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Training While Teaching: Do's and Don'ts for Martial Arts Instructors

mentor Aug 30, 2019

Guest Blog by Andries Pruim


While everyone enjoys participating in a class taught by a wonderful instructor (sensei), we also sometimes wonder how the sensei manages to train him or herself. Clearly the majority of their martial arts involvement now comes from their time in class. But how do they continue to train and improve, or even practice, when they are constantly moving around the class correcting and assisting their students?



This has always been the sensei’s dilemma. How should he or she obtain their required training/practice, while ensuring the progress of their students?

There are many opinions on whether instructors should be “training while teaching.” We can all agree that during class, most of the instructor’s focus should be on the students who are paying to be there. Any debate stems from differences in opinion of just how much that focus needs to remain on students, and how much it can be devoted to personal training.

Clearly, there will be a difference in the amount of personal training an instructor can work in depending on the class. A sensei teaching karate to five-years-olds will get very little; while a BJJ professor teaching black belt-level class will get more.. Such obvious exceptions aside, should you find yourself wondering, “How much time can I spend training in the classes I teach?” here are some general Do’s and Don’ts. This list is not comprehensive to any extent; still, it does reflect what is considered acceptable in today’s customer-focused business environment.


DO NOT equate “I have staff” with “I have training time.”

If you operate a large, professionally run school with many full-time teachers, then the answer for the sensei should be easy, which is NOT to train while teaching a class. Depending on the level of your instructors, and what their long-term ambitions regarding teaching are, it may be appropriate for you to let them take the lead occasionally while you train alongside your students – keeping in mind the fact that you are still the primary individual in charge, and therefore will have to supervise as you train. However –

DO NOT turn the reins over to your junior instructors too often, or too much.  

Imagine what the parents of your students would think if, every time they came in, they found the head instructor training alongside paying students, while lower-level instructors lead the class? If you are running a full-time school and your income is dependent on the number of satisfied students (or satisfied parents) you have enrolled, then they deserved your undivided attention and your own training should be done before or after the scheduled classes. Your school is a business and must operate as one, which means ensuring the “product” or “service” (your classes) maintains a professional air and constantly has the customer (your students) in mind. They are not there to watch you work up a sweat while the rest of the class tries to keep up.


DO emphasize student service.

Fortunately, for the most part (especially when mortgage or rent is due), martial arts school owners immediately snap back to a mindset of customer service over their own desires to maintain the sharpness of their youth. The professional sensei must still balance not only their personal training, which we all know is a lifetime endeavor, but they must also lead or supervise, on average, about 25 to 30 separate classes a week. Not to mention taking care of the business side of the operation, which again usually takes up the remaining of the sensei’s available hours.

If, again, you have a large staff, the solution is self-evident. You can set up hours before or after classes, or on non-class days, for instructors to train with yourself and each other. You could even extend this invitation to advanced students, with the explicit understanding that they will be there to train alongside you, not under you.

Having the benefit of backup instructors also provides another training option. It is perfectly reasonable for you to tell your students that you will be gone for a weekend or even full week to train at a seminar or other event, leaving your junior instructors in charge. They are still getting their money’s worth, because you will come back freshly inspired and with new skills to teach!


DO use training with students as a way to teach them.

So far, we have discussed large, multi-instructor, fully staffed schools as examples. The reality is that today there are many part-time operations who do not have that privilege. These schools must rely on dedicated professionals who have just finished an 8-hour work day and are now providing personal time in order to teach those who are interested in an art the sensei has dedicated a good portion of his or her to.

Very few, if any, of these dedicated instructors get (enough) remuneration for their efforts. They make enough to cover all overhead, and hopefully pay for a school party or two. They come from their full-time jobs and are willing to take the time to pass on an art form very dear to them.

In these cases, it makes much more sense for the sensei to participate in the training. This is partially because it is their best (and perhaps only) chance to train, and partially for the benefit of the students. Training with the sensei is often the best way to learn. If this school owner has no secondary instructors, he or she may rotate through training a technique with several different students, then allow them to work with less-experienced partners, rather than try to explain the technique again and again verbally to the whole class.


DO NOT neglect your own training at the cost of your students, or vice-versa.

There is a delicate balance: A sensei who does not regularly train and grow his or her own martial arts schools is of limited use to their students. But a sensei who treats class as their personal training ground is also inadequate. And either way, the demands of the students are still there. All teachers wish to ensure that their students are progressing satisfactorily, yet time constraints of life require that they use some of the class to continue their own training requirements. It is the perfection of this delicate balance which ultimately determines the success of these part-time schools.


DO ask for help when you need it!

It is a unique experience when you can train under an Instructor who can properly balance their own training requirements while teaching an amazing and informative class. Unfortunately, this is not always the case and is a major reason why a number of schools fail, especially when the school is supposed to be a “business”. This is why there are organizations like MAIA and its related groups where overwhelmed Instructors can get support. In other words, Do NOT try to do everything on your own. There is a community of help out there ready to assist.


If you are a student, DO be understanding of your sensei’s situation!

If you are training in a school run by someone who has martial arts as their full-time business, and has the resources to train outside of teaching, then you can expect their full instructional attention. On the other hand, if you are attending the myriad of small community center-based or single-man operations, you must provide your sensei some leeway in their teaching and training habits. While it is best to have the sensei walk around and watch your performance, it is also very inspirational to watch the sensei training alongside you. This also gives you something to aspire to.

We all love to “show off” our talents in class, but a sensei does not have that indulgence. He or she must demonstrate humility and respect for the students, whether training with or alongside them. Even so, there are myriad opportunities for the sensei to participate in class. They must show the business skill of being engaged while still maintaining a leadership persona.



There is one instance where these rules must be set aside. That is when a Senior Shihan or Master Instructor is teaching class. These authentic masters have, on average, practiced their art for well over 40 years. The wear and tear of all that training has taken its physical toll on them. These instructors have a vast repository of knowledge, but not the flexibility, stamina, or physical abilities of their youth, and may also be suffering from injuries. You should not expect these individuals to do hands-on training with you, perhaps in any capacity. However, if you have such a Master come teach as a guest instructor at your school, you will train alongside your students.

As you can see, there is a fine balance between providing for your students and providing for your martial art. So, summarizing some of the most relevant Do’s & Don’ts, which should ensure the success of your business:

Do Not

  • Train in the class if you are a full-time instructor in a professionally run school.
  • Allow assistance instructors to use their time teaching to show off.
  • Take your senior students for granted and use them to allow you to have a personal training session (during regular classes – again, you can make exceptions during non-regular-hours training)
  • Try to do everything by yourself!


  • Emphasize customer service by ensuring some personal attention to every student.
  • Run your business as a business and get professional assistance when necessary.
  • Take the opportunity to train alongside your students if a guest Senior Instructor is conducting class.
  • Inspire your students by working out beside them when repeatedly demonstrating skills.



The dedicated individuals who choose to make martial arts their life’s journey must be admired for their dedication to their students and their arts. Those who have large schools and work there full-time and those who have other jobs and allocate their free time to sharing their art must be held in equal respect.

A sensei does so much more than lead a class of technical applications. They inspire, they support, they motivate at the exact time you most need it. An innocuous smile and a slight nod to assure you that you are on the right path can be exactly what you need to turn a frustrating day around.

If your sensei is all this and more, and especially if your class is their only training opportunity, or you have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to train with a Senior Master, allow your sensei to keep their art sharp by joining your training. This not only gives you the chance to train with an experienced practitioner, but allows him or her to continue on their own path as well. Remember, a sensei’s goal is to light your way in martial arts – allow them to continue to grow and lead, and you’ll both have the best experience.

Remember, in a few years, you too may take up the mantle of “sensei!” So enjoy your journey of martial arts growth as you watch your sensei enjoy theirs.


Andries Pruim is a 6th-degree black belt in Shotokan karate with over 45 years experience training in his home country Canada as well as in Japan. A former martial arts school owner, Pruim has 38 years of corporate financial and business management experience. He is a Certified Financial Planner, and continues to renew his CFP designation and update his financial knowledge and skills. In the martial arts world, he is currently a Senior Instructor at two karate schools in Langley, British Colombia, Canada. 

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