How To Recognize Toxic Students In Your Dojo

how to spot a crazy martial arts student

True Story Alert…

My second school was located in an area where there was a lot of “urban flight” – people who moved out of the inner city due to gentrification and increased costs of living.

My family was poor growing up, so I had a lot of experience in dealing with shady people as a kid. I also knew that just because someone is poor, it doesn’t mean they’re bad people.

However, my previous school was in an affluent community, and because of that I’d forgotten just how crazy some people who come from rough environments can act.

A lady came in the school to enroll her five-year-old, and she brought along her teenage sister to enroll as well. The mom also explained the teen would be bringing the five-year-old to classes, as she sometimes wouldn’t make it home from work in time to take her child to class.

The next day, the teen comes in with the kid for her first lesson. I teach the private, and then invite them to stay so the five-year-old can attend the group class. During the class, the teen is on a cell phone having a very loud conversation. I ask her politely to take it outside, and she ignores me.

So, I ask her again. Again she ignores me. And I ask her a third time, at which point she begins cussing me out in front of my tots class.

Finally, I ask her to leave. She continues making a scene, so I escort her outside, then I call the police before going back to apologize to everyone and salvage what’s left of the class time.

A few minutes later I dismiss the class and go outside to greet the cop. He happens to be Hispanic, and he is having a very animated conversation with the teen in Spanish.

Thankfully, I speak a little Spanish and understand it passingly (my grandma spoke very little English, so I had to pick it up to converse with her). As it turns out, the teen is telling the cop that I hit her, that I beat her up, and so on.

Talk about a mess…

Recognizing Toxic Students

In order to know how to deal with toxic students, first you have to know how to recognize what you’re dealing with.

The truth is, some students do stupid things simply because they are uninformed and don’t know any better, not because they are bad people.

For example, the parent who talks to their kid while he or she is in class. If they don’t know there’s a rule against it, and further if they don’t know WHY there’s a rule against it, chances are good they’re going to chat up a storm with their kid during class.

Obviously, that person doesn’t need to be kicked out of your school – you just need to communicate your policies better and educate them so it doesn’t happen again.

In future articles I’ll talk about the importance of having clear policies and maintaining your positional authority, and how to use both to take care of most of these more common student issues.

But today I’m going to discuss how you can spot the really crazy people who come into your dojo every so often, because those are the people you have to get rid of right away.

A Quick Disclaimer

Now, let me just say that while I have taken a few psychology courses, I am by no means a qualified psychologist or criminologist. So, the info I’m about to share with you is based on my own personal experience and research.

Be that as it may, it’s served me well over the years. My suggestion is that you read the books I’m about to mention and do your own research so you can form your own educated opinions about who stays and who goes in your own dojo.

In Dangerous Personalities former FBI profiler Joe Navarro* lists four personality types that he believes cause the majority of predatory and violent crime in America:

  • The narcissistic personality
  • The emotionally unstable personality
  • The paranoid personality
  • And, the predator

His system is the best I’ve come across for helping the lay-person to classify and recognize abnormal personalities. So, I thought it would be wise to introduce you to his work in order to help you discern a person who is making an honest mistake from a truly crazy person who is purposely disrupting your dojo.

The Narcissist

According to Navarro, “narcissistic personalities care only for themselves, their needs, and their priorities.” They tend to be manipulative, and have no problems lying, cheating, and scheming to get what they want, regardless of the impact their actions have on others.

Navarro states that this personality type typically exhibits a grandiose opinion of their own person, and that instead of exhibiting empathy toward others, they display arrogance and entitlement. (I can think of a few “grandmasters” who fit this bill.)

Narcissists start off charming you and wowing you with their personality. But in the end, they are abusive, cruel, parasitic, and sneaky, and step on other people to get what they want.

The Emotionally Unstable Personality

On the other hand, the emotionally unstable personality exhibits severe fluctuations in behavior. Their behavior is as unpredictable as Texas weather, and just as dangerous.

These people have a need for emotional security and attention in relationships, but Navarro states they have little if any capacity to nurture those relationships in kind.

In many ways, the unstable personality acts like the narcissist, but instead of acting out because of their own exaggerated feelings of self-worth, they do so out of a constant need for validation and emotional reinforcement.

In other words, the emotionally unstable personality is the classic drama queen.

The Paranoid Personality

As for the paranoid personality, Navarro describes them as “consumed by irrational mistrust and fear.”

He goes on to say paranoid personalities exhibit the following traits: “easily insulted; argumentative; jealous; holds grudges; questions motives; challenges the rules; fears, dislikes, or hates those who are different…”

In many ways, this personality type can be one of the most dangerous, because they are motivated by irrational levels of fear and mistrust. And, as Navarro says, when crossed they can react in a sudden, unpredictable, and violent manner.

The Predator

Finally, we get to the predator personality. Most psychologists would classify this personality type as either a psychopath, a sociopath, or as someone with antisocial personality disorder or conduct disorder, depending on the severity of their actions.

But lay-person would likely simply describe them as evil.

In Dr. Martha Stout‘s excellent book, The Sociopath Next Door*, she cites research that indicates approximately 4% of the population exhibits some level of sociopathy.

Worth noting is that she also goes on to state that the percentage of those people who act out criminally is rather small, but Stout also points out that sociopaths who choose not to become criminals can still wreak havoc in our lives nonetheless.

So what defines the predator personality? According to Navarro, “while we engage in honest work to become successful, predators measure their success by how well they’ve exploited us.”

He also says, “These individuals don’t think as we do. We care about others. They pretend to or simply don’t… If they need a car, they steal one. If they need sex, they rape you. If they need money, they go after your grandparents’ bank account…”

And finally he states: “Our trusting nature puts us at a disadvantage with these personalities, as they’re unfettered by emotional attachments, conscience, laws, or ethics.”

When we are teaching a self-defense class and we talk about violent criminals, this is the personality type we’re referring to. But we also have to remember that this personality type can often fly under the radar, just as Stout describes in The Sociopath Next Door.

And in many ways, those people can cause just as much harm to us as a predatory criminal.

So How Do You Really Know?

The bottom line is, most of us are not qualified to diagnose mental disorders. We’re not trained clinical psychologists or psychiatrists who deal with abnormal psychology on a daily basis.

However, we can keep our eyes open for the warning signs that a person just isn’t right. And, when the evidence is stacking up against someone, it’s our responsibility as an instructor to protect the rest of our students from that person’s actions and behavior.

I propose that the best litmus test of whether or not a person falls in one of these categories of truly crazy people is to look at the results of their actions. “You will know them by their fruits” applies very well to spotting dangerous people.

Also, look at patterns of behavior. Do they commit the same “mistakes” over and over again, then apologize and repent… only to do the exact same thing again the following week?

And finally, look for duplicity. Every personality on this list will use deception to get what they want. Every. Single. One.

What To Do?

As for what happened with the lying teen and the cop, knowing a little Spanish saved my ass.

Long story short, I was able to explain to the cop that she was lying and that I had plenty of witnesses to prove it. Things turned out okay, and the cop and I laughed about it later… but I could have easily ended up in jail that day.

All because I failed to recognize one toxic person who had entered my school.

In future newsletter articles and blog posts I’m going to explain how to handle these situations tactfully, so you avoid making things worse than they already are.

But sometimes, the best way to deal with something is with a firm hand. So, in future articles I’ll talk about using tact and strategy versus using a heavy handed approach.

And if you’re not on my email list, click here to join so you can be sure to get my tips and articles in your email inbox every day.

Until next time,

Mike Massie

P.S. – *If you profess to teach self-defense in any way, shape, or form, I strongly suggest that you read Joe Navarro’s books, starting with Dangerous Personalities.

P.S.S. – **I also suggest you read The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, PhD, followed by The Gift of Fear by Gavin deBecker.


  1. Eugene Shewchuk on December 14, 2016 at 10:46 am

    I recently had to deal with a toxic student. Re-read this article and saw that the person was of the Paranoid Personality. Made them leave before things blew up!

  2. Mike Massie on December 21, 2016 at 9:57 am

    Read Navarro’s book. It’s an excellent read and it’ll help you spot those people faster in the future.

  3. Eugene Shewchuk on December 22, 2016 at 10:14 am

    Thank you I will! Merry Christmas Mike!

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