Ten Tips for Picking the Best Martial Art School

How do I Choose the Right Martial Art School for Me and My Family?

You are about to make an important and lasting decision.  You intuitively understand that picking a martial art has more implications for long-term mental and physical health then just picking a gym or fitness activity. You probably don’t know much about the various arts other than what you see on TV and movies, and probably are trying to make your decision based on price, proximity, and marketing materials. How do you make sure you were making the right decision and not a mistake you will come to regret?

1. “Which Style is Best?” – Don’t Treat Arts Like Brand Names.

Martial art styles and affiliations should not be treated like brand names. Coke and Pepsi work hard to deliver the same experience and flavor whether you were buying a can of their product in New York or Istanbul. Martial arts, however, are transmitted from individual to individual, and the experience is defined by the talent, insight, instructional capability, integrity and character of the individual teacher.  Picking a style “brand name” is no guarantee of the quality of instruction you will receive.  Thus Kung Fu is not better or worse than Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is not better or worse than “Systema or Tae Kwon Do, or any other comparison you may be told.

Don’t make your decision based on a style or art, or even what your friends and neighbors are doing.  Make your decision based on finding the right instructor for you!

2. Analyze the Sales Pitch.

There are many companies that sell very sophisticated marketing toolkits to martial arts studios.  Ask yourself if the websites and advertisements you see feel authentic about the personalities and values of the instructors, and don’t be distracted by the flash and dazzle.  By nature, the most respected martial artists value substance over flash; with confidence and experience usually comes humility.

Some indications that you may be being marketed to with flash over substance:

  • Descriptions like “extreme,” “elite,” “ultimate,” “street defense,” and “all martial arts taught as one.”
  • Promises of black belts earned quickly.
  • Denigration of other arts or schools.  Confidence in your own ability doesn’t require you to tear down anyone else.
  • Focus on athletics, gymnastics, screaming faces, and choreography.
  • Attempts to play on paranoia, insecurity and fear.
  • Multicolor uniforms and school logos over everything.
  • Self-referred titles like “Grandmaster” and “Master”.  Titles of high respect should be used by others, not to refer to yourself.

3. Find The Teacher Who Will Inspire You.

To make the right choice, start by visiting every Karate, Aikido, Tae Kwon Do, Judo, or Jujitsu school that you can find, and interview the teachers and students. Do they seem like the type of people you want to spend time with, call friends, or emulate? Do the instructors seem like they have the ability to inspire you, push you to new limits and motivate you, challenge you, show you how to have fun and passion for what you do, and inspire you to keep coming back to class week after week, year after year? Do you have a strong “gut feeling” about the individual and the school? Ask about what values the teachers promote, and ask yourself if those are the values you want to instill into yourself and your children. Ask the teachers where they themselves train and improve their skills; the best teachers train and study their entire lives, and do not rest upon the ego gratification received from just being a teacher.  You wouldn’t trust your life savings to a financial advisor just because she lives around the corner, or your mental health to a therapist just because they have big glossy mailers; engaging in a martial art is a long-term commitment that will affect your physical and mental health, and it deserves the same thoughtful research you would give to other important things in your life.

4. Do A Little Background Research.

Every martial art instructor in the world has a high opinion of their abilities, it comes with the territory.  But that doesn’t mean you have to take their word for it, and a little internet research will go a long way.  Spend 15 minutes Googling the instructors, the name of the school, and the organization that they are affiliated with.

  • Are the instructors known outside of their own school?  Do they give seminars or workshops around the state, regionally, nationally, or internationally?  Do they have a strong reputation? Look for “red flags” like convictions or suspicious backgrounds of instructors.  What are the “lineages” of the instructors?  Legitimate instructors come from legitimate backgrounds, and themselves had well-respected teachers and should be able to trace their teaching lineage to the origins of their respective arts.  When instructors have ranks in multiple styles, be sure to ask yourself if it seems realistic that they could have trained for years in each martial art long enough to attain all those ranks at their age.  A quick rule of thumb is five years per black belt rank (faster ranking does not mean they were prodigies, it means the places they got rank gave rank away more easily).  Thus, an individual with a 5th degree black belt in one art and a 3rd degree black belt in another art should be expected to have trained for around at least 40 years (results may vary, and the highest ranks take even longer).
  • Does the school have good reviews on Yelp! and Google Local (maps)?  Reviews can be provide very important feedback about the experiences people have with schools. High search rankings aren’t a very consistent measure, but usually the best schools eventually show highly in search results even if their instructors aren’t very web-savvy.   If you are driven to really research a school deeply, you can look for complaints on sites like the local Better Business Bureau, Consumeraffairs.com, and martial art review sites like bullshido.net (a pun on “Bushido”, the way of the samurai), which are often great resources for finding the most (and least) reputable schools.
  • Does the affiliation organization have a website?  How many schools are members?  Smaller organizations can be legitimate, but are more susceptible to rank inflation and inconsistent quality (on the other side, larger organizations can be more susceptible to politics!).  Does the organization have regular events, a governing structure, and rank requirements that are recognized internationally?  What is the origin of the organization – does it appear to have a legitimate connection to the history of the art, or does it seem to be a splinter group with murky origins?  How old is the “style” and organization; has it proven that it can stand the test of time?  In ancient Japan, a martial organization (“ryu”) was not recognized until it has survived against competitors beyond two generations!

5. Look at the Physical Environment: The Space Reflects the Values.

It’s important to represent outside the qualities we wish to cultivate inside.  Carefully examine the physical environment where you or your children will actually be training. How clean is it? Does it show an emphasis on trophies, or spirituality? Does the space instill a sense that you’re doing something special and important, or does it feel like just a place to work up a sweat?  A wise person once said, “first, we build the spaces around us; then, the spaces build us.”

Examine the emotional impact that various schools have on you when you first come inside.  Do they instill a sense of pride and excitement?  A sense of deep respect, serenity, or spirituality?  Are they places you would be proud to be associated with?  Do the students show love and ownership in helping keep the school looking professional? Or do the spaces seem rundown and sketchy, unhygienic, or poorly maintained?

A martial arts studio doesn’t have to be ornately or expensively decorated; that requires considerable investment and years to build.  Some of the best Dojos are spartan, clean, and simple.  However, the training space demonstrates the priorities of the teachers and owners, and where they invest the dues they receive, and whether they take more pride in themselves or their school.

Child black belt teacher.A beautiful Dojo represents longevity and an appreciation for detail and inner quality.

 

6. Evaluate the other Students: You are Joining a Community.

You will be learning as much from the other students as you will be from the teachers.  Consider the school members and community. Trust your instincts: does it seem like the students are motivated by pride, respect, trust, ego, the need to prove themselves, or showmanship? Does there appear to be a suspicious number of injuries around? Ask the members and students what benefits they receive from training there; is there a diversity of ethnicities, genders, and ages in the dojo? Does the school look like it teaches things only young people can do, or do they teach things that can be practiced for an entire lifetime? Does the school convey a sense of community, belonging, teamwork, and mutual support, or does it convey a sense of competition and “everyone out for themselves?”  Ask the students what they get from their training, and what is the most special attributes of their Dojo.

7. Don’t Let Money Define the Relationship.

How does the school organize memberships and dues? Do you feel like you are being given a hard sale, like at a car dealership or a fitness club? Are you being pressured to sign up for a long-term contract before you feel you have even determined if the dojo is the right place for you? Do you feel that the teacher is focused more on making money than improving the lives of their students? Dojos are expensive to operate, and teachers have to make a living too, but you can usually get a sense of whether or not you mean more than a paycheck to the owner of the school.Congratulations, Your Check Cleared.Congratulations, Your Check Cleared.

8. Don’t be Dazzled By Rank.

Don’t be too influenced by the rank of the teachers; ranks really are not comparable across styles and organizations. A black belt in this place is not the same as a black belt in that place.  It is much easier to quickly receive high rank in very small organizations, than in large international associations with thousands or tens of thousands of members. Some groups will give advanced black belt ranks to children, where in other organizations a lifetime of dedicated study is required.  Some organizations give different meaning to the various ranks, and award them based on different requirements, abilities, and experience than others.  There are also many very impressive-looking, international “rank and diploma mills” and “Hall of Fame” organizations that allow paying members to receive rank certificates in various arts with very little actual training.   Sometimes, junior teachers (with relatively “lower” black belt ranks) have a fresh outlook and enthusiasm which can be more infectious and rewarding than instruction from seasoned and tired teachers. Nonetheless, make certain that the teacher has proper instructional rank and certification from a legitimate and respectable organization; there are too many people who became instructors because they craved the authority and recognition, not because they were focused on personal growth and love for the art.

Child black belt teacher.Master Timmy will see you now.

9. Seek Variety: Great Schools Attract Diversity

Finally, one of the best measures of the quality of a Dojo is the diversity of martial backgrounds of the students who train there.  It is very easy for any school or organization to become very insular, and convince themselves that what they practice is more realistic, affective, or of higher quality than anywhere else, without any objective evidence to back up those self opinions. Over time, the best Dojos tend to attract veterans of many martial arts, styles, and occupations including police officers and military veterans. Their students frequently participate in seminars of different organizations and styles. Their teachers and members often have rank and experience in previous martial arts than the one that they are currently teaching or training. In highly diverse schools, you are less likely to hear “that is wrong, this is right” and more likely to hear “explore this, keep what is useful.”  Environments that attract and tolerate a wide variety of experience and knowledge are more likely to provide high-value, high-quality instruction and are less likely to “drink their own Kool-Aid” too much.

Diversity, of course, can mean ethnic and social diversity, gender diversity, and age diversity.  Real life has a wide spectrum of types of people, and a good martial art should represent that variety in their community.

10. Trust Your Gut

In the end, the most important tip is to listen to your own instincts.  Consider the first nine tips as a quick checklist while you pay attention to your own reaction to what you are seeing and hearing about a potential school.  Now you know what to pay attention to; your own heart will tell you which is the right decision.  If you are unsure or nervous about anything, keep digging and asking until you feel right about the situation and what you are committing you or your family to!

Selecting, and committing to a martial art can be a daunting process.  As many people drop out of martial arts because they made the wrong first choice as they do for all other reasons combined.  Chances are you are not really knowledgable enough to make an informed decision when you start down the road of becoming a student. But a little detective work, trusting your instincts, and knowing what questions to ask yourself, the instructors, and the students of the schools you’re considering can help you be comfortable that you are making the right decision!

 

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