Martial Arts “Masters” – FACT or FANTASY? – Part 5

This post is also available in: Italian

A new section to this article: “Martial Arts ‘Masters’ – FACT or FANTASY?” will be posted every Thursday.  Please leave a comment giving your feedback, questions, and/or opinions. I look forward to the discussions.

Shihan Pascetta (White Gi, Anti-Club) Summer Training - Wildwood, NJ circa 1969



In the interest of fairness and realism we must also not assume that simply because an individual practitioner has opted to work full time as a Martial Arts instructor that this automatically legitimizes him/her as a legitimate “Master” teacher. If that were the case then any person who opted to open a full time business could erroneously call himself a “MA Master”. First we must look at how, when, where, and from whom he/she received his initial and original teaching credentials.

Did he, in fact, go through the entire process from beginner, to intermediate, to advanced level student, to Black Belt? Has he spent the appropriate time to gain the experience necessary at each subsequent level of Black Belt? Or, has he/she jumped ahead “skipping” levels for whatever rationalization? How long has this individual functioned on a part time basis and/or on a full time basis?

Is it possible for a Black Belt to “skip” a rank or move more quickly between some levels? The answer again is that anything is “possible”, however, without mitigating evidence to justify this type of advancement, it certainly places doubt on the credibility of that advancement.

What specific responsibilities beyond his own training has such an individual undertaken and with what level of success? What specific responsibilities has this individual taken beyond his teacher’s school, and/or beyond his own school (assuming he has one)? These are all legitimate questions when examining legitimacy and credibility.

It should be logical that the level of work and responsibility of running his own school or program is much greater than working for another Master. Continuing teaching at his Master’s school allows him to refine his teaching tools and skills before becoming more independent. Teaching at his own school forces him to make “command decisions” and work through even his mistakes. Both have advantages and disadvantages.

Therefore, it may be credible for a practitioner to achieve low level Master status by teaching part time in his own Master’s school. This, however, assumes: 1.) His teacher is a higher level Master supervising and directing his activities and assigning appropriate responsibilities beyond basic assisting with teaching; 2.) That a large part of his responsibilities include working with advanced student and helping them prepare for Black Belt.

It is even more credible for such an individual if he has the responsibility of his own program outside the original school or his own satellite school. An organizational system where the satellite program/school is still under the supervision and advice of the Master’s Master is likely the strongest and most credible model. One of the issues that have plagued the MA industry today is that so many Black Belts today attempt to be independent too soon.

It is certainly a more stable and credible practice if an instructor who opts and/or is authorized to operate his own school continues his training under his Master teacher. What is even more important is that he continues to be supervised and overseen by someone with greater experience as he continues his own development as a teacher. This not only insures his development but also helps to make certain that his students get the best instruction too, since the Master will make his share of errors. This is an ever and ongoing process.

A significant part of the process of moving to 5th and 6th Degree Black Belt is the responsibility of teaching, leading, and organizing the activities that create the opportunity for growth of lower level Black Belts. This likely involves much greater interaction outside that particular Master’s school. Another mistaken percept by Black Belts who have not be taught or informed accurately is that simply learning some more advanced kata, techniques, or passing time in grade repeating the same activities constitutes reason for further advancement to higher grades of Black Belt.

Of course, these are all important factors and it is expected that personal training and improvement of skills and knowledge should be lifelong. However, the 7th, 8th, and 9th Degree Black Belts are levels that require a much more involved level of activity with regard to administration, innovation, and a multitude of activities that expand beyond both that person’s own school and his own organization. These levels represent “teachers of teachers” (Professors or aspiring Professors).

Legitimate Evidence

Evidence of this is not simply that a person assumes the title of “Professor” on his business card or advertisement. Some clear evidence is: 1.) The number and quality of Black Belts he has produced and continues to help move toward Master status; 2.) The number and quality of Master level Black Belts he has produced, supervised, and mentored; 3.) The actual quality and performance of all of the previous.

Further evidence could presented in the form of be written materials produced by that Master. These would likely be on topics that represent his specialty, his chosen system, or other research and findings unique to his MA experiences. Obviously, such information could also be presented in an audio or video format.

Further evidence are organizational activities such as various seminars taught, competitions organized, special MA social activities (i.e., group training camps), participation in MA sport activity not only as an athlete but also as a coach, referee, organizer, or leader of other martial artists in any of these activities. This list is not meant to be all inclusive but to give some concrete examples of some of the experiences and responsibilities that any person in MA of higher ranking should have accomplished. It is also important to recognize that the quantity of each of these activities is also a factor.

Further, be aware that there is a distinct difference between someone who is a charismatic salesman of martial arts as contrasted with one who personally has consistently developed high level students over time. There is also a distinct difference between an “teacher” who has even excellent physical skills yet is not capable in duplicating such skills in his/her students.

There is also, however, a distinct difference between a “teacher” who may teach and motivate well but does not have nor does not undertake administrative responsibilities beyond his own front door. This may be acceptable for a low level “Master” teacher (4th Dan) but certainly not for the mid and higher level Black Belts.

All of these are factors necessary to add up as qualifications for a legitimate “Master”, especially mid and higher levels of Black Belt Masters. By “mid level Master” I am referring to 5th and 6th Dan. By “higher level Masters” I am referring to 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th Dan.  (In this discussion I use these descriptions simply as reference points, not a concrete or universal descriptive standard.)

It is more credible to visualize the legitimacy of low and mid level Masters who teach part time when this occurs over a longer period of time. This is simply common sense. The value of working full time as a professional potentially provides a greater opportunity for such more involved work and achievement. It does not, however, guarantee it.

Even full time practitioners must do their time in grade at each level or there simply is not enough time or opportunity to achieve these accomplishments and/or the experience represented by such ranking. Is it possible for a part time instructor to achieve the degree status of the higher levels of Black Belt “Master”? The answer is “Yes”, however, there obviously needs to be other mitigating factors.  Those factors must be present, evident, and documented that reasonably substitute for the amount of time necessary for a full time Master to accomplish each the same areas mentioned above.

Overall, the time in grade of such “Masters” must not simply be measured in “calendar years accumulated” but in actual days and hours spent accomplishing the pertinent tasks over those “years”.   Simply put, the credibility of part time practitioners achieving the higher levels of Black Belt “Master” legitimately is in much greater question and must involve greater scrutiny.

The overriding point here is that all of these “examples” are not written in stone and that is part of the “credibility” problem in MA. It is because this is a complicate process that the full value of the belt ranking system has been misunderstood, misused, and outright abused. This dissertation is simply a way to stimulate any interested person to look beyond the surface.  These guidelines should give some concrete and realistic measuring tools when scrutinizing this subject becomes necessary.


Copyright © 2010  R.V. PASCETTA, All rights reserved

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  • Nakya says:

    Un argomento molto complesso da esaminare visto e considerato anche l’evoluzione storica delle arti marziale dal Giappone feudale ad oggi, senza contare l’esponenziale diffusione che hanno avuto dopo l’importazione in Occidente.
    Già in tempi antichi il valore delle varie scuole e tecniche veniva misurato in duelli spesso all’ultimo sangue fra maestri di diversi stili per valutarne il migliore, e forse oggi stiamo facendo un grande errore cercare di chiudere in schemi estremamente precisi e settari i vari stili e le varie tecniche, quando già nell’antichità c’erano diverse scuole e tecniche per ogni stile marziale, senza contare che già allora erano tutte un evoluzione di metodi già esisitenti e che ogni maestro riadattava secondo le proprie esigenze.
    Quindi dove voglio arrivare?
    Semplicemente al fatto che premettendo che oggi non è “fortunatamente” più possibile scontrarsi in duelli per decidere il sistema migliore, ( metodo che fra l’altro decideva secondo me soltanto l’atleta migliore o il combattente migliore, visto che il risultato di uno scontro non dipende soltanto dal metodo di combattimento che si pratica)l’unico modo per decidere la validità di una metodologia didattica o di un adattamento di vari stili alle proprie esigenze è provarlo e dare possibilità ad un istruttore che si accinge a edificare un percorso di dare dimostrazione sul campo della propria credibilità anche analizando alcune delle caratteristiche citate dal maestro Pascetta focalizzandosi secondo me sopratutto sul livello degli allievi che educa.
    Continuare a studiare presso il proprio maestro per fare pratica significa continuare a vedere sempre lo stesso modo di insegnare quella disciplina, ma se una persona decide di vedere altri metodi ed interrompere il suo percorso? come fa a continuare a guadagnare quelle credenziali dovute al grado che venivano citate prima?, non avrà mai la preparazione per creare un proprio percorso perchè si limiterà a insegnare ad i suoi allievi quello che è stato sempre insegnato a lui, e con quella metodologia.
    Non è forse più produttivo dopo aver praticato per lungo tempo e avendone una base stabile uno stile marziale cercare di capire i fondamenti di altri metodi per apprendere e fondere alla propria preparazione e metodologia di insegnamento un bagaglio ancora più ampio? e poi se tutto questo porta ad una nuova concezione perchè non cercare se si ritiene questo un buon percorso di trasmetterlo ad altri?
    Per quanto ci sforziamo di voler dividere stilisticamente ogni cosa, e per quanti nomi diversi possiamo dargli una volta ho letto questa frase ” il combattimento è come la musica si possono suonare molti stili diversi, ma tutti sono scritti sullo stesso pentagramma”.
    Quindi secondo me più esperienze diverse e conoscenze diverse della materia si hanno e più è facile destreggiarsi in situazioni di pericolo e se da queste conoscenze nasce un evoluzione di un ulteriore metodo di combattimento ben venga perchè senza questa spinta a migliorarsi oggi avremmo probabilmento metodi di combattimento obsoleti e poco adatti alla nostra quoidianità.
    Mentre lo studio del combattimento è sempre argomento di studio e discussione e di questo sono molto contento