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Martial Arts Instructors: The Case for Universal Education

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.

Listen or Read but please comment and share.

By John Graden

I started teaching professionally as a 16-year old blue belt in 1976. After earning my black belt in 1978, I was hired by Walt Bone to be a staff instructor for $5 per class. I was thrilled. For the next four years, I was “mini-me” to Mr. Bone. I learned to teach by watching him, so I picked up the best and the worst of his teaching methods and mannerisms. 

Most of that time was spent teaching college students at St. Petersburg Junior College. It was a great gig for me because I was the same age as the students. I had dropped out of high school a couple of years earlier to teach karate because I figured,  “Who needs school when you already know what you want to do with your life?” I literally dropped out of high school to teach college.

As many of you can relate to, there are three issues in that narrative. 

1. I learned how to teach martial arts by imitating. Walt Bone learned from Allen Steen and Mike Anderson, who learned from Jhoon Rhee. None of whom had any formal education in teaching. Martial arts teaching styles are one part imitation. Two parts personality, and ego.

2. I was the same age as the students I was teaching. That was an ego fulfilled experience. Especially since half the class was female. I was big man on campus without guidance. 

3. I dropped out of school to teach karate and it had no effect on my employment by the school. Not only did I not have to complete high school to teach karate professionally, it just meant that I was now free to teach day classes.

In 1982, Walt Bone died in a plane crash and I was on my own (Who Killed Walt Bone?) The fact that I was the same age as my college students presented some issues. Mainly, because the college required a written curriculum, text books, and official grades that could have serious impact on a student academic career. Like Bone, I had no formal educational program. We pretty much taught what we felt like teaching each day.

Contrast that with the story of an elementary or high school teacher or coach in your area. Their story would be something like, “After graduating high school, I attended college and got my masters in education which qualified me for my job as English teacher at City High School.” Are you starting to get an idea where I’m going with this?

As martial artists, there is no-prerequisite to open a school and become an instructor. You can come out of college with an MBA or you can come out of prison and open a school. Internally, we have a universal agreement that you should at least be a black belt. That’s it. That’s the sole qualification and since there is no real standard for earning a black belt, it’s fair to say there are no standards for performance or education in the martial arts.

To be clear, I am ANTI-REGULATION, but strongly pro-education. That’s why I created the ACMA in the 1990s which has been upgraded to the MATA Instructor Certification Program. I’m especially proud that the new program is available at no charge thanks to the generosity and support of Sports Fitness Insurance Corp (SFIC). Visit them at SFIC supports martial arts instructors, so be sure to support them.

We need a standard language and understanding of how to teach as professionals to replace the “blind leading the blind” patterns of the past.

The MATA Instructor Certification Program accomplishes that with curricula based upon universally recognized and accepted methods of influence, safety, teaching, and leadership. This program was created by me but the majority of the content is written by veteran martial artists who are also experts in the fields of child psychology, sports medicine, motivation, teaching and other subjects most martial artists have never been properly educated in.

To be clear, this program is not a power play. I’m not looking to be the Grand Poohbah of the martial arts world. I never have. I just want to leave the martial arts a little better than it was when I started all those many years ago. I am by nature a teacher, not a Poohbah.

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