Interview With SAMA Martial Arts Instructor Bret Hamlin

By J. B. Nash - August 10, 2020

Martial arts—it‘s a method of self-defense often characterized by a system of forms, attacks, and movements ranging from punches and kicks, to ground defense, weapons, and joint manipulation. But no martial art is complete without a set of rules and a code of conduct, which is often steeped in cultural tradition. However, has this ancient practice become so contrived and outdated that it’s become a relic of the past? Or does it still hold valuable teachings that can successfully guide us in today’s atmosphere?

I sit down with Instructor Bret Hamlin, co-owner of Sturgis Michigan’s very own Sturgis Academy of Martial Arts (SAMA) to find out.

Hamlin is a 4th degree black belt Master Instructor in Tae Kwon Do, a 3rd degree black belt Chief Instructor in Hapkido, and a certified instructor in Kali. He’s been involved in the martial arts for 16 years and counting, drawing inspiration, he says, from his mentors, but also from famous martial arts icons like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. 

“I admire [Chuck Norris] for his efforts in helping people all over the country.” Says Hamlin. The famous (and meme-worthy) actor and martial artist started a program called Kickstart Kids, which focuses on helping kids who’re struggling in life and providing them with programs in schools to teach them life skills using the discipline of karate. “To watch a student come in, struggle with something, and work through it—to see that growth is just incredible.” Hamlin remarks. “The impact that he’s had on the nation is inspiring,”

Bret Hamlin (left) and Katie Hamlin (right) posing with Chuck Norris (center) at the 2019 Martial Arts Supershow in Las Vegas hosted by Century. (Photo credit: Martial Arts Industry Association).

You can find the Kickstart Kids program here.

Rising Up Amidst a Crisis

With recent events taking place in 2020, the SAMA instructors have had to take drastic steps to ensure their students get proper training for the time being, even with social distancing measures altering a lot of the curriculum. First it was Zoom calls, but now (as of June) all students, both children and adults, train outside at Sturgis’ Oaklawn Park, with limitations of course.

“Timing was pretty critical,” Hamlin mentions, “but we also teach student how to adapt. I was so amazed with our students with how dedicated they are.” 

In these uncertain times many are scared, but with new struggles there comes a moment to test ourselves and find the strength to adapt and press on. “That’s what tough times do, they either take you down or make you stronger, and my students were ready. We got stronger as a team.” He says.

“We got stronger as a team.”

Bret Hamlin
Bret and Katie Hamlin during a martial arts instruction class using Zoom.

And a team indeed. Signing up at this academy means building strong ties and relationships. You quickly become friends with everyone in the group because in martial arts, everyone has to interact and learn from each other in order to improve. Not only do you become a student here, you also become a part of one massive family. A family that accepts anyone willing to improve themselves by helping them step out of their comfort zones and challenging them to adapt and conquer themselves.

Life Skills  

Not only has martial arts taught valuable lessons in perseverance and unity, but it has been shown to teach students important life skills. Hamlin first got into martial arts after being involved in a conflict where he felt he could’ve reacted to the situation better. “I wanted to respond appropriately no matter what the situation was.” He says. 

“Instead of martial arts potentially saving your life, I would say the character development that you learn in martial arts will make your life.” 

Conflict often shows itself in unexpected ways, and many people assume martial arts is all about dealing with physical altercations. “In a scenario it can potentially save your life.” Hamlin mentions, “but the odds of getting attacked? Slim to none.” It goes without saying that punching, kicking, and grappling is a major part of both Hapkido and Tae Kwon Do, but within it’s curriculum students are taught five tenetscourtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit, along with other core values like respect and confidence.

These core values are brought up multiple times, but they also manifest themselves in other—and sometimes more subtle—ways, whether it’s through the act of bowing to show respect to teachers and students, working together to demonstrate a technique, keeping your sparring partner safe, getting back up and trying again even when you’ve failed a technique over and over, and showing up to class in a timely manner, just to name a few. Hamlin is quite keen on making sure his students gain this mentality as they rank up in their respective styles.

“Instead of martial arts potentially saving your life,” He says, ”I would say the character development that you learn in martial arts will make your life.” 

Adapting Traditions

And then there are the skeptics. The naysayers. The people who call BS on the techniques and the effectiveness of it all. Ever heard of the phrase, “traditional martial arts don’t work in a real street fight”? Because I’ve heard it, many times. While I’m all too eager to defend the name of traditional martial arts, Hamlin has a different perspective.

“Those people have a bit of a point,” he admits, “We as martial artists have to owe it to our students to constantly adapt and modernize to stay relevant in society. Some schools get hung up on forms, but there’s no discussion on what it all means, what it’s used for and why it’s useful.” 

So, teaching martial arts, but in a modern way? If you think about it, the founders of all styles also adapted and improved with the times to make the self-defense techniques more suited to their environments. Perhaps we should do the same. At the same time, let’s not forget that the aspect of character building and growth that many find appealing as well. These concepts have spanned the ages and remain an integral part of training in the martial arts.

And this is precisely what traditional martial arts has to offer in addition to self-defense that simple street brawls simply cannot bring. If the teacher is willing to put in the work and effort to make sure their students promote harmony within themselves and the people around them, it reveals that the self-defense aspect isn’t necessarily the most pressing issue, but simply one aspect in much larger system. 

Offering Hope

So what does martial arts have to offer to the modern person? It depends. It depends on the style, the teacher, the values they give and the efforts they put in. What Sturgis Academy has shown is that, even in tough times, we need to rise up and show the world that we can’t let conflict and strife take us down, at least not for long. “I have to keep my students moving forward,” he says, “If I just said, ‘alright I guess we’re closed,’ what kind of message does that send to my students? When life gets hard you give up. That’s unacceptable. When it gets hard, you push harder.” He says.

Whether or not you’re into martial arts, if you can take one thing from this conversation, I hope it’s that whatever you do in life, you fight for it. Martial arts has personally taught me confidence in myself. I’ve learned to trust my intuition and to go for my passion, no matter the obstacle in my path or the people who speak against me and put me down. I know that I can accomplish great things. We all can.  

“A lot of students come in and they start off so shy and timid, but a year later they’re leading the class.” The SAMA instructor affirms. “Every student that I’ve had walk in is capable of ten times what they think they are.”

I hope this serves as a bit of inspiration for you in these times, and I wish all of you to stay strong. 

Make sure to check out SAMA’s awesome website and blog!

(All photos, except for MAIA, are courtesy of Sturgis Academy of Martial Arts and can be found on SAMA’s public Facebook page at this link).