Teen walking up stairs to success

Building your Martial Arts Coach Development Pathway

In the developed world, most children are in school full time for 12-13 years, but you don’t emerge from school as a teacher. If you have bad teeth and you need to see a dentist on a regular basis, no matter how much contact you have with them, it does not make you a dentist. If you have students that pass their black belt test (based on their ability to perform the martial art), it does not automatically endow them with the skills required to coach.

If you want to build great martial arts coaches, you need great coach education. If you want to produce great coaches on a consistent basis, you need a great Coach Development Pathway.

Like many other martial arts clubs, when I first started coaching martial arts back in 1996, I was the only coach at the club. I was only teaching two classes a week at this point, so I wasn’t under any pressure to develop new coaches. As I was pretty busy at university studying full time, teaching two nights a week at Leeds College of Technology, coaching martial arts twice a week at a sports centre, while also running my own computer company, I had no ambition to expand my club until over a decade later. It was only when it came to needing more coaches that I realised the meaning of the Chinese proverb ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now’. 

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the next best time is now

Historically martial arts have been a little……….amateurish. I am not saying that good coaches are very rare, just that the majority started coaching as a hobby and often never had the time to research, attend coaching courses, obtain peer feedback, get a mentor or pass any specific coaching qualifications. When I use the term ‘amateurish’, I include my early coaching years in that description too. I didn’t really start my coaching evolution until around 2008 when I became a full time martial arts coach and started looking outside my organisation to try and meet my development wants and needs.

If you have a close relationship with your own coach, you will often find that you coach quite similar. Your classes may have a similar structure, you may share the same coaching style and you may even inherit some of their mannerisms. If your coach was your only source of coach education, you could find yourself limited by their skills and knowledge, but as you are reading this article right now, I know that you will also look to other sources for guidance too. Your coach can be an invaluable source of knowledge but engaging in continuing professional development (CPD) will add an extra dimension to your understanding and development of your coaching skills.

Why do you need a Coach Development Pathway?

The number of coaches that I have spoken to in the past that got into coaching martial arts ‘accidentally’ is huge. Often, they inherited their club when their instructor decided they didn’t want to coach anymore or they passed their black belt and started helping out in oversubscribed classes. While your starting point does not really matter, if you want your club to be around for years to come, having a progressive Coach Development Pathway can go a long way to helping develop new coaches on a regular basis.

While this article is more about creating a Coach Development Pathway than the broader subject of coach education within the martial arts sector, I just wanted to acknowledge that the pathway means nothing if you don’t provide quality coach education for the coaches at your club. Richard Branson has over 60 companies in his Virgin brand with over 60,000 employees and recognises the importance of training and treating his employees well. In fact, he was famously quoted as saying ‘Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough, so they don’t want to’. American martial arts coach Dave Kovar has his own version of this which is ‘hire right, train right, treat right’.

Richard Branson of Virgin

Once a Coach Development Pathway has been up and running for the minimum time it takes to get from the beginning to the end of the pathway, you should be able to produce a constant stream of new coaches. Just like your students, you will still lose coaches regardless of how well you treat them but building your ‘bench strength’ (live players sitting on the bench waiting to be called upon to join the game’) using your pathway, will ensure you have plenty of backup coaches. As a side benefit, you shouldn’t need to throw your personal/family life under the bus and coach ALL the classes if you lose a coach.

The Coach Development Pathway is not only great for the club but it’s also great for the students too. Our Taekwondo members tend to reach black belt around 11 years old and at this point, the length of time between gradings starts to grow. Having the pathway start around this age gives the students extra development goals to work towards, while also developing their confidence and leadership skills.

The components of a Coach Development Pathway

While I hope we are all striving to be a more professional martial arts coach and business owner, I know now many of you wear many different hats within your clubs. I always like to keep this ‘top of mind’ while writing as it helps me keep the action points concise. As I also have two full time martial arts centres here in the UK, I remember from the early years how hard it was to keep all the plates spinning. For this reason, I have kept the main part of the pathway down to 3 elements.

1. Role outlines

The first piece of the puzzle is to outline the different coaching roles. If you are just starting out you may only need 2-3 different roles. This keeps things simple while still offering options for progression for your members. Our own system has 4 levels with myself adding a 5th role as Coach Developer.

At this stage, you want to break each role down to its basic form highlighting how each one is different from the role above and the role below. If you can summarise each role in a couple of sentences, it makes it much easier to demonstrate the difference between them at a glance.

Class Assistant (11+)

The primary role of a Class Assistant is to assist the Lead or Junior Coach to deliver great martial arts classes. The core duties and responsibilities include leading by example, motivating all participants and reporting any hazards to help keep students safe.

Assistant coach (14+)

The primary role of an Assistant Coach is to assist Lead or Junior Coaches to deliver great martial arts classes). The core duties and responsibilities include leading small sections of classes, providing general feedback to students and assisting in maintaining a positive learning environment.

Junior Coach (16+)

The primary role of a Junior Coach is delivering great martial arts classes (under supervision) while also assisting the Lead Coach deliver their classes. Core duties include planning/delivering/reviewing classes, differentiating for individual students, performing class admin, speaking to parents and involving the Class Assistants and Assistant Coaches in the coaching process.

Lead Coach (18+)

The primary role of a Lead Coach is delivering great martial arts classes using a ‘person centred’ approach to help each student reach his or her potential/goals. Core duties include planning/delivering/reviewing/researching classes, taking ownership of security and safety, leading members and coaches, following all policies and procedures and ensuring all stakeholders needs are met.

Martial Arts Coach Development Pathway

2. Core competencies

The second piece of the puzzle is mapping out the required core competencies and experience for each role. Before we got started on this, we created the subsections we wanted to flesh out. These were:-

  • Personal conduct
  • Coaching
  • Safety
  • Knowledge
  • Administration
  • Managerial and staff supervision

For each role, we created separate requirements under each subsection. Starting with the end in mind, we wrote the specification for the Lead Coach role first. Then the Junior Coach, Assistant Coach and finally the Class Assistant. Obviously, as you move towards the Class Assistant role, the responsibilities and requirements decrease and not all roles have requirements for all sub-sections. As an example, the Class Assistant and Assistant Coach roles don’t have any managerial and staff supervision responsibilities.

If you want the full list of core competencies, I have created a spreadsheet that you can download at the end of this article

Personal specification

A personal specification describes the skills the person would have for each role in an ideal world. In our own documentation, we break this down into skills, experience, qualifications and personal attributes. An example of a skill maybe ‘Being able to prioritise work’, experience ‘Experience working with children’, qualification ‘Level 2 coaching course’ and personal attributes are things like ‘Desire to help others succeed’ or ‘Able to inspire confidence and self believe’.

For each skill, we set if the requirement is essential (E) or desired (D). This gives us a little more flexibility for some requirements while also setting ’show stoppers’ that need to be met. Just as with the Core Competencies, we started with the role of Lead Coach and worked backwards. There will be some requirements that appear across all roles. Two great examples of this are that all coaches are enthusiastic, have the ability to communicate with the students and understand how to motivate them. If you downloaded the spreadsheet with the core competencies I listed for each role, you may have already noticed that this spreadsheet also includes the personal specifications for each role. If I told you I wrote them all, I would be lying. A large chunk of this work was done with our resident HR specialist. If she ever reads this, thank you Leigh 🙂 

How much should you pay your coaches?

The answer to this question is very subjective and what will be right for one club, would be totally inappropriate for another. I can however give you some advice based on the research I have carried out in the field of motivation. Before I start to bash the idea of using money as a carrot, I want to acknowledge that people obviously need to be paid so they can in turn pay their own bills. Think of this as meeting the requirements for level 1 (Physiological) and level 2 (Safety) or Maslow’s pyramid of needs.

Once you have ticked the box that allows your coaches to pay for the essentials in life, money starts to lose its power when it comes to motivation. In fact, in work that requires any level of creativity (such as coaching children), offering extra money in exchange for better performance can actually back fire and work against what you are trying to achieve. I have seen some club owners pay both an individual and group bonus on top of a great base salary, only to have their staff leave to follow other paths. To help guide you, I have come up with a one line guide that we use in our own centres:-

Martial arts coaches coaching

‘Pay enough so that your staff or not disadvantaged by taking a position with you but not so much that it becomes the main motivator’

There are various different pay structures that you can use. Some use a flat fixed rate, some are incremented in line with inflation while some are incremented within a ‘salary scale’ (sometimes called banding). In our own system, we are now incrementing all pay rates every two years in line with inflation. This also coincides with a two yearly increment in tuition rates, also approximately incline with the rate of inflation. While we don’t have a bonus system, where we can facilitate and encourage coaches to add extra services to our clubs. This works on a profit share basis and includes things that are supplementary services to martial arts coaching such as holiday camps, birthday parties and training seminars.

Coach education

This article is already too long to go into Coach Education in a meaningful way but as we tie various qualifications in for each of the roles we have listed, I wanted to mention it. Many clubs will have their own SWAT (Special Winning Attitude Team), STORM (Special Team Of Role Models) or leadership team. We call our junior coach education system MAL (Martial Arts Leaders). I know the name is a little boring but it’s named after the system our courses are built upon.

Sports Leaders UK is an awarding body for Sports Leaders awards and qualifications that have several different options for clubs. This includes nationally recognised level 1, 2 and 3 qualifications. A student can take part in the Young Leaders Award at 11, the level 1 at 12, the level 2 at 13 and the level 3 at 15. The level 3 is a little special as passing this qualification also carries UCAS points towards university. While getting to a position to be able to run these courses ourselves wasn’t easy, the parents love the fact that the children do not only get to develop their coaching skills and gain some valuable work experience but also contribute something towards their future.

The base of our martial arts coach education courses is built on the information provided by Sports Coach UK but due to having spent the last 10 years going through a foundation, BSc and MSc in sports coaching, I have customised the materials and added a few more sections. We had to put these qualifications on hold for the last couple of years but I am looking forward to relaunching them again in the next couple of months.


Here in the UK, unless working on television, theatre or modelling, the youngest you can employ anyone is 13 years old. Even at 13 years old they are only permitted to perform light duties in a small list of roles (provided by the local council). For this reason, we tend to only employ from the age of 14 or 15.

This is a list of other restrictions to consider even employing from 14 years old.

  • They cannot be employed during school hours or between 7pm and 7am, for more than one hour before school or for more than 4 hours without taking at least a 1 hour break
  • Term time
    • For more than 12 hours a week during term time
    • For more than 2 hours on school days and Sundays
    • For more than 5 hours for 13-14 or 8 hours for 15-16 year olds on Saturdays
  • School holidays
    • A maximum of 25 hours for 13-14 year olds
    • Maximum of 5 hours on weekdays and Saturdays
    • Maximum of 2 hours on a Sunday
    • A maximum of 35 hours for 15-16 year olds
    • Maximum of 8 hours on weekdays and Saturdays
    • Maximum of 2 hours on a Sunday

These figures are correct as of 2022. Please visit the UK government website to see up to date information.

Each country will have their own minimum wages and I would suggest that in almost all cases, you will want to pay your staff above the minimum hourly rate for the country you live in. For the UK this is currently:-


Pre April 2022
Apprentice = £4.30
Under 18 = £4.62
18 to 20 = £6.56
21 to 22 = £8.36
23 and over = £8.91


Post April 2022
Apprentice = £4.81
Under 18 = £4.81
18 to 20 = £6.83
21 to 22 = £9.18
23 and over = £9.5

While looking at our own pay structure we came across a potential problem that we didn’t anticipate. While it is illegal to discriminate against someone based on age, the UK government do exactly that by setting a minimum wage for people based on age. If you set the pay rate for, say the Assistant Coach’s role at £5 per hour and you also had a 23 year old in that position, after April 2022 you would need to pay them a minimum of £9.50 per hour. If you only pay your Junior Coaches £7.50 per hour, you could be in the position where someone leading classes (under supervision) could be earning less than someone occasionally coaching sections of a class.

The obviously solution to this problem is to set the highest minimum rate for your lowest paid role but if you did that, you amount of cash you had for salaries would potentially be halved. As the two biggest reasons to have these roles are to help the teenagers develop and to test out members to see who would be a good fit for coaching, it makes little sense to reduce the number of people you are offering these opportunities to.

To limit the protentional and impact of this problem happening, we decided that the rates for the Assistant Coach and Junior Coach roles would be set based on a fixed rate or the minimum wage (only if the age of the employee required it). We also decided that limiting the number of hours that these two positions would encourage the ones that wanted to coach for a living would progress through to the high coaching roles.

In some towns and cities in the UK there may also be local rules and regulations to be observed regarding employing children. In Calderdale for instance, every child in employment must have an Employment Certificate (Work Permit). The application process is not usually too onerous but there will be sections in the forms for both the parent of the child and the employer (you). It also contains a reminder of the restrictions for working hours for children (that I have already highlighted above)

Bringing it all together

Please don’t think you have to get all this in place immediately. Our systems have been built over time and they have had several revisions along the way and no doubt they will change again in the future. Your club is a living breathing organism and you should be prepared to make changes to your Coach Development Pathway as your membership grows and develops.

Now is the moment of truth, you will have most of what you need to put together a full role specification for each of the roles you have at your club. Now open a new document in Word (or your word processor of choice) and start populate the following sections:-

  • Our mission
  • Our core values
  • Role details (Title, location, salary, contract type)
  • Role purpose
  • Responsible for
  • Responsible to
  • Circumstances (Required days/times, minimum age, another other
  • Core duties and responsibilities
  • Personal specifications
  • Other information (equal opportunities club, staff expectations, any other duties)
If you want help with populating the roles and responsibilities and the personal specification fields, i have a great giveaway for you. Just filling in the small form below i will email what i (and our HR specialist) spent hours putting together for my own clubs.
If you haven’t yet written your clubs mission and core values, the article I wrote last month should help. As these basic documents form both the foundations and the backbone of your club, you need them in place to guide all activities your coaches engage with, regardless of their level.

Want the MAPLE roles, responsibilities and personal specifications spreadsheet email to you?

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