Teacher, Instructor & Coach in Martial Arts. What is the difference?

One would think that this is a straight-forward and simple question. But I know a lot, both students and teachers/instructors/coaches, whom themselves do not use these words correctly.

To begin, let us look at the dictionary.

Instructor – a person who teaches something.

Coach – an instructor or trainer in sport.

Teacher – a person who teaches.

That’s all good but where’s the Quality for these words? What IS the Quality of these 3 words? What do they mean to you? In my opinion, these 3 words/titles mean very different things although they sometimes overlap and seem synonymous to one another.

The Quality lies in the usage of these words. So what IS the Quality that I am talking about? I would say that it is the essence, the underlying principle, the prestige, thoughts and responsibilities that come with each of these words. Let us take a look at these 3 titles closer and this time with Quality. 

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INSTRUCTOR – Someone who is qualified and trained to instruct you on techniques required in your level. On how to be able to execute moves and what to look out for in order to do certain things/movements correctly. This will be someone who should be able to give you as much instructions as possible for you to be able to do what you need to get done.

COACH – Apart from being able to instruct you on how to execute techniques or how to get certain moves down, the Coach will and should be someone who gets to know you more personally than an Instructor and who is able to bring the best out of you. Whether it being physically or mentally, the Coach should be able to advise and understand your strong points as well as your weak points so that he/she can work out a plan to help get you from point A to point B. This person usually has a plan or comes out with a plan for your growth.

TEACHER – Now this is the most important person. In Martial Arts, this title/rank means quite a lot. Apart from instructing and coaching, the ‘Teacher’ in Martial Arts also carry with it additional responsibilities and respect. In Martial Arts, the Teacher is usually also addressed as ‘Master’ or ‘Sifu’ (师父) which comprises of the word ‘teach’ and ‘father’. This goes to show the seriousness and responsibility that one bears with this title. There is a Chinese saying “一日为师,终身为父” (Yi shen wei shi, zhong shen wei fu), that literally translates to “a day as a teacher, a lifetime as a father”. In Japanese Martial Arts, the teacher is usually addressed as ‘Sensei’ (先生) which pretty much has the same value as ‘Sifu’ (师父).

There is another title that is usually associated with an honorary rank that is given or associated due to a Master’s contribution to the Martial Art and it’s growth. This rank would be ‘Shihan’ (師範) in Japanese Martial Arts and ‘Ajarhn’ in Thai Martial Arts. 

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Now let us look at these and relate them to correct use in terms of Muay Thai (since Muay Thai is my main art). When someone reaches a level of knowledge and practice to be called ‘Khru’, he/she is a Teacher. A Khru is not just a coach or an Instructor, so don’t use it lightly. When someone is addressed as an ‘Ajarhn’, he/she would be more than just a Teacher. He/She would be a Master-Teacher or Master-Instructor and would have been given that title because of his/her contributions to the Art. And yes! These are NOT titles that you give yourself! So the next time you are addressing yourself or someone who is teaching you Martial Arts, think carefully about the meaning of the word of address and if the “Quality” fits the use.

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Terence Cheah

I am an avid Martial Artist who has been teaching Muay Thai for more then 10 years and have recently received my Black belt in Shinkyokushin Karate. I run a Martial Arts gym called Transcendence Martial Arts where most of my students are everyday people who want to get better, both physically and psychologically. I also love reading, motorbikes and scuba diving quite earnestly. And not forgetting my ever supportive loving wife and newborn whose already begun changing my life for the better.

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