Making a living with your FMA, part 1

As a child, I never had a chance. I was destined to become a martial arts teacher. There were a few interests: politics, football, boxing, magic, even journalism. However, the one thing I have always said was that I would be a martial arts teacher.

When I got older, all the masters I knew were poor and I started to doubt that a real martial artist could feed himself off of traditional martial arts. Sure, there were some making tons of money, but those guys had lousy students, short classes, easy promotion exams… and I would never do that!

Then I discovered the tournament prize.

I learned that if I trained really hard, I could make between $100 – 500 per tournament for a first place or grand-champion placement. Following the footsteps of Sifu-Guro Billy Bryant (and many other great martial artists), I passed up the opportunity to get a “real job” and made the martial arts my full-time job. And it was a hustle. In order to make this work, you have to compete at every tournament that comes your way. Sometimes, you don’t make enough to pay rent, buy groceries, or even have gas money to get to the tournaments. We even paired up to attend tournaments with friends–with the agreement that if either of us won, we would split the prize. We had to endure the displeasure of our family and friends, who saw us as “karate bums”. We did it, and reaped the benefits of pursuing a passion with a level of skill many of our peers wished they had. Some people simultaneously achieved skill in the arts and finished college degrees. The rest of us just stuck with the martial arts.

The great thing about the tournament was that it was great for networking. I met Apolo Ladra, who introduced me to Jae Kim (owner of Kim’s Karate), who introduced me to Han Kim (owner of US Tae Kwon Do College). All these men taught me that one could make a living from teaching good, pure martial arts. Apolo taught me that teaching kids was not tantamount to pulling your own teeth. Jae Kim taught me how to handle large classes, quality control management, and development of a good teaching plan. Han Kim taught me how to sell, market and operate a martial arts school.

Around the same time I learned from these gentlemen, Billy Bryant introduced me to the seminar. A product of the FMA seminar, he learned how to “hype” oneself and taught me just how lucrative the seminar was. I did a few on my own, made a few thousand dollars, but learned that I hated teaching this way. There is no skill development, quality control, and dedication demanded from the students. Yes, you can reach large audiences, but mass consumerism never resulted in good martial arts. Sadly, Billy, as talented as he was, never made enough to feed himself off his full-time school, and had to sell certificates through seminars to make his living. I walked away from this experience committed to prove that traditional Filipino Martial Arts is marketable in its pure form, and that it could support a full-time school.

Let me add this note: In order for this to work, you must have a high degree of skill and accomplishment. By “accomplishment”, I am referring to a reputation built in combat with other martial artists. Combat is through tournaments, or friendly or unfriendly sparring. You must be known for good skill and your students must be known to possess above-average skill. In this, my first rule of marketing your martial arts:

#1. good marketing spreads the word. good skill signs them up

Without good skill, all you’re doing is talking a good game, and you will have to constantly keep new students coming through the door because there is nothing motivating people to stay. And remember what I mean by “skill”… I am talking about fighting ability and all its attributes–power, speed, sparring ability, knowledge. Part of your work week will need to be, at a minimum, enough training sessions to keep your skills functional. High reps of strikes, strength training, shadow boxing to keep techniques ingrained into your hands’ muscle memory. Without decent skill–good skill–your school doesn’t have a chance.

Where you find martial artists with poor or mediocre skill, you will see things that barely matter being emphasized:

  • lineage
  • rank
  • easy, frequent promotions
  • entertaining drills (that distract you from the fact that this guy hits like a woman)
  • tough talk and posturing
  • addition of “bulletproof” arts that they hide behind–BJJ, Krav Maga, blade arts, etc.
  • Kiddie Classes, afterschool karate, Tae Bo
  • memberships and organizational affiliations–i.e., strength in numbers
  • de-emphasizing the importance of fighting skill

The bottom line is that in order for your school to grow without the use of fluff and bells and whistles, you will need to make sure that your own physical martial arts skills are above average. Now, I told you about my pre-teaching experience because I believe that the best martial artists are full-time martial artists.

Some of you may be saying, “Not everyone can do this full-time.” True that, but teaching and mastery of the art is not for everyone. So you will have to make up your mind–are you put on this earth to be a great accountant/government worker/whatever, or a career martial artist? Just because you wish you were master material doesn’t mean you can just do it part time and think that you’re equal with those who have made this their life. I do believe, however, that anyone who wants it and is willing to do what he has to do to pursue it can achieve it. But you will have to decide whether you will truly make the martial arts your life, or will you just make it an exaggerated hobby?

In closing, the first key to making a living with your FMA is to be good at it, and dedicate your life full-time to teaching and practice of the arts.

In Part II, we will discuss your mission statement and building your organization.