How did you get your start in the martial arts? What inspired you?
The first thing that inspired me was my sister in law, a black belt who did Shotokan karate back in the 1980s. I was very athletic in high school, and I admired what she was doing.
I started taking lessons in Manhattan. I fell in love with the martial arts. I remember back then there were very few women. It was very intimidating. Being the only woman, in that setting, you were a martial artist first. You were going to get hit. It was different times, let’s say that.
But I said if this could be my life I would be so happy. I fell in love with the lifestyle. It’s not just the kicking and punching, it’s what it does for you as a person. Provided you have the right instructors, it can give you life.
I grew up in a pretty poor background. My older brother made me tough. He never let me quit. It’s always very important to have a vision in front of you. Otherwise you get stuck in the “right now.”
In 2018, in Ireland, you won a Gold Medal for traditional forms. What’s your investment in forms and competition?
Traditional forms have always been my favorite. My personal feeling is, it always comes back to tradition. It’s the gut of martial arts. A lot of schools have done away with the forms, and it’s unfortunate.
Traditional forms are central to the Ripple Effect Martial Arts curriculum. What do you teach kids about learning traditional forms?
You know, martial arts was never really geared toward kids back when. If you were a teenager, you were lucky if you got into a class. Most people said, we don’t teach kids. Because it’s very hard to teach kids, but it’s very doable. We’re teaching them kicks and blocks, yes. But we’re teaching them from their core, to become the best versions of themselves.
I’ve had students who were three [when they started] and are in college now. Or are in college and still teaching for me. I’ve had students who have had kids and now their kids are students here.
What is a Black Belt school, or what makes a good martial arts school in your opinion?
If I walk into your school and it’s a warm and fuzzy school, that’s good to me. It’s not like “fight club.” You walk in, it’s comfortable, people are sweating but it doesn’t smell. There’s that old belief, If your school doesn’t smell, people aren’t practicing. I don’t know how true that is. You just have to clean your mats every night.
[In a good karate school] you can see that the students are sharp, they know where their centers are when they’re doing their techniques and forms, and the instructors aren’t overly aggressive with the ego. Kids are very impressionable. And if you have the wrong message fall upon you, it can be dangerous.
Is it important to the martial arts curriculum that kids and families and parents learn respect and discipline?
Yes, they learn the particular values that martial arts offers, [including] integrity and kindness. That’s most important to me, kindness. People are so mean these days, and I ask myself, what’s happening in the world. And these are only learned behaviors. So if we’re good, positive people with manners, and we practice what we preach, we’re providing that positive influence.
We instill those values in our students. What makes up a good school? It’s the way you’re accepted.
But I always say this: Check the bathrooms first. Some bathrooms are so gross I wan’t even open the door. And it says so much about the school [laughs].
Our students clean the school. It’s part of the expectation.
It’s funny you say that because that’s what we do every night. Everyone knows it takes six people to clean the schools. The students volunteer. We mop, we vacuum, we clean, and it’s part of being a black belt in the school. We take pride in it.
I can’t tell you how many parents come in and they say I need you to vacuum the house and the kid says I learned how to do that at the [karate] school. We’re a family here, and we treat each other like family.
You talk about being an upstander, protecting each other.
Anti-bullying is central to my teaching. There was a problem in one of the local high schools with awful bullying, and I just thought, I don’t understand how this is happening. I thought, if I was there, I could fix the problem. It’s the way you speak to kids, the way you reach out to them. Kids and families know what our karate school expects from the community.
Our schools have that expectation too, in the form of leadership projects, for example. Like volunteering in the community or raising money for breast cancer or hurricane relief.
[Martial arts] really helps build a community from the inside out. I had one student, whose older brother was not doing the right thing. HIs mom brought him to us, and she knew he could get really good values here. He ended up graduating from Harvard. And he came to us and said his mission now was to save the world, and it all started with us.
Our master instructor [5th-degree black belt Greg Macy] said that he started a martial arts school to give kids the chance to do anything they want with their lives.
Absolutely. I’m living proof of that. When I graduated high school I was voted the least likely to succeed. I remember getting that message because I was from a very poor family, and it’s sad, but society puts a tag on people from that walk of life.
Luckily, I had a fire in me that said I was going to show them. You can’t put me in a box. I’ve broken barriers, and done things people said I would never do. That includes owning a martial arts school. I said I’m gonna learn this business, and make it my own.
That’s where the Female Fighters Matter Too mission came in. I get calls from people saying Maggie we have a problem, and we know you can help us. That, to me, that’s a privilege.
For young women, young girls in the marital arts, have times changed? Have they improved?
I will say yes, they have. I have young girls that call me, and I say, they would’ve never survived the 80s. Young women were non-existent, even though we were existent.
Early on, in karate tournaments, there was very little thought put into it. I remember sometimes not competing till 1 a.m. in the morning, in a ring at the back near the bathrooms. I ran a tournament for five years, and I ran it to make a message. Female Fighters Matter Too. Dads have to stop and think, where do you want to see your daughter in 10 or 20 years?
That’s a huge consideration for parents of young girls in our martial arts program. They want their daughters to learn the skills to become a leader.
We’re all martial artists. That’s the key. This has been a tough fight, and it’s nothing new. It’s been going on for many years, and it’s important that we collaborate and come together as a group.
One thing that I love about what Master Macy says about black belt, is that it’s all about how much you’re improving yourself.
They say our minds are so untapped, and I think that people don’t realize that what we tell ourselves is what will become our reality. If you play the message that I can’t do 100 push ups because I’m a woman and I’m weaker, that’s the reality that will play out. As opposed to I’m going to build the muscle and I’m gonna work up and just do it. The underdog has to work, 10, 15 times harder.
Those underdog stories are always the most interesting. A lot of people think I can’t do martial arts because I’m so slow, or I’m too short, or I’m not flexible. Or I have to get in shape before I start my martial arts training.
One of my coaches, Jadi Tention, said I have students that say “I have to lose 20 pounds before I come to karate class.” No, you come to karate class, and you begin to get in shape. That’s what makes martial arts so great.
As a martial arts competitor who has completed professionally around the world, what’s your mindset? What would you tell someone who’s approaching their first karate tournament competition?
Everyone’s nervous. Being nervous just means you care. You have to go in there and earn one point at a time. Remember that your instructors have taught you everything you need to know.
I always say, I learn when I lose. That’s a hard thing to digest and own as a competitor, because none of us likes to lose. But when you accept your losses as lessons, things get better.
For me, with forms (katas), I take all my negative experiences, and in my performance I’m breaking those barriers down. You have to find what fuels you, and that’s something that’s so great about martial arts too. You take the dark places, and you turn them into something powerful and positive.
Learn more about Master Messina in the feature story in Black Belt magazine.