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 developing a team of instructors. 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.

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 in development at any given time. We can’t make this happen with a casual approach.

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 body maintenance workshop led by a seasoned yoga instructor and physical therapist. We structure these workshops to provide our instructors with knowledge that allows 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 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 Communciations: 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. We are looking into setting up Slack for the team.
  • 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 anything 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 Jason’s (1st dan) Saturday class as a student. This kind of approach allows us to see other instructors’ teaching styles and see how students respond. It also gives us the opportunity to enjoy training in different formats.
Josh Gold (4th dan) taking class from Jason Ramsay (1st dan).
Josh Gold (4th dan) taking class from Jason Ramsay (1st 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.
  • Videos: One of the objectives of our new streaming video platform is to allow instructors to have access to as much up-to-date information as possible. We’ve begun integrating videos showing our most current thinking and our best teaching approaches for development of techniques, movement skills, and mindset. As an additional benefit, all of our students and outside aikido practitioners can access the same content directly.

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.


This article is being co-published with the kind permission of Josh Gold Sensei of the Ikazuchi Dojo. The original article appears here.

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