Over the decades, I’ve had the honour and pleasure of studying and training with a number of different martial arts and fighting styles. During these studies, I’ve taken note of some of the similarities and the difference between those styles. One of the important aspects is how to address the instructor of one’s respective martial arts style…
Depending on the background and what origin your martial art may have, the title given to the instructor may differ. Some styles may actually have no title for the lead instructor and may resort to something simple, such as “sir”. In this post, I will endeavour to cover the most common terms for martial arts instructors.
- Sensei: Obviously, I’m going to start with mine! The term Sensei means “one who comes before” but literally translates as “teacher”. The term is used in most Japanese martial arts (such as karate, d-uh, Judo, JiuJutsu, Kendo, etc) and in SOME Chinese styles. The term Sensei can be used to address anyone qualified who teaches you a particular subject, and isn’t limited to the martial arts. For someone ranked at 5th Dan or higher, the instructor can be addressed by the title of “Master”. This is generally an honorific title and many instructors will choose to continue to be called “Sensei” regardless of what degree of black belt they hold;
- Sifu: This is the term for an instructor in the Chinese styles of martial arts, most prominently Kung Fu. It can mean both “master” and “teacher” and in some circles can also be used to mean “spiritual father”. The problem with this term is that it can have different pronunciations depending on the art you’re studying;
- TKD: TaeKwonDo is one of those complicated creatures, because they have so many different organizations, rules and denominations of the style, that they differ a great deal from one another. Depending on what TKD organization your school may fall under, terms such as “Boosabum”, “Sabum” and “Sahyun”. That being said, TKD is one of those schools where all the instructors I’ve ever met have been referred to as “Sir” (In Canada, at least);
- Coach: This is a term used in most schools of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu schools, albeit some of them will use the term “Professor”, which is just an honorific. The term translates directly from the Brazilian term for “teacher”.
There are plenty more terms out there, but I’ve covered the most common ones: karate, kung fu, Tae Kwon Do and Jiu-Jitsu. Believe me when I say that there are many more styles and terms out there that may be different. The important thing, especially if you’ve just started a new style, is to ask. Don’t be afraid to ask how you should be addressing the instructor.
I still remember my first encounter with Sensei. We were doing kicking and punching drills, and I was confused on the exact step for one of the techniques we were studying. I tried getting Sensei’s attention for several minutes, until I finally yelled out, “Sir, I need your help…”
Sensei was good enough to wait and let me ask my question, then took the time to answer it. Then he asked “Got it?” I said yes and stepped back into line, at which point Sensei said, “Oh, and by the way… My name is Sensei and if you ever call me something different, you’ll owe me a hundred push-ups…” Then he walked away from me, leaving my jaw dropped wondering if he was kidding. He wasn’t. But that’s another story…
The point is, if someone has successfully opened a martial arts school and is successfully teaching, he or she has earned the respect to be addressed by the title their art entitles them to. So, be certain to be respectful and ask if you’re not sure and use the title once you are. After all, respect and discipline are practically synonymous with the martial arts.
FYI, it’s been 31 years and I’ve never had to pay out those hundred push-ups. Jus’ sayin’… ☯