How Women’s Consumer Dollars Have Changed the Face of Martial Arts

Thirty years ago, a martial arts studio would usually be filled with twenty-something and thirty-something men, who trained and fought until they bled or passed out.

Talk was verboten, the master was God and the lone woman had to change behind a curtain in the hallway, because there was no female locker room. Today, most martial arts club have a membership gender ratio of close to 1:1 in their adult classes, with women aged 25-35 being one of the fastest growing demographics. As martial arts instructors vie to attract this new group of consumers, the offerings of old are changing dramatically. The current Tae-Bo rage is but one example of how women’s bucks are influencing the martial arts market.

Is this change good or bad? Hard-core enthusiasts remember the days of blood and sweat with fondness, and obliquely suggest that women’s participation has “diluted” North American martial arts. Female martial artists themselves often criticize the new type of woman student. Because it was so difficult to be a woman karate student or Taekwon-do student in the 1960s and 1970s, those who survived and succeeded were truly exceptional. Now, the greater numbers of female students and the friendlier environment in which they train has changed that.

Martial arts aerobics such as Tae-Bo, which are aimed primarily at the female consumer, and which completely strip the martial — the combat, contact and self-defense aspects — from the arts, are seen by many serious male and female practitioners as the antithesis of the martial arts.

Women’s incursion in the martial arts was, of course, not an isolated event — it followed general social and economical movements, and, in fact lagged behind them. Those of us who started training in the 1980′s were still likely to be the only girls in the class. Today, children’s classes are still dominated by little boys, while parents sign up their sisters for ballet, gymnastics and folk dance.

Women are not the only new demographic in dojos and dojangs. Older people-from the hale and hearty forty and fifty-somethings all the way to senior citizens — are starting to populate studios too. And children, of course, have gone from being an anomaly to the bread-and-butter of most schools.

Is the environment softer? Definitely. Is it producing students of lower quality? Probably, the more participants you have, the greater the bell curve. Although you’ll have more exceptional students (male and female), you’ll also have more mediocre … and just plain bad … students.

So what’s the final verdict?

For the most part, serious injury rates in clubs today are significantly lower than in the days of yore. Instructors are better educated in the art of teaching and in the science of the martial art. Stretching exercises, understanding the kinesiological basis behind kicking and punching, and instruction in the theory behind sparring are as common now as bleeding and throwing up was in the 1970s.

Tournaments are much safer (although exceptions, as always, exist). Interaction between students and instructors is more intimate and open: questions are allowed. Many of these changes are linked to the changing gender and age demographic.

And, female martial arts champions, like karate’s Kathy Long or Taekwon-do’s Renee Sereff, can kick the average male student’s butt.

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