Paper Tigers

By Toby Howden

Martial arts and misadventure in Japan

Sunday, 28 February 2016

How to Find a Decent Martial Arts Instructor: Ten Essential Pointers. (For every Mr Myagi, there’s a Mr Bean).

Like many young men I spent a great deal of my early life as an armchair martial arts fan brooding over who would win in a fight between Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.  Eventually, I decided “the student was ready”: it was time to find a real teacher. Once this momentous decision was made, it still took an inordinate amount of time to build up enough courage to walk through the door of an actual class. I genuinely imagined on my first night I’d be forced to have a full contact fight (possibly with weapons and to the death) in front of all the other (expert) students. Luckily it wasn’t quite that bad. That said, a few years later as a self-conscious teenager attending my first Tai Chi class, on being told by the instructor to just ‘Let myself go and join in with some free improvised movement around the room’, I would definitely have preferred a fight to the death.


As my experience grew, it became obvious that the personality of the teacher and quality of lessons varies immensely, and although there are some truly inspiring people out there, there are also some woefully misguided freaks, charlatans, ego-maniacs and downright dangerous cowboys keen to take your money and anoint you as their number one disciple. I was once thrown about like a rag-doll on my first night by an angry Aikido teacher following a naïve and genuinely unintentionally rude comment from me that I’d heard Aikido was a “soft” martial art. I also once managed to innocently walk into a kung fu class in a black T-shirt with a Yin-Yang logo on it which just happened to be the uniform of their instructor grades who were all neatly lined up along the mats wondering who this unannounced visiting master was. It was akin to entering a Karate class with your black belt tied round your head and flames up the side of your uniform. Many years later in China I had to perform an impromptu demonstration and represent “The West” (in its entirety) in front of a group of high ranking teachers and their students whilst they decided if I had what it took to study with them. The fact is, when you approach a dojo, class or instructor for the first time, you can never be entirely sure what kind of a reception you’ll get. Some teachers are friendly, welcoming and genuinely care about their students; others are insecure Darth Vaders with tiny weeny lightsabers.


It’s difficult to know what to look for when starting out. How can you tell if something you’ve no real experience of is any good? How can you be sure the teacher knows their sensible warm-up techniques and first-aid from their choke-hold resuscitation and pressure-point touch of death? Quality control is important as martial arts involve a great deal of trust, time investment, and financial expense not to mention an innate risk of injury, possibly life-threatening if you are ever hoping to use it as actual self-defence. Once you’ve trawled the internet, watched all the films, read all the books and had a chat with “Kung fu Dave” down the pub and sussed out which style you’d like to have a go at, it can be bewildering and sometimes downright intimidating starting out.


In my experience, those who charge the most, with the biggest dojo, flashiest uniforms, animated websites, competition trophies and illustrious ancient lineages are not automatically the best. One of the greatest teachers I ever met was a shy old man who taught a small group in a park in Beijing. He didn’t charge, didn’t have a uniform, and didn’t give a damn about grades and certificates. He was however, the genuine article, with arms like steel and the ability to drop people twice his size with no apparent effort. He was the Sifu I’d spent my whole life hoping to meet. Unfortunately, I didn’t speak Chinese and couldn’t understand a word he said.


Disclaimer: Some of the following pointers are clearly no-brainers, and stem from my own experiences with many different kinds of teachers, good and bad, from a wide range of styles, in different countries, and with varying levels of talent, attitudes to teaching, and expectations of their students. It’s written in the spirit of friendly subjective advice. Feel free to disagree (although I stand by No1).  


1. First impressions count: If they come across as a total and utter douche bag, it’s quite possible they are.

If they seem rude, arrogant, angry and unpleasant, what does that suggest about their teaching style? Good martial arts classes are based upon humility and respect, however this works both ways. Be polite in your enquiries and introductions and remember, no one is obliged to teach you. The traditional Asian relationship between teacher and student is essentially Confucian; both have a duty and obligation to each other. Will you be a worthy student? What are your motivations for learning? Are you the kind of person that would use their teachings to hurt others or discredit the style? Certainly in Asia, a teacher is routinely judged by the performance and attitude of their students. That said, simply being skilled in martial arts does not make someone a good teacher, neither does it automatically make them a nice or trustworthy person. If the truth be told I’ve learnt a few valuable lessons from some total nutters.


2. Are you looking for a martial arts instructor or Yoda?

Unlikely it is, that your teacher will be able to make you invincible/immortal/provide you with an immediate sense of total Zen-like oneness with the universe, or possess the answers to every stupid problem in your life. If they are claiming otherwise, be suspicious. There’s a time and a place for philosophy and theory, but if their students spend a lot of time mutely standing about passively absorbing the teacher’s regurgitated selective Oriental wisdom gleaned from the Tao of Poo, exercise caution. Everyone has a different approach to life, the universe and everything, and martial arts certainly involves mental conditioning and understanding philosophical principles, but what a good teacher should be able to do, first and foremost, is teach and coach you in a specific martial discipline.


3. Have realistic expectations about what you are likely to learn.

If you want the chiselled body of a Shaolin Monk and the deadly skill of a Ninja it will require sweat, probably blood and certainly training, a hell of a lot of training. In fact more than you would probably believe and definitely more than most people are prepared to commit to. Realistically, you are unlikely to become the ultimate weapon, although you might become a bit of a tool. Sorry. Have realistic goals. If you are hoping to get fitter, learn self-defence and make new friends then it’s probably achievable by attending regular classes a few times a week. It will still require commitment and regular practice though. No-one can train for you.


4. Does the teacher continuously badmouth other styles?

Decent instructors are confident about what they teach, but wise and humble enough to understand that no-one has all the answers and every style has its strengths and weaknesses. Anyone who has really practiced anything for a long time knows how little they really know. Being qualified in a martial art does not automatically entitle you to criticise or talk with any authority about other disciplines. For example, it’s as incorrect to regard Karate as using brute strength as it is to describe Tai Chi as just using “energy.” Be sceptical, if they come out with a lot of ‘We do it the correct way, unlike Karate, Judo, Tai Kwan Do, boxing, etc’, it’s usually a bad sign and you might just want to keep on looking.


5. Does it work (is it grounded in reality?) 

This is particularly hard to ascertain as a newbie. How can you tell if a martial art would actually work in a real situation? Backflips and spinning kicks look great, but are likely to get you killed in a real confrontation. Also, I have never met a martial arts instructor of any worth who claimed to be able to just use “energy” against an attacker. Do some research on the difference between martial arts and practical self-defence. There is a huge difference between studying traditional disciplines, sparring with a partner and fighting in competitions compared to applying what you learn against a knife wielding lunatic who wants your wallet in a dark alleyway. (Hint-give them the wallet). Be aware that violent confrontation rarely has a pre-determined outcome. Martial arts give you options, not guaranteed solutions, and remember; in real life no-one, including your teacher, is invincible.


6. Does the teacher keep a tight rein on their Mini-Boss?

Every martial arts class has a mini-boss. They’re the person who’s recently been awarded their black belt and who, after the demonstration by the teacher is over, immediately sidles-up to newcomers and attempts to re-teach it to them incorrectly. Most Mini-Bosses mean well, and a good one will be carefully supervised by the teacher. A bad one will be utterly unaware that you and the rest of the class dread being paired up with them, as you are forced to stand politely by whilst they wrestle with techniques they clearly don’t understand yet. The best worst Mini-Bosses will be unintentionally hilarious, and struggle with basic posture, identifying left and right, mumble to themselves incoherently as they mentally replay scenarios in their head, and claim the technique isn’t working because you’re not grabbing them/hitting them properly, or falling over correctly. If you think your class doesn’t have a Mini-Boss - you’re it!


7. Does your teacher demand to be addresses as an “11th Degree Grand Energy Ninja Death Master”, or refer to themselves in the third person?

Make sure the teacher is actually sane. This sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised at just how far-out some people involved in martial arts are. Eccentricity is a great thing, but check they have their feet, or at least a few toes, firmly planted on the ground. A friend of mine’s teacher actually committed Hara-kiri, tragic but true! I knew of one guy who genuinely believed his Bruce Lee poster fell off his wall every time he smoked. I’ve seen another teacher actually trying to levitate one of their students (it didn’t work). What is the teacher’s temperament like, do they go bat-shit crazy if someone accidently brushes past them, does the slightest problem in life cause them to have a total nervous breakdown? Do they run their class like a sinister cult making unreasonable demands on their students in terms of money, attending courses and inflating their own egos? In turn, are their students able to demonstrate any skill, or understanding? Do they respect their teacher, blindly idolise them, or worse, fear them?


8. Do they claim to have mastered a suspiciously large amount of styles, have they invented an entirely new style, or offer a black-belt correspondence course online?

Learning martial arts to a high level requires commitment to a single style. This is because they work on varying and sometimes entirely contradictory physical and mental principles which can cause confusion when studied in combination. Whilst it’s certainly possible to gain experience in lots of styles, or practice mixed martial arts, it’s definitely not possible to master them all or gain instructor grades in more than a few (at the absolute maximum) over a very long period of time (think decades rather than years). Yes, a good teacher will usually have some knowledge of other subjects, but rarely will they teach more than two or three at a push, particularly if they are unrelated. If your teacher claims to have 19 black-belts and intimate knowledge of all 36 chambers of Shaolin, be suspicious. If they are claiming to have founded their own style then be extremely suspicious. This represents the absolute pinnacle of martial arts achievement reserved for the greatest masters of antiquity. If Kung Fu Dave’s Sensei down the road turns out to be offering Karatefudo which he learnt from the Official World Federation of Ninja Energy Masters™ on YouTube, then exercise extreme caution.


9. Is it safe?

There is an obvious element of risk involved in learning to fight. Different martial arts have varying ideas of acceptable levels of contact. This ranges from light co-operative partner work, to an opponent actually trying to knock you out. Make sure you are aware of the levels of risk and what is acceptable to the class you are in. This also applies to conditioning exercises. If you are serious about wanting to be able to break bricks with your bare hands, then it may affect your piano playing. That said, if you want to learn to fight, sooner or later you will get hit. However, if you and the other students are staggering out of every lesson bleeding with broken bones then something is not right. The object of sparring and applications isn’t to hurt the other person. A good teacher gauges the appropriate level of pressure/challenge that their students can deal with. The risk of practicing martial arts ranges from entirely safe and suitable for all, to things that should only ever be attempted under the tutelage of a genuine master. Do not allow Kung Fu Dave to show you his “Monkey Steals the Coconut” technique after a few pints.


 10. Will studying this martial art be rewarding, practical, interesting, will it benefit your life?

Learning martial arts takes perseverance, hard work and sacrifice, as everyone will relentlessly tell you, including me. That said, if it’s a completely miserable experience, the teacher is an arrogant negative tosser, or unable to actually demonstrate the abilities, skills and virtues they are claiming to teach, regardless of their paper qualifications or how amazing their style is, my advice is to keep looking. Great teachers are certainly out there, but for every Mr Myagi, there’s a Mr Bean. Don’t be disheartened if your initial experience isn’t the soft-focused power montage you’d hoped for. Very few people find their ideal class or teacher on their first attempt. Keep looking and explore different styles and classes before you commit to years of study in a single discipline. Try out new things, be safe, be sceptical, be polite, be prepared to meet the good the bad and the ugly, and learn how to tell the difference.

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Pete Elliott
 Pete Elliott says:

Superb advise!

posted 28th February 2016

d cheung
 d cheung says:

Great Insights ! Many are subtle but very valid points

posted 28th March 2021

d cheung
 d cheung says:

May I ask what is Name of the Book of your Photo of a Lady demonstrating with a Hanged Up Suit ?

posted 28th March 2021

Toby Howden
 Toby Howden says:

Hi d cheung, thank you for your kind comments. The picture is from The Art of Ju-Jutsu by Robert Llchello (1961).

posted 29th March 2021

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