Fatherhood And The Martial Arts
Yesterday I attended a memorial service for the father of one of my first black belt students. This young man came to me when he was already a second-degree black belt from another school. His father had brought him to us because they were unhappy with his previous school and instructor.
Being a black belt, I threw him in with my advanced students, none of whom were black belts at the time. Unfortunately, he found that my blue belts and red belts were able to give him quite a fight. He left in tears that night, and I was certain he wouldn’t be back.
But the next Monday, he walked back into my school with his father at his side. I could see that he was nervous, but his dad walked him in, gave him a quiet pep talk off to the side, and stayed with him through the entire lesson. That young man stuck it out, and eventually he became one of the finest black belts my schools have ever turned out (and yes, I did make him retest for first and second dan).
Now, some of you may read this story and think that Massie is great because he teaches tough classes, and that I’m the hero of this story, Not even close.
You see, in my eyes the real hero in this story is that young man’s dad.
From that very first day, that man was there with his son constantly as he trained at my studio. Rare was the occasion when he wasn’t there for an event. When we went to regional tournaments, he was there. When we went to state and national championships, he was there, and he continued to be there until his son met his goal of medaling at national championships in sparring.
Why Fathers Are Far From Irrelevant
Not to give mom short shrift – she spent her share of days at the studio, too. But as an example of fatherhood, this man was certainly someone to admire.
I wish we had more dads like that in this world, but we don’t, and it’s damned unfortunate. Although we live in a time when we’re being told that fathers are irrelevant, as a man who has struggled to work out what it means to be a man I can tell you they’re anything but. And in my opinion, this is especially true for boys and young men.
Like many young men of my era, I grew up in a single parent household and was raised by a single mom. Now, we all know that the single mom has become the downtrodden hero(-ine) of the modern culture. Certainly, I applaud women who take up the reins of parenthood alone after some lame-duck dad walks out on his kids. However, I believe that the very presence of this problem points to the deeper issue.
And that is, that we need strong fathers to model manhood and fatherhood to boys and young men. Strong fathers don’t give up on their marriages when things get tough. Strong fathers don’t walk out on their kids when it becomes inconvenient to be a father. And, strong fathers teach their boys how to grow up and be the type of men who take their familial responsibilities seriously.
Strong fathers raise men who commit. And, I believe that it’s a namby-pamby lack of commitment, call it grit if you will, that’s at least in part led to the massive lack of committed, connected, engaged fathers in our society.
Granted, I accept that in some circumstances a marriage just cannot be saved. I’m not talking about those instances. Instead, I am talking about the fact that it’s become too damned normal for men to just walk out on their families.
You see, a mother can teach a boy a lot of things, but the one thing she can’t teach a boy is how to be a man. The reason is because she just doesn’t know how, not really, not on a deep existential level.
A mother can absolutely teach a young man values (and thank God for all the mothers who do exactly that), but she is simply incapable of relating to the unique experiences a young man will face as he works out just what it is to be a man, to fill the shoes of husbandhood, of fatherhood, of manhood.
And sadly without that connection, a boy will adopt whatever altered and mutated forms of male culture that he is exposed to by his peers… who are likely to also have been raised without a strong and positive male role model around.
He is apt to adopt a twisted view of womanhood, seeing women as a means to an end, or as less than his equal in a relationship. He will unfortunately completely miss that a wife is potentially the most valuable and treasured friend and companion a man could have. And thereby he will lose out on all the benefits that a solid and committed marriage relationship can provide.
In short, he will become the exact opposite of what his mother likely wanted for him, because no man can be happy when he is confused about what it means to be a father and a husband.
Why I Say That A Mature Man Should Be Resolute, And Firm In His Convictions
If there is one thing I have determined about being a man, it is that a mature man is resolute, and firm in his convictions.
Without being grounded in the sure knowledge that a man is resolute, and firm in his convictions, a young man will bounce from career to career, from relationship to relationship, from place to place. The women in his life will wonder why he can’t commit, why he never takes the lead, why he is a cotton candy male, on the exterior providing all the promise of fulfilling a deep-seated feminine hunger, but leaving them feeling even more empty than before they met.
Moreover, that boy will grow into a man who doubts his every step. When hard-pressed, he will waiver with uncertainty. He will ask that question, time and time again, “Am I man enough?”
Some men will try and fail, and without the steady hand of a strong father to lift them up and dust them off, and tell them “it’s okay, I failed too” they will give up and assume they just aren’t up to the task.
Others will turn to hyper-aggression, parroting caricatures of male competency that they see in popular culture. They will carouse, they will cheat, some will beat their wives, and some will abuse or walk out on their children.
And the cycle will continue from generation to generation. And that is why I believe that the manhood and fatherhood gap is destroying our culture.
An Opportunity To Fill The Fatherhood Gap
Yet, within the dearth of committed fathers and strong father figures in our society, there lies the tremendous opportunity we have as instructors to fill that void.
For anyone who has been in this industry for more than a few years, it will become apparent that the majority of martial arts instructors are male. Obviously, I am talking to them, for reasons discussed earlier in this article. However, I’ll be the first person to say that we need more female instructors, not only because girls need positive female role models, but also because there are plenty of boys who need affirmation from a female role model as well.
Even so, when it comes to impacting young men in our society, I believe it is the male coaches and instructors in our industry who are in a unique position to mentor young boys by modeling what it means to be a man. In this regard, and as we approach Father’s Day here in the States, I am challenging all you men out there to be better role models for your students.
You know what this means. You know, because you likely fall into one of two camps. Either you had a dad you admire and who you see as the model of positive manhood, or you didn’t. And if you didn’t, you have likely spent a lot of time working out what it means to be a man of worth and substance. A man who doesn’t flinch from responsibility. A man who finishes what he starts. A man who contributes to society.
I’ll leave it to you to work out on your own what that means to you, and how to model that. However, I am still challenging you male instructors out there to engage with your students, male and female both (don’t forget, young girls need to know that there are men who will see them as equals and not objects, and in a society where children are being sexualized, this is more important than ever). Show them what it means to be resolute, and firm in your convictions, that a man can be rock steady.
But also, show them your softer side. A strong man is a gentle man… yes, a gentleman. He cries when appropriate. He hugs his kids. He says “I was wrong, and I’m sorry.” He lets others know he cares.
Men, if you had a father you look up to, model that to your students. And if you didn’t, then be the male role model you wish you had for them.
I can assure you, in ten or twenty years, no student will ever tell you they regretted that you tried to be a better man for them while they were your students.
Well said, Mike.
A few years ago, my first black belt student contacted me. I hadn’t seen him in years…
He had studied under me for quite a while as a child, and the beginnings of becoming a young man, before circumstances brought our student-instructor relationship to an end, and we lost contact.
He contacted me just to thank me, and to let me know that it was his time as my student that enabled him to become the strong and grounded man he is today.
Something that I think every instructor needs to realize is that our actions have a direct impact on our student’s lives – not only in class, but potentially for the rest of their life! That is a big responsibility, and one that if an instructor isn’t taking seriously, they need to!
Thanks for all that you do, and happy father’s day!
Thanks for the feedback, and for the story, Brett! Agreed, we have a huge responsibility, but it’s also a privilege to have the opportunity to impact the next generation.