Building an Effective Instructor Team

Every dojo has a Chief Instructor, but to scale a martial arts academy, it is necessary to build a team of instructors.  We wanted to take the opportunity to share our approach to this challenge. Different dojos have different priorities, circumstances, and areas of focus. Our approach has been carefully designed to align with our strategy, so it won’t be a great fit for all dojos. We do however, hope this overview provides a platform for discussion and reflection for those who teach the martial arts. 

Personal Training

1. Build a Disciplined Organizational Structure

For an aikido dojo, we have a relatively large number of students and a mandate to lead each of them to reach their highest potential. We also operate multiple off-site programs and have a number of special projects underway at any given time.  We can’t make this happen with a casual approach to instruction and student development.

We need to be able to deploy our instructional resources effectively and precisely. All our instructors must be capable, professional, and reliable. We don’t strive to achieve a consensus on all matters (and it wouldn’t be healthy if we did), but we know we can trust and depend on each other.

We also lead our instructors toward specialization. Encouraging specialization allows us to build deep skill and knowledge across a range of areas. And with a disciplined, coordinated team, we can then deploy those specialized skills to best serve our students.

2. Invest in Instructor Development

Heinz Instructor Training

Matsuoka Sensei leading an instructor development session for Heinz Yu.

Quality of instruction is the most significant driver in student development. Our team of instructors are able to clearly communicate concepts, smoothly guide students through movement progressions, understand how to structure classes to maximize student development, and have the experience to know how to minimize training risk. These skills are imperative in order to make a clear positive impact on student development.

We require our instructors to have the highest levels of technical, instructional, and leadership skills. In exchange for their willingness to develop themselves in this capacity, we commit to invest in their growth. Here’s what we do:

  • Instructor Development Program: We continuously cycle our instructors through two-month training programs with Matsuoka Sensei. Sessions are limited to two instructors (plus Matsuoka Sensei and Josh) and are designed to give each instructor the opportunity to get in-depth direct instruction from Matsuoka Sensei. Instructors are exposed to new challenges and have the opportunity to target specialized skill development.
  • Instructor Workshops: We host instructor-only workshops targeted specifically towards development of skills relevant to teaching. Examples include a private Q&A session with Stan Pranin Sensei (founder of Aikido Journal) and a hip anatomy and body maintenance workshop led by a seasoned yoga instructor and physical therapist. We structure these workshops to provide our instructors with knowledge that allow them to more effectively support student development at the dojo.
  • Outside Learning Programs: To further support specialization, we’ve begun making an increased effort to create outside learning opportunities for our instructors. We recently funded Nastia’s attendance of an all-day intensive workshop at the Inosanto Academy that covered perspectives on women’s self-defense from specialists in Kickboxing, Brazilian Jiujitsu, Karate, Kali, and other arts. In response to Thilo’s fascination with the karambit, a Southeast Asian blade, Mark Cheng has agreed to work one-on-one with him and train him in karambit basics.

3. Develop Consistency with Unique Expression

We want our team of instructors to embody and teach a consistent set of fundamentals. However, we also want them to communicate and transfer those fundamentals in their own unique ways.  Aikido practitioners have different body types, psychological profiles, learning styles, and life experiences. The same principle can be transmitted in many different ways and some resonate better than others for a given individual. For every student, the path of personal development as a martial artist presents its own unique challenges. We need to provide unique methods to face and overcome those challenges.

Josh Gold using a physics based explanation to teach an advanced ukemi movement (dynamic feather fall). No gi top is worn to allow students to see detailed upper body mechanics.

Josh Gold using a physics based explanation to teach an advanced ukemi movement (dynamic feather fall). No gi top is worn to allow students to see detailed upper body mechanics.

4. Enable Efficient Communication

One individual can maintain conceptual integrity and consistency easily, but it becomes increasingly difficult to do so across teams. Efficient communication is the foundation for enabling this. Just like we learn to align and coordinate our bodies to generate effective movement, we seek to align and coordinate our team members to transmit Sensei’s experience and insights across a common curriculum. Here are some of the things we do to enable this:

  • Digital Communications: The entire team communicates efficiently through a variety of digital communication channels. Injury reports, new student orientation reports, concerns with students, and scheduling changes are all handled consistently and efficiently this way.
  • Instructor Meetings: Josh leads quarterly instructor meetings with the team. We discuss new dojo projects and programs and talk a great deal about the students and how we can best support them. We’ll sometimes brainstorm on how we can work together to support a specific student through a critical phase in their development as a martial artist. There are always structured agendas and the meetings always conclude with a set of clear actionable goals. Matsuoka Sensei doesn’t attend these sessions, but Josh briefs him afterwards and gets his guidance on any challenges the team couldn’t solve.
  • Class Attendance: Our instructors freely take each other’s classes regardless of rank hierarchy. For example, Josh (4th dan) will sometimes join Nastia’s (2nd dan) Saturday class as a student. This kind of approach allows us to see other instructors’ teaching styles, get new ideas, and check to make sure technical instruction is consistent. It also gives us the opportunity to enjoy training in different formats as each instructor has a unique style of class.
Josh Gold (4th dan) taking class from Jason Ramsay (1st dan).

Josh Gold (4th dan) taking class from Jason Ramsay (2nd dan).

  • Technical Reviews: Staring this quarter, we will begin testing out the utilization of in-depth technical review sessions. We’ll pick one technique, deconstruct it, talk about its strengths and weaknesses, ways we can improve, share successful (and unsuccessful) teaching methodologies and training progressions, and discuss training risks associated with the technique.

We hope this overview provides some insight into how we think about instruction and student development at Ikazuchi Dojo. We also hope it serves as a catalyst for reflection and dialogue around alternative solutions and strategies for developing high-performing instructor teams at dojos in our extended community.

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There are 3 comments

  1. Michael Partie

    Thank you for so generously and openly sharing your process of instructor development. I trained in aikido for fourteen years, and am now training and teaching hapkido (although I will always be in love with aikido, no matter my current pursuits).

    The elements of instructor development you describe make perfect sense. At a certain point in training, teaching others offers the opportunity to consolidate understanding and to shine a sometimes unforgiving light on issues we were otherwise blind to, but novice teachers are often left to their own devices to discover how to teach effectively. This is a disservice to them and to the dojo membership in general.

    As our students become chodanbo (dan candidates), they begin to take on teaching duties. In addition to the physical techniques and written tests, they must teach on an assigned topic and on a topic of particular interest to them. Before yidan (nidan), they must teach a series of classes on techniques with which they personally struggle. They receive structured feedback from students and instructors on content and format, and effectiveness of communication, but I believe we would benefit from formalizing our instructor development in a more organized and thoughtful way. You’ve given me much to think about and much to share with our team.

    Thank you for making membership of your virtual dojo available to us at such a reasonable cost. I look forward to following your progress.

    1. Josh Gold


      Good to hear from you. Thank you for joining the discussion with such a well written and insightful comment.

      It’s great to hear about your process. Lots of good stuff there. It gives us much to think about as well. If you’re open to sharing, we’d love to see samples of the written tests you give your chodanbo and learn more about the questions asked in your feedback from students and instructors. We’re really curious to see how you’ve structured those elements and are delighted to hear from a fellow dojo that’s also been focusing in this area.

      1. Michael Partie

        On our test there are a number of items related to applied self-defense. We try to contextualize as much of our training as we can. Hapkido, like aikido, is a martial art and much of the art isn’t necessarily “practical.” A lot of technique is theoretical, cultural, an artifact of history (e.g. attacks like munetsuki from a front stance that mimic or mime the thrust of a spear), or represent a martial aesthetic. But even if it is martial art, it should still be plausible; it should still “work.”

        Even in straight martial arts practice, we insist that once uke comes within two arms’ length from tori, tori’s hands should be up in a non-aggressive manner. This gets reinforced every few months in what we call Hapkido Application Laboratory (HAL), where we run through a set of structured self defense simulations, seeing what techniques or strategies are useful using real behavior. Our senior students receive role player training in order to be able to systematically increase or decrease intensity in response to less-experienced students performance in the task. Simulations run the spectrum from unpleasant or uncomfortable verbal encounters with aggressive panhandlers and confrontations over parking spaces to someone emotionally dysregulated becoming physically belligerent in line at a convenience store. Boundary setting and de-escalation strategies are taught and practiced as much as physical self-protection. We try to draw a distinction between martial art and self defense, while valuing both.

        Attendance at HAL workshops is a requirement for rank promotion.

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