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Three Serious Red Flags to Beware of When Seeking Martial Arts Instruction

Updated on March 27, 2016

Pseudoscience and marketing meet in the martial arts

The martial arts world is filled with a lot of lemmings. I am sorry, there is no other way to say it. Many people venture into the world of martial arts with a limited knowledge about what constitutes proper training and instruction. They do not have years of experience nor do they possess a background of serious study enabling them to know the difference between good martial arts training and bad martial arts training. This makes them ripe for being ripped off by a martial arts instructor that is more interested in acquiring your discretionary income through offering a weak, watered down fitness program that is presented as a legitimate fighting art.

Covering the Egregious (nee Basic) Points about Bad Instruction

An entire book could be written about what to avoid in a martial arts instructor (and there probably is such a book out there somewhere) but for the sake of space, be wary of three red flags a potentially bad martial arts instructor will embody:

1.) Beware of self-evaluation as a criteria for excellence.

Imagine if you were enrolled in a class on 19th century British literature and had no previous background in the subject. Better yet, you enrolled in in the course in audit (no formal credit) form and never took any tests or wrote any papers that were graded. A decade later, after never having taken another class on this subject, you promoted yourself as highly knowledgeable because of how much you absorbed in the class.

No one with any common sense would take your claims of expertise seriously without any proof. Now, if you wrote a brilliant paper on the subject or a series of essays and self-published them over the course of several years, the proof. would be right there. You really are knowledgeable even with a limited background. However, absent any real proof that proves true knowledge, claims of brilliance on a subject are likely little more than lame attempt at padding a resume.

Martial arts instructors are NOTORIOUS for this. They pad out their claims of knowledge by offering a laundry list of martial arts they mastered (by their own self-evaluation of skill) as a means of pawning themselves off as renaissance experts on the martial arts....and then they proceed to teach watered down kickboxing for fun and profit.

Why make such claims? The reason is their so-called mastery of 20 different martial arts certainly justifies the $150 an hour they charge for private lessons. What a shame they cannot actual provide serious verification of the time they actual studied the art.

When someone makes claims of being a skilled at a martial art, always try and determine:

  • Who they learned it from

  • Where they learned it

  • How long they studied it

  • Whether or not the instructor show the art in its proper context in isolation without the help of another martial art covering up for any limitations.

This last point bears further mentioning. A lot of instructors out there through random techniques into a quasi format leaving you with the impression they know more about the art than they really do. Do not fall for such a act of chicanery.

Honestly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with an instructor making claims of self-evaluation since there is no law, rule or regulation against is. However, no one is stopping you, the student, from making an evaluation. After all, it is your time and money and you are going to feel really slighted and burned when both are wasted.

On a side note, can you learn from someone that only studied an art for three years and on a limited basis at that? YES. Granted, the knowledge base of the person might be limited but this is not what we are concerned about with right now. Rather, concern centers on avoiding being roped into paying premium dollars to study martial arts from someone using a bloated advertising display that is pawned off as a resume reflecting expertise.

2.) Beware of those martial arts instructors teach solely in patterns and regimentation.

When a martial arts class becomes a cookie cutter conveyor belt where every in just following a show and tell pattern of performance, serious students should take their leave and go somewhere else to learn. Then again, if you want to lose weight, meet new people, get out of the house, supplement your private or personal training, or have fun, classes that revolve around little more than performing techniques against static partners, kicking heavy bags or focus mitts, doing a Kata or energy drill, or taking part in conditioning drills is really not all that bad. However, if your goal is to actually learn a martial art, these classes are not the ones you want to be enrolled in. How could they be? They are not centered on teaching anything. You certainly do not want to pay premium dollars to remain in such a class since your funds would be better invested in actually learning a martial art.

3.) Beware of martial arts instructors that tell you not to look at the work of other martial artists.

“It is best to stay away from [Insert Martial Artists Name Here] because he is:”

  • Only in it for the money

  • Unqualified

  • Add your own excuse

Martial arts instructors have a tendency to try to prop themselves up at the expense of others. This is usually what you have to do when you are overstating your own skill. It also is a marketing ploy dressed up as useful advice to a student. Likely the common reason why Instructor A does not want you to look at Instructor B is Instructor A does not want to see any money going to instructor B.

The Average Martial Arts School Is Mostly Fitness and Not Fighting

So, why are so many martial arts schools guilty of such tactics? The answer is found in the business model of martial arts instruction.

The sad truth about the martial arts is the average martial arts business model is not based on the concept of a classical martial arts dojo or a fight gym. It is based on the concept of a health and fitness club because the health and fitness model is the more profitable one. This is really not the most troubling aspect that is present. The really troubling aspect is you have health clubs pretending (or, worse, programs based on theatrical fighting to stage and screen) presenting themselves as actual fight gyms. Since such schools do exist, you have to be mindful of them so you can either avoid them or sign up with a proper understanding of what you would be getting into.


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    • Eric Vu Tran profile image

      Eric Vu Tran 5 years ago from Washington, DC

      I also think that this is an important issue. It's been on my mind for a long time. I'd like to point out that martial arts isn't just about fighting. It is an art. Martial arts is about peace, cultivating one self and benevolence.

      1) Is is ethical to teach martial techniques to children and adults without the art?

      2) Is it ethical to martial arts just to make money. Just because it is a viable business model?

    • TCaro profile image

      Tony Caro 5 years ago

      One thing I should point out, Nate, is there are a lot of outstanding instructors. They generally are a bit more low key and have a tendency to teach smaller groups.

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 5 years ago from California, United States of America

      It is unfortunate that there is plenty of arrogance and profiteering in martial arts and, as you say, much boasting at the expense of others just for the sake of instructors promoting themselves and their businesses. Much of the martial arts world is like this and unfortunately people have mythical ideas about martial artists being ethical sages that know what they're talking about. It is a fortunate one who has had the opportunity to do some decent training and who is able to learn enough to venture on their own without the aid of any of the many martial arts hacks. I agree with you too on the instructors that only teach a boring regimented routine. It's nonsense and mind numbing. Good info, important subject.