Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Local Hero Daniel Hoang Makes a Difference Through Martial Arts
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 2015 Honoree
Daniel Hoang had set his dreams on becoming a physician. He volunteered at hospitals, and studied biochemistry at University of California, San Diego (UCSD), in 1994. He worked three years at Scripps Research Institute Department of Neurobiology, where he received an Excellence Award for Research and Development.
He was on track for medical school. Then one day, while having lunch, he happened upon a karate school. Hoang, who enjoyed playing sports as much as the next guy, had never done karate. Yet he was intrigued. So he signed up for a complimentary class.
“My first day was humbling,” recalls the 2015 Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Local Hero. “I didn’t know anything, and I had a 6-year-old come up to me and ask me if I needed help tying my belt. She was so precious and willing to help me out even though I was an adult. I remember that to this day, and because of her I always make a special effort to help out students on their first day.”
Today Hoang, who is known to his students as Danny or “Sensei,” runs five United Studios of Self Defense (USSD) Team Focus studios throughout San Diego. He recognized early on, that if he was going to achieve any success in his newfound career, he would have to switch gears significantly.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” the soft-spoken former scientist says. “As scientists, we didn’t talk to people, so I had no public speaking skills, whatsoever. I was introverted and I knew I needed to be extroverted. I needed to learn how to communicate. So I went to the bookstore and bought all these books and tapes on motivation and leadership. I read them all, as much as I could. I was studying in the library. I trained rigorously. It became a passion for me. I was doing it seven days a week.”
Hoang opened his first studio 16 years ago in Rancho Peñasquitos. Soon, he was going full throttle, with five locations, working an average of 80 hours per week.
“When I took over this location, it had about 15 students,” he says. “Within one year, I brought it up to 100 students. That’s very hard to do. I did it through referrals and everyone liked what we were doing here. We made it about the experience and about the family.”
For him, it’s not so much about earning the black belt, as it is the journey and the full experience his studios bring to the more than 10,000 students who’ve been trained over the years.
“The difference between Team Focus and all the other karate organizations out there is that we believe in the global picture,” he says. “It’s not about the techniques or the sparring or the fighting. What’s bigger than that is who you become—the leadership, the character development, the sacrifice, and the goal-setting. Also, the impact on the community, and the experience that you have here.”
At the beginning of every week, Hoang says students are required to bring notebooks to their class.
“All the kids sit down with their notebooks and we go over the quote for the week,” he explains. “A recent quote was ‘opportunity versus obligation.’ We ask the kids to change the ‘I have to,’ to ‘I get to.’ Make it an opportunity instead of an obligation. Write down the things you have to do, such as, ‘I have to practice.’ Instead say, ‘I get to practice.’ By doing this, the students can turn a struggle or a stress into an opportunity. After the lesson, no matter what, every student has to share the quote of the week with their family.”
It is because of the Team Focus philosophy that students tend to return, long after they’ve completed the program and headed off to college.
“I’ve never had someone come back and say, ‘Thank you for giving me my black belt,’ observes Hoang. “Yet I had four students come back during spring break this year and say, ‘You taught me a lot. You taught me never to give up. You taught me to persevere. I’ve become a better person because of this group.’ I tell them, this is about them. This is not my school. This is theirs.”
Team Focus’ manifesto, which hangs at the entrance of each of his schools, was collectively developed by Hoang and his team for the students and their families. It lists the tenets that the organization stands for, such as “The finish line is just the beginning of a whole new race,” and “Good enough seldom is.” One of the more playful principles, perhaps written by a child, notes, “Ice cream makes everything better.”
“Every school you go into, the first thing you see is our manifesto board,” Hoang points out. “It’s a declaration of our belief and our culture and what we really try to communicate to the family.”
Last year, Hoang founded the school’s nonprofit, Team Focus for Freedom, in response to the nearly 300 schoolgirls who were kidnapped in Nigeria.
“Our mission is to help girls and boys learn to protect themselves, and to impact as many as possible in a positive way through the martial arts and through the leadership skills we build,” Hoang explains. “Our first program is going to be in Mexico, working with UCSD. As an alumnus, I asked them if they could facilitate a group to help kids learn awareness and self-defense. We want the children to understand what to do if kidnapped. We will teach self-defense skills, and how to help them save their own lives. No flying kicks, no backflips. Just self-defense. To achieve our goals, we will travel to different areas, not only locally, but internationally.
Hoang, who together with his family moved to the United States from Vietnam when he was two years old, grew up in Cerritos, California. His mother and two of his three brothers currently reside there. His father passed away last year, but Hoang can still remember what his father said to him, upon being told that Hoang would be giving up his dream of a medical profession to pursue a career in martial arts.
“My parents knew I was training but had no idea I was going to quit everything and try this,” he recalls. “And yet they were supportive. My father said, ‘Do what you love. Just make sure you’re happy.’”
Hoang couldn’t be happier. In Team Focus he has found his purpose, which is to give back more than he’s received, and he’s doing that tenfold.
“Team Focus isn’t about me,” he says with sincerity. “It is the group, everyone that made this experience possible—the students, the families, the instructors and everyone else. Everywhere we go, in the classroom, in the community, it’s about us coming together and helping everybody else. That’s what Team Focus is about.”