Students>Getting started>Servitude

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Servitude is a state of subjection to a master with a lack of personal freedom to act as one chooses. This subjection may be forced, as it is in communist countries, or it may be voluntary, as it is in the martial arts. Why would a person voluntarily enter servitude?

A volunteer is someone who performs a service or assumes an obligation of his or her own free will; there’s no obligation, just a need to want to help others. Whereas a person may enter voluntary servitude if he or she thinks it will be beneficial to him or her, or the person may be gradually drawn into it over time as he or she pursues some goal, such as a black belt, or it may occur as the person falls under the spell of a charismatic person, such as a martial arts instructor.

What is the difference between volunteerism and voluntary servitude? I contend—not much.

Be aware

This discussion is not so much to condemn volunteerism being exploited in the martial arts as much as it is to forewarn potential students of the practice and to remind current students of what they have been sucked into without realizing it. Martial art school volunteerism can be a good thing, or it can be exploitation.

If you are thinking about taking martial art classes with an instructor or joining a martial art school, then expect to be a volunteer. Expect to “volunteer” to help with students, assist at tournaments, camps, outings, fundraisers, demonstrations, etc., help with facility maintenance and repairs, and to teach, which means you are working without getting paid. Students who are professionals will be approached for free services, such as plumbing, electrical work, printing, accounting, etc., while nonprofessional students will be asked to do everything else.

Businesses must be cleaned and repaired and most businesses pay to have it done. By using school “volunteers,” the martial art school does not have to pay for the services. Where does the saved money go? Maybe it goes into improving the school, but usually, it goes into the owner’s wallet.

If you do not “volunteer,” in one way or another, you will be made to feel unwelcome and you will probably quit the martial arts. If you involuntarily “volunteer,” at some point you will probably feel you are giving and, also paying, for more than you are receiving. You could volunteer your time to a more deserving cause than ensuring the success of a martial art business. If you voluntarily volunteer, you will probably be pleased with your choice and think I have missed the point of the what school volunteerism is about. As I said before, volunteerism can be a good thing, or it can be exploitation.

One would think that a volunteer is someone who performs a service or assumes an obligation of his or her own free will. However, in the martial arts, volunteer means you “will” perform services and work for no pay. If you ever become an employee of a martial art school, you will get paid something. If you are a senior student who “volunteers” a lot, you may be rewarded with free tuition, which means little since you will be “volunteering” so much that you will have little time to train.

Must teach

One of the myths spread by martial art schools is that you cannot fully understand a martial art until you teach it; some schools even make it a requirement for black belt ranks. This belief is implied or taught from the first day a student starts training. Of course, the teaching time is “volunteered” so you are not paid for it. How many businesses do you know that require people work for years as apprentices for no pay, so they may gain knowledge? As a volunteer, not only does the school not pay you a salary, there are no medical benefits, you are not eligible for workman’s compensation, there are no retirement benefits, no social security payments, and you are not paid overtime; you are in effect an indentured servant.


Servitude has been a part of the martial arts since they were formed. Early masters taught their arts as an avocation, not a vocation, so they were not seeking to earn a living. If they broke even, they were satisfied. This meant that everyone in the school was expected to help maintain the school and to help each other learn and train in the art. This attitude was, and still is, cultivated through the teachings of the martial arts. A good martial artist was not just one who could perform all the physical requirements of a martial art, he or she was also one who “understood” and participated in martial arts servitude and passed this tradition on to new students. This was once a noble cause and it worked well for centuries, but then the martial arts came to the west and met capitalism.

Free labor

Now martial art schools are businesses and must make a profit to stay in business, and, for full-time school owners, make enough profit for them to make a decent living. One way martial art schools accomplish this is to capitalize on the tradition of servitude in the martial arts.

This original noble cause has been morphed into volunteerism where students are expected to volunteer their time, not to further the cause of the martial art, but to make the school more profitable. For students of small schools, volunteerism may still seem to be a noble cause, but for students of large schools, some of which are really mini-corporations, it is a rip-off.

For example, as a senior color belt or a black belt, you pay a rather substantial fee to compete in a tournament. You compete for a maximum of 15 minutes, and then you are expected to volunteer your time as a ring official for the remainder of the tournament. To compete in a tournament, one would expect to have to pay a portion of the tournament costs, but, for most tournaments, after all the costs have been paid, there is a substantial profit. This profit is split amongst the tournament promoters and/or school owners who bring students to the tournament. Since the costs are fairly stable no matter the number of competitors, the more competitors, the more profits.

The increase in competitors will not increase the tournament costs since many of these competitors and the parents of minor competitors will be expected to volunteer their time to work at the tournament. The problem is not that the volunteerism allows the tournament to take place or that it lowers the application fee; it is the fact that volunteerism increases profits since the promoters don’t have to pay to get the work done. If all volunteers could compete for free, it may be a fair exchange, but this is rarely the case. In addition, in many cases, even if a student does not complete, he or she may be expected to attend the tournament and assist. Included in the volunteer work are your travel and lodging expenses.

Also, be aware of bartering for tuition. For example, in exchange for cleaning the school every weekend, you get free tuition to a few of classes a week that you may or may not attend, and, even if you did attend every class offered, would the cost per hour of a class equal the cost per hour of your work.

While on the issue of pay per hour, what about what is paid to the instructor employees. Here is a job that require a person to have two or more years of specialized training (usually which can only come from the school itself) and “certification” (which means an ordinary person off the street, even a person with a Ph.D., cannot do the job) and yet it pays minimum wage with no benefits. From the beginning, students are trained to be instructors that will work for practically nothing. The only way for them to make money in the martial arts is to open their own schools and continue the tradition of student servitude.


Small martial schools may be relying on volunteerism to stay afloat, but large schools, or smaller schools that have grown in size, exploit volunteerism and use it as a way to increase profits with no capital expenditure. Be aware, at some point, volunteerism becomes servitude. If it is voluntary servitude, then it is not a problem for you. However, if it is involuntary servitude or a case where you have been trained to be a servant without your conscious knowledge of it happening, then it may be something you want to think about.

Think of it this way. Would you pay to join a gym, such as Gold's, LA Fitness, or Planet Fitness, where you were required to sweep the gym, clean the locker rooms, and act as an assistant to the instructor of your fitness class?

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