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Instructor Progression

I’m currently embarking on my next adventure in Japan. Over the next next few months I’m going to be traveling. Competing and teaching seminars.

There’s a lot that goes into getting to this point and today I’m going to break down the progression that one might take to make this a career or not.

Being a full-time instructor is often not a straight path. In fact, many of the instructors that I know started in other fields. But then made their way to teaching Jiu Jitsu.

I’ve seen that as Jiu Jitsu has gotten more popular. The younger generation is looking towards this lifestyle as their future career.

Many a blue belt has told me that their dream is to have their own school one day.

They usually have no business experience and very little life experience and they want to do this for the rest of their life?

I’m not going to deter anyone from following their dreams.

But I’m also not going to sugar coat this topic.

Teaching Jiu Jitsu is a rewarding and often life changing path. But it’s not the easiest nor most stable path, especially in the beginning.

Many of the guys that own academies often run it as a side business or a hobby.

That means they might not be making any money off their academy or just breaking even.

Of course there are exceptions out there. The world champion instructors making mid – high six figures, have state of the art facilities, and drive around in Porsches.

Or the academies where the owner already has a lot of money and can pour an unlimited amount of resources into their school. Bringing in world class competitors to teach a class here and there, and whatever else they can dream of.

Does this sound like any academies that you know of?

Maybe, but they are very few in number.

If you decide to walk down this path. I applaud you.

Not only because of all the good that you could potentially do but because you will receive a lot of push back.

The people around you might not understand your decision.

Family and friends will tell you to get a normal, stable job.

Coworkers and bosses will think that you’re crazy.

I’ve been doing this for years and I still hear this from my grandparents.

But I wouldn’t change a thing.

Again, if you do decide to walk this path. I want you to be able to make an informed decision.

A lot of this stuff I had to figure out on my own through trial and error.

Of course I had mentors.

Really good ones.

But I still made a lot of mistakes and had to learn from those mistakes.

Mentors can only guide you. You still have to take action and work towards your goal.

I have a post I’m working on for those of you looking to become full-time competitors, but for now I’m going to focus more on the teaching side of the martial arts industry and lessons that I’ve learned the hard way so you won’t have to.


A lot of guys get there start apprenticing or volunteering to help their academies kids program. The major difference between apprentices and volunteers being that the apprentice will often get paid or get their academy tuition covered. While volunteers still pay dues and are not paid.

It’s been a while but most competitive schools will pay between $25-$40 per class at this level. A few times a week.

While this money is pretty good. You have other things to work on.

At this stage your focus should be on learning.

Don’t worry, no one expects you to be a good instructor yet.

You should observe the class instructor and follow his/her lead.

Observe how they interact with students, and how they deal different situations.

For example, a good friend of mine was covering a class for one of the instructors recently. While showing the technique to the class one of the students very rudely asked the instructor why he had to do whatever move he was showing. It made quite a scene.

I kept this example vague for a reason but my point is that being a professional instructor, you will often be put in uncomfortable interactions. These interactions can affect everything from how your students see you to future clients deciding to join your academy over your competitors.

I won’t lie to you, it’s not easy and you will make a lot, and I mean a lot, of mistakes. When I first started teaching kids BJJ as a newly minted seven-teen year old blue belt. I will never forget how bad I was. I didn’t have any formal teaching skills. I didn’t come off as an authority figure. I was pretty shy. Despite my shortcomings I tried my best everyday, taking all the feedback that I received from the other instructors and worked to improve little by little.

Skills to develop: Learn to be observant, listen to instruction, basic teaching fundamentals, learn how to take constructive criticism.

Full Fledged Instructor

Once you’re a full fledged instructor and have proven your teaching ability, you will have a lot more freedom than you had as a volunteer or an apprentice. Freedom to choose your own lesson plan or if your school has a structured instructor program, freedom to add your unique take on those techniques.

At this stage you should have a good understanding of the class dynamic. When you are instructing not only are you in charge of the flow of the class but you’re also responsible for teaching all the techniques that you are suppose to cover.

Time management is key! Especially for academies with classes one right after the other. Spending too much time on a technique or losing track of time during training could potentially set back all of your other classes.

Clients love when their classes start and end on time. If you do tend to go over the class time, don’t be afraid to communicate the fact. Let the clients that have to leave go without a fuss. But if you tend to show up late to your classes then you have to stop that immediately. Especially in the U.S. and most of Europe.

Learning how to communicate will also be important at this stage. Learn how to communicate with students not just about technique but about their progress. The more detail the better. So if you are able to break down moves into very detailed steps. Not only will your students learn more effectively but they will also have better recall later.

As an instructor, when I am helping a student. No matter what technique they are doing. I like to focus on one thing that they are doing really well.

From here I am able to communicate to them that I’m invested in helping them.

Now since they are more open to me. I like to make any corrections/hints that I think will improve their technique.

Then when they perform their technique again. With the added corrections of course. I like to complement their improvement.

This isn’t some secret technique.

There is no script that I’m following when I do this.

Just a genuine want to help my students get better. The students can feel this too.

At this stage, instructors at competitive academies might still be getting paid on a per class/hourly basis. This range could be any where from $40-$100 depending on the location and size of the academy. As well as the belt level of the instructor. Black belts tend to get paid higher than lower belts.

Skills to Develop: Understanding the class dynamic, becoming an authority figure, communication skills, time management

Head Instructor

Being the head instructor for a martial arts academy is something that I have heard a lot of people talk about. Usually they will say that their dream is to own and operate their own school but very few actually take the leap of faith.

The head instructor can be the owner of the academy or an employee. Usually when a full fledged instructor reaches a certain level of skill and notoriety do they reach this stage. Being a head instructor comes with even more responsibility than the previous levels. Especially when it comes to designing the lesson plan, motivating students, and the overall feel of the academy.

The head instructor is the heart of the gym. Whatever your approach on training, competing, self defense, etc will set the tone for the rest of your school and influence all of your students. For example, if the head instructor is big into competing. It is more likely that the students will be exposed to competitions early on and want to compete.

Being a head instructor is more than just having the technical know how and showing techniques.

This is the image that a lot of people have. The instructor rolls in to class five minutes before it starts. Shows two or three techniques. Rolls for a bit and then makes bank haha.

But there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes.

Deciding what techniques will benefit your students.

Figuring out how to motivate students when they begin falling off or get injured.

Structuring the beginner classes. What techniques should they learn. When should they be able to progress to more advance classes.

Should you add another nogi class to boost attendance on a slow day.

These are all off the top of my head. But these are common situations that a head instructor will have to face. All while trying to balance different personalities, skill levels, motivational levels, etc.

Outside of the technical aspects of teaching. The head instructor will also have to be able to manage other instructors as well as the students.

For students this could include designing the schedule, contacting students when they miss a few classes, designing the curriculum and all the testing requirements and graduation details.

For instructors this could include payment for classes, which instructors gets a salary versus those that are paid hourly, implementing curriculums, performing belt test, setting up seminars.

The list goes on and on. But I hope you see that this is a very involved process.

This is where that communication skill will really come in handy. Teaching students is one thing, but interacting with students on an interpersonal level and developing other instructors takes time and experience.

I’ve seen many high level instructors miss this step in that they are able to convey techniques really well but they never develop relationships with their students.

They become close to the select few that they see have “potential”. As the head instructor you will have to be available to all students.

Everyone from new prospects to even those really crazy students that every academy has.

I personally suggest a minimum of 10 years of training and teaching before you even consider becoming the head instructor of an academy. Even more time if you have plans of competing or traveling.

Head instructors can be paid per class but most have a salary at more established academies. There’s a lot that goes on to figuring out how much an instructor’s salary will be. It’s very dependent on what the academy can sustain based on the number of clients. As well as the skill and level of the instructor.

I’ve personally seen that the salary for an average black instructors starting out is around $2000 per month or $24,000 per year for a moderate to highly successful academy.

Of course, instructors with more tournament success and fame will have more room in negotiating their salaries. Along with other benefits like housing cost, transportation, tournaments costs, etc.

World champions can expect to make 2 to 4 times as much as the average black belt.

If the head instructor is also the owner then there really is no cap on how much they can make.

Skills to develop: Ability to teach at all experience levels, school wide programming, focus of the academy, providing motivation, student progression

Association Head

I haven’t seen a lot of people write about what happens after becoming a head instructor. Luckily, I trained at the headquarters of one of the top teams in the world. So I have seen first hand the ins and outs of running an association and now I’m going to share the details with you.

After you have been the head instructor for a successful school for many years (5 plus years at least). Have reached a rank where you can graduate students to the level of black belt, then you have reached the association stage.

If you have run your school well and have graduated enough students to black belt. It is only natural that a small percent of those students would have some interest in starting their own schools. Hopefully they went through all of the previous steps that I listed.

If so, and you have managed to maintain a good relationship with those students. Then many of them will want to join your association out of loyalty for all the work that you put into them.

In the martial arts, especially in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, lineage is something that we really care about. If you travel a lot and train, one of the first questions after what belt rank you hold is who is your instructor. Students take pride in their instructors and if they have the choice, would rather promote your association over a less personal big name association.

Organization will be key here.

This includes deciding who will be eligible to join your associations and any other requirements including things such as school size, revenue, location, etc.

For instance a common requirement for the larger associations is that the affiliate schools have to wear and sell only the official associations gi and accessory items.

I will probably go further in depth on associations in future posts but for now you should get a sense of the different levels that are possible for someone should they choose to make Jiu Jitsu their full-time career.

There is no limit on how much the head of an association can make. Some of the larger associations have 100 plus affiliate schools.

With many affiliate schools paying upwards of a few thousand dollars per year to be a part of a particular association.

Imagine 100 academies paying you $1000 every year. For an indefinite amount of time.

That’s a lot of revenue!

Who says you can’t make money in Jiu Jitsu?

Skills to develop: Organization, branding, leadership, marketing

Being a competitor is one thing but the world of teaching Jiu Jitsu for a living is a whole other animal.

There are lots of world champions that can’t teach and there are a lot of really great instructors that have never stepped foot on to the competition mat.

The best thing that you can do now is get as much experience as you can.

And keep learning!

I’ve been teaching Jiu Jitsu since I was seventeen and I swear I learn something new everyday.

Of course you learn from other instructors but you can also learn from your students as well.

Listen to your students questions. Don’t just blow them off or if you don’t know the answer don’t be afraid.

Sometimes when I’m teaching, a student might ask me about a situation or technique that I don’t know a lot about. That’s when I will use my experience and my pre-existing knowledge to work out a solution along with the student.

One concept that I took away from studying mathematics is that multiple brains are a lot better at solving complex problems than just one.

This same concept applies in Jiu Jitsu. Working alongside your student(s) to figure out a new position is one of the best aspects of Jiu Jitsu.

This is how you will improve as an instructor.

Getting Started

The best time to start is now. If there is an opportunity for you to volunteer or apprentice I say you should take it.

Use that opportunity to see if teaching Jiu Jitsu is really right for you.

Being a good instructor is more than just having the technical skill. You will be interacting with students everyday and those students will come in every shape and size.

I really think that patience is what differentiates the good instructors from the very best.

Patience in showing the techniques.

Patience when students stumble through the technique.

And patience with those students as they continue to progress. No matter how fast or slow that may be.

Once you develop patience, the rest wil come.

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