For the fifth time in just as many days I have been confronted with the question about martial arts schools and what to look for so I have decided to do my best to provide a basic guide in what to look for when you decide that it’s time to learn some good defense skills and go in search of a place to kick things and scream.
Now, for a bit of background, I started into the martial arts when I was around 10 years old. I actually got into it because of my older brother who started because he almost got into a fight with a linebacker at his school and came to the conclusion that if he was going to keep doing things like that then maybe he should learn how to fight.
The style I started in was Kojosho under the instruction of Sensei William Small. I also was lucky enough to have Sensei Rick Reynolds and Hanshi Fredrick Absher as my instructors as well. I left Kojosho after nine years, not because I wanted to, but because I joined the military and bounced around the world for a while.
While in the military I studied a few different styles including Chito Ryu Yoshukai, Judo, Aikido, Tae Kwon Do and finally I ended up in Wushu, a Chinese form of Kung Fu. In those styles I reached brown, blue brown, brown and red. Am I an expert on the martial arts? Hell no. I am a talented beginner who has very solid basics built on years and years of starting over in new styles every time I moved or changed duty stations.
Basics are the key to any skill and the martial arts are no exception. I have had the basics hammered into me for so many years that I can do them in my sleep. Fancy techniques are nice and showy, but the real fight is won on basics, just like every war is won by the infantry in the end. The point of this post though is to help you find a martial arts school that will drill those solid basics into you and give you the training, confidence and skill to defend yourself if you ever have to.
Things to look for in a school –
1 –How clean is the school? The school should be neat and clean. There should not be gear in piles anywhere, the changing room or locker room should be clean and the mat and studio should be clean and swept.
2 – How are the students dressed? The students are the largest reflection of the school and its attitude so if the students uniforms are sloppy, dirty or unkempt then chances are that the instructor is not focusing enough on discipline and their training could be as sloppy as their clothing. If they are dragging their belts along behind them or have their gi wadded up in a ball then it is a good indicator of how seriously they take their training. You shouldn’t go into something as serious as this and be surrounded by people who are screwing off.
3 – How do the students treat each other? Now understand that I come from a old school dojo and for us the lower rank students bow to the higher ranks and show them the respect they have earned by their time in the school and the rank they have achieved. If the students are horsing around, running in the school or generally goofing off then the school isn’t setting the right tone of “You are here to learn a dangerous skill so be serious”. Martial arts is like driving a car, if you know what you are doing and can do it well you will be safe in even the worst conditions, but if you are goofing around you can get hurt or worse, you can unintentionally hurt someone else.
4 – Is there music playing? Some modern schools like to play music during the class to “keep it upbeat”. I found that true in my WuShu classes and I also found that it is impossible to truly focus on what you are doing when there is a pop beat in the background. The school is a place where all distractions should be put away and you can focus on your learning. It should not be about entertaining the students so they want to hang around. To my view, if you have to keep them entertained so they want to stay then they aren’t serious anyway and are only hurting the serious students. An instructor that caters to this kind of student in order to have large classes isn’t really concerned about what kind of martial artist he is creating, he’s concerned with his pocket book.
Now, don’t get me wrong on this. For the young kid’s class there are times to make it fun and not have it as some sort of midget boot camp, but when it is the adult’s class there should be no need to have ‘fun time’ to keep them interested.
5 – Does the school encourage tournament fighting? Now, this is a tricky one. Tournament fighting, in my experience, is incompatible with self defense training. In tournaments you have all kinds of rules that must be followed; no head shots, no sweeps, no thrown, no arm bars, no locks and when you hit your opponent you then must back off and reset to the starting position. In a street fight there are no rules, if you hit the guy you don’t stop, back off and let him recover. Instead, you hit him again, and when he goes down you kick him until he decides that he never wants to see you again in his entire life.
If the school primary sparring training is based around tournament fighting then it would probably be best to look at a different school and find one that focuses on street defense first. If they have a ton of trophies in the window then they are a tournament school and you should be very clear with the sensei about what you are looking for.
A school that focuses on defense will have sparing just like a tournament school, but it will be more realistic. The student won’t break after one of them scores a hit, higher belts will probably use sweeps or head strikes, and the match will go on longer in order for the students to build up endurance for when it happens on the street.
6 – How many nights a week do you train? Let’s face it, like anything practice makes perfect and if you aren’t training at least three nights a week then I would say you are wasting your money and should find another school. One of those nights should focus on self defense techniques, or the school should have a night during the week where they focus on self defense techniques and fighting.
7 – What’s the instructor like – If you don’t like the instructor and his attitudes don’t really mesh with yours then you aren’t going to get your money’s worth out of it. If you are gung-ho for self defense and all he wants to train you in is forms and weapons for tournaments then there is a problem. Make sure when you interview the instructor (Yes, you will sit down and ask him all kinds of questions related to the above and below) that he understands what you are looking for and you understand what he is offering.
8 – What’s the cost? Now, I have mostly encountered this out here in California, but it could have spread across the country for all I know. Some of the schools I have seen out here have two different training paths, one of them they will call something like the “Introductory path”" and then the other is the “black belt path”. In any case, they make claims about how the black belt path will prepare you for black belt testing, blah, blah… blah. It’s bullshit. A school cannot promise that they can make you anything and charging different prices is just a way to get more money out of the student. A school should charge a monthly fee and say “here is when the classes are”. Now, if they have more classes like a special self defense class on Saturday nights in addition to the regular classes, fine, charge a little extra for it, but to say that to reach black belt cost more on a monthly level from the very beginning is just squeezing for more cash.
Fact is less than 10% of the people who start in the martial arts ever reach black belt (look at me, I’ve been chasing it for years and keep starting over) so that kind of promise is empty.
9 – What style is best? There is no “best style” and anyone who says that there is one is selling you something. Fact is that the style that is best for you is the one that you like, simple as that. Each style has it benefits and drawbacks. Judo is a great ground fighting style but isn’t much for the stand up, multiple attacker fight. Tae Kwon Do is a strong fighting style but is weaker on the ground fighting skills. In any event, starting out in the martial arts is a lot like learning to walk for the first time – you know nothing so any place you start is good. Once you have been training for a few years and been exposed to other styles then you will find on that fits with your personality and attitude. For example, if you are a peaceful, non-combative sort then you would probably want a style like Aikido which is more passive than jujitsu; but if you are an aggressive fighter then taking Tai Chi probably isn’t the right style for you. All you can do is learn experiment and try new things until you find the right one.
10 – How long will it take? Training in the martial arts is not something that you can do for a year a then say “Great, I’m a bad ass now!” It doesn’t work that way. In Kojosho we had a minimum of six months between belt tests meaning that from white belt to 1st Dan Brown belt would generally take around four years. After that it was at least a year before you are allowed to test for black belt and even then there was no guarantee of being promoted. Mr. Small use to tell me that all Black Belt meant was that NOW you were ready to learn some martial arts, everything else was just preparing you for that.
Granted after a year or two, if you dedicate yourself, you will most likely be proficient enough to defend yourself in a general encounter. But if you want to be truly good at it, you will need to devote years to your training inside, and outside of class.
11 – What about the free lesson? Almost every school I have walked into offers a free lesson. Don’t bother with it. Instead, ask if you can sit and watch the classes that you would be joining. Go the whole week and just watch the training, see how serious they are about it and see if the instructor is someone that actually knows how to teach. We all know people who are great at what they do but couldn’t teach a fish how to swim.
12 – What’s with the board breaking? Breaking boards can actually be a good training technique. Since in a fight you will be hitting someone with the intent of stopping them, breaking boards teaches you how to focus that strike into something that you can deliver without hurting yourself and with enough force that you can break the attackers arm, leg, or ribs if you have to. Yes, the way it is done in class is a lot different that the way it will happen on the street, but by practicing in a controlled environment and controlled conditions you get SOME preparation for the real world that way.
In the end, when you choose a school it should be a school and an instructor that fits you as much as possible. If you stay in the martial arts, you will find that it becomes part of your daily life and it will change you which is why it is so important to find the right school. Kojosho, Mr. Small and Mr. Absher had a huge influence on me that is still very present to this day, most everything in this post I learned from them and I am proud to say I can still do all my Kojosho forms in my sleep and it’s been almost 20 years.
Good luck and if you have any questions feel free to write me or post it in the comments. Like I said, I’m no expert but I’ve been around a while.Tags: Karate schools, martial arts, martial arts training