part-timer. I am somewhere in between.
When students apply to join my dojo, I make it very clear from the beginning that they will not win lots of medals. (We might attend one tournament per year.) They will not get new belts very often. They might be allowed to test twice in a year, IF they have been training hard. And I don't do merit badges. Instead, they will learn to work hard. They will learn discipline. They will learn respect. They will even learn disappointment. They will learn that membership of the dojo is a privilege, not a right. After all of that, they will also,hopefully, learn to have good karate. I tell them that they will progress more slowly in my dojo than in others, but that when they get a new belt they will know that they have earned it. If they will come in on those terms, then they are welcome to join. If they decide at any point that they don't like my way, they are welcome to leave.
And some do leave. In an age of instant gratification, people don't want to have to work for their achievements. Some people want the easy way, and my way is not easy. But those that stay know that it is worth it; maybe not at first, but in the long term.
Funakoshi Sensei once wrote "The old, the new, This is a matter of time." When it comes to running a dojo, perhaps the ideal way is to merge the best of the old ways with the best of the new ways. Like karate itself, we must evolve and make progress for the future, but always keep an eye on tradition and the past.