On Instructors and Pseudo-masters

For the beginner student in martial arts, it can be extremely difficult to tell the real from the fake when meeting the people who teach martial arts classes.

In this essay, I am going to give you some tools that will help you to determine if the person teaching the class is a real instructor, or if the instructor is one of the numerous frauds out there who pass themselves off as instructors, when they are nothing more than charlatans masquerading as instructors.

I got a ton of email after the release of Slapping Dragons from people wanting to know if everything in the first chapter was something that someone I know had done. The answer was simple, I had not personally met every person claiming these things, however, I had met many who had, and many more who passed on such stories in complete seriousness.

It should be obvious, but some things do need to be said out loud (or in this case, spelled out). If your instructor stares at the sun, uses lines that came out of the Kung Fu TV series, beats himself with kali sticks and nunchucks, drills holes in his body and claims to have been shot, says he can walk on fire and water, hold a horse stance for days on end, and so on…you kinda need to use your head and think a little bit about what you are buying.

Before we continue, I do need to make a point. When we speak of martial artists, we need to keep in mind that the terms “normal” and “martial arts lifer” are not always able to exist side by side. To a one, the martial arts lifers I have known, and including me, were not really normal people. I have actually heard myself tell another person, “I can’t really go so far as to say I like pain, but I don’t mind it as much as other people seem to mind it.” When I said it, it sounded deep, and I was as serious as I have ever been. I was not trying to be macho, or impress a girl; I was just sharing something I thought was profound. I have known a good many people who were the same. A person who trains in the martial arts for an extended period (longer than five years) is going to be someone who deals with pain pretty regularly, probably has chronic injuries, has lost a lot of meaningful relationships, and spent absurd amounts of time alone. We all cope in different ways. I have known those who turned to alcohol and drugs, but the majority I knew took pride in their pain. War Stories was a term that came into common use as some of the old dogs would sit around and discuss why their hips were gone, or how they lost their knees. Later still when I took a job as a bouncer, war stories took on even more meaning. But the stories, and the oohs and ahhs were in a very strange way healing. I bring this up to illustrate the fact that just because an instructor seems like a weirdo does not mean he is a fraud. Most lifers are what Robert Thomas used to call “throwed off”.

We are just different.

The legitimate martial arts instructor is going to be someone who has a verifiable background. Certificates do not mean as much as they once did, as there are now many organizations who give certification in anything for a fee. There are also people who issue certificates for nothing more than you paying to attend their seminar.

Claims of training under a well-known master are also suspect, as there are many well-known masters who certify for a fee. Verifiable means that there should be someone who was working toward black belt at the same time as the instructor in question who is around at least sometimes. The instructor’s instructor should be verifiable as well. Life being what it is (something that stops), there is the possibility that your instructor’s instructor is dead. But even then there should still be someone coming around who “knew him back when…”

In addition to having a background, the instructor who is legitimate should have a deep knowledge of the style he or she is teaching.

How exactly could someone ever become an instructor in any style of martial arts without a deep knowledge of the style?

There are some things to look out for as indicators that the instructor is a pseudo-master.

A Pseudo-master claims that the mainstream martial arts community is against him.

Very often the pseudo-masters make the claim that they are legitimate because the mainstream martial arts do not follow his teachings. This is asinine reasoning and needs to be recognized for what it is; an excuse.

The fact is that the mainstream martial arts community willingly embraces anything that is better than what they are currently doing. Look, just for one example, at the tremendous popularity of MMA. Here is something very different from what mainstream martial arts were doing, and yet when it proved in practice to be superior to what the rest of us were doing, it was embraced. Many traditionalists, rather than claiming that MMA was out to get them, jumped in and found every way that MMA could add to what they had in their style.

A martial artist who is legitimate is going to be secure, and a secure martial artist is going to be open to new ideas if they can further his understanding, training, or skill.

A pseudo-master is going to force you to do things they cannot do.

If you have a test requirement of 100 pushups, the instructor should be able to do 100 pushups. I always found it odd when an instructor had required jumping techniques that they could not do.

If they ask you to do a mile of front kicks, they should be there at your side doing them with you, not sitting in the shade drinking a beer while you go it alone.

A Pseudo-master is going to make claims that are simply not physically possible.

Pseudo-masters love the old kung fu movies a little too much. I love old Shaw Brothers classics, as much as anyone ever has. Loving old kung fu theater shows is not an indicator of pseudo-mastery, but claiming such abilities and powers as are found in these movies is a very real red flag. Much of what they claim to be able to do comes from these movies. When you hear someone claiming to be able to levitate, kill with and sometimes without a touch, endure pain without ever showing it, break things that are not really breakable, claim the ability to mentally feel your body and tell where you are tense or where you need to work, and so on, you are in the presence of an a pseudo-master.

Just for fun; remove the above claims from a setting located within a martial arts school. Imagine a dinner party at the Mayor’s house. Now picture Grand Master Autumnbottom saying the same things.

Is what he is saying going to be treated with respect?

Further still, are the people around him going to allow him to say these stupid things and not call him on it (out of respect for his esteemed powers)?

Absolutely not! Someone there will say, “BS!”

So why is this allowed within the martial arts school (which really is a place of business)?

It is tolerated because of the strange habit we have in the martial arts of setting aside our better judgment in favor of allowing yet another doofus tell their lies to us.

It is tolerated because we follow outdated practices of allowing anyone who is a higher rank to claim anything they want without being called out on it because they outrank us.

I remember being told as the Executive Director of a martial arts group I was a part of was coming in to do a seminar, “Don’t stand close to him, because he will sweep you if you get close. He doesn’t let anyone get close to him.”

Yeah, thanks for the advice, but I only ended up getting curious-er and curious-er.

So an astounding seven times during his visit, I got close enough to pat him on the butt (I didn’t, but I was close enough to do so if I had any urge whatsoever to touch the butt of a sixty-seven year old pseudo-master).

At the dinner after the seminar, someone reminded him of sweeping people who got too close. He boasted that he never let anyone get closer than five feet to him. As people were milling around after the dinner, I had to try one last time to receive a sweep from a master. I got close. And then I got closer. And I got closer still. He still didn’t sweep, so I wrapped my arm around his shoulder in a manly hug. Down he went! I was excited! I was finally going to get knocked down by a master. There was a loud cracking sound as shinbone hit shinbone (yes I turned as he went down, but only because I wanted to see the sweep).

But I didn’t fall.

In Judo, those who throw the best leave you with a feeling that you did not move, but rather that the earth flew up and hit you.

That didn’t happen either.

Bone on bone.

It hurt like crazy but he got the worst of it, and told me as tears welled up in his eyes that I needed to leave. I was feeling considerable pain as well, but it was clear he got the worst of the contact. It was an odd sweep too. Most of the sweeps I have been taught use the back of the leg to do the dirty work, but none of that matters.

Place this incident back at the Mayor’s party and see if it seems like it would be well received.

Now ask yourself if the person who was the recipient of the failed sweep would be the one who was frowned on by all at the event.

Who would be the one treated with scorn and ridicule by those who knew him, and ultimately asked to leave the school?

Lastly, ask yourself if this kind of deference to fraudulent claims does any service whatsoever for the martial arts in general, or an organization specifically.

A Pseudo-master will try to use science-ey sounding terms to lend credibility to his claims.

Put simply, science is science. The terms used in science have strictly defined meanings. Pseudo-masters make a huge mistake when they borrow terms from science to describe their BS martial arts mumbo-jumbo.

Take the simple term energy. It is a nice word, tidy, clean, and sounds important. When a pseudo-master gets ahold of it, they just use it to explain what they do not have an explanation for. “Qi is energy” and “Qi is the underlying and animating energy of the universe” are two claims I wish would die a public death. In science, energy is not an unquantifiable abstract; it is a thing. It is measurable, traceable, predictable, and so on.

When martial artists began to define Qi as energy, science was right there to lend a hand.

Only they could not find any qi.

When you hear terms that sound like science being used to explain super powers in the martial arts, you need to start the process of critical thinking.

Or just leave.

I would leave.

A Pseudo-master will never get past the point of trying to sell you on what they are teaching.

I have said it before, but this really does seem to need to be repeated:

A legitimate martial arts instructor is going to be a secure person.

They will note that you have signed on to their school and are training with them, and they will no longer see the point in trying to sell you on the teachings, and instead they will focus on the transmission of knowledge and skill.

A pseudo-master will be the opposite. While they may try very hard to appear secure, they will show their insecurity in the fact that the sale never seems to be final to them. They play a constant game of “See?!?! This stuff is real!! Did you see that? Did you see what I did? It was awesome wasn’t it? I’m awesome…right?! Please tell me I’m awesome. And you! You really made the right choice in training here! You know that right? This style is real! The other styles out there are inferior. You can see that. Right? Please like me.”

This insecurity is unbecoming a true expert, but again, the pseudo-master is a fraud, and so they will never truly feel secure in your commitment to the style or school. They will also never really be confident enough to just let it go and teach. Even the lessons will tend to still feel like a sales pitch.

Be wary whenever you spot this behavior.

A Pseudo-master claims direct lineage from the grand master (or some such) of a style or system.

This goes back to security. I know a good many martial arts instructors who boast of their superior lineage, and actually did train under the people they claim. But the boasting itself is a sign of insecurity. To these people, I can only say to get the confidence to stand on your own. If your lineage is legitimate, great! Just don’t bring it up over and over. It makes you seem like less yourself and more about who you trained under.

The pseudo-master cannot help it though. It is the master’s name who (at least to the pseudo-master) will give him some much needed credibility.

Rather than giving any credence to the person the instructor trained under, you would be wiser to watch the instructor. Are they knowledgeable? Do they have a coherent teaching methodology? If they have this, you can relax a little bit, and just assume that the instructor has a lineage focus. You do not have to follow the importance-of-lineage teachings, and you can still learn the style. If they do not have this, begin the critical thinking process and determine before you spend any money whether or not you are in the presence of a fraud. Look also at the students of the instructor in question. Do they show skill, independent thought, and enjoyment? These are good things to see. If these clues are absent, then serious thought needs to be made prior to signing anything.

Pseudo-masters tend to have out of the ordinary uniforms.

This part is so silly that I almost left it out, but it should be a red flag, and so I kept it.

Almost as if by plan, the vast majority of the frauds in the martial arts have weird uniforms. And even worse than this, they also tend to dress like a person from a bad science fiction movie or an old kung fu movie when they are not in the training hall.

My take on this is that the frauds are completely insecure, and need to feel at all times as if every single person in the room knows that they are the master.

Legitimate martial artists are very secure people.

Remember at the beginning, I pointed out how martial arts lifers are not always normal people? Well, to a one, the martial arts lifers that I have known were very secure, even when people pointed out that they were different from normal people.

The pseudo-masters never feel secure because they are not being themselves. They know they are lying at every moment and have to be on constant guard against getting caught in the lie.

Many pseudo-masters are teaching a style that they claim to have invented, or has an unbelievably ancient and untraceable origin.

There are only a limited number of ways to hit and kick a person. The structure of the human body places a limit on the number of ways this can be done effectively. This applies to wrestling as well. This limit, and the number of years we have had people absorbed in the study of how to take another person apart places these limits and throw a dark shadow of doubt upon the claims of the pseudo-masters and the plethora of styles these knuckleheads have “invented”.

There are modern styles. Jeet Kune Do is a modern style. MMA is modern, but does not like to be categorized with the traditional martial arts, even though they are more traditional than they like to admit. However, there is really little need to re-invent the wheel. Jeet Kune Do was an application of the concepts of fencing and western boxing to martial arts, and MMA is simply the reintegration of grappling training with the standard striking arts. When MMA started to come into its own, you didn’t see the style suddenly claim to be ten thousand years old, or come from a temple. It simply developed in front of everyone who cared to watch, and became a very popular sport, supplanting everything and finding its way to mainstream acceptance.

Pseudo-masters claim magical abilities.

I really wish there were magical powers to be found in the martial arts. Truly I do. They are just not there.

Pseudo-masters claim these abilities. The claims range from the silly to the absurd. I have heard of a master who can walk on snow and leave no footprints. It is silly, but the claim was made.

I was told of a master who can thump you on the head and produce a stream of tears from only one eye. Why only one? Why not both eyes. At least this would have made the claim a tiny bit more believable.

I was also told of a master who had the ability to produce an electric shock in your body by stroking your armpit. Why armpit and why electric shock? Even if I had this ability, I could not use it because I have no wish to touch another person’s armpit. Ewww.

I also heard a story about a master who could strike you (in some variations he would simply shout) and cause you to start bouncing. You would be unable to stop bouncing until he un-did whatever it was that he did. This reaches a level of absurdity that even Hollywood has passed on.

I was also met a master who claimed he had the ability to make your nose bleed by stroking one of your buttocks. (No, I am not making this up…). Although he was unable to replicate the effect on me, he did get to feel my buttock by making the claim, and he may have enjoyed that. He then tried to explain it away that my skills (or was it my buttock) were too strong for the effect to occur.

There are many masters who claim they could kill animals with a light touch to certain acupuncture points (this one is very widespread and extends to the “touch-of-death” claims which are still widely popular today).

I was told of a master who could shout and cause the fish in a lake or river to become unconscious and float to the surface where they could be scooped up with a net. When I was in the Philippines, I chanced to see some kids in a river with nets, and their Father was up stream tossing lit sticks of dynamite into the river to produce much the same effect with less training, so this skill seems unneeded.

I cannot count how many times I have been told of masters who could climb a wall like a lizard. What this is supposed to pass on to the person forced to listen to such nonsense is beyond me. This falls into the same category as the tales of masters who could levitate. It just seems like unnecessary nonsense to repeat such foolish idiocy.

This, of course, pales in comparison to the tales of masters who were able to defeat 20 or more armed attackers, while they themselves were unarmed (except for the awesome powers of Chinese kung fu!). Outnumbered is outnumbered. When you are alone against more than one person, the odds say you will lose. Even with a simple two-on-one situation, your skill level and conditioning would have to severely outshine your two opponents for you to even stand a ghost of a chance of winning.

I have also been in the presence of people who claimed that they could be sliced open and not bleed. This is BS beyond all necessity. People bleed when cut, end of story. Why would anyone see a need to claim to be exempt from this rule? These same people also said they could seal a wound with their mind, and heal broken bones in minutes through herbs and massage.


I don’t know how many people have claimed the ability to extinguish a candle flame by staring at it intently (I would just blow it out…). This is a senseless power that really serves no purpose, even if it did exist.

I really love it when I run into masters who say they can read your mind. I ask them to read mine and sit there repeatedly thinking “Purple monkey dishwasher!”

One master I met claimed the ability to travel in another dimension. He claimed the ability shorted his life, so he refused to do it, “unless the world was in danger”. Nice way to not get tested.

Many masters claim the ability to knock you out without touching you in any way. While I have written about this extensively in the past, I will just make a quick note here that common sense must prevail. There is no way for a person to knock you out without contact. If you think that there is, then follow these pseudo-masters and let them take your money. I’m not the type to say “I told you so”, unless, of course, I really did tell you so.

Pseudo-masters tend to have unusual titles and demand to be bowed to even in settings outside of the dojo, and need your opinion to be set aside in favor of their own no matter the social setting.

Again this falls back on the insecurities of the person in question. I have trained in martial arts for thirty years and do not demand to be bowed to in any setting outside of the training hall. Even within the training hall I do not demand it. There are parts of the traditional martial arts class where a bow is performed, and I perform it at the same time as my students. It is not them showing respect to me while I receive it, it is mutual. And that is as it should be. I respect my students for putting up with me, and they respect me for putting up with them.

I knew an unbearable person who demanded inside the dojo rituals even when the setting was as casual as a restaurant. I felt absurd each time he would show up and we were all expected to stand up and bow to him in the restaurant. In front of people. Who were staring. And laughing. And pointing. I hate when people point and stare and laugh. But this guy had us go through the wonderful experience every single time he came around.

This is what happens when a Beta is trying to be an Alpha. They need the constant reassurance and demand approval and praise and recognition. A real Alpha looks at praise and applause as fit for stage actors and dancing monkeys.

The Pseudo-masters also have a strange habit of demanding that there be no dissenting opinion in their presence. Once again, this cries out Beta behavior, as the Alpha are very secure people. When you know you are right, you just know you are right, and see no need to disallow any dissenting opinion from being voiced. Dissent leads to the Alpha needing to provide proof, once proof is given, the status of the Alpha is strengthened, and so he sees no bad side to this.

And a word on the titles. Where should I begin? Let me speak from a perspective of the Chinese Martial Arts as it is what I know best.

Once upon a time there were instructors and students. The Instructor was called Sifu. The term Sifu is often translated as meaning “Father-Teacher” but really just signifies a male teacher. There are some Sifu who may end up acting fatherly, or having students who look at them as a second father, but such instances are probably rare.

So the goal of a good many student was to become a Sifu. In a lot of cases these students made it through to the successful completion of this goal while continuing to train with their instructor, but some gave up training, left the school early, started their own and declared themselves to be Sifu.

This new generation of Sifu, legitimate and not, opened up martial arts schools and began teaching. As the illegitimate instructors had less actual material to teach, students progressed faster, and would grow frustrated when their instructor ran out of material. Some took the same path as their teach, while others allowed the poorly trained instructor to confer the status of Sifu upon them. But with his need to be higher than the students, this Sifu needed a new title. He could not get the respect he felt he deserved if he were called Sifu and his students were Sifu as well. So we end up with Grandmaster, Great grandmaster, and a fellow in the Upper Midwest who declared himself to be “Grandmaster of Grandmasters”.

There are also the pseudo-masters who declare themselves to be Professors, and ask to be called Doctor.

This is asinine and completely unnecessary.

It only takes a little bit of self-confidence to see that a black belt who has black belt students is still a black belt. Promoting students in no way diminishes the instructor.

Provided he is a secure person. And there lies the real issue.