How To Run Martial Arts Classes When You Have Students Who Are Trauma Survivors

Image Source: Micah Bender

This article originally appeared on Psychological Jiu-Jitsu and is being reposted on the Jiu-Jitsu Times with express permission from authors Dr. Jamie Marich and Micah Bender. Dr. Marich is a clinical trauma expert who travels internationally as a trainer and workshop instructor. She is the author of 4 books and many other materials on trauma recovery. Bender is a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt with a degree in Human Development & Family Studies from Penn State.

If you work with the public in any capacity, awareness of trauma and the impact unhealed trauma has on the human experience is critical. Mental health professionals refer to this awareness (and its implementation to practice) as being trauma-informed. Many professionals, including self-defense instructors, do not think that trauma-informed practice is relevant to them if they do not specifically set out to work with survivors of trauma or people with mental health issues. However, being trauma-informed is especially important in self-defense classes since many trauma survivors go there seeking some answers or relief. Such individuals may not feel comfortable identifying themselves as trauma survivors; it is the responsibility of the self-defense instructor to realize the high likelihood of this possibility and conduct the class or seminar as if every student is a survivor of trauma. This universal best practice is the heart of what it means to be trauma-informed.

Despite some popular opinions that such a practice coddles people or goes soft on folks in a world that is tough, you will see in these suggestions that we offer that the heart of being trauma-informed is simpler than you may think. You may also find that these practices promote greater retention and decrease dropout rates in your schools, classes, and ongoing seminars.

Know what trauma means and how unhealed trauma impacts the brain. Trauma comes from the Greek word meaning wound. When emotional wounds remain unprocessed or unhealed at the level of our emotional brains, survivors can be incredibly vulnerable to flight, fight, or freeze responses. You may notice students unexpectedly shutting down or zoning out in your classes when they are asked to get into a vulnerable position or get touched in an surprising way. When people have not had a chance to fully, compassionately heal from any emotional injury, their susceptibility to such responses may increase. This does not make survivors weak people—they may simply need more individualized attention and validation to work through it.

Contrary to popular belief or what you may have seen in movies, talking about what happened during times of trauma is rarely the most helpful intervention. Allowing the body to experience empowerment, the way it can in self-defense classes, can be incredibly healing and redemptive to our brains, IF the experience is facilitated in a safe and validating, not a shaming, environment. Here are some simple ways you can create such experiences for your students:

Practical Issues for Running Classes

1.) If you are going to acknowledge that self-defense classes can be challenging for trauma survivors, be sure to use the language of trauma survivor, not trauma victim. Many non-clinicians don’t realize the power of this simple language shift to help people coming to your classes feel more validated from the beginning.

2.) Recognize that some positions and moves are vulnerable based on past experiences and all positions have the potential for vulnerability based on the individual person’s experience. While it is common to want to “wow” students with a specific technique, it is not always the most efficient use of demonstration. If you put a student in a mentally uncomfortable place early, the likelihood of skill retention drops dramatically.

3.) While all positions have the potential to be vulnerable, floor and ground work seems to present a greater risk for survivors. Consider starting with standing working in your class sampler or course syllabus and then transition to floor work. In the standing technique, begin with the most simplistic, least restrictive move in your discipline. This allows for minimal physical interaction and allows those who may be survivors to begin to gain trust with the instructor.

4.) Always ask for quick permission to directly touch a person, or make a very clear announcement at the beginning that you may be using some gentle physical touch. Offer some signal to let people opt out of being touched or validate that they can tell you when they don’t want to be touched.

5.) Watch for startle and hyperarousal responses, which can run the range from general jumpiness to sudden outbursts of anger. Avoid using phrases like “calm down” or commands like “relax;” both can be counterproductive and make the student more defensive.

6.) Watch for freezing and shutting down/dissociative responses and know the basics of how to reground someone. Some signs of these responses, other than obvious freezing up, can include not making eye contact with you or others, or a general sense that the student is staring off into space. A simple invitation by you as the instructor to make eye contact may be useful, although if this doesn’t work, ask the student to start naming colors and other things that they see in the room. If the class ends and the student still seems floaty and distant, taking a little more time to do this can be helpful. Encourage the student to listen to some music outside or in their car before they leave or walk around in the fresh air if this is possible.

7.) Make yourself available after class and be ready to make professional referrals to a counseling organization or practice that has a good reputation for working with trauma. You are not expected to be a therapist as a self-instructor. However, it’s quality service to recognize when a student may need some extra help.

General Attitude & Outlook as an Instructor

You can challenge trauma survivors to step outside of their comfort zones within the context of validating them and their experiences first. The key is balance and challenging only after sufficient rapport has been established. This does not take as much effort as you may think, if you can be mindful of the following suggestions:

1.) Don’t project the “I am strong man here to save you” complex. Realize that for many it’s not physical rape, but rather, small microaggressions of male dominance and savior complex over the years that have been subtly wounding.

2.) While it’s fine to teach worst case scenarios, don’t be a fear-monger, especially if it comes across that you’re doing it to see more classes. Fear-mongering does nothing for your credibility with the student. If you want to see the student in class regularly, it is paramount that they are not scared away. This does not mean that the instructor couldn’t pre-frame a future lesson, letting the student know that the worst-case scenario will eventually be addressed, but understanding less threatening situations are best. The goal of all instructors is to build trust and comfort. All the knowledge in the world won’t help a student who is afraid of class because the instructor did not develop a trusting rapport with the student.

3.) Avoid misogynistic language like “honey, sweetie, dear,” etc. This makes most women cringe. In working with male students, consider how nicknames like “buddy” or “pal” can create a power differential and impact trust. If you are not able to remember names, defer to the same “Ma’am” and “Sir” titles for your students that martial arts instructors typically ask of their students. It’s a simple way to create a quick environment for respect.

4.) Have assistants on hand, if possible and make sure they also are versed in the principles we’re covering in this article. If working with a predominantly female class, have female assistants on hand, if possible. The female assistant may not have the same level of martial arts knowledge but they will have something that a male instructor won’t have, the ability to communicate with the students on a female-female level. Beyond that, when a male instructor demonstrates a technique, it is quite common for a female student to think, “Of course he got out, but I can’t.” Having a female assistant on hand for both floating the floor and for demonstration purposes gives validity to the technique and can inspire a level of technical belief for the students.

5.) Recognize your privilege as an instructor. Privilege refers to the things you don’t have to worry about that others must be concerned about in their regular life. Male/masculine privilege, “fit” privilege, and educational privilege can all be barriers between instructors and good delivery of services if we are not taking the students’ worldviews into account. To truly serve your students, empathy must be present. Be willing to look through the students’ eyes, try to develop an understanding of their lives, and remember that your obligation as an instructor is to help students get beyond any previous restrictions or hesitations they may have had. If you approach the class with the male-privileged mindset then you are reinforcing their belief system and thus not doing your duty as an instructor of the martial arts.

6.) Show good etiquette with photography and have people give you a way to tell you if they don’t want their pics/videos out there on social media. If you plan on taking pictures, let students know before class and try not to be too invasive in how you take them. Let students know that they can approach you (and won’t be chastised for doing it) if they don’t want pictures posted on social media. Many trauma survivors are in situations in which they are being stalked and targeted on social media and they have the right to take a class without people knowing where they are.

7.) Listen to your students. Often, instructors become so focused on the information being taught that they forget the most important part of teaching, which is listening to students. Give them the opportunity to present problems, concerns, issues, ideas, and questions. Not only does this show the student that you value and respect their thoughts, but it allows you to adjust the curriculum for future students. Be willing to adapt the program; sometimes as the instructor you must be willing to neglect certain information or add more based on the circumstances that arise in class. Especially when working with students that you know have had negative past experiences, consider taking pauses in the action to focus on student situations and respond with material that addresses their concerns. This may necessitate throwing away your lesson plan or adapting the information for which you prepared. However, because you’re willing to listen, understand, and help the student, you may have just gained a new long term student because they have developed an entry level of trust with you.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here