Choosing the Right Instructor --

You Better Shop Around

by Connie Gulick

May 1983 Karate Illustrated





Ask any gung-ho karate student and he'll expound for hours on why his style, teacher, and class are the best in the martial arts.  Some black belts, however sincere, go so far as to boast that their style is taught exactly as it has been for thousands of years in Japan.  They tell you it's exactly the same -- except for some little changes that the grandmasters make every month when they meet!


How can you know a really good class from a poor one?  Simple:  by watching for the quality of instruction.



Most comparative debates concerning the martial arts center on which style works better, whether hard or soft, kung fu or tae kwon do, shotokan or shorin-ryu.  The truth is, every martial style can work; it's the individual's skill or his needs, that make one style more preferable than another.


No style is bad for you, but some martial arts classes can be.  There are more important considerations, other than simply the style, in choosing a good class.


To avoid getting into a poor class where you could be hurt, either physically, mentally, emotionally -- or financially -- you need to first visit the prospective school several times just to watch.  Then talk with the teacher.  How the instructor teaches will have a much bigger impact on your mastering the art than specifically what he teaches.



Perhaps the most important aspect of quality instruction, and the hardest to recognize, is the instructor's philosophy of teaching -- his attitude toward the students.  Bear in mind that what he might say about his philosophy, and what he actually practices, may be two totally different things, so you must watch him in action.


See if the instructor makes effective use of class time, if the class is well-planned so there aren't long pauses of inactivity while he decides what to do.  Listen for his explanations, his reasons why certain moves are done certain ways, and notice if he wastes time explaining things twice or talks too much about important details.


It's a great asset, in learning, to be able to follow an example.  A good martial arts instructor will model what you are to do, showing you the move ahead of time, and will then sometimes participate along with the class.


One good way to see the teacher's philosophy of instruction at work is by watching how he handles youngsters.  When a teacher, either verbally or by his actions, tells an eight-year-old, "You're in karate now, so you'll be expected to act like an adult," he is probably the kind of instructor who will not take even an adult's individual needs into consideration, much less a child's.  And he'll likely be of the attitude that, no matter what, women will never be able to excel in any aspect of the art. 


Watch for the teacher's flexibility -- or lack thereof -- in dealing with his students.  Some students, the shyer ones, and especially some women, need careful attention.  They are the students who need to be convinced of the value of sparring and actual contact, because mentally, they are not ready for it.  They must be properly groomed by the instructor.


Forcing a student to do something he or she not only does not want to do, but is frightened stiff about doing, does not make the student a better karateka.  In fact, it may make the student all the more frightened, for by being tense and uptight, he will do poorly in sparring and may even hurt himself.  Aggressiveness needs to be taught.  Under a good trainer, even the most passive student will be eager to apply what he has been learning.


One instructor urged a young green belt with natural fighting talent to spar in the black belt division at several tournaments.  The young man was beaten badly and became gun-shy about sparring at all.  This is the type of situation you can avoid beforehand by watching how the instructor teaches.


Individuals should not be treated exactly alike by the instructor.  They have different needs.  Hyperactive youngsters are going to glance around the class regardless if the instructor forces them to do 100 push-ups as punishment.  And they will likely learn more if they are not required to spend time in class face to the floor.  Some people, naturally lazy, need to be pushed.  These are the students who require constant attention from the teacher, constant commands to kick higher and harder, etc.


One example of mishandling a student's personality occurred when a karate teacher arbitrarily awarded a ten-year-old a brown belt without a test because of the youngster's exceptional performance during one class session.  The boy was large for his age and was a bully to start with.  When he received his promotion, he swaggered, bragged, and pushed the other children in the class around mercilessly.



Taking a student's individual needs into consideration is a form of respect.  To some teachers, respect is bowing to your seniors.  Definitely, many traditional martial artists demonstrate their respect by the bow, but the bow itself is not respect.  To bow without the accompanying respect is to smile sweetly at an enemy.  Both are false actions.


Genuine respect is a part of the culture of the martial arts.  But respect should not be a word you hear mentioned often in class.  Be wary of the teacher who says a lot about respect.  Constant preaching of respect keeps the students concerned with an outward show of homage, rather than the need to earn respect.  The emotional pressure in a class such as this is strong and detrimental.  The students learn, not higher values, but the system of bootlicking, for if they are good little white belts and show proper respect, they soon will be ranking belts and will enjoy the benefits of respect.


Respect comes naturally when you know for sure that your teacher is qualified and concerned about you, and that the higher belts in class, because they are higher than you, actually are better.  Knowing this to be true is to feel the challenge to improve yourself, and to feel the accomplishment once you have.



Health and Safety

Be sure the class you choose will maintain your safety and improve your health.  Watch for signs that tell you how much the instructor knows about, and attempts to limit, injuries.


In the martial arts, the teacher is both coach and trainer.  If you don't know anything about treating injuries, you might first speak with your doctor or look up minor injuries in a first-aid book before comparing the advice with what the teacher has to say.  How does the instructor treat, and avoid, such injuries as pulled muscles, tendonitis, cut lips and bruises?  Listen not only for the teacher's recommendation for treatment of a specific injury, but if a disabled student continues to work out, see if the instructor keeps a close watch on him throughout the class.  A poor karate instructor will forget the injured student has any problem at all, and he may demand more than the student should put out, further worsening the injury and perhaps permanently impairing the individual.  The worst instructor is the one who, fully aware of the injury of the student, demands he do more than he is able, just so he proves his ability to withstand pain.



One student who had recently recovered from knee surgery joined a karate class, and for several months he worked out in knee braces.  But he began experiencing trouble with his knees, so he started sitting out the classes and just watched from the sidelines to learn what he could.  One day the instructor called him to the front of the class so he could demonstrate a jump kick on the student.  Instead of pulling back on the kick, however, the instructor kicked the student with full power.  The student went down in a heap, and could not get up on his own.  He was on crutches for a matter of months.


A competent instructor will encourage a student to continue working out only if his injury is truly minor, but he will remind the student:  "Go easy on this kick to save your knee," or "Just go through the motions of the punch; no power."


Bruises are permissible in a health-improving regimen.  Areas that have been moderately bruised will heal tougher and will be better able to withstand future blows without bruising.  There is, however, a point of bruising past which you are just tearing down the tissue and there's no improvement.


In looking for a class that will maintain your safety, you can rest assured that actual contact while sparring is a benefit.  A class without contact is a class without actual blocking drills, and it's by not blocking that you can really get hurt.  Even though some contact is a plus, listen for the teacher's admonitions of caution in a class that practices contact, warnings like "This is a more dangerous blow, so take it easy," or "No contact to the face."


When the contact during class sparring is medium to full (when you can hear the punches and kicks connecting), the students ought to be attired in safety equipment -- hand guards, foot pads and shin guards.  Ask the instructor if he requires the men to wear a protective cup.  Some martial arts teachers might think it is macho not to wear a cup, but most men would rather lose their machismo than something less replaceable just because the instructor didn't want them wearing a cup.



Justifiably, one big worry of many potential martial arts students is money.  Ask the instructor about his prices and payment plan.


Be aware that the most expensive class does not necessarily give the highest quality instruction.  In fact, depending on the teacher's attitude, it may be the worst.  If the teacher's interest is solely profit, he will practically guarantee you advancement just to keep you coming to class, doling out your monthly fee.


The dangers of guaranteed belts are myriad.  For one thing, how do you know you have the capabilities to deserve the belt?  It's like getting a phony diploma, then trying to break into the job market with it.  Disillusionment will be hard and quick.  Moreover, it could be physically dangerous to be awarded a rank you don't deserve.


One warning sign of the guaranteed-rank-for-pay instructor is his belt-testing fee.  Most classes charge a fee for the test, usually to pay for the paperwork of registering the student.  But when the instructor charges $25 for the first test, graduates the fee as he graduates you, and has two or three tests for each belt color, you would do well to back out quickly.  In this type of class, everyone attending the required number of meetings will test, regardless of whether they are ready or not -- and they will pass.  No question.  It keeps the students interested.


Does the teacher guarantee that within a certain amount of time (and for a certain amount of money) you will be a black belt?  If so, forget it.  That belt isn't worth the money.


However you pay (long-term, one lump sum with no guarantees on time or rank, or monthly installments), you need to be sure that you are paying for quality instruction rather than an exotic atmosphere.  Good businessmen -- if not so ethical -- have found that many people go for an instructor with an Oriental-sounding name, or for a studio with a statue of Buddha in the corner and Japanese lanterns hanging about -- even if it's a Korean martial arts studio.  Oriental atmosphere or heritage do not make the teacher a better instructor.  Nor does affiliation with a nationwide, or even worldwide, organization.  Some of the best classes are devoid of Oriental décor and are unaffiliated.


In looking for a good martial arts class, watch for three things:

  • Attitude -- does the instructor take individual needs into consideration and does he respect the students?
  • Health and safety -- is the instructor knowledgeable of, and actively concerned with, injuries?
  • Finances -- is the class solely a money-making business for the instructor?


And remember, the particular style should only be a secondary consideration in choosing a class.


If you are already in a class and recognize that the quality of instruction there is poor, do not hesitate to get out of the class and find a better one.  The longer you remain in such a class, the more bad habits you learn, and the more chances you take on getting hurt.  Even as a martial arts student, you are still a consumer.  It pays to shop around.