Effective Teaching for the Martial Arts Instructor

This one is for the martial arts instructors who want to have students pass their tests because they deserve to move up in rank and not have the student move up in rank simply because they are still around.


Personally, I make my students earn their rank, and the test is simply the last stage of the earning process. I do not respect those instructors and “accrediting bodies” which simply promote those who are current on their tuition. It takes something more than payments, and in my school, payments do not matter at all. You pay, you get to train. If you have learned the rank requirements, then you may test at the next rank testing. If you pass the test, you move up to the next rank. None of this needs to be muddied by money or promoting for the sake of promoting. That is just fatuous.


The student has a degree of responsibility. The student must pay attention, work in class, and practice on their own. Modern martial arts students should also realize that they are training under a martial arts instructor. The martial arts instructors who have received training in teaching, training and/or coaching are few and far between. As such, the instructor is unlikely to have taken steps to bring the student into a position where they will stand a better chance of passing a real martial arts rank test.


But I would like to propose the question to any martial arts instructors out there – are you doing all you can to effectively prepare your students to face the test? Would you be willing to allow another person or a testing board to conduct the test of your students to gain an impartial evaluation of your own effectiveness?


Anyone can bark orders.


The typical action which is identified by most martial arts instructors as “teaching” consists of little more than demonstrating a technique once or twice, counting loudly while the students mimic said technique, and then telling the students that they performed it wrong.


This is not teaching.


The above outlined formula for so called “teaching” is really doing as little as possible while telling yourself that you are a martial arts instructor. If you spent some time looking around, then you would see that many martial arts instructors actually do very little. This has very little to do with teaching. And teaching is exactly what you will have to do to effectively prepare your students for rank testing. And when I use the term teaching, I am using in the term it is meant to be used.


As I stated in an earlier post, if you want to be an effective teacher, find out what makes great teachers great and do what they do. There are so many books on how to be an effective teacher that you almost can’t go wrong. Do not waste your time on the “How to be a great martial arts instructor” type of books. They are nearly all the same, and have little to do with really effective teaching.


If I may be so bold as to add to what you will find from the professional educators, I would sum most of it up into one word – communication. Without a real and ongoing communication between you and each individual student you have, you will never be as effective as you could be. It drives me batty that this one point is so simple, yet overlooked by a percentage of martial arts professionals which have to number in the 90% range!


To speak specifically on communication which will best prepare your student for what is in front of them at testing, I would break it down like this;

  • Talk to your students regularly on what they hope to gain from their training in the martial arts. This has to be an ongoing process. It cannot be the simple “Why do you want to learn martial arts” question which they nervously answer when they first visit your school. We all know that when we are asking that to someone on their first visit that we are only making conversation. The answers on the first day are only rarely insightful. You will need to continually talk to your students to assess and reassess where they hope to be next month, next year and so on.
  • Help the student to place their goals within their physical potential. No one likes to be told that there is no way they can reach their goals. But when a forty-five year old brick layer with a wrecked back and a heart condition thinks he will be competing in the next UFC event, you need to guide his thinking back into the realm of reality.
  • Give positive, but still honest feedback to the student. This would be done on an ongoing basis as well.
  • Listen to your students. It is always easy to assume that you know what someone wants or is about to say, but you need to have the more important skill of listening to the student. Hear them out! If you learn to listen to them you will become a unique person – a martial arts instructor who listens to his students!


Eventually, there is going to be a test. You must honestly watch your student’s performance. Try to remember that the entire idea of testing is for the student to show you your skill as an instructor. We all love to think that we know what we are doing, but it is the student performance which is the one true indicator of our effectiveness as an instructor.


There are organizations which promote everyone regardless of whether or not they have learned anything. These are of the “feel good” group. They maintain low “standards” and have poorly performing student, but wow do they have a lot of them.


There are also groups which have almost no black belts at all. These are the tough guy schools which have an unreachable standard. It is funny that most of the black belts that you find on the testing boards of these groups couldn’t pass the test that they themselves routinely fail so many potential black belts on.


If you are going to have a standard, as the instructor, should, at the very least meet that standard!


So, if you have sat down with each and every student, and discussed their goals, and were hopefully taking notes, and you have created a level playing field where even your least favorite student has the same chance of passing their rank test as does your most favored, you must conduct your test.


I will not tell you how to do your test. It would be a huge waste of my time, as many organizations tell you how to do your test their way, so we jump to the next stage of the process.


Sit down with each student again.


Unlike the last time you sat down with them, instead of discussing their goals, you are going to give them your assessment of how close they are to those goals. I cannot stress enough what a powerful tool this is for the martial arts instructor. As stated in a previous article, there you have to develop a personal relationship with all of your students. This is the ideal of the student/teacher relationship. Once you know their goals, you watch them in class, and on testing, and then sit down – now it is your moment to shine in their eyes. You do this by giving an authentic assessment of how they are doing and what the next step will be for them. This shows in an instant that you were paying attention to them. Of course the catch is that you really do have to pay attention to them, but that is part of your job! And you will suddenly be miles ahead of your competition if you keep things positive. Anyone can buy a book and a video and tell other people that they are doing it wrong. What you can do, with nothing more than a few changes in your vocabulary, is tell the student the same information but in a way which builds them up instead of tearing them down. On top of this, positive communication is effective communication. How many times in your life have you had another person unfairly ripping you to shreds to the point where you are no longer hearing a word they are saying? If you stay positive, the student will listen, and more importantly – remember!


If you make these small but significant adjustments, you are going to draw and keep many students. It is no sign of great teaching to say that your “standards” are so high that one out of one hundred students passes their black belt test (I have heard one organization proudly boast to this distinction). For this to be a fact for any martial arts organization shows, not high standards, but poor teaching. You are the one responsible for making the students ready for the test. If they fail the test, the largest share of the blame rests squarely on your shoulders. If you have a “standard” which allows you to give authentic tests (a test which students actually can fail, but can equally pass), the you should be proud of preparing them and helping them to succeed. If you are proud that you fail a large percentage of students, you are proud of your own shortcomings.



  1. jmgilliard says:

    Many of the points that you make in this post echo thoughts that I have had very recently. I think that exams are more the test of the teacher’s skill than of the students.

    I personally look at all my students exam grades for a particular rank to see where my teaching needs to be focused. If people are making the same mistakes on one technique, or have a poor grasp of a certain area of the curriculum then it is up to me to address those issues not only with students testing in the future but also to correct those student’s that have already passed their promotional.

    In addition, I strongly agree that most martial arts instructors know precious little about how to teach. I have found the best teachers among my students are often the least technically gifted at first. They have learned to pay attention to details that the natural athletes just pick up naturally and are better at articulating what needs to be corrected when helping a junior student learn what they already know. As you can see in this example, all of my students are required to learn how to pass on what they know to their fellow students regardless of how low their rank. I check up on them, and the bulk of the teaching responsibility is mine to be sure. But I’ve found having a room full of people who are making sure that their partner gets it done right, makes everyone look good at test time.

    Excellent post. I will be reading more.


  2. sifuatlarge says:

    While I do not agree with allowing students to do any of the teaching, I do applaud your reasons for doing so. There are many schools which follow such practices out of nothing more than wanting to get free help. I usually save allowing any student to teach at all for when they undergo instructor certification. (I do this as a part of moving from 1st Dan to 2nd Dan and not as a separate paid course).

    And I agree 100% with your statement that the less athletically gifted students often gain a deeper understanding and knowledge of the martial arts just from the basis of working harder to “get it right”.


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