Amateur, Retailer, Professional? Rediscovering the Classic Martial Arts Teacher


“Between the amateur and the professional … there is a difference not only in degree but in kind. The skillful man is, within the function of his skill, a different integration, a different nervous and muscular and psychological organization…. A tennis player or a watchmaker or an airplane pilot is an automatism but he is also criticism and wisdom.”

Bernard De Voto, Across the Wide Missouri


Law. Medicine. Engineering. We expect much from those who practice what are termed professions. Society has long been aware that certain occupations have consequences too significant, and/or processes too subjective or arcane, to be safely or properly evaluated by any but another practitioner. Thus, these activities are entrusted only to those with a true calling to their field and the recognition of their peers.


Furthermore, no matter how skilled or well meaning, we are all only human. Security comes from the knowledge that individuals who provide us "professional" services answer to a high authority than themselves.


Because it concerns matters of violence and peace; because it effects both reasoning and emotion; and because people respond to its influence on such an elemental level, the teaching of the martial arts demands such professional status as well. Properly taught, education in martial philosophy can be a singularly powerful tool for personal, and possibly even societal, advancement.


The marginal effectiveness of amateur and commercial martial arts instructors has, mostly, prevented any significant harm, but has also precluded really legitimate advances in the field. Professionalism in the field does exist awaiting only its moment to arrive.


My conclusion: The professional perspective is the legitimate paradigm for martial arts instruction, and individuals who qualify as such professionals can, and must, be recognized as uniquely suited to practice teaching such arts.


Historical Perspective

Sensei. Many say it simply means ‘honorable teacher’, but like so many Japanese words, it defies basic translation and actually implies much more. Traditional martial arts teachers are descendant from two distinct personalities: the professional warrior and the Zen monk.


This seems fitting when one considers that the martial arts themselves have historically had a foot in each camp. The Warrior side of the teacher is, to say the least, unsettling. Beyond knowledge and ability, they have a lethal air about them. Chivalrous, to be sure, yet exuding a quiet menace that leaves little doubt as to their ability, if not total willingness, to enable students in the deadly arts.


The Monk, however, is the Yin to that Yang, and makes for extremely interesting characters. Teachers constantly berate, harass, cajole, confound, and confuse their students. They are also generous, caring, supportive, nurturing, and loyal. They are ‘tough love’ personified – one’s best friend, worst enemy, brother or sister, mother or father, and in some respects, viewed as ‘judge, jury, and executioner’. Traditional students turn to them with all sorts of personal matters. It’s not unheard of for such teachers to have found jobs or even arrange marriages for their students.


In the end, it must be said that sensei is an ‘earned’ title. One needs to earn the right to be called by it; to use it in reference to someone else; or even to hear it used. It is never so much a title as it is an extremely deep and unique relationship. Professional instructors are the inheritors of this tradition.



As with other professions, the intrinsic power dynamics of the martial arts create an opportunity for abuse. Professional instructors draw from, and adhere to, the high and noble ideals found in the codes of honorable professions.

  • Maintains the highest standards of personal character and behavior.

  • Maintains the highest standards of professional conduct, ability, and knowledge.

  • Protects the reputation and integrity of the student, dojo, art, and profession.

  • Seeks out and teaches only the truth.

  • Acts always for the ultimate benefit of the student.

  • Never allows harm or abuse of a student in any manner.

  • Never violates or undermines the professional teacher/student relationship.

  • Respects all students equally and without prejudice or discrimination.



Personal ranking, in and of itself, is not indicative of teaching ability. There are two paths student training may follow. Personal training is the most familiar one which results, over time, in the awarding of various degrees of Black Belt.


The other lesser known path is taken when a student goes beyond what is immediately relevant to himself to learn the entire body of knowledge pertaining to an art for the purpose of instructing others. Traditionally, only such individuals are acknowledged as teachers. Professional instructors are specifically trained as teachers of their art.



It is not required that teachers be the best of all performers. It is, however, necessary that they be technically competent to demonstrate technique and lead their students by example. Professional instructors, unless incapacitated, remain active practitioners.



Professional instructors remain active students. They must constantly seek to expand both knowledge and understanding through practice and research. In this, they should also have a teachers of their own as it is an impossible rarity for someone to reach a level where none can teach them.


Emotional and Spiritual

Professional instructors are a product of their art. They must, in addressing all situations, exemplify their martial philosophies both as a resource for wisdom and by personal embodiment of that character.



It is apparent that these demands necessitate a high level of personal commitment. Amateurs, by definition, have little to bind them to standards of practice. Properly learning the martial arts is not an easy task even on the most elementary level. A great deal of dedication, perseverance, and patience is required to assist others in attaining their goals.


Those who have been profoundly effected by their experience can often be expected to best demonstrate such qualities. Professional instructors are motivated out of a pure sense of mission: To enable others to benefit through the practice of their art.



It is a common misconception that true martial arts teachers must be disdainful of remuneration. In order to attract and hold the highest caliber of people, it is appropriate to support the view of this field as a legitimate occupation. Furthermore, with the exception of religious service, the very practice of fee setting has proven directly correlated to an increase in the client’s regard toward professional services.


That attitude, in turn, promotes the effectiveness of the service, and ultimately, the likelihood of resultant client benefit. However, in such matters of commerce, a distinction must be made between professionalism and commercialism. Just as the freewheeling methods and inducements of the retailer may ultimately undermine the integrity of instruction, the overriding demands of professionalism will sustain and develop it.



© 2001 Salvatore T. Musco. All Rights Reserved.