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  • Writer's pictureJackie Bradbury

Toxic Martial Arts Groups: My Two Cents

Chris Chiu (the guy who puts out all the content for Arnis International, and son of Bruce Chiu) posted a couple of videos lately talking about toxicity in martial arts groups and organizations.

It's worth your time, so grab a beverage and listen. I'll wait for you (and if you subscribe to his channel while you're there, so much the better).

I think there's some really good stuff in here, and I agree fundamentally with the key points, which are:

  1. Toxic groups don't allow you to ask questions.

  2. Toxic groups don't allow you to cross train *ever*.

  3. Toxic groups have leaders that have to constantly talk about how good they are, vs. letting their work do the talking for them.

  4. To avoid toxicity, the most important thing in a leader is to be a good person first.

On point 2, I want to add a caveat I think is important and is more common than you might think: there are some martial arts styles that I would call "historical" styles, where they are training to preserve an exact martial arts philosophy by a specific teacher, set of teachers, or historical era, as best they can. These types of groups won't encourage cross-training (quite the opposite), and that's not toxic. However, I think it behooves any group to be very up-front about cross training and why it's not allowed, so students can decide for themselves how they want to train.

I'd like to add a few more points to Chris' list.

As Chris did, I'm going to ignore outright criminality and physical/sexual abuse. All y'all know how much I absolutely, 100% hate Sensei Scumbag, and any organization or person who will excuse that behavior once they're aware of it not just toxic, it's evil, and as I've said before, anyone condoning that behavior in any way is almost as bad as the scumbag.

What I'm going to say here applies to groups & organizations of any size, from a teacher and two students in a garage, all the way up to international organizations with thousands of students worldwide.

Here's a few more things that make a martial arts group toxic:


Oh, Sensei kicked another one of us out again? Must be Tuesday.

Click on the image to see the source.

If your organization/leadership regularly 1) expels students and 2) make a big public announcement about the expulsion and how bad that student is as a human being, it's hella toxic.

This isn't one of those one-off "Joe Student is no longer affiliated with us" falling-out things that happens on rare occasion. I mean student expulsions happen in this group many times.

I have in mind a non-FMA school I know about and I often see content from in my social media feeds. The leader of this group will post in their social media about the "disloyalty" of yet another student or group of students they have had to expel and how victimized the leader is by these ex-students. This individual will also encourage the remaining students to shun the expelled students.

In maybe a decade of my personal awareness of this group, it's happened at least five or six times, a few times with their (at that time) senior students being the "disloyal" ones.

That's... a lot.

To go online, air that dirty laundry in public, encourage others to join in, and then make themselves out as innocent victims is just SOOOO "cringe", as the kids say.

Yeah, I don't think it's the students that's the problem, pal.


Sensei learns you want to try that BJJ class down the road...

Click on the image to see the source.

If your teacher/group says, "You want to cross-train with so-and-so in such-and-such. I don't like that guy/style and here's why, but go if you want, judge for yourself, and let me know what you see and learn", that's not toxic (actually, it's a good thing).

If your teacher/group says, "You want to cross-train with so-and-so in such-and-such. I don't like that guy/style and here's why, so you're not allowed to train with them. If you do, there'll be consequences", that's mega-toxic.

Look, there's plenty of folks out there I am not impressed by in a variety of martial arts systems, and I think there's some styles out there that aren't worth the time and effort to learn. If a student of mine wants to check them out and train with those people or that style, I would offer my opinion, but encourage them to check it out and see for themselves if my opinion is accurate or not.

Threatening to punish someone for training with someone unapproved suggests that leader has a problem with their self-esteem, and doubts about what they teach and how they teach it.

One more thing: some folks will claim "All you ever need for martial arts/self defense we teach in our school/style, it's a 100% perfect system." In my opinion, there's no such thing as a perfect system, and all martial arts styles have big gaps in their strategy. I think this claim is not pressure-tested one little bit, because if it were... they wouldn't believe this.


We all drive by their place before and after each class and yell this out the window.

Click on the image to see the source.

If you have defined your group and what you teach not by the values and benefits of your strategy and methods, but by being BETTER than that other group's strategy and methods, that's incredibly toxic.

This is way more than good-naturedly, occasionally making fun of people aggressively hugging each other and paying big bucks for the privilege, or commenting that teaching students to kick and/or stab people on the ground is totally asking for jail time, or maybe pointing and laughing at people doing kata like they're in an 8 bit video game that's sped up 10x, once in a while.


Click on the image to see the source.

There's plenty of martial arts instructors out there that regularly feel the need to put down other schools and systems, literally almost every class. This is especially true if the ones they don't like are more commercially successful than they are, with the often mistaken belief that if they're successful they MUST be watering down things and teaching fake martial arts and Sensei Less-Successful is teaching the REAL DEAL that nobody wants to learn anymore in these soft times.

You hear this a lot from traditional martial arts instructors sneering at the successful BJJ school or MMA school down the road. Or, it's the BJJ/MMA school constantly deriding the traditional school and what they teach as being effective (yep, that toxicity runs both ways). Or, it's a teacher constantly putting down the ability of another teacher (and their students) because they don't like that individual teacher on a personal level (and the drama involved if that other teacher was once a student of the negative one... yikes).

Whatever the reason, if the subject of "how much those other guys suck and how superior we are" comes up a lot as a point of discussion and pride in class, that's super toxic.

There you go, three more red flags to spot toxic martial arts groups.

To summarize: If your group discourages asking questions, forbids cross-training (and is not a historical preservation style) OR allows it but dictates who you can and can't cross-train with (OR ELSE), has the leader constantly needing to remind people of their accomplishments, regularly expels and publicly condemns students, and constantly talks about how bad the other guys are...

That's a toxic group.

You should probably do that, yeah.

Click on the image to see the source.

Did I miss any other important red flags of a toxic martial arts group? Let us know in the comments!

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