3 Different Takes on the Sensei-Student Relationship

I’ve trained at a lot of different types of martial arts schools and I have therefore seen wide variety of ways that instructors relate to and connect with their students, varying from uber-traditional to laid back, with many variations in between. There is no one “right” type, with benefits and drawbacks to whatever type one undertakes as an instructor. Each type attracts different types people. In this blog post, I’ll describe 3 different variations that I’ve seen.

1. Exalted Guru

This type of relationship is the most formal of the three, and is prominent in martial arts styles with more traditional roots. A student under his/her instruction submits completely to the teachings, placing absolute trust that their Sensei will impart everything they need to know as the information becomes necessary. In Japanese dojos with this type of Sensei-student dynamic, students always call their instructor ‘Sensei’ and often use formal language that indicates submission to the teachings. An example of this is the use of the word ‘OSU.’ The first character OSU literally means push or control. The second character SHINOBU has the literal meaning of bear, endure, suffer. The expression was created in the Japanese Naval School and is universally used for everyday expressions such as please, thank you, I understand, sorry, greeting someone, etc, as well as in the martial arts realm nearly any time a response is required. In an ‘Exalted Guru’ type relationship, the use of these terms often extends outside the dojo when students interact with their Sensei in social situations.


  • More orderly classes.
  • Greater control over student development.
  • Higher level of student discipline.
  • Greater sense of cultural connection.


  • Formality and etiquette can sometimes scare students who are new to the martial arts away.
  • Some students idolize their Sensei so much that they don’t believe they’ll every achieve their level of ability.
  • A lack of encouragement for 2-way communication can result in students quietly questioning aspects of their training, and instructors aren’t as likely to get useful feedback that could help them improve their dojo.

2. Affable Mentor

This type of relationship combines aspects of the more traditional guru and the more modern trainer. Aspects of formality are used in varying degrees depending on the dojo, but overall, classes are run in a less regimented fashion. Students are more actively encouraged to ask questions and provide feedback.


  • More approachable atmosphere for new students while still maintaining a sense of cultural connection.
  • Students more likely to identify with the instructor and feel as though their level of ability is attainable over time.
  • Instructors and students tend to feel more comfortable with each other socially.
  • Encouragement of 2-way communication allows instructors to address issues their students may be having and help get valuable feedback for improving their dojo.


  • Class control and student discipline can be maintained, but may require more active effort from the Sensei and other higher level students of the dojo, depending on the level of formality.
3. Professional Trainer

This type of relationship is the most casual of the three, and is more like what people expect of modern fitness trainers. It is the least formal, using little to no formal terms. Instructors are usually addressed by their first names. Their main goal is to help you develop you physically, teaching you skills and getting you in shape.


  • Most familiar type of relationship for new students, making the atmosphere the most approachable of the three.
  • Students are more likely to identify with the instructor and feel as though their level of ability is attainable over time.
  • Encouragement of 2-way communication allows instructors to address issues their students may be having and help get valuable feedback for improving their dojo.
  • Usually is the easiest relationship for social interaction outside the dojo.

  • Class control and student discipline can be maintained, but usually requires more active effort from the instructor and other higher level students of the dojo.
  • The more casual nature of the relationship may engender less long-term student loyalty.
  • Less sense of culture connection.

Myself, I tend toward the ‘Affable Mentor’ type relationship, perhaps a little more on the casual side of the category, but really none of these types are better than any other. The drawbacks that exist in each can all be managed if the instructor is willing to make the effort. Ultimately, the best type of Sensei-student relationship is the one that the instructor is most comfortable maintaining. They’ll then attract students that find that type appealing.

What Sensei-student relationship is used at your dojo? Do you find it has specific benefits and drawbacks? Please feel free to share in the comments.

Comments (7)

7 thoughts on “3 Different Takes on the Sensei-Student Relationship

  1. I train Karate and Jiu-Jitsu at the same dojo, but our Karate class is more of the Affable Mentor, and Jiu-Jitsu is Professional Trainer. I find advantages and disadvantages to both, but since I started in Karate first, sometimes I am uncomfortable with the lack of formality in the Jiu-Jitsu class. I think it's because at times I am uncertain as to how to act, and it doesn't feel like I'm training a martial art.

  2. Gina,

    I totally relate. It can be tough to switch between the different training modalities. And I feel the same way about training in atmospheres with a complete lack of formality, although a good instructor can compensate for the lack. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 🙂

  3. you list :-
    The more casual nature of the relationship may engender less long-term student loyalty.

    Less sense of culture connection.

    as disadvantages…. which is biased. long term student loyalty and cultural connection are not necessary goals of martial arts training.

    In fact, it can be a lot better that the student will learn more from different people rather than be indoctrinated and develop their own style. They perhaps won't end up as biased into a 'culture' and believe their way is 'best'. More akin to bruce lees idea of having 'no way'.

    In fact he said it fantastically when bruce lee said..

    "Styles tend to not only separate men – because they have their own doctrines and then the doctrine became the gospel truth that you cannot change. But if you do not have a style, if you just say: Well, here I am as a human being, how can I express myself totally and completely? Now, that way you won't create a style, because style is a crystallization. That way, it's a process of continuing growth."- Bruce Lee

  4. Hi Keith,

    To be more clear, the lack of cultural connection is only a disadvantage if students are looking for it. Many people enjoy learning about a different culture's traditions, language, history, etc. And cultural connection doesn't necessarily mean that it's more formal or rigid. That just depends on the instructor.

    As for student loyalty, what I meant by that is students sticking with the school more over the long term (as opposed to the style), which certainly is an advantage for the instructor and fellow students as it allows everyone to progress together. It is quite possible to be loyal to a school while still experiencing other styles. I often bring in instructors from other styles that I respect so that my students can experience different ways of doing this. And some of my students are hold black belts in other styles, which they still practice.

    That you for commenting! I always want to make sure the points I'm trying to communicate are coming across clearly. 🙂

  5. Hi Lori,

    It’s been a long time since I last visited. My experience so far: 6 years in a rather traditional dojo with a sensei who ruled the mat like a god and about 4 with one who’s rather unassuming and would most likely fall into the third category of your classificiation. The balance: while I definetely received my basic education in the traditional dojo I can safely say I learned much more (technical and moral) in my current dojo with my current teacher than in the years before. In the traditional dojo techniques were hardly explained at all: he just showed it a few times (one time slowly, if you were lucky) and that was it, if you wanted help you had to go to thim to ask and even then he just repeated the same process. Another negative factor is that the sensei (a then 8th degree black belt) wasn’t keen on criticism (the main reason it seems why he tossed my current teacher out) and ran the dojo very much in a militaristic fashion (he was always right no matter what and we just had to do what we were told, he happened to be a junior officer in the army) and his methods were rather old school: some exercises were just not up to snuff with modern sportsphysiology and some were downright dangerous (you don’t teach sacrifice throws to lower belts who still need to learn how to roll properly). The upside was that the atmosphere was very solemn (probably the reason why I kept at it at the time) and it did help me with discipline in other area’s of my life but technique wise it was a mixed blessing at best: my locks weren’t up to snuff and there was little incentive to question the technique or the way it was taught since apparantly this was considered some kind of blasfemy.

    Another point of criticism is that input from other styles was not tolerated: my current teacher was a second degree black belt at the time and he studied karate along with jujutsu and later on other arts like kali and JKD which he tried to mix with the traditional stuff we were taught to make it more effective and efficient: as a thank you he was basically forced to leave and go his own way which led to the founding of my current dojo where I am sempai. Perhaps I’m a bit biased because I do some teaching there myself but I do think that a) our students learn much faster due to the fact they’re encouraged to ask questions and are monitored closely and b) what we teach tends to be more effective than the traditional way because the base was augmented and strenghtend with some of the most effective techniques and methods from other styles. The result is obvious when participating in jujutsu seminars: what we do should be effective in a violent situation (on account that a) it’s direct, b) it’s based rather heavily on striking and c) we try to make the training as realistic as possible including frequent practice with pads & shields and sparring with protection) while a lot of the traditional stuff is way too complicated to have a decent chance of working under stress. Perhaps it’s a bit too easy to critise my old dojo and of course then I didn’t have the skills and the knowledge I do now but still I think the best way to run a dojo is to keep a minimum of tradition and respect (even a footbal coach must demand respect from his players or they won’t accept his guidance) but in a lighthearted atmosphere without the teacher acting like a demi-god who knows everything and never makes mistakes. I don’t know how it is with children since I never taught them but in my view teaching adults should be based on mutual respect without the need for a militaristic system and ethic that is largely inefficient in its task (producing good students who can defend themselves if need be) and can all too easily be used to cover up a teacher’s shortcomings and/or lack of character. …

  6. I’m not sure I agree with your drawbacks in the professional trainer track: while for some people the traditional way might be more appealing due to its exotic nature I think it depends largely on the qualities of the teacher whether he keeps his students or not and I still presume that people enter a dojo to learn: if they want to goof off that’s their business and some people are never going to be fighting machines so to speak but they have a place too and shouldn’t be pushed too hard let alone bullied into keeping up with the rest of the class. As to the mental development: I think this is largely every individual’s responsibility and in my experience it springs from a) time in training, b) intensity/focus and c) one’s personal interests and leanings towards spirituality and culture. It’s perfectly possible to be laidback as a teacher and be more of a friend than a mentor to your students and still influence them by example.

    To conclude: if I were to found my own dojo I’d try to find a balance between the old and the new, between the revered sensei type and the purely athletic trainer: I do see some value in tradition so I’d keep the bowing and the Japanese terminology (or chinese or filipino depending on what I’m teaching) and I’d try to engender in them a sense of the cultural and moral heritage of the martial arts (if nothing else to prevent them from abusing their skills) but on the other hand I don’t think I have it in me to rule with an iron fist so to speak and people should never be afraid to come ask me questions or deny me their opinion on my performance as a teacher because they think they’ll insult me somehow. Unless you block the path yourself the road to self improvement is infinite and the endgoal of the teacher-student relationship should be to grow together and bring the dojo to new heights in terms of quality and enjoyment.

    There’s my proverbial two cents, have a nice day.


  7. Hi Zara,

    Nice to see you on here again! 🙂 I can totally understand where your biases are coming from. I think that ultimately whatever style of club we have the best experience with, we tend to have a bias toward and vice versa. I've seen traditional schools that were similar to what you described. I've also seen ones that did it extremely well in which the students learned effectively. On the flip side, I've seen professional trainer style schools run effectively, and ones that had such a lack of discipline that it led to injuries and a lack of focus in the overall student body.

    A great instructor who puts their students first runs a good class no matter which Sensei-student style they go for. They simply have to manage the potential drawbacks, but if they're managed well, they really don't exist.

    It sounds like the kind of dojo you would run is similar to what I do at my own dojo. It's worked well for me over the past 5 or so years. 🙂

    Hope your training is going well!

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