There is a public perception that black belts are expert martial artists and thus, you ought to only learn from a black belt when you sign up with a dojo. But is this expectation correct?
Are only black belts allowed to teach martial arts?
No, anyone can actually teach martial arts not only the black belts. Apart from the fact that many martial arts don’t even have a belt system, there is almost no legal standards for martial arts teachers. Anyone can open a dojo or a school.
Let’s take a deeper look at martial arts teaching and what part a black belt might serve when you are learning martial arts.
The Legal Perspective On Who Can Teach Martial Arts
This may come as a surprise to you but there is no legal framework for people to open a martial arts dojo in the United States and in much of the rest of the world. What this means in practice is that anyone, no matter what their experience, can open a dojo and sell martial arts lessons.
There is nothing to stop them from claiming that they teach a specific discipline even if their education in that discipline came from YouTube rather than an instructor. There is also nothing to stop them from inventing their own discipline and teaching that.
What this means from a learner’s perspective is that there is very little standardization in the martial arts teaching industry. Some teachers are incredible, and others may be so bad that their lessons are actually dangerous to their students.
So, the big question then becomes, “How can a student decide whether or not their martial arts teachers are legitimate?”
What Belt Rankings Should Martial Arts Teachers Have? Can A Brown Belt Teach Karate?
In theory, when you start learning a martial art, anyone with more experience in that martial art ought to be able to teach you something about it.
In fact, it is very common for students in dojos to learn from each other when practicing. An orange belt might be giving feedback to a white belt to improve their technique, for example.
So, to answer a common question, “Can A Brown Belt Teach Karate?” The answer is, “yes”.
Assuming that the dojo is properly assessing its students before awarding belts, it can be very common for higher-ranked students to lead lessons of lower-ranked students.
The Value of A Belt Is Limited To The Dojo Walls
It’s worth remembering that a martial arts belt is simply an award given within a dojo. Out in the real world it has no transferable value. Black belts can and do get in fights with people with no training and lose those fights.
What a belt ought to offer is a reliable guide to when two students fight, within the same dojo, using the martial art they are studying, as to who will win between them. You would expect someone of a higher belt grade to reliably beat the person of a lower grade.
Therefore, it shouldn’t matter what belt ranking a teacher has as long as their belt ranking in that same discipline is higher than yours. We’d be surprised to see very low ranked students teaching lessons in most dojos but not because they lack the skills but because they might lack the self-confidence to do so.
What Qualifications Should Martial Arts Teachers Have?
By law, there is no need for a martial arts teacher to have any qualifications at all. Want to teach martial arts? Open a dojo, call yourself sensei, get students and wave your arms and legs about with glee. This is all that is needed under law.
That means as a martial arts student, you’ll need to do some careful checking when choosing a dojo. Make sure your instructor is not operating a situation like the one described above.
This is what we’d recommend that the senior instructors in a dojo ought to be able to offer:
- Expertise in their art. While you can learn from all belt colors, the leaders within a dojo ought to have black belts and ideally, dan rankings above the basic black belt. A black belt, in some sports, confers the status of “teacher” on the person with the belt but in many other martial arts this is not the case – a black belt then confirms that they have reached a certain standard of learning and nothing more.
- A martial arts teaching qualification. Being able to do something doesn’t necessarily mean you can teach it. In fact, many of the world’s best performers in any field couldn’t begin to explain how they achieve their performance. So, a committed instructor ought to seek ought the training that enables them to teach their discipline effectively.
- An academic qualification. It’s not essential for a martial arts instructor to have a degree but it does show that they have attained a certain standard of education and in some cases, such as physiology or education degrees, they may add value to the instructor’s teaching in the dojo.
- Experience of teaching in the past. One of the best ways to learn to teach is to work with another teacher as their assistant. Traditionally, once a student attained black belt, he would begin to work with the dojo’s sensei to develop his teaching practice. This doesn’t always happen in larger modern dojos.
Now, it’s fair to say that there’s no requirement for a dojo to advertise any of these things, so when you’re out choosing a place to train in – you ought to be asking questions about the instructors and their experience and qualifications.
If you find that the dojo is evasive about giving answers or the answers don’t ring true, you might want to think about finding somewhere else to train.
What About Non-Ranking Martial Arts?
Boxing, MMA, wrestling, Muay Thai, etc. don’t have grading systems so it’s harder to determine whether an instructor has real expertise or is just leading you on.
The best way to determine whether a non-ranked martial arts teacher is any good is to check out their tournament record (assuming that the art is a competitive one). Almost everyone in these sports will fight in local competitions – check out their track record before committing to their training.
You might also ask for references from past students who have gone on to do well in competition.
How Can You Tell If Your Dojo’s Teaching Is Good?
There are two strong indicators that a dojo’s teaching is good:
- They are affiliated with a reputable martial arts association. Google is your friend here. Find out what association they work with and then get online and do a little homework. You can quickly spot the real thing.
- They have experience of bringing results, at a competitive level, against students from other dojos. If the dojo’s work is good, then their black belts ought to be able to beat (though not all the time) black belts from other dojos in similar styles. This suggests that they are teaching to an industry standard rather than one they made up this morning. You may be able to find clips on YouTube or in your local newspaper regarding this. If not, ask for evidence from the dojo itself.
For all that there are no legal standards for operating a teaching school for martial arts there are many excellent governing bodies, which help dojos develop valuable standards and the proof is in the pudding – these standards lead to students that can effectively compete in their sports.
How Would You Become A Martial Arts Teacher?
To become a martial arts teacher, at least a good and ethical one, requires that you first gain prowess in the martial art that you wish to teach.
That means you’re going to want to spend time seeking out a reputable school and then work with them to achieve a decent standard.
You should also explain to the sensei that you would like, one day, to teach martial arts and ask them to help you gain experience teaching other people. You can, as we’ve already seen, start training people of a lower rank than you, immediately.
With the right guidance, by the time you achieve your black belt, you will also be a competent martial arts teacher.
Once you’ve reached a solid standard in your art, then it’s time to get a teaching qualification that demonstrates your commitment to be a good teacher. This will help broaden your teaching skillset and expose you to new ideas on how to teach.
You can then either find a job teaching in a dojo (and this is an excellent place to begin as the rest of the business related stuff will already be in place) or open your own dojo and begin instructing there.
Are only black belts allowed to teach martial arts? No, some martial arts don’t award belts and in others anyone of a higher belt rank than you ought to be able to help you learn. It is very common for non-black belts to take on some teaching responsibility in dojos.
However, you would expect a lead or senior instructor to have gained a black belt (if one is awarded in that sport) and if the sport doesn’t have a belt system, you’d expect them to have a proven track record in the ring, instead.