Thoughts on Honor and Loyalty in Martial Arts

Right off the bat, I am going to apologize for this post.  For many, many years I have had thoughts and ideas regarding honor and loyalty as it pertains to martial arts.  I have yet to have a concise series of ideas that follow a clear progression towards a conclusion.  The following is a random smattering of thoughts that may or may not flow cohesively from one to the next.  This may turn out to be a true rant.  Therefore, the apology.

Now, on to the topic at hand: honor and loyalty in the martial arts.  In some ways this will apply to honor and loyalty in society as a whole, not just the martial arts world.  I have lumped honor and loyalty together as I feel they have similar stories.  At times I will discuss them separately and sometimes together.

When I think of many of the tenets and codes in Tang Soo Do like humility, self-control, perseverance, and respect, I have always had no problem applying them to life inside and outside of the studio.  I have also had no problem teaching them to students whether, kids or adults.  When I think of honor and loyalty, however, I have a harder time relating to them in today’s world.  

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I know what honor and loyalty mean, don’t get me wrong.  I also know how to apply them.  However, unlike respect and humility, it seems like there are more examples of people not displaying honor and loyalty.  In addition, it seems like that is ok.

Honor in martial arts is frequently emphasized
Honor in martial arts is frequently emphasized

I feel that when many people, myself included at times, hear the words honor and loyalty they think about an antiquated concept important to medieval knights or samurais.  In current times, the closest thing I can think of would be the military.  What do all of these things have in common?  They are very serious and failure to have honor and loyalty literally have life or death consequences.

When we try to apply honor and loyalty to modern martial arts, we can get confused.  Modern martial arts are not about life and death.  However, we try to apply them to current times because of the military and ancient cultural background many martial arts have.  Hundreds of years ago when people used the predecessors of modern martial arts, they used them for survival, much like modern military.  

It seems to me that there are currently many mixed messages regarding honor and loyalty in the martial arts world.  Sometimes instructors adhere to and teach their students some of these old school ways only to not abide by them themselves.  Let’s take a look at some examples that hopefully drive home my point.

Leaving your instructor, studio, or organization.

In many studios, when you achieve the rank of black belt, you take an oath.  This oath is made in public and is administered by your instructor or another high-ranking instructor.  While different studios have different versions, most have some verbiage like this “I pledge to remain loyal to my instructor, studio, grandmaster, and organization for the rest of my life.”  Wow.  That is some serious stuff.  When I was promoted to master’s rank, I took a similar oath and was presented with a master’s sword.  Inscribed on the sword is “death before dishonor”.  Now that is even more serious.

If you take these oaths at their word and demand practitioners to adhere to them with honor and loyalty, you can never quit until you die.  Let’s take a look at some more specific examples of this.  I would like to mention that I do not have the answers. I am posing them as questions because I have no idea.

  • Your instructor passes away and their senior student takes over.  You do not like the way the new instructor conducts things.  Is it disloyal to leave and go to another instructor?
  • After years of being in an organization you decide to leave because their policies and philosophies have changed and no longer align with yours.  Are you being disloyal to the organization?
  • After a lifetime in martial arts, you decide to step away to take care of personal matters such as the health and well-being of your family.  Are you being disloyal to your studio, instructor, and organization?
  • After many years of training and teaching at your instructor’s studio, you have aspirations of opening your own studio.  Is it honorable to open a studio that will not compete with your instructor’s studio?  Are you being disloyal by leaving to start your own studio?

I think you get the idea.  Depending on the context, the answers to these questions could be either yes or no.  It also depends on the person you ask.  Different people have different responses.  It has a lot to do with people’s values and one thing I have learned is that what is right versus what is wrong is not as clear as it should be in my opinion.

Loyalty in martial arts is something that is commonly taught
Loyalty in martial arts is something that is commonly taught

I would argue that in some instances it is MORE honorable to leave an instructor, studio, or organization.  If you need to do so in order to take care of your family or yourself, I feel that is more honorable.  If, however, you are leaving to boost your own ego by starting your own studio or organization and show little concern for the place you are leaving, well that in my opinion is lacking honor and loyalty.

The definition of honor is “high respect; great esteem; adherence to what is right.”

The definition of loyalty is “giving support or showing firm allegiance to a person or institution.”

Using these definitions as a basis, I would like to offer my own definitions for the martial arts world.  In order to be deemed disloyal or dishonorable, the action must have a significant, adverse impact on someone you deem or have deemed in high regard.  This could be as simple as saying unflattering, slanderous comments or physical actions that impact someone’s financial, emotional, or physical well-being.

So, can you leave your studio and instructor to start your own studio while remaining loyal and honorable?  Absolutely, as long as it does not impact your instructor’s studio by being an agreed upon distance away and terms regarding any students that may wish to transfer.

Can you leave an instructor or organization in order to address personal issues related to yourself or your family while remaining loyal?  Of course.

You get the idea.

Notice in my definition I stated, “deemed or have deemed in high regard”.  This means that even if you have a falling out with an instructor or organization, it is still dishonorable to do actions that have an adverse impact on them.  Honor is forever and you don’t get to choose when to show it.

I would like to end with a request.  Don’t be quick to label someone as disloyal or dishonorable until you know the entire story.  Also, don’t be quick to dismiss someone’s actions as not dishonorable or disloyal just because you like the person or it is just the way it is these days.

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  1. OK, let me just post a bit of my own thoughts on the subject of honor and loyalty.

    First, I agree 100% it is not dishonorable or disloyal to leave your martial arts school to take care of a family matter, or to attend to education or career demands. I would hope if that is what the student has to do, the honorable thing for the teacher to do is to let the student know that he or she understands that for now, the student has to take care of some other matters and when the time is right, is welcome back to his school.

    What about the case where the student just doesn’t believe in what he or she is doing or wants to go to train with another teacher or even to train in a different martial art? I would say it depends.
    If, for example, there are two Tang Soo Do schools and the student leaves one Tang Soo Do school to train at another, and it isn’t because the student is moving somewhere, I would say a conversation is in order. Why is the student leaving one school to go to another? Is another teacher aggressively recruiting students? Does the student have some good friends at the other school? Is there a problem with an assistant instructor that the head instructor needs to know about?

    But if the student is leaving Tang Soo Do to train in, say, Boxing, Judo, or Jiu Jitsu, for example, I would not say that is disloyal at all. In fact, the student should be encouraged to challenge him, or herself, and should be told that if he or she wishes, that there is a place at your organization, should he wish to return someday. And if not, wish that student well in his martial arts journey.

    Now, when you are talking about an assistant instructor looking to open his or her own school, I would say this. A head instructor should encourage his or her instructors, and help them open their own schools if that is what they want. Should they compete directly with the master? Well, maybe not, but that is what non compete clauses with geographic restrictions are for. But that aside, if you don’t require your instructors to do non compete clauses as a condition of employment, I would think at least start the school 10, 15, or 20 miles down the road, and not right across the street. It is good karma, if not always good business. Indeed, I would think this is how, if managed properly, it is a way for the original school to grow, as now you have not one lone school, but an informal family tree of martial arts schools that can compete in one another’s tournaments, and teachers that can guess judge belt testings, and things like that.
    If your assistant instructors are all disloyal and trying to steal your students, opening schools right across the street, etc…some self reflection is in order. Put another way, an assistant instructor should be allowed to open his own school, but should not poach students from the head instructor’s school. That is disloyal. Now, if the students want to come over and train with the younger instructor, that is a different story. But again, some self reflection is in order.

  2. I read this with with a smile because this could have been written about the organisation my club belongs to. A story of money and egos which would be a blog post in its own right. Suffice to say the founder of the organisation fell out with all his senior black belts over money and left everything to a 2nd Dan black belt when he died who was a lower rank than most club owners affliated to the organisation. The result being the organization factured in to smaller organizations and you could see where peoples loyalties were.

    Loyalty, respect, humility are all part of the honour bubble. A instructor’s loyalty, respect and humility towards his students most of the time will be reciprocated and the students will do the same to each other creating a happy and well attended club. Once you have loyalty, respect and humility you will mostly get honourable behaviour. After all this is why we bow in martial arts. If we don’t have loyalty, respect, humility and honour what is the point of bowing?

    If an instructor demands that their student puts the club before everything else in life you have to question their sanity and how fragile their sense of self worth is. Also such behaviour is neither loyal, respectful, honourable or shows humility.

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