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Finding a great instructor is, indeed, the quickest route to proficiency. That can't be emphasized enough. In martial arts, there's no shortage of instructors. But they can't all be good, can they? Some will be better than others. How can you tell?

First, let me relay a personal story. I started training in Tai Chi back in college. There was a young man who was a grad student there who taught a class on Wu style Tai Chi. He was from China and had been training in Tai Chi for all of about 18 months before coming to the U.S. and becoming an instructor. He was honest and up front about his lack of knowledge and experience. He just wanted a group of others to practice the form with.

I trained for a year or so doing Wu style Tai Chi. After that, I graduated college and moved to another city where I trained in Yang style Tai Chi under an instructor who was well known in the martial arts community and who everyone said was an authority on the subject. He had a lot of students, some of whom had been training there for 20 years. I trained under him for over a year and thought myself pretty good, or at least on the right track.

Then I moved to Austin where I found a guy teaching Chen style Tai Chi in a small group of just 2 or 3 students that met in a park for free. He was a direct student of one of the grandmasters of Chen style Tai Chi (Chen Qingzhou). And he had been training for about 4 years at that point. I didn't know what to think of him at first. But I kept an open mind.

In his first 30 minutes with me, that Chen style Tai Chi guy taught me more about Tai Chi than I had learned from any of my other instructors for the previous 2+ years I had been training in Tai Chi. I thought I knew the basics of Tai Chi and had a pretty good grasp of how it worked prior to this experience. I read a lot, too. And what I read confirmed to me that I had been thinking about it correctly. But that Chen style Tai Chi guy showed me that I didn't even have the most basic things understood.

What he showed me was simple. I could feel it. There was no complex theory or mumbo jumbo about chi and energy and rooting and blah blah blah. His demonstration not only made me feel his technique but also gave me the technique as well, within the first 10 minutes. I was able to do what he was doing. There was no magical "chi" kinds of things going on. It was mechanical.

Now, I wasn't anywhere near being an expert at it after that first lesson, but it was infinitely more than what I learned in my previous Tai Chi training. I could have been training at those places for 20 years and still wouldn't have known more than what I learned from this new instructor in the first day.

So, the point is, you need to find yourself a good instructor if you don't want to waste your time. And, it's not easy to know who's decent and who isn't.

I stumbled upon a decent instructor. I got lucky. If I had asked around and asked who is the best at this, who has been here teaching the longest, who has the most students, etc., I wouldn't have found that guy. I would have found a teacher who was probably not very good at all but had managed to sell everyone on the idea that he was the best.

So how do you know who to go with? Well, the only way you can figure out who really knows their stuff and can teach it is by meeting them and taking a class or two from them. After each one, ask yourself if you learned something the other teachers didn't teach you. Sometimes you hit the jackpot. And with those instructors, you keep going to their classes.

It helps also if you know what sort of things you're looking for from the martial art you're taking. Like in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, if you're looking for a group that concentrates heavily in the self-defense aspects of the style first and foremost, you're going to be more impressed if you find a teacher who can show you very quickly how it can be used for that. They're coming out right away showing you what you want. You won't be an expert at it after that first lesson, but you should walk away from that class knowing the simple mechanics of the technique and how to use it. From day one, what you're learning is directly applicable to the thing you want to learn. That's a good indication that you've chosen a good instructor.

You may also run into a lot of "bait and switch" types of schools. They advertise teaching multiple different martial arts, so you think that's really cool and join. But you quickly learn that it really only teaches one martial art. Like the school I joined as a kid said it taught Taekwondo, Karate, and Aikido. But it only taught Taekwondo with the occasional (once or twice a year) classes that discussed wrist grabs and throws, presumably from white belt level Aikido. I joined specifically for the Aikido, because I couldn't find an Aikido school near me. So that was a bit of a let-down, but I did like its Taekwondo classes and stayed for that.

Looking at other students is another way of determining how good an instructor is. If the quality of their black belt students is poor, then that will basically be what you look like after getting a black belt there. If you're wanting to lose weight and get fit, yet you see a high percentage of black belts who are out of shape, then maybe that's not the right place for you.

Many instructors will list their own awards and achievements. It can give you a false impression that they're actually better than they are. Try not to be influenced by this. It's very deceptive. For example, we had a multiple degree black belt BJJ instructor in town who listed himself as a Brazilian national champion, but it turned out his division only had one other competitor, and he won on a technicality, or maybe a tie (I forget). Also, a lot of awards and honors given to martial artists are essentially bought by them, by making contributions to whatever the organization is that's awarding them. So it's best not to allow yourself to be too influenced by these.

Lineage is another thing you can look at. In BJJ, for example, you'll want to trace their lineage back to one of the Gracie family members. Especially determine who awarded that instructor their black belt. There are fakes out there. Some award themselves their own black belt in their own style that they just made up. That's especially popular in Taekwondo. There are thousands of Taekwondo 9th and 10th degree "grandmasters". They all appointed themselves as grandmaster of their own branch of Taekwondo. So ask them which organization awarded them their black belts, what rank they were awarded by the organizations, and what titles they were given. You can weed out a lot of frauds that way.

Training directly under the grandmaster in any martial art is theoretically ideal. That's their martial art. They're the highest authority. And generally speaking, they can teach it better than anyone else. But most people can't train directly under a grandmaster for a lot of reasons. They may already have too many students and can't take you as a new student, for example. The grandmasters tend to not teach beginners, too, so you'll end up training from one of his junior instructors. The further you are removed from the grandmaster, the more likely you won't be taught as well.

Lastly, as a beginner you probably won't know much about what kind of technique is good technique. So you might train at a place that just seems decent to you at the time. And after you've spent a good amount of time there (2, 3, 4 years), you should go look at other schools again. Now that you aren't a beginner anymore, you can more appreciate what you see. Not only that, you will have had enough training that you begin to know what you really want from martial arts. And when you find a place that really clicks with you, switch. Be loyal to your journey in life, not necessarily to your instructor.

Hope that helps.

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