I was scrolling through Facebook the other day and came across a “Top Five” list…of other “Top Five” lists. It was a wonderfully meta idea and it made me realize how long it had been since we had our own top five list here at Kung Fu Tea. The subject for our own list should be obvious. We are living in uncharted times, so I figured it would be fun to put together a brief discussion on how the collective martial arts scene has changed in the last year and the questions we should be thinking about. I need to thank Prof. Andrea Molle for posing a number of important questions in a private conversation earlier this week that really got me thinking about a couple of these issues. Perhaps I will spin some of them out into something more developed later.
Without further ado, here are the top five ways that 2020 has transformed our training.
- The Convergence of “Martial Arts” with “Arts and Crafts”
During my ethnographic research I had noticed that many martial arts instructors were “crafty” individuals. Most small business owners need to be able to repair things or put together a new display case, but this seemed to go beyond that. Many of these people really enjoy working with their own hand, particularly when it comes to construct elaborate training devices. Now, thanks to COVID-19 and the necessity of home training, we have all gotten crafty!
It is entirely possible to go on-line and order a grappling dummy. You could even do that before the crisis hit, though it seems very few people did. But all spring and summer my social media feeds have been full of people deciding to do it themselves.
Wing Chun students have finally taken the time to mount that rice bag that they promised their Sifu they were going to use everyday years ago, but never touched. A few intrepid souls have even been making their own wooden (or more often, PVC) dummies. My Sifu, Jon Nielson, spent a big chunk of the summer looking at all of the ways that you can hang elastic resistance bands and rice bags off of wooden dummies to create a Wing Chun focused home gym that takes up no additional floor space. Its brilliant stuff.
The HEMA and Chinese fencing community have been constructing pells and hanging tennis balls from every conceivable rafter. Basically, if you haven’t learned a bit about carpentry, sewing, welding or weapon-smithing you have missed out on one of the hottest trends in martial arts! You may also have missed out on the sorts of truly epic training injuries can only come from making your own work-out equipment, but the learning curve is half the fun!
- The Rise of Zoom and the Decline of Everyone Else
As countless martial arts studios temporarily closed their doors this spring, they established Zoom classes. At the time I felt we were seeing a sea change in the way that instruction would be offered, and I think the summer has proved that to be true. Of course, there has been a lot of realignment in the retail martial arts sector. Many schools have already gone out of business, and if the fall and winter flu season brings another round of lockdowns, I am sure that we will see more.
After the first few weeks lots students simply decided that Zoom wasn’t for them. Many adult students have stopped training all together, and others decided that they would simply workout on their own, without having to worry about getting a wifi connection in the back yard. Still, enough people have struck with the Zoom classes to tide quite a few martial arts schools over a few rough months.
What one might not have expected is that as states and cities have opened back up, many of these same students now demanding that the Zoom classes continue. As a result, lots of schools have hybrid schedules that involve both in-person and remote instruction. It is not clear how sustainable this is going to be in the long run as local martial arts teachers have seen increases in their workload even as the overall number of students is dropping.
The motivations behind this are complex. Some individuals are nervous about the health risks of in-person train. Other parents greatly appreciate not having to take the time to drive their children to and from training. “Jr.’s” Zoom karate class has essentially become an hour of relatively low-cost virtual childcare.
And what parent couldn’t use a break in the middle of all of this? But as Molle points out, there are some unintended economic knock-on effects that are already starting to take a toll on schools. A certain percentage of the parents who would have driven Jr. back and forth to those Karate lessons may have signed up for memberships themselves as an easy opportunity to create a family activity. In the more atomized environment that Zoom has fostered, that is not happening and the sorts of high dollar value family memberships that supported many youth oriented martial arts clubs are drying up. While isolated physical spaces paradoxically served to bring families together, the limitless expanse of Zoom classes and YouTube tutorials is creating a type of fragmentation that threatens certain martial arts instructors.
- The Coming Consolidation
With a few exceptions, we have not seen much true consolidation in the North American martial arts sector. The closet that one gets are certain organization that function through a franchise model. Indeed, the very notion of “lineage” as a concept for social organization makes a type of franchised identity construction possible. But as anyone who has been around for a few years knows, geographic distance and competition for resources creates the sorts of centrifugal forces that blow up many of these efforts.
A transition to virtual instruction (for those who want it) begins to change things. One of the disorienting things about the start of the COVID-19 lockdown was that I suddenly found myself spending a lot more time with my friends in Europe and Canada than I have ever done before. I started to “see” them even more frequently than most of my friends and training partners from my own city. On Zoom everyone is equally close, or equally distanced, and martial arts instructors are only now coming to terms with what this collapse of geography portends.
As I mentioned before, while Zoom classes were a bit of a windfall for many local schools, they have still seen a worrying drop in their enrollments. If they are forced to close their doors again in the fall, it might be for good. Further, students are generally not willing to pay the same amount for virtual instruction as they are for in personal lessons, even though everyone still has to pay the rent and keep the lights on. As many Colleges and Universities are now discovering, full tuition can be a powerful disincentive to take a virtual class.
That doesn’t mean that everyone is losing money. Certain instructors are building very large networks of students who they would never previously have come into contact with. So, who wins in a borderless landscape defined by shrinking student bases and declining profit margins?
My own unscientific survey of the situation suggests that it pays to be famous, have a large organization and enjoy what economists call a “first mover” advantage. Simply put, if a student’s only option is a Zoom class, they are just as likely to get it from that famous instructor whose workshop they attended two years ago as the struggling school on the other side of town where they first saw him. At the same time, this instructor will only be able to capitalize on this potential if they are capable of creating the type of technical infostructure necessary to produce a really compelling product. Often that means hiring people as (surprise, surprise) most martial arts masters aren’t techies. Lastly, the more quickly one can move into this market the easier it is to fend off competition.
- Relationships and Lineages
But how is all of this going to effect people’s identity as martial artists? Or even the continuation of lineage?
These are the central questions. While some individuals may move entirely to a Zoom/solo training regime (at least in the short term), it seems that just as many people are adopting some sort of hybrid training model where they are now splitting their scare time and resources between remote instruction and in-person training. The nature of that second category is complicated by the fact that many (most?) schools are still maintaining some type of social distancing requirement that keeps students in their individual bubbles. But even if people were actually sparring or drilling together, things have gotten a bit more complicated. Another instructor, sometimes from a different organization, has now been added to the mix.
Again, this happened on some level before the pandemic as well, so the situation is not without precedent. Yet in 2020 this kind of experience is becoming increasingly central. Might Zoom and other forms of distributed teaching effective kill the notion of lineage?
While on the surface this seems unlikely, it is still a question we should consider. Lineage has not been a universally popular concept. For instance, certain reformers in the Chinese martial arts in the 1910s-1930s were very warry of schools that put local identity and concerns above the lofty ideals of national service. They decried lineages that maintained “secret teachings” or refused to submit their training methods to modern and scientific scrutiny. One of the ways to understand the explosion of publications advanced by first the Jingwu and later the Guoshu movements was to widely distribute a certain vision of martial arts that marginalized what they viewed as improper tendencies.
One can certainly contest how successful any of these efforts were. Nevertheless, it is interesting to think about how shifts in technology in the 1920s (cheap publishing and inexpensive photography) and our current era (Zoom) might conspire to force the aggregation of identity from a relatively local level to something larger. This makes intuitive sense. As the costs of communication go down, larger forms of social organization become more attractive.
Still, this cuts against something that we mentioned in the discussion of vertical integration. Being a well-known instructor from a famous lineage is a huge advantage when trying to differentiate your Zoom class in crowded field. It seems just as likely that, deprived of physical markers of authenticity, students might cling even more tightly to seemingly external witnesses to an instructor’s legitimacy, such as lineage. It is still too early to tell what impact, if any, an increase in remote instruction might have here.
What seems more certain is that the types of relationship that we see within these organizations are likely to shift. Repeated intense physical interactions, happening over a period of years, leads naturally to friendships and the accumulation of something that social scientists call “bonding” social capital. This type of socialization is also important for people’s individual emotional well-being.
The sorts of relationships made within a cohort of fellow Zoom travelers are fundamental different. Few of us have any interaction with these individuals during our virtual classes, and what occurs is often limited to only knowing that they are there. While this may lead us to realize that our community of practice is larger and more diverse than we had ever known (bridging capital), it is also unlikely to provide individuals with the sort of emotional safety net that can be found in more traditional training environments. This limits the ability of martial arts training to combat depression, which seems to sum up the 2020 situation perfectly.
- Fight the Man
Have you noticed that everyone seems angry?
Each of our previous four points presupposed that individuals were adhering to social distancing guidelines both within schools and through remote learning. But that is not always the case. A smaller group of martial artists have chosen to resist these guidelines by training with direct person to person contact in defiance of local restrictions. A number of martial arts schools around the country reopened their doors before actually getting the go ahead to do so, and a few even refused to close down on matter of principle. Some of them became instant celebrities on social media for doing so.
None of this is unique to the martial arts sector; it was hair salons, bars and gyms that usually made the news. One of the stories in this morning’s feed was about an ersatz community who gathers to work out, facemask free, in illegal gyms. While some martial arts clubs (like salons or bars) have openly defied closure orders, more have decided to operate in the shadows, offering their students an official, socially distanced, training option but also the traditional hands-on stuff in a literal backroom.
The result of this is the politicization of yet one more realm of our personal lives which, prior to 2020, was widely seen as a refuge from explicitly partisan debates. I have been struck over the years by how little political discussion I have heard in most martial arts classes. (Conversations outside of class are another matter entirely). But in the current climate, where social distancing itself has been politicized, how one chooses to practice has taken on an additional layer of meaning.
All of this places a certain percentage of martial arts students in a position of rhetorical resistance against the state. The important question that needs to be investigated is whether or not an individual’s views change after participating in such a group. In other words, do individuals with these sorts of political predispositions self-select to engage in this type of training, or can involvement with an underground class actually change someone’s norms and identities on a more fundamental level?
This is not a new question. Governments have backed physical culture regimes precisely because they believed that these practices had the potential to produce better citizens, or possibly ones who were more likely to be loyal to a specific party or leader. The currently situation may give us a chance to dig a little deeper into the relationship between individual and group values. I am not suggesting that this would make 2020 worth it, but as the old political adage goes, “never let a good crisis go to waste.”
If you enjoyed this list you might also want to read: Explaining “Openness” and “Closure” in Kung Fu, Lightsaber Combat and Modern Martial Arts