How to Become a Martial Arts Instructor

Have you ever thought about being an instructor? Do you often ask, “How do I become a Kempo instructor?” My answer is quite simple. First become a member of the GOLD Leadership Team, which teaches you leadership skills, teaching skills and coaching or interpersonal skills. You need some experience and training in the martial arts. Knowing Kempo is different from teaching Kempo. Teaching others how to do a technique or move is quite a bit different from knowing it yourself.

Black Belt in meditation

Black Belt in meditation

Being an instructor takes leadership qualities to inspire others to continue training when they become frustrated. It takes patience as you explain moves in detail. It also takes knowledge on how different people learn. No two people are the same but they can be lumped into general learning-style groups such as visual learner, auditory learner or tactile learner.

These skills and plenty of practice with real people are what programs like GOLD Team provide. Many schools have some sort of leadership team often using the name SWAT or STORM. They all let you practice your mentoring and teaching style with fellow students under the watchful eye of a qualified instructor–who will help you improve by providing pointers and feedback.

Ask your instructor how to get ready. They will surely provide good advice and training tips to you. You can eventually teach full or part time if the school is hiring or expanding. Once you complete the GOLD Team program, you will be able to join the staff as a part time or full time instructor — if the school is hiring or expanding.

Maybe you have what it takes to be a sifu, sensei or instructor? Ask your instructor how he or she can help you on that path.

10 ways to help your dojo stay open for business

If you’re like me, you see the dojo as your second home. You love being in the Hall of Training, working on your material to perfect the art. In this tough economy, it is difficult to keep a Kempo school operational. I know because I had to close one myself. What students should do is take emotional ownership of the school. Invest your time to help the owner and instructors out. You should do your part to help the school survive and thrive.

Black Belt in meditation

Black Belt in meditation

Here are ten actionable ideas that you and your fellow students can do to keep the dojo doors open.

  1. Clean what’s dirty, whether it is windows, mirrors, the mat or chairs. A dirty dojo is not a welcoming to new students or guests.
  2. Bring in friends as new students. A school with paying students lasts longer. Also training with your friends if very enjoyable.
  3. Pay on time. The owner needs to pay the bills and having the funds on time helps.
  4. Pass out flyers. It costs money to advertise and market. If you take some time out of your day to pass out flyers to potential new students, you’re helping the dojo save money.
  5. Write good things about the dojo on social networks, forums and on note cards in laundry rooms. People like to hear about good places to train from real people they can trust. Hopefully they’re turn around and join as new students.
  6. Donate used equipment to new students who can’t afford equipment. It is easier to continue training when you have all the supplies you need but not everyone can afford the expense. Used equipment is better than no equipment.
  7. Arrange for the dojo to do an exhibition at local schools or community clubs. Most people don’t know that there are schools around, or what martial arts are. Informing others about the benefits of training is a great way to attract new students.
  8. Contribute articles or pictures to the dojo’s website, newsletter or blog. Again, this is a great way to let others know about all the fun you have while training. Engaging and informative articles really explain benefits in simple terms most can understand.
  9. Show up for classes. It may seem simple but students who skip class eventually skip more classes and then drop out. Don’t be one of them. Don’t let your friends skip classes either. Call them up if they miss a class and offer to practice with them so they don’t get behind. There are two critical figures for all schools: the number of new students and the number of students who quit. The first number should be high and the other really low.
  10. Thank your instructors for their help and time. Teaching weekly classes is very hard to do, often leading to burnout. Staying enthusiastic about teaching everyday is a trick every instructor struggles with constantly. What helped me during my full time career is the gratitude of my students. A simple “Thank you” really pumped me up and stemmed the tide toward burnout. Help your instructor stay motivated with a few words of encouragement.

Hopefully by following this advice you can help keep your school from going under financially. We all need to pitch in and help each other out in times of need. Got some other good ideas, please share them in the comment section.

Your Sensei Needs You

After a few months or even years of training, you develop a bond with your school. It is your martial home away from home. What is the best way for you to support your school? How can you make it grow and remain strong? For the school to survive and prosper, each member should show support. It is your obligation as a student to help the dojo. Part of the help is the payment you make as tuition dues and supply purchases. But there are other ways you can help too.

Helping your dojo is in your future

Helping your dojo is in your future

Refer others people to your school so they’ll join as new students. That’s how the school grows and stays strong by having new members. A school needs a constant stream of new students to keep it operational. Don’t keep others out, invite your friends and family into the school. Referrals make the best new students because they know some of the other students.

Referrals also show respect for your instructor and his or her staff. If you believe they are giving you the best they know, sharing it with others demonstrates that value. As an instructor, I get a sense of satisfaction when my students bring in their friends. It means they trust me, and they understand the value of what I’m teaching.

Become your school’s  evangelist, its proud member who believes in the training. This enthusiasm and confidence in your school translates into a bold, strong spirit for the dojo. A dojo is nothing without students so you are the dojo. Make your instructor proud.

Studio Franchise Fiascoes

There is a trend in the Shaolin Kempo Karate community to fast track students to instructor roles. Becoming a proficient instructor takes a long time even after Black Belt. Yet there are many instructors who are willing to sour their relationship with customers and students to make a fast buck. Be wary of signing any contracts that limit you to the bidding of an organization or instructor without proper legal advise.

Money can blind you to logic

Money can blind you to logic

I’ve seen to many potentially good instructors and student leave the Kempo arts because they ended up owing thousands of dollars to a master for Instructor Colleges or Training. Make sure the deal sounds good to you (after a good night’s rest) and someone outside the situation (like the BBB). Get a copy of the contract, bring it home and have someone else (like a lawyer) review it. If the deal is legitimate then having legal advisors look it over is normal business practice.

If you going into a franchise situation, learn about how franchises work. Read books and study the subject. There are lots of legal protections you have if you know what you are doing. Don’t stand for high percentage cuts off of your gross or every-increasing-fees or costly sales goals for un-sellable items. Franchises provide you with a system that is easy to run by the book. If it requires you to do things that feel wrong or disreputable, then don’t get into it.

One thing that martial arts training teach is the warrior’s honor. Be truthful, honest and helpful in all business dealings with students, instructors and friends. Trustworthy business professionals make steady money. Devious con men make lots of money fast but then need to leave town before getting caught. Professional martial artists do deserve to make money so they can pay their bills just like anyone else. We all have bills to pay. However, if it involves scams and get rich while making others poor – that’s when honor is lost and the whole industry suffers.

If you want to be an instructor of Shaolin Kempo Karate or Karazenpo go Shinjutsu, learn how to run a business first. Let your martial arts training sink in. You have to do your material very well before you can teach others and that takes time. When you have the right mix of business skills, martial arts skills and teaching skills (yes you need all three) then you can be an instructor.

Better yet, get experience by being a paid instructor intern at your school. In the state of California, anyone who teaches at a facility, which makes its money through instruction, must pay those employees. There’s lots of legal mumbo-jumbo but if you help, then you are an employee and you must be paid. Don’t break the law just to be nice. If the school owner doesn’t know the laws, let them know so he or she will be in compliance.

Most people get in to funny situations because they leap before they look. The key to self-defense is awareness of the surroundings. Don’t let your instructor or a regional manager intimidate you into signing something bogus. They are not the only answer to your dream.

Tell me your story about Kempo scams that bother you or you heard.

Another Green Dojo

Read the full story about Boston Karate Students to Help Build “Black Belt Garden” in Local Green Space

What I like about this article is how it demonstrates the community focus of martial arts schools. Extending the dojo to the garden is a great idea on how to link the agricultural roots of Karate to the modern world in a way that improves the land. It also makes it useful to others without being selfish.

Kudos to the Boston Karate students and their instructor for a great job. Between this school and King Karate, from a previous post about gardening and karate, there seems to be a new, promising trend among martial arts teachers.

Colored Belt Ranks are traditional?

Colored belts, a tradition from the earliest times of martial arts history. Hmm, I think not. The colored belt ranking system is a recent invention, the belt, however is an old invention primarily made to hold up pants and tie jackets to the body. So why is there such reverence paid to the colored belts? Isn’t there another function besides a purely utilitarian use? Let’s start with a definition of a martial arts belt.

According to “The Original Martial Arts Encyclopedia: Tradition-History-Pioneers”, the belt, called obi, is worn around the waist of most Okinawan, Japanese and Korean martial arts. (1) (pg. 2)

“They are generally long enough to be wrapped twice around the wearer’s waist and then tied in a square knot, with 10 to 15 inches hanging from either side of the knot. Before the 20th century most belts were colorless.” (Pg. 2)

What do you mean “colorless”? How did they know what kyu rank they were? At the time, it didn’t matter. The instructor was usually your relative that you saw every day. He remembered your skill level. After all, only twenty or so family members trained with the sensei.

As often explained in my classes, the colored belt is a visible sign of skill, mental cue for instructor. When an instructor scans his third class of 30 students, his mind goes numb trying to remember who has which kata and who needs which technique. By setting a standard curriculum with specific requirements, the memory requirements of an instructor is greatly reduced. When your sensei sees that blue belt you’re wearing, he knows you have (just for arguments sake) 6 forms and 20 techniques. If you don’t then he knows what to show you.
Colored belts
The colored belt is also beneficial for the student. Ranks can act as milestone markers toward the goal of Black Belt. Any time you set a major goal, you should break it down into several sub-goals or milestones. This is an excellent method for seeing the improvement and strides you’ve made towards your goal. Otherwise, you may loose sight of the progress in skill you’ve earned.

In more traditional schools, colored-belts are also a sign of seniority. Certain ranks have specific duties based on their seniority in the school. In many Kempo schools, higher rank students are in the front rows during drills. This allows new students and beginners to see how techniques are done and follow along until they are comfortable with the class structure.

Who started the ranking system anyway? Many people credit the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano, with the modern ranking system. Master Kano wanted a way to organize judo competitors by skill. All the non-Black Belts had the same rank but their skill varied considerably. He assigned students to various grades that grouped the beginners by skill level. As a neophyte advanced in skill, he could compete with others of comparable skill.

What are the correct colors? There aren’t any universal or standard orders. Many styles have implemented various orders, especially in eclectic styles that blend several arts together. The origin of colored belts can be traced back to the Tracy brothers of Chinese Kenpo(2) when they asked their Asian suppliers what other colors belts could be manufactured. (You could say Kempo is to blame for the colored belt phenomena.)

Korean arts use belt colors that don’t match Japanese belt colors progression. Both of these don’t match many Kempo ranks. From the local schools I’ve visited, Korean schools use white, gold, yellow, green, blue, purple, red, and black. Though I’ve been to schools that have brown belts too. Some of the Japanese schools use white, green, blue, brown and black. Gracie Jui-jitsu uses white, blue, purple, brown and black. This leaves Kempo, which uses white, yellow, orange, purple, blue, green, brown and black. There are schools that use different orders that the ones listed above.

To make matters worse, Chinese arts didn’t have belt or sash rankings until the 1980s. The Chinese gung fu schools I’ve been to rank by set or form. Each form can have three levels – student, instructor or master. Then again, Chinese schools are run in a less formal atmosphere. Most don’t require uniforms or formal school etiquette like their Japanese counterparts do.

If the colors represent different levels depending on the style, how do you compare ranks? All schools assign a kyu rank to the color belt. Kyu ranks or grades are those students who have not been awarded the Black Belt or shodan grade. In other words, beginning students. These kyu ranks compare easily from style to style. In Kempo, the kyu ranks are organized into three groups – candidates, beginners and intermediate.

Corcoran and Farkas describe the dan ranks like this:

“It usually takes three to four years of ascent through the kyu or gup grades to reach 1st-degree Black Belt, at which the dan ranks commence in some systems. Sixth degree and upward are awarded for merit or accomplishment, instead of physical proficiency.”

Dan ranks or degrees are levels of Black Belt. Below are the Japanese and Okinawan dan ranks:

  1. shodan – 1st degree
  2. nidan – 2nd degree
  3. sandan – 3rd degree
  4. yodan – 4th degree
  5. godan – 5th degree
  6. rokudan – 6th degree
  7. shichidan – 7th degree
  8. hachidan – 8th degree
  9. kudan – 9th degree
  10. judan – 10th degree

In the United States, many styles and masters are able to work together. Some masters promote exemplary instructors for their work for the benefit of martial arts and the community. Often times, these promotions are done across styles. As stated previously, ranks from 6th to 9th dan are honorary, awarded for merit or accomplishments. It would also be a fair assessment of a master’s abilities to recognize quality and skill that many would be unable to judge.

Self-promotion, on the other hand, is less honorable and lacks the necessary humility required by expert of the arts. “The Martial Arts Encyclopedia” notes that many Black Belts have emerged since the mid-1960s with questionable qualifications. Corcoran and Farkas go on to state that “…an especially acute problem is the large number of high-ranking Black Belts whose only achievement has come through self-promotion of rank.”

Is it bad? Is it wrong? That is something each individual needs to determine. Most styles have not formal organization to control the issuance of ranks and promotions. Judo is a prime example of an art that has gained control over ranking and teaching. Until such time as other styles are able to follow suite, there will not be a universal standard.

However, one might ask, who has the authority to dictate the qualifications for new ranks? The government? Some arbitrary board of directors? No, your style and your masters dictate what the qualifications are. Tae Kwon Do is a great example of a worldwide style that holds strict guidelines for advancement agreed upon by many masters. Also, masters outside of their style promoted many instructors to higher grades because they recognize that instructor’s ability. This was (and remains) the main method of high grade promotions.

The ranking system is a great tool for martial arts instructors. That’s why it caught on. It’s so successful that many Chinese styles are formulating a similar system utilizing sashes. When large numbers of students enter a dojo, an instructor must use tools and systemization to regulate and perfect their training. The ranking concept is nearly universal, but the implementation of the concept varies from dojo to dojo. My advice is, don’t fret over the little stuff. Admire skill and humility over boasting and ranking.


  1. “The Original Martial Arts Encyclopedia: Tradition-History-Pioneers” by John Corcoran and Emil Farkas, Pro-Action Publishing, 1993.
  2. Tracy Kenpo International Catalog, 1991.

Regrettable Business Practices

Read the full story here.,0,732400.column

Get ripped, not ripped off, by avoiding contracts with gyms, karate schools
By Greg Dawson -The Last Resort, Orlando Sentinel, May 10, 2009

Three of the four cases listed in the article were for Martial Arts schools that have contracts. I find the practice disturbing. I understand it from a business practice but we are not just a business, we are a part of the community. Any reasonable request should get you out of the contract, which defeats the purpose of contracts. So just do month-to-month fees and offer a great program. It makes moral sense.

Swine Flu Threat Closes Karate Academy

Read the full story here and they have a video too.

I’m a big fan of after school programs and small business owners. Though the closing is prudent to stop the spread of the flu, it does affect the financial ability of businesses to remain open. I wish the Karate Academy luck during this Swine Flu hysteria.