What a Sifu Is and Should Never Be

How do you like my Zeppelin reference? I’m not a super huge Zeppelin fan, but I found the title amusing.

Anyway, just the other day I was thinking about my wing chun training, how I have been CONSISTENTLY doing the forms 10 times a day (Sil Lum Tao and Biu Jee once each, Chum Kiu EIGHT TIMES TOTAL), along with 1000 punches (because I do 100 punches at the end of each form). Back when I was with the previous school, I barely did the forms at all or did any kind of training on my own.

Now why is that? Well, I happen to feel that when it comes to martial arts, you need a leader who inspires you to do better. Up until recently, I didn’t have that. What I had was someone who was concerned about their cash flow.

I am not a Sifu myself, so some people might say I should keep my mouth shut on the subject. However, such an argument is ridiculous. That’s like saying, “You’re not a supervisor, so you can’t criticize the one you have at your job for calling you worthless every day.”

Clearly, such behavior would get sickening after a while. So I think that, just like the employee wants a supervisor who does NOT treat them like crap, a martial arts student has the right to expect certain things out of their teacher. If they don’t get those things, then they should consider relocating.

And not for nothing, but I want to be a Sifu and open my own school someday. By observing what others do, I can figure out what kind of Sifu I would like to become.

Dwelling on all of this got me thinking about what a Sifu is, what they shouldn’t be, what they should do and what they should never do.

PLEASE NOTE: I use the term “Sifu” here because I study kung fu, and that is the title they are given. If you study karate, then it would be “Sensei,” and so on. Just keep in mind that when I say “Sifu,” I really mean any martial arts instructor.


Obviously, you are there to learn a martial art from them. However, I think their teaching should go beyond just the techniques themselves. They should teach you to live by a code of respect. If there is an underlying philosophy behind the art you study, then they should teach you that.

In wing chun kung fu, the underlying philosophy can be summed up in three words: “Accept what comes.” When an attack comes in, you don’t resist your opponent. Instead you flow with them. This mindset has opened up a whole world to me that, sadly, most people keep themselves closed off from. I have applied it to all parts of my life, especially in my dealings with other people.

What do I mean? For example, when I meet someone, I don’t care if they are white, black, male, female, Christian, Muslim, a bookworm, a jock, or anything like that. I ACCEPT WHAT COMES, and that includes whatever traits people may have. Let’s say someone is pro-choice while I am pro-life. Okay, well…in the long run, what harm does their different stance do to me? Why can’t we get along simply because there is that difference?

As I get older, I am finding out (much to my dismay) that I am pretty unique in that approach to dealing with people. So, moving on…


Do I mean that you should look at this person and want to be them? Not necessarily. When I say they should inspire, I mean that they should make you want to do better…not just that you idolize them.


Do I mean volunteer at food banks? No, but then again…maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if they volunteered to teach self-defense to domestic violence victims.

What I mean is that a Sifu should be understanding of their students’ lives and situations. As disappointing as it may be, most of your students will NOT be filled with the same passion for the art as you. Their attendance and passion may wax and wane…not to mention their bank accounts might not always allow them to attend class.

Don’t judge them for it. Instead of berating them for their lack of attendance and/or devotion, try and understand them. Odds are there is more going on in their lives than you know. Either that, or they were never meant to be a devoted martial arts student anyway.


Obviously there are more things to what a Sifu should or should not be, but I think this list is a good starting point.

To be honest, I thought about sharing the experiences I had with my old Sifu and comparing them to the new one, but you know what? I’d rather take the high road and not air all the dirty laundry.

All I can do is ask that you trust my judgment…that I know I am in a more positive place with my current teacher. Some people look at what I did and think I am a man of zero integrity and loyalty.

That is 100% not true. Integrity is the exact reason I LEFT the other school. As for loyalty, I will be forever loyal to those who I respect. When a person attacks me simply because I have interests other than wing chun (interests that are FREE, mind you) and passes judgment on my entire life simply based on my class attendance record…well, that is NOT someone I can respect.



About Steve Grogan

I am 40 years old, divorced, and a father of four kids. I am a practitioner of a self-defense system called wing chun kung fu. My other hobbies include writing, playing guitar, reading, watching movies, and listening to music. Recently I have gotten back into fitness, and this time I am DETERMINED to get the washboard abs...whether my metabolism will cooperate with me or not! The purpose of this blog is to write not only about my hobbies, but also about whatever crosses my mind, whether it is something I don't understand or something that aggravates me. So join me as I indulge my tendency to think too much about topics that don't usually cross anyone else's mind!
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16 Responses to What a Sifu Is and Should Never Be

  1. resultize says:

    Interesting post. Indeed, I think You took a good decision not to compare your different teachers and just to focus on your ideals and beliefs.

    • wcman1976 says:

      Thank you. Some people have responded on Facebook indicating they would like to know my former instructor’s side. They are missing the point. In this instance, his side doesn’t really matter. This is about what I am personally looking for in an instructor. He could tell his side over and over until the end of time, and he STILL would not be the kind of person from which I want to learn.

      • Fair – I think in life we all need to find what is good for us and embrace those things. It does not mean that your former Sifu was not good – maybe he desires to have a different student than you and he does not want to spend time sharing with someone that he feels is not as dedicated. Who knows, at the end of the day it’s important for us all to be happy, healthy and respectful to all others in this walk called life.

        • wcman1976 says:

          First of all, if you open a school to the public, then you are going to get a LOT of people who join it as a fad. Second, if you want only the most dedicated people, then maybe you should teach privately and handpick your students. Third, there were many other senior students he had who came a lot less often than I did, yet they did not get the same verbal berating; that was saved just for me. (And how do I know? Because I asked them, and they had no reason to lie to me.) Fourth a student’s dedication cannot be judged on class attendance alone. Even when I was not there, I practice my forms and techniques. I wrote him with questions I had. I think it is rather elitist to say that martial arts should be studied only by those who can afford class all the time. So does that mean only the rich and childless people should be able to study? He is running a business, and it would be foolish of him to start picking and choosing his customers if he wants to survive.

  2. It’s interesting when a sifu who is teaching “Accept whatever comes” is an attacker on the emotional level. Is he reasoning that he is teaching a valuable lesson, or is he abusive? I have been in situations where lines become blurred, and it seems that if he were setting out to teach a lesson, he should preface that when one starts his class, that he’s going to push lots of buttons to try and get his students to react. If he doesn’t set the stage with his intent, he is doing his students a disservice, because they will react to the abuse, instead of responding with better alternatives and choices. So, this sifu you mention is either a poor teacher, or an abusive individual, and you were very wise to step away and find a new mentor!

    • wcman1976 says:

      Thanks for the comment. For the record, what I was attacked for…was not showing up in class…but I was not showing up because I didn’t have the money for the tuition anymore. He was giving me a hefty discount, but it STILL was too much for me. (Keep in mind I have four children. Feeding them takes precedence over MY wing chun training.) Nothing I could have said to him would have been a reason; he would have called it an “excuse.” Well, I’m sorry, but caring for my entire family takes priority over caring for myself.

      And not for nothing, but if having me there was THAT important, then why not waive the entire tuition? LOL

  3. These are good traits for every leader, mentor and teacher to have. Good list!

  4. patweber says:

    Mu husband and son are black belts in karate so sensei immediately helped me put your article in context.

    Just so you know, and I am assuming I am way older than you, the older we get MOST of us actually do become more accepting, patient and loving. That’s my experience with the people I hang around with. Sure. some don’t get this approach to life but most, are good sensei, or sifus.

  5. lenie5860 says:

    Steve, what you described can relate to any teacher/coach in any profession. There are those who take the training to be a sifu/teacher but never learn how to teach. There are others who choose to teach because they want others to learn – those are the ones that have the positive qualities you mention above and who are able to transfer knowledge. Sounds like you now have one of the second type.

  6. Ken Dowell says:

    I appreciate the “accept what comes” philosophy of kung fu. And I agree with you that it is not the way most people see others. “Accept what comes” means no stereotyping, no prejudging by appearance, and, if you’re a cop, no profiling.

  7. heraldmarty says:

    I like that you chose to take the high road Steve, and respect is never to be taken lightly. I think we’ve all had poor or ineffective teachers, partners, and bosses, but we learn from them as well. It’s likely that you wouldn’t appreciate your current situation as much had you not had the disappointing experience first. Thanks for sharing your story!

  8. You made some excellent points about what it is like to be a teacher, and the responsibilities for them. If I had to say one thing they need to do, and that would be a molder. They should mold their students, not just in the martial arts, but in life. Too many of them concentrate on the physical attributes of the martial arts, and forget the spiritual. Doing this you end up with a well trained person without a conscious. The philosophical side is just as big as the physical. Remember, the physical skills will decline, but the spiritual skills last beyond life itself.

  9. I completely agree with Rose. The traits you have listed would apply to any leader. When we are teaching anything to anyone, we need to be understanding, compassionate, patient, insightful, and flexible in our expectations. Good luck in your training.

  10. emfoodcoach says:

    I think a student is qualified to know what they expect of a teacher. From having bosses in my past, I surely know the difference between an inspiring and uninspiring supervisor. And I agree that the entire world could use more compassion. I see a lot of judgement in the world at this exact point in time. So there are many who could use a lesson on compassion.

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