Evolution Martial Arts Academy builds strength of character

At Evolution Martial Arts Academy, learning to punch and kick is only a small part of the curriculum.

“Martial arts is about becoming the best person that you can be,” co-owner and co-founder Ray Neill said in a phone interview with NNBW.

The family-owned and -operated school has been championing character development and community involvement since it opened in 2008 in Sparks. It features classes in Tae Kwon Do, Judo, Goju Shorei, Muay Thai Kickboxing, Charles Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and boxing. New students get a free week of classes to try out programs.

“We offer the program for anyone from four years on up to however old they can be to get on the mat,” Neill said.

He even works with a few students with Parkinson’s on an individual basis.

Students at the school have certain character development requirements at each belt level. For the first belt, students have to set goals.

“As a white belt … most people write down ‘earn a black belt.'” Alvin Santiago, 25, lead instructor, said in an interview with NNBW at Evolution Martial Arts.

The requirements become more challenging from there.

To earn a green belt, students have to organize a community cleanup project. Santiago, who started at Evolution Martial Arts around 2011 as a student, decided to do his project at Pah Rah Park. But Santiago said students can fulfill these requirements however they choose.

“I’ve actually had students do a gardening project. They planted a garden and they showed everything that they did throughout that whole timeframe and ended up selling the produce at the end,” Santiago explained.

At the red belt, Santiago said students have to memorize certain texts. One of them is “Our Deepest Fear” by Marianne Williamson, a poem about overcoming fear and reaching one’s own full potential to inspire others.

For a blue belt, they have to go through empathy training, spending 24 hours either mute, blind, or in a wheelchair.

“We say that our job is to give our students the tools that they need to make better choices, so they have the opportunity to take the things from here at our school out of the dojo and into the world,” Neill said.

Much of Neill’s inspiration for these aspects of his curriculum come from his time taking the Ultimate Black Belt Test.

The test stressed community involvement. For example, Ray said he built homes in Alabama for his training. That’s aside from the 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups and 100 squats he had to do each day.

According to Neill, every lead instructor is at least a 1st-degree black belt. Matt McBride, who’s been a lead instructor at the school for nearly eight years, is one of three Goju Shorei Black Belts in the Reno-Sparks area and the only one in Sparks. He already had over 15 years of martial arts experience before he came to the school, but found it still had much to offer.

“They were constantly evolving the martial arts, finding new and better ways to apply the moves that we were doing and having different martial artists…

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