Self-defense expert Jason Thomas brings knowledge to Burlington, Elon University

April 27, 2009

Jessica L. Dexheimer

April 20, 2009

 Clad in gym shorts and with tattoos snaking out from the sleeves of his T-shirt, Jason Thomas isn’t the image of a typical business owner. But then again, his is not the typical business.

Thomas, 37, is the founder of Alamance Black Belt Academy (ABBA), a school that trains children and adults in more than four martial arts disciplines.

The Burlington native dabbled in martial arts as a child, but became seriously interested in the sport after graduating from UNC-Greensboro in 1996. He began attending martial arts classes with college friends, and soon became captivated by the sport.

Thomas is the owner and lead instructor at Alamance Black Belt Academy, located on O'Neal Street in Burlington.

Thomas is the owner and lead instructor at Alamance Black Belt Academy, located on O'Neal Street in Burlington.

“I found that it took away my competitive edge,” said Thomas. “It’s calming, but still very empowering.”

Thomas’ training took him across the United States: he’s trained at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas with Randy Couture, a six-time Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) champion, and practiced in Mexico with Hélio Gracie, the founder of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

 In a little more than a decade, Thomas became a third degree black belt in Taekwondo, a black belt in Hapkido, and a one-stripe blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

His travels brought him back to Alamance County, where he worked as an instructor at various local martial arts studios before opening his own school in 2006.

“I don’t like getting on a soapbox, but about three years ago, I got saved,” said Thomas. “I wanted to see what I could do that would affect the most lives possible. I realized I have a gift, and I can use my role [as a martial arts instructor] to act as a mentor, to show women how to defend themselves. Opening the school seemed like the best way to reach the most people possible.”

 Fighting to succeed

 After discussing his goals with his wife – a green belt – Thomas began to make his dreams into reality. He bought studio space in the ONeal Street Plaza and opened ABBA.

Initially, the school struggled.

“At first, you have your friends, your cousins, your cousin’s kids and their friends coming in,” Thomas said. “Then, that initial thrill wears off, and you have to find customers based on your own merit. You need to get that constant interest coming in so you can stay running.”

While he built up his client base, Thomas kept his day job as a financial controller for La Fiesta Mexican restaurants.  At night and on weekends, he instructed back-to-back martial arts classes and offered one-on-one lessons. After three years, his hard work is starting to pay off.

“The school is just now getting to where it holds it’s own, where I don’t have to put money in every month from my own pockets,” he said.

Unlike many local businesses, ABBA is thriving in the weak economy. According to Thomas, ABBA offers more affordable rates than other local schools and he also does not require long-term contracts.

 “In this economy, people are getting smart and shopping around, and we are usually what they find,” he said.

The school also offers Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a martial art that has recently gained popularity because of the UFC. However, Thomas and his team of five part-time instructors also work with less seasoned fighters.

Three times a week, ABBA offers “Little Ninjas” classes, targeted towards students who are elementary school-aged and younger. Families are also invited to participate in family classes.

Thomas also offers occasional Friday night get-togethers that give students a chance to bond and parents the chance for a night out.

Once a year, the students also work with the Holt International adoption agency to sponsor an orphan elsewhere in the world. Thomas lets the students pick which orphan they would like to sponsor, and the school pays the fees to support the child.

Thomas is a hands-on instructor, participating in every activity along with the students. "The worst part is always hurting, always being sore from fighting six days a week," he said of his job.

Thomas is a hands-on instructor, participating in every activity along with the students. "The worst part is always hurting, always being sore from fighting six days a week," he said of his job.

“I try to get their input and their involvement at every step of the way,” Thomas said of his students. “I look at this as more of a co-op than a service. They pay me, but it’s their school, too.”

Expanding to Elon

In late 2007, Thomas approached the Health Education department at Elon University. As part of his mission to empower others, he hoped to offer a self-defense course targeted at college students. When preparing his pitch to the university, Thomas researched statistics about on-campus assaults. 

What he found surprised him.

“I was just blown away,” he said. “When it came to violence on-campus, I knew it was bad, but I had no idea just how bad. That just reinforced how much my services were needed at Elon.”

During the spring of 2008, he began to teach half-semester, introductory classes.

“His course has been popular and the techniques involved [are] very practical for our student population,” said Dr. Michael Calhoun, one of Thomas’ coworkers from the Health Education Department. 

The classes fill up fast, and Thomas uses a hands-on approach in teaching students how to fight back during real world scenarios, including date rapes and bar fights.

Senior Molly Donahue took the course this semester to learn more about personal safety, and appreciated Thomas’ teaching style.

“He would demonstrate techniques for us a couple times, then let us practice with each other, all the while offering guidance,” Donahue said. “We got to practice a lot and practice makes perfect.” 

Though Donahue took the class as a precaution, other students have taken the class for more serious reasons.  

“At least one girl comes up to me each semester to tell me why they took the class, and it’s usually because of a date rape scenario,” he said. “If I can help rebuild their confidence or teach students how to prevent those scenarios, I’m doing my job.”

Ultimately, Thomas says he hopes to teach martial arts and self-defense full-time.

“I want to spread the program to more areas, to pre-schools, high schools, vacation Bible schools,” he said. “I just want to be ‘that guy’ you go to when it comes to anything related to martial arts or self-defense.”


Click to listen to Jason Thomas’ important advice on what to do in a fight scenario. 




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