Because of the hierarchical system, the power dynamics, and the focus on loyalty and obedience, martial arts schools have the potential to create cultures with ethics violations, dubious behaviors, and questionable principles. Martial arts schools are not alone in these transgressions because you can find the same abuses within elite gymnastics teams, university departments, houses of worship, and basically, anytime and anyplace people are dependent on someone in a position of power for their success or sense of self-worth.
If you have experienced mistreatment, you are not alone. I know that because I have spoken with students in multiple systems and schools, and I too, have a collection of my own such stories to tell. For those of us who have suffered these harms, it can very much feel as though we are all by ourselves. Abuse often brings shame, guilt, and confusion. These can be integral elements of the experience, and serve to keep students silent. Meanwhile, the perpetrators are able to continue with the damaging behaviors.
Hierarchy, obedience, systems of rank? These things are by no means inherently bad! In fact, when wielded with integrity and with great doses of honesty, kindness, and compassion, these can be positive! As students, we gain strength, discipline, humility, leadership, and resilience – along with myriad other golden nuggets of wisdom.
These positive factors and all the good that comes into our lives when we train in a martial arts system can make our questions and concerns about ethics abuses seem all the more confusing.
Look over the following list of questions and ask yourself how your experience measures up.
I recommend you take your time and make sure to remember to breathe. Know you are not to blame and you are not alone. Be good to yourself as you work your way through these questions. You deserve to feel safe.
- Has your teacher pressured you to pay for something you cannot afford?
- Have you been pressured to attend and pay for a workshop, classes, or events you don’t want to or cannot attend or that interfere with an important family event?
- Has your teacher ever asked to borrow money from you or your family?
- Have you ever paid for a service, class, workshop, or training that you did not receive?
- If you work for your teacher, is your pay fair? Is it at least a minimum wage? And if so, do you get paid regularly and on time? Do you get paid for the full number of hours that you work?
- Has your teacher ever been investigated by the IRS or a law enforcement agency? Have they been the subject of a legal inquiry or negative media exposure’?
- Has your teacher pressured you to engage in behaviors, projects, or situations that conflict with your moral values or personal code of ethics?
- Are policies about ethics, safety on the mat, and procedures to bring up concerns unspoken, vague or non-existent?
- Does your teacher involve herself or himself in your private affairs? (Giving unsolicited advice, judging your friends or family, criticizing your life choices?)
- Have you been told to stop engaging with or having contact with a former teammate or family member?
- Are there cliques in your school?
- Have you seen a teammate be, or have you been, humiliated in front of other students?
- Have you or another student received a punishment that seemed overly severe or harmful either physically or emotionally?
- Have you had teammates banished from your school by your teacher because they spoke up about a safety or financial concern?
- Do you refrain from speaking up when you feel unsafe because you are afraid of retribution by a teacher or teammate?
- Do you have a consent model in your school? (Are you allowed to bow out or talk to your partner if you start to feel unsafe when sparring or training?)
- Does your teacher discourage you from cross-training another art or from attending multi-art camps and trainings? (Is there a sense of insularity and isolation from the greater martial arts community?)
- Do you have secrets at your school or with your teacher or teammates? (These might be couched as “no one else will understand” “this is for your own good” “this is because you are special or because we or our art are special/better”)
- Do you have rituals at your school which cause you to feel unsafe? If so, are you encouraged to talk about it or ask questions?
- Are you or are your teammates afraid to make mistakes when helping with a project or event because of the consequences?
- Does your teacher disparage other students when they are not there?
- Do students consistently talk about other students negatively when they are not present?
- Are there students who are clear favorites who receive most of the attention of the teacher at the expense of other students?
- Are men regularly promoted over women? Or visa versa?
- Does your teacher use shame to keep students in line?
- Has a teammate or teacher ever touched you inappropriately?
- Has a teammate or teacher ever had a relationship with an underage student?
- Is there a teacher/instructor at your school whom students stay away from or protect other students from? This might be an unspoken understanding.
- Does any instructor (position of power) consistently engage in sexual activity with lower ranking students (in positions of less power)?
- Does your teacher behave inappropriately? (Having sex with students, flirting on the mat, inappropriate talk or touch…)
How did that go? If your answers to any of these questions are insightful and helpful and you want to talk to someone about them, please contact me and we can talk, or I will put you in touch with someone who can help. You deserve to have inspiring, challenging, and incredible martial arts training and you deserve to be safe too!