Thoughts of a Master: Ron Hagelganz
By Christopher Thurne
I once had a conversation about martial arts with a woman who’d never taken a class before. In the course of the conversation I’d mentioned I had earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. When she heard this she asked: “What do you do now?”
She thought a black belt was the highest rank, period. Because she didn’t know much about Tae Kwon Do, she didn’t know there were several degrees of black belts.
I bring this up, not to criticize her ignorance, but to point of the complexities of knowledge. She’s not the only one who has that understanding; we’ve all suffered from ignorant notions on topics, even martial arts.
During my first martial arts class, but instructor performed a board break to demonstrate the power of proper technique. At the time I was very impressed by the strength it must have taken to break through the board. Now breaking a single board doesn’t presents little challenge, but I’ve learned many more different breaks that do like speed breaks and concrete breaks. Though I know more about breaking than I did on the first day, I’ve also learned there is still much more to learn.
The same is true for Ron Hagelganz.
For Hagelganz, a fifth dan in Shiho Karano Karate and third dan in Iaido who also has black belt ranks in Tae Kwon Do and Jiu-Jitsu, he’s learned he’s has a lot more to learn.
“My teacher said ‘Always remain a student,” he said. “And that really is crucial because the joy truly is in the journey. And, at least in my experience, it seems that the one thing that causes students of any age or rank to quit is when they lose the desire to learn.”
A student of Clement Riender, the president of the Christian Black Belt Association, Hagelganz remains a student while he also leads Whole Armor Martial Arts in Vancouver, Wash.
While the desire to learn is important, Hagelganz said, learning is not always about having fun.
“There are times in any pursuit that are just not very fun, and we can’t let those times determine the value of our journey,” he said. “Interestingly enough, often those dry times are when we actually learn the very most in terms of building our character, anyway. So we need to keep going and push through to whatever the next goal or level is, and not give up just because things get tough we don’t see the reward right in front of us. In other words: ‘Hang in there! It will pay off.’”
Hagelganz said martial arts is not just about fighting. There is an etiquette to martial arts that gives its artistry, he said.
“Etiquette is the glue that holds what we do together,” Hagelganz said. “Without etiquette you don’t have martial arts. You have a lot of martial, but no arts.
“Etiquette is that inside and personal stuff that is so immensely rewarding,” he said. “Folding your uniform properly and bowing out of the dojo when everyone else has gone and you could instead just stuff it in your bag and run out, that kind of thing. Doing what’s right and correct even when no one knows but you. Those are valuable moments.
“Etiquette is my favorite aspect of martial arts because I love what it does in my own life, and what I see it doing in the lives of my students.”
Hagelganz said etiquette’s place in martial arts has greatly diminished since he first began training.
“It’s all getting so very commercial now,” he said. “Schools seem to focus less on any kind of curriculum and just run with whatever is popular and will keep students paying. Students calling black belts by their first name, high fives instead of bows, and virtually no discipline because schools don’t want to do anything to risk offending or losing a student.
“And the huge commercial swing toward MMA isn’t helping either. I fear we are at risk of losing the true benefits of martial arts.
Hagelganz said from what he’s seen of mixed martial arts, the training doesn’t teach chracte development.
“MMA, at least from what I have observed, appears to toss etiquette and just train people to fight,” he said. “They turn out serious fighters, but there is so much more to martial arts than fighting. As was said by Funikoshi-Sensei, the real benefit of our study is the development of our character.
“By throwing away the etiquette and many personal disciplines in order to retain students, or simply turn out fighters, the true benefit of martial arts is greatly diminished,” he said. “This is probably another discussion, but honestly I think MMA should be called something like MMF or ‘Mixed Martial Fighting’, not mixed martial arts.”
As a Christian martial arts instructor, Hagelganz said learning self-evaluation is the challenge many of his students face.
“Students have a real tough time being realistic and critical of themselves,” he said. “It’s a difficult issue, one that I’m constantly attempting to address in my classes. I can stand there all night long and tell them or show them the correct way to do something, but if they think they have it right, they won’t change anything.
“Once a student learns to look at themselves from the outside and see what their performance of technique really looks like, we can do some serious training.”
But teaching self-evaluation is difficult; and Hagelganz said some students never acquire that skill set.
“All you can do, as with any skill, is rehearse it time and again and hope that it starts to sink in. Usually there comes a point where students realize that if they want to get anywhere they need to figure out why they aren’t progressing as rapidly as they want too. Hopefully I can recognize that point and show them what will help.”
Hagelganz said he does not incorporated faith into his school, Whole Armor Martial Arts; rather, Christianity is the center of everything they do.
“Rather than faith brought into our martial arts, our martial arts is wrapped around our faith,” he said. “Our Whole Armor logo shows that well, it’s a Bible with a Black Belt tied around it, representing God’s Word as the center of everything for us.”
As a Christian martial artist, Hagelganz has also experienced those who misunderstand how his training can serve God’s will.
“People can get pretty bent when they don’t understand something, and martial arts is no different,” he said. “The important thing is to be consistent in your walk with Christ, knowledgeable, and always ready to confidently give that defense for the hope we have (1 Peter 3: 15-16). As a Christian, anything I do, including martial arts, I see as a Christian activity. I believe our faith should be the starting point of anything we do.
“That said, in 1984 I was on a missions trip to Indonesia, and during a stop in Singapore I gave a talk to a youth group about the parallels of breaking bricks and breaking through the things that keep you from living flat out for God.
“After my talk, the leader of the group sort of rebuked me in front of the group for being involved in martial arts and strongly suggested that I get free from that.
“Ends up for that particular group of folks, martial arts was something that they gave up and renounced when coming to Christ. That was a real eye-opener, and let me know that I needed to do more in terms of making sure that my study and teaching of the martial arts was completely grounded in faith and God’s Word in the Bible. So if someone were to again question or condemn what I did, I could be confident that they would have a tough time proving, or hopefully be unable to prove, that I was outside of God’s calling.”