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Martial Arts Instructors Shocking Response To Student’s Injury

by | Instructor Certification and Training

Setting Expectations for Martial Arts Students Upfront

Authority is highly influenced by emotion.

While your staff and students may intellectually understand that you are the boss and master instructor, they have to feel it, not think it.

It’s the emotional connection that anchors your authority on a deep level.

If there is one powerful moment in your role as a professional martial arts instructor, it’s in the enrollment conference.

While the parents may see you as the master black belt, they usually don’t have an authoritative reverence at this early stage.

The enrollment conference is a seminal moment for you to establish your authority and gain the respect and gratitude of the family you’re dealing with.

Presenting the programs and their cost to parents can be tense at times. Some parents want to negotiate. Others might object to the agreement. Some want a safety net in case their child wants to quit.

While it’s important that you are prepared to overcome any objections, it’s when the bottom line is signed and the initial investment is completed that you have a critical window to demonstrate your authority.

Many owners complete the transaction and gush with statements like, “Awesome. It’s great to have you on board. Johnny, you did an awesome job tonight. High five! Thanks Mrs. Jones it’s great to have Johnny as part of our family. Let me know if I can help with anything.”


Who has the role of authority here? Mrs. Jones and her credit card. That was a missed opportunity.

Let’s try again. You would adjust this script to the age and circumstance, but here is an authority template for the enrollment conference.

Mom has just enrolled Johnny into the program.

You, “Johnny. You want to learn Empower Kickboxing, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good. I want you to understand that your mom just enrolled you into a six month program. You are going to learn a lot of great skills and lessons. It’s going to be fun and sometimes it’s going to be hard. That’s the good part because that means you’re learning. So you have to pay attention and practice at home 20-minutes a day when you don’t have class.

Are you going to work hard and practice?”

“Yes sir.”

“I’m glad. Your classes are Monday and Wednesday at 5pm. When are your classes?”

“Monday and Wednesday at 5pm.”

“Good. You’re a smart guy. That means that you have to be ready to come to class by 4:30 on Monday and Wednesdays so that you’re not late. Will you do that?”

“Yes sir.”

“No matter what you are doing, you will be ready by 4:30, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good. The first lesson is integrity. Integrity means that you do what you say you are going to do. You keep your promises. You promise to work hard and be ready for class, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“No matter what you’re doing. Right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Great. We’re going to be so proud of you. Your mom just enrolled you, so please turn to her and say, ‘Thank you mom.”

“Thank you mom.”

“Alright. When someone does something good for you, you always say thank you. That’s called gratitude. What’s it called?”


“Correct. So you’ve learned two important lessons today. Integrity and gratitude. What does integrity mean?

“Keeping your promises.”

“Yes. What does gratitude mean?”

“Saying thank you.”

“You got it! You are going to do great, I can tell already.”

“Remember, your class is…”

“Monday and Wednesday at 5pm.”

“When will you be ready to come to class?”


“You have a good head on your shoulders Johnny. You’re going to be good at this.”

“Because you’ve showed your mom gratitude and you’re going to keep your promises, here is a school t-shirt for you to wear. Every time you put it on, I want you to think of integrity and gratitude. Will you do that?”

“Yes sir.”

“I just gave you a shirt. How do you show gratitude?”

“Thank you sir.”

As taught in the MATA Certification program, it’s also a good idea to let mom know that it’s important that she control what Johnny is doing around 4:30 which is the agreed upon to be ready for class.

If Johnny is playing with his friends or deep in a video game, it’s going to be harder to get him to get ready than if he is cleaning his bedroom or something he’d like to leave to go to class.

Keep in mind that mom is watching this happen before her eyes. What have you done to establish your authority?

  1. You’ve provided her with a language pattern that both her and Johnny understand. This is huge.
  2. You’ve given mom the “integrity” framework to deal with any reluctance to go to class.
  3. You’ve provided her with a strategy to engage Johnny in less fun activities so that going to class is an easy decision.
  4. You’ve laid out when Johnny should get ready for class without complaint.
  5. Before her eyes, you taught her son important lessons with real world examples. No doubt, your authority sky-rocketed in her eyes and in her heart.

Look for places where you can make these kinds of strong emotional connections.

Demonstrate true authority and leadership. That will last much longer than a trite, shallow compliments like “Awesome! Good job.”

This will help your students to understand how and why they are training with the best school.

One of the things I’m most proud of with MATA is how students and staff reach out to us for help on a variety of topics.

Last week, we were contacted by an adult student who was injured by another student. The injured student’s attempt to engage the manager in a follow-up conversation about the incident was resisted, and when the student complained about this treatment, she was expelled from the school.

The student has incurred medical expenses, expulsion from the school, and emotional and psychological distress leading to life-threatening serious consequences.

Below is the story from the student. I’ve edited portions in order to protect the identity of those involved. Following the story is an expert liability analysis of what happened from Sports & Fitness Insurance Corp. (SFIC) National Director, Jennifer Urmston.

We recognize that we do not have the instructor’s side of the story. Our goal is not to mediate for the student, but to use this to educate instructors. Most instructors would probably deny the student’s version, but that becomes just another part of the story because your word against a student’s word is an expensive, uphill battle to win without proof.

Stories like this are why the MATA Certification Program includes:

Module 19: How to Teach Self-Defense Safely

Module 21: How to Avoid Negligence and Liability

Module 25: The Proper Use of Injury Waivers

Clearly, this story describes actions that do not follow the MATA Certification Curriculum.


The Story

Dear Mr. Graden,

I have been through a devastating experience with my former martial arts school. As a gold belt last summer, I was in an evening grappling class and paired with a student who had verbally bullied me in a previous class in front of the chief instructor. I was not comfortable with her, but I did not complain.

The instructor gave us a grappling drill and left the floor. As we ran through the drill, my partner sat heavily on my ribcage, dislocating one of the ribs from my spine. The pain grew over the next four hours until it was debilitating. I went to an urgent care center the next morning and was diagnosed later by an orthopedist and chiropractor.

During my recovery, the instructor checked in with me via email. However, there was no word about how the accident would be documented, how such an incident might be avoided in the future, or if anyone had spoken to the student who had injured me.

I had to insist on a meeting with all the concerned parties. In this meeting, I explained how I had been worried about the lack of attention to the incident. The manager dismissed my concerns and ended the meeting before anyone else could chime in. There were no questions asked or other perspectives encouraged. Everyone seemed afraid to speak honestly and openly. I left feeling confused and discouraged.

Frustrated by this situation, I posted about it on my social media feed (not using names of course). Sharing with others outside the school helped me finally accept the fact that I was not going to get the kind of communication I’d hoped for in the school. So I scaled back my expectations while focusing on recovery.

However, within a couple of weeks, I received the dreadful news that a close family member had died. After many days of intense grieving, I needed community and healthy activity again. So I went to the school to tell them that I was ready to return to classes. They asked me into the office, where I sat in the same chair I had sat in when I first came to the school, gazing up at an image on the wall of Bodhisattva Kwan Yin, goddess of compassion.

The manager brandished a printout of my social media post and accused me of libel. I was told that no apology would suffice, meaning, I inferred, that I had to be punished. I was also criticized on personal grounds for having family problems (PTSD from childhood abuse). I was told I would never be allowed to return to classes. I told the manager that the school was all I had — it was my community and my life — and pleaded for a probationary period. She refused.

A lifelong athlete, I had been drawn from competitive endurance sports to martial arts and had found it to be a beautiful, powerful, and fun experience. It was deeply healing to the sense of powerlessness I had experienced as an abused child.

I had embraced the art as a mental, physical and spiritual discipline, and as a lifestyle. I was a devoted student, donating much of my spare time to participate in demos and to help promote the school. I had been friendly and helpful to everyone there. And I had enjoyed a sense of belonging that I had not known before.

When they expelled me right after the loss of a close family member, they took away the social support and structure that I had come to depend on. The distress of the situation piggybacked on my PTSD to overwhelm my coping mechanisms. I had a nervous breakdown. For weeks on end, I fought overpowering urges to harm myself until it became necessary to leave my home and my children for a month to get help at a residential trauma treatment center.

I am still piecing my life back together. I don’t blame the school for my situation, but I often wonder why the resorted unnecessarily to such harsh measures.

There didn’t seem to be any established processes and policies in place for injuries, conflicts, disciplinary actions, etc.  Their official code of conduct consisted of a general assertion that students were expected to behave honorably, to participate in all demos and to show respectful deference to the chief instructor. I’d seen numerous and frequent violations of all of these guidelines, with no reprimands or harsh consequences whatsoever. So there are no answers.

The incidents at the school are in the past, and I am making my peace with that. Still, I sometimes struggle to reconcile the teacher I so admired with the choices made around this incident.

And though I have grown tremendously through this challenge personally and spiritually, PTSD makes the recovery a slow process. With PTSD, you cannot simply decide to “get over” something … traumatic experiences remain like shrapnel deep in the limbic system and can be reawakened by new experiences… these have to be processed on many levels and in many ways until they are integrated into different areas of the brain for safe storage as empowering narratives of deep compassion.  

Being heard, understood, respected and accepted is essential to this process. So I thank you for reading my story.

It saddens me that my sincere attempts to communicate around this difficult situation were met with fear and rejection. Every time I drive past the mall where the school is housed, I feel a pang of pain and sadness. I wish there were some way that I could make them understand how much the school would thrive if they would only embrace open communication and learn some basic principles of conflict resolution… if they only knew how much of a difference they could make…

Is there anything like… A standard conflict resolution guideline? A guideline for working with students recovering from trauma? A communications ethics audit process? An advocacy program? A forum or venue for an article that can help raise awareness?

Is there any way for me to use my voice in this situation to make a positive difference?

Read the responses from Mr. John Graden and SFIC’s Jennifer Urmston.


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