Have Traditional Martial Arts Organizations Outlived Their Purpose?

By: Andy Ah Po


A few years ago, I caused quite a bit of controversy when I wrote an open letter entitled, “Has the Federation Outlived its Founding Purposes?” to the members of the U.S. Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan Federation, Inc. (of which I was a Charter and founding member) and which I posted as an article on the internet. The purpose of that article was to express my concerns regarding how after many years of accomplishments and service to its members, the federation under the new leadership at that time, was failing to serve its members in the manner as prescribed by its Charter and By-Laws.

I began the article by citing several examples of how the federation had actually accomplished many of its founding purposes in the first 15 years of operation and of how “member friendly” it was during that period of time. However, I also cited an equal if not greater number of examples of the failure on the part of the federation’s leadership at that time to continue being a member friendly organization. Furthermore, I cited examples of their non-responsiveness toward their members relative to the delivery of tangible services, overall financial accountability, and free access to information regarding the governance activities of the Board of Directors and administrative activities of the Executive Administrator and headquarters staff.

My original intent for writing that article was to motivate and incite the members of the federation to hold their elected representatives accountable and to demand that the Board of Directors and members of both the Technical Advisory and Senior Advisory committees focus on making the federation a member friendly organization as it had been in the past. Unfortunately, as a result of fear, intimidation, and political pressure, this never occurred, which eventually led to my decision to resign my membership from that organization. Since that time many others have left the federation due to many if not all of the reasons stated in my article.

Are the members of the federation at fault for how it evolved from being a member-friendly and democratically run “non-profit” organization in the past to currently being (in my opinion) a non-member-friendly, profit-motivated and autocratically run organization? Absolutely not! The fact is that the members trusted their elected representatives and most senior members of the Tang Soo Do hierarchy to act on their behalf and to do the right thing.

The persons that are truly at fault are the current leaders of that organization (especially their most senior Dan members) as well as the organizational head, because they continued to allow some of their most senior members and their administrator to abuse their power by taking advantage of the members for reasons which included financial gain, prestige, political power and control. This has ultimately resulted in many individuals leaving that organization in recent years rather than in engaging in any futile attempt to change it from within, as I had tried to do.

I cite my experience with the federation not to resurrect my prior problems with that organization, but rather to use it as a prime example of why I feel that many traditional martial arts organizations may also be currently “outliving their purpose”. As a result, they will also lose their members and may eventually dissolve in the future if they don’t change how they currently operate by becoming more “member and studio owner friendly”.

Historically, most traditional martial arts organizations in the United States were founded for the following reasons:

It is important, as you review the above listing (which incidentally does not necessarily include all benefits and reasons why some organizations may have originally formed) to note that they are all “member related benefits”, and not benefits or “perks” that were specifically designed or intended to be for profit to either the head, senior members, paid staff or governing body of the organization.

Today however, many members from various martial arts organizations actually feel that they are expected to serve rather than be served by the organization that they belong to. In essence, they are pressured and made to feel that they are expected to contribute towards the financial well-being of the organization and founder or head. They are constantly being over taxed by exorbitant membership dues and testing fees; studio owners are made to pay significant portions of their revenue to the organization with no reciprocal support services or assistance provided; no tangible benefits are provided for either individual memberships, studio memberships or student memberships; they are threatened with not being tested or with being “black balled” if they don’t cooperate; they experience intimidation and political pressure from senior members; and they are basically made to feel like “second class citizens”.

Additionally, students are “brain washed” into believing that their loyalty should first be to the organization rather than to their instructors; they are under constant scrutiny; and, closely monitored and discouraged from exercising creativity, all of which are contrary to the basic tenants and philosophy of traditional martial arts.

As a result, the current trend is that many individuals who have experienced these and similar problems as those cited above are leaving these organizations and becoming “independents or independent studio owners” for fear of having the same bad experience if they join another martial arts organization. If this trend were to continue, many of the current traditional martial arts organizations would not be able to survive which, in turn, could also have a devastating effect on the survival of the martial art that they represent. An example of this can already be seen in the “open tournament circuit” where it is becoming more and more difficult to discern or distinguish exactly what styles of martial arts are actually currently being practiced and represented.

So, the question remains:
“Have traditional martial arts organizations outlived their purpose?”

My response to this question is:
Yes, but only if they continue to operate in the way that I have discussed in this article (where they are no longer member friendly or member benefit driven).

And No, if they function as a member friendly and benefit driven organization that is dedicated to serving their members rather than be self-serving.”

I strongly recommend that the governing bodies and heads of existing traditional martial arts organizations take a long hard look at themselves to reevaluate how they are currently functioning if they intend to survive and continue to operate. In particular, they need to determine exactly who they are currently serving and if they are indeed member and studio owner friendly rather than being self-serving. Not to do so, could eventually prove to be devastating to the organization.

One way to achieve this is to assemble a “Member’s Advisory Committee” (comprised of individuals that are elected by the members) which would receive input and elicit feedback from members at all levels regarding current membership benefits and how the organization can better serve them in the future. This committee should be set up to provide input to the head of the organization as well as to their governing bodies and should be responsible for developing and conducting “needs assessment surveys” of all members on an annual basis.

However, nothing will change if the founders, current heads and/ or Grandmasters of these organizations are not open to change and to an honest self-assessment to determine if they are in fact at the heart of the problem.

In closing, it is also important for me to state that not all current martial arts organizations are problematic. I know of at least two large Tang Soo Do organizations that are run by individuals who I am directly affiliated with, that are very member and studio owner friendly and also member benefit driven. I am also associated with the heads of several other martial arts organizations from a variety of martial arts systems that are presently operating in this same manner.

Although I realize that this article may cause some controversy (which is certainly not my intent), my final question to all current traditional martial arts organizations and to their leaders is, “What does the future hold for you and for your martial arts organization?”

“I have come to recognize that change is not only necessary;
but is, in fact, the only constant thing in life!”