Choose a System
There are many things to consider when seeking instruction in any style of martial art. First and foremost is which of the thousands of styles is right for you -- and unless, you want to travel across the planet, which has a school that is accessible to you.

Think about why you want to study and what you want to get out of that study. Do you want only to learn to fight, as in No Holds Barred? Are you interested only in street self-defense, traditional- based styles or some combination thereof?

If your primary interest is to learn how to fight and you have no interest in forms/kata or the traditional ways, you have narrowed your choices considerably. And, similarly, if you want traditional training you can forget about the street-oriented systems.

Now you have to choose from the subset of systems. Do you go with Korean, Okinawan, Japanese, Chinese, Muy Thai or one of the many others? The choices are endless.

The main thing to remember is to choose a style that suits you physically and mentally. If the animal styles catch your eye, look into the various systems of Kung Fu. Like to kick? Try Tae Kwon Do.

Like hard, linear systems?
Investigate Japanese styles such as Ishinryu, or Hsing-Ie, a Chinese style. If you want to do NHB, then Brazilian Jujitsu, Vale Tudo and other grappling arts may fit the bill.

Look into Krav Maga (Israeli) or Systema (Russian) for those interested solely in self-defense.

Gather Preliminary Information
Once you've narrowed your choice to a system, you must seek out the schools in your area and pay them a visit. You can gather preliminary information from a phone call or by visiting their web site but going to the schools, watching their classes and talking to both instructors and students is the only way to make an informed decision.

Making the first visit

Now that you are ready to visit the school or schools of your choice, make a list of questions to ask.

These Should Include:

  • Who teaches the class?
  • How many are in the class?
  • What is the instructor to student ratio?
  • How often does the class meet?
  • Ask about the head instructor's qualifications.
  • Who was his or her teacher?
  • Are they still studying, learning new techniques?
  • How long have they been teaching?
  • How does he or she develop new instructors?

Watch at least one beginner class and one intermediate to advanced class including their sparring sessions. Observe the instructor-student interactions to see how the students receive the instructions from the teacher and how he or she responds to questions and handles students who may be struggling to learn a movement or concept.

Pay close attention to the sparring. Do the students appear to practice control? Are they using techniques or are they just flailing with random punches and kicks? Does the instructor or assistant watch the sparring and help the students as they are sparring? Do the better students try and dominate the weaker ones or do they try to help their classmates?

Do they allow contact and if so how much and to what parts of the body? Make sure their sparring style suits you; some people like full contact, others don't. Do the students wear pads when they spar? Headgear? Handpads? Footpads? Whether they do or don't, ask why.

The Facilities

Pay attention to the facilities as well. Is it reasonably clean and free from clutter in the main workout area? Is the equipment in safe working order? Are the restrooms clean?

Don't expect a pristine place but on the other hand you should expect a school to be presentable and safe.

Rank Advancement

Don't fall for the "We promise you'll be a Black belt in XX years" line. Obtaining your black belt requires nothing but hard work and sweat, maybe a little blood and a few tears. Some people learn faster than others, and it may take you extra time to gain rank or you may be one of those naturally-gifted people who learn very quickly. Regardless of the amount of time it takes, you will get out of it what you put in. Depending on the system, it could take 5 years to obtain a first degree black belt, in others a little as two years.

Be sure to check a prospective school's rank advancement requirements. Even though you may not know how difficult the curriculum is you should be able to get an idea of how much you'll be expected to learn and the average time frame involved in moving up through the ranks. Belt levels vary widely so one school's Red Belt may be another's brown belt. In some systems a Red Belt holder indicates the Grandmaster. Get a full explanation of how their ranking system works.

Introductory/trial classes

After you've sat through a class or two, it's time to see if this style and school suits you. Does this school offer a free trial class or some sort of introductory package? Don't let them suck you into a long term contract until you are sure you are ready to make that commitment; you will pay the full amount on the contract whether you show up for class or not, although the exact laws on getting out of a contract vary from state to state.
Assuming you can try the style for a week or a month, come to every scheduled class and ask all the questions you can.

Talk with the other students and see what their likes and dislikes are about the classes.

Again make sure that you get along with the instructor(s) and that they are knowledgeable, helpful, courteous, encouraging and patient.

Now is the time to make sure that personalities don't clash. What do they teach the very first class? Do they throw you in with everyone else or are all the first-timers grouped together? If you are the only newbie, do they give you one-on-one instruction?

Contracts, Fees and Related Expenses
The last consideration in your decision to join a school should be the price. Of course it must be affordable, but even if it is, if you don't get along with the teachers or don't like other aspects you won't enjoy it and will probably drop out.

Does the school offer a variety of contract terms? Do they offer a non-contractual pay as you go plan? If you elect to sign a contract, read it first and know for how long you are committing; it can be very difficult to get out of a contract down the road if you decide you don't like the style or school anymore.

Also make sure to get the costs of thing such as test fees, uniforms and any weapons you may need and any other "hidden" costs such as any association dues.

Again, don't get locked into a long term contract if you aren't sure. Don't let them pressure you. Don't sign anything if you aren't 100 percent sure and always read the contract before signing.

The decision to study the martial arts can be difficult. Studying a martial art can be very rewarding both mentally and physically, but you must ask many questions -- both of yourself and the prospective schools -- so that you get all that you want from your studies.

Listen to your instincts in addition to all of the other factors mentioned and you should find a school/system that you can stick with for a long time to come.

Good luck on your journey.

Dave Randolph is a 4th degree Black Belt in ShaolinDo Chinese Martial Arts in Louisville, KY and has been instructor for over 13 years. He is also a certified Russian Kettlebell instructor.