Does Real Life Experience Make For a Better Trainer?

Photo Credit: anja_johnson

If you seek training with an instructor, you will find that there are two main categories of professional trainers to choose from: some have military training and experience, and some don’t. For the purposes of this post I’m going to consider paramilitary police training and the like in the former category as well. Some people flock to those that have had military training, touting the “been there, done that” factor. Others don’t really seem to care. There are plenty of instructors in either category, but is one category definitively better than the other?

The Pros of military experience in an instructor

Military experience definitely does provide some benefits. Nothing validates your training and combatives methodologies like the two-way firing range. There is a lot of validity to saying that you have ‘done it for real’. Even older, potentially out-of-date experience can be an asset as trainers in this category have a bank of knowledge and experiences that can be applied as they consider new techniques and methods.

The military does spend a significant amount of money and time training its members, especially the elite special forces units. A trainer with experience from one of these units likely has a vast background of training, which adds to what they bring to the table.


On the other hand, just because a trainer is switched on, high-speed, low-drag doesn’t mean they were blessed with the ability to teach. Often times I have found that the best doers are not necessarily the best teachers. The instructor’s ability to teach is the most important asset when selecting an instructor. A good teacher can make challenging concepts easier to understand, which ultimately determines how much you learn from a class.

A lack of real world experience also doesn’t mean that an instructor isn’t knowledgeable. Instructors who lack time on the two-way firing range often have a diverse and also deep training background. Seeing a diverse set of training material can give an instructor good perspective not only on what works, but also a larger set of ‘options’. A good trainer should help you find what works best for you. Just because an instructor can do something one way, doesn’t mean that you can or should.

Unless you are training for the military, a military instructor might not be the best option. A background of amphibious assault and helicopter insertion tactics probably won’t be the best fit for me when I’m defending my home and family. Many aspects of military training just don’t align well with the realities you and I might face.

Ultimately, experience can help. The validity of pressure testing techniques in the real world is hard to match. At the same time, a good instructor could have learned their skills from someone who has had that experience and yet be a far better teacher. Sometimes it’s not the capabilities of the individual as a fighter or combatant that matters the most, but instead the ability of that individual to convey knowledge. You pay an instructor to teach you, not to fight on your behalf.

Military training and experience: does it help? Yes. Is it necessary for an instructor to be effective? No.

Does the instructor’s life experience matter to you?

Varied Instruction: Reducing the Toolbox

Photo by DrJimiGlide

When studying to defend yourself, there is a trade-off to be made between depth and breadth of skills. How much do you specialize in your skills, and how many different skills do you need to be sufficiently prepared? The answer lies somewhere in between the two extremes. You need enough depth to be proficient under pressure with the tools you choose to carry, yet you must also have skills to enable you to defend yourself in a variety of situations.

The real question is how much depth or breadth do you need instruction-wise?

There are a lot of great instructors out there with a lot of knowledge. Is training with a single instructor sufficient, or is there value to be had by training with a variety of instructors?

Unfortunately there is a lot more gray area here between seeking out and training with a single instructor, and training with them all.

When you start training, you have an obligation to yourself to seek out a solid variety of instructors. The goal in the beginning is to find an instructor who knows what he or she is talking about, but can also convey it in a manner that you can absorb.

There is also the matter of finding the material that is best adapted to you and your philosophies. I want to learn skills and techniques suited to my body type, and not all systems will suffice for that.

Once that first real instructor is found, do you continue to seek out other instructors and build that variety of learning experiences?

I think that ultimately depends on your goal. The problem with training with only one instructor is that no one has all the answers. The best gun guy isn’t likely to be the best knife guy, and he probably isn’t the best grappler either.

Training is your own journey and process where you collect what you have learned and take the best of each discipline or teacher and build your own system, much in the spirit of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do.

The reason to train with a variety of instructors is not because you can build up the size of your skills ‘toolbox’ by constantly adding more techniques. Actually it is quite the contrary. Take the things that work from each instructor, or better yet double your focus on the things that are overlapped by the instructors.

Like the old adage goes: “In the mind of the beginner there are many possibilities, in the mind of the master there are few”.

Multiple instructors ensure you get the best from each, and allow you to throw away the worst from each as well.

How varied is the instruction you seek out?

6 Questions to Ask Yourself When Looking For a Dojo

On Friday last week Caleb Giddings made an astute observation that even Krav Maga is heading the way of the McDojo. I would have to agree. No longer can you rely on the name of the system to indicate its validity. Unfortunately a lot of people are trying to make a living off this stuff, ultimately leading to a lowering of standards.

What’s worse is most people do not know what to look for when they are trying to find a school or instructor. It is often the flashy and unrealistic garbage that uninformed people are drawn to. Compounding the problem is the fact that there are more of these “McDojos” out there than there are good ones. So how do you actually go about finding a good instructor or school?

There are a number of factors that come in to play. Even a good school can be plagued by some of the bad traits. Choosing a dojo is a subjective decision… and I would definitely recommend looking around at multiple dojos before settling on one. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself when investigating a dojo.

Does the instructor have a day job?

Most of the great instructors I have come across in life have a day job. Their art is a passion that encompasses much of their spare time, but they do not teach for a living. When teaching for a living, it is not uncommon to lower standards in order to keep students in the dojo. Students are money, and when your income comes entirely from your class enrollment, you will do what you need to in order to keep the business going.

Very few instructors can manage to teach for a living. Most of those who do it successfully without compromising their standards live and teach in a very densely populated area and happen to have very little competition.

How often are people promoted?

In order to pay the bills, most instructors in McDojos will promote people often and for a pricey testing fee. The more ranks in the syllabus, the more money they can collect from you over time. Watch out for these fees and speedy promotion, they usually indicate that the dojo exists to make someone a living.

Do the students sweat in class?

Sweat is not bad, and does not indicate that you are looking at a pure fitness class.

Fighting is a physical activity!

When you watch a class, if the students aren’t breaking a sweat, it is time to move on. I have trained with some excellent instructors who love to talk (and their students love to listen), but with every single one of them I have broken a solid sweat. If you can spend a whole class standing around you are in the wrong place.

How long are the classes?

Dojos that exist purely to extract money from their customers often have very short classes. No matter how you slice it, 45 minutes is too short for an adult martial arts class. Look for at least one hour, but 1.5 – 2 hours is better. Does the instructor try to pack many short sessions into the schedule in order to get more people through the door? This is a sure sign that you should look elsewhere.

How much does it cost?

Even the best dojos shouldn’t charge you an arm and a leg. Prices tend to be higher in the city than the rural areas as costs are higher, but if you’re being charged 200 dollars a month, odds are you need to look somewhere else. Commercial schools often charge a lot in order to pay the bills and support an instructor who doesn’t have a day job.

Do they offer specials for an accelerated black belt program?

No one should guarantee you a black belt in any amount of time… ever. The coveted black belt is somthing that is earned, not bought. While putting your time in is a big part of it, no instructor with any sense of decency will promote someone to blackbelt just for paying their dues. If you find a school with these practices you need to keep looking.


Many of these things should be obvious, but I have seen many people completely miss these signs of a poor school. Shop around, do your research, and watch or take a class or two before you commit to anything. This is by no means a comprehensive list of what to avoid when looking for a good dojo. Do yourself the due diligence before selecting an instructor and throwing your money away.

What would you add to this list? Post a comment and tell us!

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