Posted by Premier Martial Arts Harlingen on 10/02/2017

The Arts of Self-Defense

The Arts of Self-Defense

Quicker than a karate chop, the Asian martial arts exploded across the country after the debut of the movies “Karate Kid” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” in the 1980s.  The lure of self-defense skills, increased self-confidence and being part of a brotherhood attracted youth and adults to numerous martial arts academies. What they instill — in the form of blocks, punches and kicks — is discipline, respect, ethics and hard work.

These small businesses have owners with years of experience and advanced rankings. Martial art styles – judo, karate, taekwondo (Korean karate), jiu-jitsu, kung fu  — come and go in popularity with mixed martial arts (a mix of styles) currently ascending. Changes continue:  competitions are being deemphasized; some academies downplay the mystical elements. Most martial arts schools offer inducements to differentiate themselves. Team Tiger Martial Arts of McAllen, for example, offers after-school pickup. But success comes down to the customers’ satisfaction with the results.

“I have the coolest job. I get to wear my pajamas to work,” said Eric Arriaga, indicating his white gi. Yet when he opened his taekwondo school in 2006, it was a hobby business. Today his PST Black Belt Academy has more than 200 students.  Last year revenues topped $330,000.  Arriaga is preparing to franchise Black Belt Academy, having developed a turnkey package of the structure, program and systems. That includes marketing, instructor/staff training, 12-week curriculums, plus the physical set up from mats, mirrors and music to keeping the place smelling fresh.

“We’re like Walt Disney for kids and their families. We went from zero to hero in 24 months. The system is already running,” said Arriaga who graduated from UTB and went full time in 2010 aided by his wife Leticia, the company president.

Despite being among the most expensive of martial arts schools regionally, attendance has soared for the basic, black belt and elite leadership classes. Arriaga plans to move into a larger facility in the near future and use the flagship school in a strip center as the franchise model. “I have the best staff: they touch people lives and empower them. We have kids coming to Harlingen from Rio Grande City, Raymondville and Edinburg. That tells you something.”

“Some families say they are looking for focus, discipline, structure. The kids are in it for the excitement. We don’t put pressure on kids to compete,” Arriaga said. The school encourages parents to take classes with their children, with all ages letting go of frustrations and stress.

Black Belt Academy offers free women’s self-defense classes most months as well as anti-bullying workshops.  Martial arts birthday parties are available.

Eric Arriaga learned taekwondo from his brother Ed Arriaga, who since 1990 has run Ed’s World Class Martial Arts Academy in Brownsville.  Ten years on, he bought property and built a studio, expanding it as his business grew. The original lobby is now a workout room for parents to use while their children attend class.  The new lobby has elevated benches overlooking the large mat.

Desire, discipline and determination are what’s it all about, both in learning taekwondo and running a business, according to Ed Arriaga.  “We’ve gone through some good times and bad times, good months and bad months.”  He heads a truly family business with his wife Cynthia. His sons Adrian, Michael and Daniel are also his students and poster boys, appearing on large posters in taekwondo leaps.

“Martial arts teaches a great deal of discipline, and it brings everybody’s self-esteem up,” said Arriaga. His students, who range from age 3 on up and include youths with autism, opt to attend two, three or five days per week.  The discipline the students achieve enables them to become community leaders as adults, he added, mentioning former students, now policemen, teachers and college students, who stop by to give their coach a hug. “I must have done something good.  They respect themselves and others.”

“We set goals, but we’ve got to have the support from moms and dads.” That’s a two-way street.  Arriaga provides a job list for students to be assigned at home, having them accept responsibility such as hanging up their clothes. Completed lists bring a reward.

Arriaga does school presentations on anti-bullying.  Despite the proliferation of martial arts competitors, the Arriaga family continues to apply determination and discipline to succeed.

Grand master Johnny Gonzalez opened Johnny’s Korean Karate 32 years ago. “I have grandkids of some of my first students now,” said the ninth degree black belt. “Reality-based self-defense is what I teach — punches, grabs, chokes, on the ground or standing up. Some days we train in street clothes to get the idea of what it feels like to kick in jeans and boots.  Self-defense is a way to keep a situation from escalating. The first and foremost rule we teach is walk away.”

“Kids really take to karate because of bullying,” he said.  “You use martial arts techniques to get away quickly if you get grabbed. ‘The movies are one thing. That’s entertainment,’ I tell my kids. The reality is totally different.”

Since 2011, Joshua and Kerri Sharpless have operated McAllen’s Gracie Barra Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school, owned by Tyler Brossard who has the Brownsville Gracie Barra school. The floor-based sport differs from other martial arts in having no striking, kicking, punching or weapons. Jiu-jitsu takedowns are clearly derived from judo.

“It’s more realistic for street situations. We have a great anti-bullying program. This is a creative martial art; moves are still being developed,” said Kerri. The curriculum attracts kids and adults seeking self-defense, exercise or even work skills for law enforcement.

On the self-defense side, students learn how to escape a bear hug or chokehold.  Joshua compared the sports side of jiu-jitsu to human chess: “You earn points from countering techniques and getting out of bad situations. It’s a matter of who is in control, in the dominant position, and learning how to get into and out of those positions.”

“Some people are nervous to walk through the door,” said Kerri.  “We are a lifestyle-type of school.” About 80 kids come in on a near-daily basis.  She recommends training at least three times per week. Students make their own schedule, coming one to five times per week for the same monthly fee.

The response to the school’s free women’s self-defense seminars has prompted the couple to begin renovating space for those classes. “I encourage women to do it. It empowers them and builds their confidence,” Kerri said.

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Valley Business Report July 2016 cover story by Eileen Mattei 

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