“There is only one person you need to learn how to control” – Mr. Han (Jackie Chan in the Karate Kid)
Have you seen the summer blockbuster “The Karate Kid” yet? If not, I suggest you get out there and watch it! It’s not just a fun and entertaining action movie. Dig a little deeper and you’ll realize it packs a lot of crucial leadership lessons – and we martial artists should pay close attention to these lessons. Why? The answer is simple: I view martial arts as a vehicle for building leaders, teaching life skills and character development. And through his journey in the martial arts, our hero, Dre Parker (The Karate Kid), develops into a martial artist and leader.
What Are the Seven Leadership Lessons?
Our story begins when Dre and his mother move to China. Dre struggles to fit in, learn the language and make new friends. To make matters worse, he runs into a gang of bullies. Although Dre thinks he’s tough, Dre’s no match for the bullies’ Kung Fu skills and ends up with a black eye. Things quickly go downhill from there. Day after day, the bullies pick on him, steal his backpack and beat him up. Dre desperately needs to learn how to defend himself.
Enter Mr. Han, the maintenance man in Dre’s apartment building. Dre is thrilled when he discovers that Mr. Han is a Kung Fu expert. After some coaxing, Mr. Han agrees to teach Dre the secrets of martial arts and help him defeat the bullies. It took a lot of work. Let’s see how Mr. Han shaped Dre from an uncouth, disrespectful kid into a martial artist…
Lesson #1 – The Depth of Martial Arts
To pave the way for Dre’s training, Mr. Han first had to dispel a few myths Dre believed about martial arts. Namely, that it was just for “fighting”. Mr. Han taught Dre that the real meaning behind martial arts was actually “for knowledge and self-defense, not to make war”.
This challenged everything Dre believed about martial arts. His naive idea was that it was designed to “dominate” others. But he learned martial arts was much deeper. Mr. Han said, “You see only with your eyes. So you are blind”. What Dre saw on the surface was only the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Han revealed that “Kung Fu lives in everything we do. Everything is Kung Fu. Even how we treat people.” Now that Dre had the right mindset, he was ready to start his training in earnest.
Lesson #2 – Respect
The next lesson Dre discovered was the lesson of respect. Mr. Han put it this way, “You must earn respect. Only then the boys will leave you alone.”
To teach respect, Mr. Han barred Dre from using foul language in his presence, instructed him to respect his mother and to respect martial arts. He also taught him you only fight for the right reason – self-defense. In the same way we “bow in” before class, Mr. Han required Dre to ask permission before entering his shop. (”Did I say come in?”)
Dre quickly learned that respect does not come automatically – it’s something that must be worked on day-by-day, bit-by-bit. Slowly, Dre cultivated respect for everything around him: another culture, his mother, his instructor and most importantly, himself. Mr. Han also taught Dre the power of goal-setting. He enrolled Dre in an upcoming tournament so he could finally prove himself to the bullies. This goal fueled Dre’s training and gave him a target.
Lesson #3 – Attitude
The next big hurdle for Dre was his attitude. For example, Dre had a bad habit of throwing his clothes on the floor when he got home. At one point, his Mom said, “For the 100th time pick it up now! How many times do I have to ask you?”
So Mr. Han started small. He helped Dre develop the right attitude by focusing on this one tiny area – hanging up his jacket. Mr. Han knew if Dre could bring the right attitude to hanging up his jacket – this positive attitude would spill over to other areas in his life. You see, Dre’s jacket was a small slice of how he treated everything in life. Remember: martial arts is in everything we do.
So, Mr. Han built Dre’s attitude by having him repeat the simple act of hanging up his jacket day after day, again and again. Dre didn’t understand the big picture behind hanging up his jacket. At one point he said, “I GOT it! This is stupid. I’m done doing simple things. You do NO Kung fu!” Then Mr. Han showed Dre how the simple, repetitive moves he was doing each day was a central part of his training. Dre was shocked to discover that the simple moves in hanging up his jacket were actually Kung Fu. (Remember: martial arts is in everything?)
In the coming weeks, Dre trained in the rain, never made excuses and stepped up his game to focus on the upcoming tournament. He really DID get it after all. He also learned that you don’t always know the reason behind something you do in training. You must have faith in your instructors.
Lesson #4 – Self-Control
Throughout his training, another important lesson emerged – the value of self-control. Mr. Han taught Dre that true power comes from mastering self, not others. While on a lake training, Mr. Han said, “There is only one person you need to learn how to control”. And that was Dre himself.
Earlier on, Mr. Han had learned the importance of self-control in a very painful way. At one point in his life, he let his anger get the best of him: He gave in to road rage and lost control of the car he was driving. It was a disaster for his family. Mr. Han said, “I was so angry. I lost control.” Mr. Han impressed upon Dre how a lack of self-control and one moment of anger can ruin your entire future, leading to a lifetime of regret. Throughout his training, day after day, Dre absorbed the power of self-control in all areas: mastering his emotions, sticking with his training and overcoming his fears.
Lesson #5 – Inner Calm and Confidence
Late in Dre’s training, Mr. Han took him on a journey to the ancient “Dragon Well” at the top of a mountain. Dre was astonished. Perched on an outcropping on the mountain – hundreds of feet up – was a woman practicing Kung Fu in front of a King Cobra, keeping it totally mesmerized.
Instantly, Dre grasped the spirit of the serpent: He learned that inner calm and stillness are sources of great strength. Confidence doesn’t come from the outside – it comes from the inside. Once you master yourself, you can then master others – including nature.
He later said, “The woman was like still water. Calm.” Mr. Han replied, “Being still and doing nothing are two very different things”. The ability to stay calm under stress was important to Dre for the upcoming tournament.
Dre learned to be the eye in the center of the hurricane!
Lesson #6 – Focus
In the big tournament, Dre had to stay focused, keep his goal in mind and confront his fears. But when Dre first walked in, he was dazzled by all the activity, the many competitors, blaring music and glittering scoreboard. This threw him off his game at first. He needed to dig deep and stay focused. Mr. Han shook him back to reality with “It would be kinda hot if you focus!” Once Dre focused his attention on what he needed to do, he was ready for the challenges ahead.
Lesson #7 – Perseverance
The final lesson Mr. Han taught Dre was perseverance. Let’s face it: Life can be tough. One of the big benefits of martial arts is that it develops your toughness and ability to overcome obstacles. This, of course, means perseverance.
In the tournament, Dre fell victim to a bully’s illegal move. He was rushed out of the arena on a stretcher. It would have been easy for Dre to give up at that point. But he didn’t – he summoned the courage and toughness and to get back in the action. “I don’t want to be scared anymore”, he said. At that point, he no longer had anything to prove to others. He was doing it for himself. Mr. Han summed it up by saying, “When life knocks you down, you can choose whether or not to get back up.”
This type of mental toughness training is best learned through martial arts training. Dre developed a can-do, never-quit attitude and rock-solid perseverance.
Yes, Dre really grew as a person through his martial arts training. If you haven’t already seen this movie, I highly recommend it (although there are some scenes which might be tough for some younger children to watch). It’s an excellent updated remake of a classic. As you can see, it has much more to offer than flashy kicks and punches.
And never forget: Dre isn’t the only one learning these valuable leadership lessons. We teach them to YOU every day.
—Senior Master William J. Babin