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Sniffing Out Cruddy Martial Arts Instructors: 10-Point Checklist

When “shopping” for a martial arts school, yeah, the type of martial art a school teaches is important.  But, more importantly, the qualities of the instructor should be weighed.  If you have a desire to practice Brazilian Jujitsu (BJJ) and you live in a city with any size, you’ll find a BJJ school relatively close. That’s 25% of the battle.  I encourage “seekers” (how I refer to people that are curious about martial arts, but don’t know much about how martial art schools operate) to observe a class or two.  Observing allows the seeker to see the instructor interact with the students and public.  It also provides the seeker with a chance to see class format, and if it’s something the seeker is genuinely excited about.  Another suggestion that I believe is important for seekers, but isn’t often advocated by other instructors very often, is to talk to the students before or after a class.  Find out how they feel about the classes and the character of the instructor(s).  If you are a seeker, here are a few things to have on your checklist when deciding whether or not a school and/or instructor is right for you:

1. Punctuality – Is the instructor early for classes?  Often times, instructors expect the students to be early, but do they hold themselves to the same standards?

2. Prepared – Does the instructor seem to have a lesson plan for the day?  Sometimes the daily life can get in the way, causing an instructor to throw something together without much thought.  You want someone who has a plan for the day, the week, the month, and possibly the year. 

3. Grooming – This seems an odd one for the list, but it’s important.  Instructors are supposed to be an example.  That example should include good hygiene and a clean uniform.  They represent his/her martial art and school.  If the instructor isn’t putting time into his/her appearance, what else does that person not take seriously?  Also, who wants to wrestle with someone that smells?

4. Fitness – Again, it’s about example.  How can you expect a student to have a desire to eat healthy, exercise, and practice regularly if the person s/he looks up to doesn’t?  If the instructor is dedicated to his/her art, exercising and eating to perform better should be a top priority.  Which leads into…

5. Practice – Does the instructor practice his/her own material, or is it only when the instructor is teaching a class that s/he is doing the techniques the art requires?  The techniques should be clean and obviously worked regularly.

6. Reaching – Similar to the last point, but this point is more about the internal practice than the external.  Is the instructor attending seminars?  Is the instructor training with peers and people of higher rank?  Is the instructor reading and researching, not only his/her own art, but the concepts of other martial arts?  If the instructor isn’t hungry for more, there will be a limit to what the instructor can teach you.  Evolution and seeking knowledge is necessary, otherwise a person stalls and falls.  Allowing the self to stagnate is not an option.

7. Fun – Is the instructor able to keep classes engaging and fun?  Does the instructor have high energy?  High energy doesn’t mean “hyper”.  High energy is enthusiasm and passion.  A common problem with student retention and commitment is that some instructors are dry and/or jaded.  There is a time and place for “dry” but it shouldn’t be all of the time.  The class will reflect what the instructor brings.  If the instructor is distracted or lacking energy, the students will follow suit.

8. Caring – This one is non-negotiable.  How does the instructor view the school?  Is it a business, or an institution to help other individuals?  A place to show dominance, or to share a martial art s/he loves with others?  Does the instructor care more about the money, or the students?  Yes, instructors need to pay the bills of the school and, in the cases where it’s an instructor’s only source of income, pay his/her own bills.  That should NOT change the integrity and belief that a student comes first.  I would much rather a person has an opportunity to train with us, than never experience the benefits of martial arts because of tuition costs.

9. Fit – The school is a direct reflection of the instructor.  Does the overall feel of the school (to wit, the instructor) fit the seeker’s way of learning?  Does the school exemplify what the seeker is trying to obtain?  Is it cold, Spartan, “no pain, no gain”?  Is it family-esque?  Elitist? Welcoming?  Can the seeker picture himself/herself learning in that environment (from that instructor)?  Do the seeker and school fit each other?

10. Teaching – Simply put, can the instructor teach?  Many people may have the correct numbers of red stripes on their belts and know the material, but do they have the ability to effectively teach?  It’s important that an instructor can communicate complicated concepts to a student, no matter where the student is in life, or where the student is in his/her martial arts journey.  Can the instructor communicate the same material in several different ways?  Every student doesn’t learn in the same fashion.

These ten points are meant to be a guide.  Instructors, just like everyone else, have lives that require some give and take.  Some instructors may not hit every one of these points.  It’s up to the seeker to figure out which points are most important.  After all, the seeker will eventually become the disciple.  The disciple could possibly become the instructor.  What kind of instructor do YOU want to be?


Sifu Caleb Hood is a martial arts instructor at Hood's Martial Arts Academy in Salem, Oregon. He currently offers classes in Kajukenbo Tum Pai and Yang style Tai Chi. He has experience training people from all age groups and ability levels. He is always eager to share the arts he practices with anyone that has a good attitude and a willingness to work hard. In addition to teaching self-defense through martial arts, Sifu Hood also promotes a healthy lifestyle, emphasizing healthy physical habits, as well as healthy mental habits. To learn more about the classes offered by Sifu Hood, or about the art of Kajukenbo Tum Pai or Tai Chi, visit the Hood's Martial Arts Academy website here