We could address the question above by attempting to define what we consider a martial arts master, but that is a rabbit hole into which I am not prepared to climb.
Instead, let’s ask a simpler question. What do you call your head instructor or person leading the class?
In some cases, it might be an upper-level student who has several years of training under his belt (literally) and knows the basics well enough to teach them. In other cases, it might be someone with decades of experience in the art and many years of teaching it. There is a fundamental difference in training experience and teaching, but we will save that for another post.
Usually, these individuals are assigned a title. In Kung Fu, it might be Shifu or Sifu. In Karate and Judo, they are generally called Sensei. In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, we see the title of Professor bestowed on those who have reached black belt and teach regularly.
These labels typically represent a person’s knowledge of the art and his or her ability to share that knowledge with others. They denote a sense of separation from the student. That’s not a bad thing, but it can also create a weird dynamic in a gym or dojo.
Sometimes there is a real, almost tangible feeling in some martial arts studios that the head instructor, by any title, is un-reachable or elevated above anyone else in the room. That feeling may stem from the person’s accolades in the art and star appeal. Or it may arise from a more toxic place, such as egotism or narcissism.
The toxicity of dojo leadership is one reason why I prefer the simple designation of Coach. It doesn’t seem to carry any hyper-inflated pretenses. Plus, my first experience teaching on a mat was working with my high school wrestling team for several years as a community coach. There wasn’t any fluffed-up idea of who I was then because the young wrestlers could outpace me and sometimes get the better of me on any given day.
Even today, I have considerably more experience, but can have a hard time with the eager young blue belt or wily purple. It’s a reminder that I still need to practice and hone my craft. As to taking your lumps, I remember UFC fighter Cole Miller once saying, “Anyone can get it.” That’s true any time we step on the mat.
When we get a new title, whether it’s at work or in the gym, we should wear it with pride, but not let it warp our sense of self. We aren’t a title, and a title doesn’t make you invincible or infallible.
Good leadership begins with humility. Whatever your title, stay humble and stay hungry. Not for the next level, but to show your students and those just below you that there is always room for improvement.
Photo is of Joshua Clements and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Grandmaster, Relson Gracie, in 2014.
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7 thoughts on “What is a Martial Arts Master Called?”
I still believe the title is important. Showing proper respect is part of the discipline that makes one a better person.
I agree 100%. And there are plenty of instructors and masters who deserve the respect. There are also plenty who embody the idea of always being a student no matter their accomplishments.
Wow! You certainly hit the head of the nail with precision here.
Thank you. It’s something I’ve been mulling over for a bit.
Good. It’s very important to consider what our roles are in life and to improve upon them as we learn and grow through change.
This is a really a really good post. I my opinion there is no such thing as a martial arts master. It is bad translation of sensei or sifu, probably got from the translation of bad martial art films. I know Sensei is a word which can mean teacher, doctor, lawyer or any other job in Japanese. Generally Sensei, Sifu, Professor etc are terms of respect towards a teacher which the teacher needs to replicate back towards their students. Any martial arts teacher that calls themselves master is a red flag and it is a good idea to avoid their dojo.
I agree that anyone calling himself a ‘master’ should be avoided. I am also leary of folks who have high ranks at young ages and can’t fight sleep. I also agree that respect toward a teacher must be reciprocated back to the students. As a coach, I am nothing without my students. As a student, I am nothing without those who have poured into my cup.