What Makes a Good Martial Arts Instructor?

Article by Kelina Cowell

During a recent Facebook conversation that I had with my friend Vanessa, a Krav Maga student in Belgium, she asked me some questions that I have been asked many times before. What makes a good instructor? Are there any warning signs that you have walked into a bad club? So I decided to write an article to answer these questions.

Firstly let’s have a look at the first one…

What makes a good instructor?

It is not enough that an instructor is talented. You need to be skilled at martial arts to be a good teacher, but you also need the passion to pass that knowledge on. It is my belief that a great instructor is one who not only is good at what he/she does but who also produces high quality students. Look at GuroDan Inosanto for example. I haven’t trained with him myself but my Filipino Dirty Boxing (Panantukan) instructor Guro Daniel Sullivan is a lifelong student of his. I have also talked to many other students of Guro Dan over the years, they all tell me how talented he is. So the first box is ticked. But what about his students? Are they high quality? Dog Brothers, Cass Magda, Burton Richardson, Bob Breen, Ron Balicki, Diana Inosanto, Daniel Sullivan, Erik Paulson…need I go on?

The point being that if the instructor is not pushing his/her students to a high level of performance, then the instructor should be asking themselves why they are teaching in the first place. Have you lost your teaching mojo, or do you simply not care about your students?

martial arts teacher instructor quote

Now on to the second question…

Are there any warning signs that you have walked into a bad club?

A toxic environment in a martial arts school can sometimes be hard to recognize, especially if you are new. At the beginning you will probably see or hear some things that are warning signs of a toxic environment but you rationalize them away. After all, you are new, want to create a good impression and already idolize this instructor from watching their videos on youtube or reading about them in magazines. This fellow human being is more than human to you – he/she is divine.

Training in martial arts shouldn’t be about inflating your instructor’s ego and feeding their overwhelming need for power and respect. Ask yourself – is your instructor truly helping you with your development or are you just another sheep in his/her flock of adoring fans?

Blind conformity seems to be the root of much anguish and regret in this world. Many wars and conflicts have been fought because people placed their blind trust in national leaders. Slavery, Nazism, racism, sexism, religious extremism, homophobia, cultism, organized crime, abusive relationships, workplace bullying and other forms of oppressive social institutions have always thrived on blind conformity. The Martial Arts industry is no different.

Here are a few warning signs of a toxic martial arts club:

Does your instructor or fellow students tell you their school is the best and all other schools are teaching BS? (Even though your instructor has been studying and teaching martial arts probably half the many years as other, more well known and more well respected instructors in the industry).

Unless this instructor has trained with every other instructor around, then how can he/she possibly claim to be the best and everyone else is teaching BS? As for the students, well of course they are going to say their instructor is the best. They probably tried a few schools before choosing that particular instructor. But what I need to point out here is that they chose the best instructor for THEM. That therefore doesn’t automatically mean that all the other schools are teaching BS, it simply means the others were not what that particular person was looking for.

There is too much negativity in the martial arts and it all boils down to ego and fear. “Our style is better than their style”…”Our martial art is the best martial art for self defense”…it’s all marketing. I think every martial arts style uses “The best style of self defense” or words to that effect on their promotional materials. So who is right? The simple answer is – whichever is right for YOU.

Look at a selection of restaurants in your town. They all claim to serve the most delicious and tasty food. Your friends and family will claim to know which is the best. But which one really is the best? – The one that YOU like of course. Would you really choose to regularly eat at a restaurant that your friend rates as the best, even though you dislike the food? Of course not. This same logic should be applied to martial arts schools. Don’t follow the herd – train at the school you like and is right for you.

Does your instructor tell you that you can’t train with other instructors?

NO-ONE has the right to tell you what you can and can’t train, and who you can and can’t train with. This is YOUR martial arts journey – not your instructor’s. The only person that should be controlling your training is YOU. Why do they do this? Because 1. He/She is scared you will discover what they are teaching isn’t that magical after all…Club ABC down the road teaches exactly the same thing or maybe even better shock horror! 2. You might learn something they don’t know.

Are you ALLOWED to ask questions? Does your instructor get angry or irritated if you ask too many?

martial arts ego
You have the right to ask your instructor questions. This is your training, which YOU are paying for. You are there to learn and grow. This requires asking questions and developing your understanding – just like any educational environment. If your instructor is getting hostile in response to your questions, they are probably worried you are going to ask questions they don’t know the answer to. After all, they are a “Master” and therefore need their students to blindly believe they have all the answers.

Are you in a safe training environment, or does your instructor and fellow students just want to fight?

I have come across many schools that are less about learning and more about seeing who is the hardest person in the class. A decent martial arts school shouldn’t resemble the movie “Fight Club”. I have spoken to many people over the years that have left their schools with broken bones and various serious injuries. Whilst I agree that you should be sparring and learning how to take a hit (and sometimes injuries do happen), your instructor or partner using you as a personal punching bag is a step too far.

This is not martial arts training – this is just a bunch of egocentric macho bullies with something to prove – and usually on the beginners.

I hope you found this article helpful. Have you had any negative experiences at martial arts schools? If so please share your experiences.

Krav Maga London Kelina Cowell

Kelina Cowell is the leading female Krav Maga Instructor in the UK and the only female Filipino Panantukan Instructor in Europe. Founder of the Apolaki Krav Maga & Dirty boxing Academy, the first and only full time Krav Maga school in London.

Daughter of a 2-9 British Army Commando, CQC and Firearms Instructor, Kelina Cowell grew up on a military base in Dortmund, Germany. Inspired by training with her father from an early age, she continued her combative journey into Muay Thai in her teens. After sustaining injuries at 16 and unable to continue with Muay Thai she moved onto Krav Maga (gaining full instructor rank in 2011), Submission Wrestling, Filipino Martial Arts and Pencak Silat.

Kelina is currently training under Master Shamim Haque in the Filipino Martial Art of Kalis Illustrisimo, Malaysian Silat under Paduka Guru Glenn Lobo, Filipino Panantukan under Guro Daniel Sullivan and Boxing at KO Muay Thai Gym.

She searches for the truth in personal protection, simply keeping what can really work on the street and the discarding the “Hollywood” techniques that don’t. She and her team teach Apolaki Krav Maga and Apolaki Dirty Boxing (Filipino Panantukan) in London, South Wales, Peterborough and Scotland.


She can be reached directly at her school: Apolaki Krav Maga & Dirty Boxing Academy KO Gym, Arch 186 Bancroft Road, London E1 4ET

Or via phone or email: 020 3695 0991 | apolakicombat@gmail.com
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4 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Martial Arts Instructor?

  1. Hi Kelina,

    Thanks for this article; it’s great! I trained at a “bad” school for my first few years; in fact it sounds like you could have visited it, as your description is so accurate LOL

    I’d like to give you a view from the other side, which is to explain how it’s possible for an ordinary person to get “sucked in” to such a toxic environment and stay a while – although this is of course only based on my own experiences.

    Firstly, there was an unsafe and bullying atmosphere, just as you describe. Being physically hurt and screamed at were normal. However, I totally accepted my instructor’s articulate rationale: that you need to become desensitised to the physiological and psychological stresses of real assault. Otherwise, you will freeze and be unable to defend yourself. So although I was often frightened, and often ended up tears in class; I absolutely believe that I was following a good training route which would make me a very strong person.

    Now that I’m older and wiser 🙂 I understand more about psycho-chemical stress conditioning – and would still agree with my former instructor that it’s essential for martial arts training, to avoid getting a false sense of security. But I also now understand that it needs to be built up over time, and managed carefully, with the welfare of the student at the heart of such training – not done randomly, or as you say, come from just the instructor’s ego, and their enjoyment of bullying others.

    Secondly, just as you describe, my sensei was very hostile to all other clubs, and said that they didn’t teach “real” martial arts that would actually work. The other students all echoed this. And so rather than seeing this as a bad point, I felt pleased that I was learning something so hard and effective. I guess that the two points fed each other – i.e. the stressful, bullying atmosphere added to the sense that we were learning a “real” martial art.

    So I hope that goes some way to explain how a new student might get drawn into a toxic club such as the ones you describe; perhaps because they lack the experience to judge it effectively.

    best wishes


    1. Hello Kai,

      Thank you for reading my article an taking the time to comment.

      Stress training is very important but as an instructor there is a way to include this in your classes without being a bully! There is a major difference between “tough love” and just being an a-hole to feed your own insecurities.

      I’m glad you are not training with this instructor anymore and I wish you all the best.


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