There's no guarantee you'll find the very best school in all the world, but you can definitely avoid the worst!

How to Choose a Martial Arts School

Revised 2/28/2004

By David M. Kalman

After nearly 30 years (on and off) of practicing various martial arts, there's one question I'm asked more than any other: "How do I choose the best martial arts school?" It's a difficult question because the answer depends on many factors. 

Unless You're Willing to Travel, You Take What You Can Get

In my experience, most people choose a school or a teacher based on convenience. It's not that people are simply lazy. Rather, most people pursue the martial art that they stumble upon by accident, whether it's taught in grade school or high school, at a local fitness club or YMCA, in a city recreation center, or at a retail storefront. For children especially, the choice of a school may depend on what's popular at the movies or on t.v. One year it's "Kung Fu," and the next it's "The Karate Kid," "Ultimate Fighting," or Cardio Kickboxing and Tae-Bo. You can scan your local yellow pages for martial arts instruction, but ultimately, you'll choose a school that's nearby.

Why Fight It?

A long time ago, I decided I wouldn't worry about the fads in the martial arts. This is the natural way of most things. Regardless of what's considered hip and popular, there are four possible outcomes to learning a martial art:

1) You have a wonderful, satisfying, long-term experience studying martial arts. You just happen to find a great teacher in a quality school.

2) You have a mixed experience. You spend too much money or injure yourself and become discouraged, even though you may learn a few valuable techniques in the process.

3) You waste your time and money (this is the worst case). You think you're learning the nuances of an ancient art, while in reality your instructor is woefully inexperienced and/or the school itself is a belt mill--a school focused on quantity (of dollars you spend), not on the quality of its instruction or on the quality of the performance of its students. The saddest part of outcome #3 is that you might never realize that you've been ripped off and that you've learned nothing useful.

4) You suffer from #3 above, PLUS, you find yourself with an instructor who is abusive (physically and/or mentally) and/or reckless.

For the record, I've had all four experiences.

Why Study Martial Arts

Choosing a martial arts school often depends on why you want to study. Here are some typical reasons, and some tips for choosing a school.

Self-Defense

For practical self-defense classes, contact your local police department or community college and ask specifically about self-defense classes. These are typically short-term (several weeks), with a focus on a few practical tips for improving your chances in a  confrontation. In contrast, traditional martial arts are often taught in equal parts to build character, to pass down a cultural tradition, to enhance fitness, and to perfect technical fighting arts. Many traditional martial arts are not immediately "practical" in the Western, instant gratification sense of the term. If you are looking to quickly learn self-defense, traditional martial arts don't provide an immediate answer. It may be months or years before you'll learn practical self-defense.

Competition/Sports

Some martial arts emphasize individual and team competition, much like other sports such as wrestling, football, or basketball. Judo, a Japanese art of grappling and throwing, was conceived purely as a competitive sport like college wrestling. Tae Kwon Do, the Korean art similar to Japanese or Okinawan Karate, is also widely practiced as a competitive sport and appeared in the 2000 Olympics. Along with Karate and Chinese martial arts generally labeled as "Kung Fu," the degree to which the school emphasizes sports depends on the teacher or school. Some will emphasize -- or overemphasize -- the sport aspects of their arts and some will not seem to care at all about competition. You should make a judgment about the school based on your preferences.

Fitness and Health

Many martial arts provide intensive aerobic conditioning, strength training, and stretching. In visiting a martial arts school, watch the class warm ups and exercises. Some schools choose to focus on explaining the techniques more than on physical conditioning. If you're looking for physical conditioning, be aware that some schools may expect you to arrive to class ready (already warmed up) to learn techniques, while others will lead an intense cardio-vascular workout before moving on to the technicalities. There's no right or wrong in this case. Just be sure to watch the class to see if it provides the kind of workout you want.

Also, you might want to keep in mind that traditional martial arts are "folk arts," passed down through oral traditions. The physical training -- while intense -- may not incorporate the latest scientific fitness methods. You might want to inquire about these training methods and consider cross-training in other disciplines for a better-rounded workout. Also, beware of instructors who discourage you from cross training and exploring outside interests. They often seek to monopolize your time and your money.

Spiritual Development

Many people who seek spiritual development or understanding of Eastern philosophies do so through the study of traditional Asian martial arts. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean martial arts embody various Buddhist principles, whether or not an instructor acknowledges them. The harmonizing of the body and the spirit is central to the practice of these martial arts, and the practice of kata (forms) is considered a form of moving meditation. The breath control, the enhanced awareness of one's surroundings, and the calmness of mind are all basic to this spirituality. 

The practical effect of this spiritual training is to make the movements you're learning "second nature," speed-up your reaction time by minimizing conscious thought, and help you remain calm and clear-headed in battle. 

If you do seek a deeper understanding of a particular religious or spiritual discipline, I suggest you first look for a temple in your area. In my experience, most martial arts instructors are amateur (unqualified) gurus at best.

Strength, Confidence, Discipline

Without a doubt, lots of people study martial arts because they feel physically vulnerable. Learning a martial art can provide a sense of confidence and control. (This is why most parents enroll their children). This is more than simply self-defense. A martial art can't make you invulnerable, but it can help you cope with the fear of confrontation, the fear of pain -- of being hit, and the fear of striking another person even in self-defense. The training can help you develop basic assertiveness and confidence, even if it doesn't make you a killing machine.

All of the Above

When you study a martial art -- whether it's Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Wing Chun, Ju-Jitsu, Judo, Fencing, or any other -- you can achieve all of the above. In choosing a school, you exercise a degree of control over the emphasis in your training. Ultimately, you'll make some compromises, but if you're careful and you avoid the worst (described below), you'll have a satisfying and worthwhile experience.

Achieve the Best by Avoiding the Worst

Because most people will sign up for martial arts training in their neighborhoods or in a grade school, high school, or university, here are some guidelines for making a decision -- especially for avoiding the worst of the lot.

* Visit each school you wish to consider. Grab a copy of the class schedule, then drop in unannounced at a later date. Watch what's going on. Is the class orderly? Are the students respectful of the instructor and of each other? Is the instructor helpful or hostile? Humble or boastful? You can decided for yourself which of these characteristics you like. The only hard and fast rule I would suggest is to eliminate any school that discourages you from visiting a regularly scheduled class.

* Beware of "free trial" classes at commercial schools. Be sure to visit the school to watch classes even before you attend a so-called "free trial." Some schools even SELL a "free" trial, which includes a uniform and three to six classes. These "trial" classes have the potential to put you in a high pressure sales situation. Bottom line: A quality school will let you try one or more classes with no obligation. If you visit a dojo to train, you may be asked to pay a class fee of as much as $20, which is legitimate. Many instructors rent training space on an hourly basis. If you work out with the group, you should be prepared to chip in to help cover the hourly rent.

* Avoid schools that require signing a non-refundable membership contract for any more than 3 months. Many years ago, I joined a school and signed a membership agreement. Unfortunately, the instructor who had impressed me with his knowledge never taught a class after I joined. Also, I was injured in class just a few months later and had to leave. My contract with the school was sold to a collection agency and I had to pay up every month for two years or possibly wreck my credit rating.

Accreditation, Licensing, and Credentials

There is no single accrediting body for martial arts schools, nor are there any particular licensing requirements in most of the United States. Pretty much anybody who wants to teach martial arts may do so. This makes it nearly impossible to use accreditation or licensing as the basis for choosing a school. Even if you can decipher the acronyms for the various accrediting bodies, such as the WKF (World Karate Federation) or the JKF (Japan Karate Federation) or the ITF (International Tae Kwon Do Federation), you can't rely upon these  affiliations to guarantee that your school is for you.

The discussion of teaching credentials could take up another whole article or series of articles. Belt ranks vary from school to school, so focus on the chief instructor's years of experience studying and teaching. In general, in my opinion, teaching any martial art as a senior instructor requires a minimum of 10 years experience in training, and ideally more. There's nothing wrong with a junior instructor leading classes or helping students, but only under the supervision of a more senior instructor. In Japanese Karate, a full instructor (a "Sensei") status is not typically granted until 3rd Dan (third degree black belt), which generally requires a minimum of 10 years of experience. A master or "Shihan" grade requires 15 to 20 years of training. 

Just What You're Looking For

So, in seeking martial arts instruction look for a school that:

  • let's you watch (any time) and try first;
  • does not require long-term contracts;
  • where students and instructors are respectful of each other;
  • where you see the right degree of physical conditioning;
  • where the instructors have a minimum of 10 years of training;
  • where the emphasis is on quality and not on commercial exploitation. 

If the school advertises an affiliation with an accrediting body or international organization, do some reseach on the Web to confirm a) that the organization exists; b) its mission seems consistent with what you were told at the local school. Finally, check with your local Better Business Bureau to find out if a school has a history of complaints. If you avoid the worst of the lot, chances are you'll do just fine.

David M. Kalman began studying Shutokan Karate in 1974 as a member of the St. John's Prep Martial Arts Club (Danvers, Mass., USA). Since 1996, he has trained in Goju-Ryu under Sensei Marcos Collaco in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Seigokan Karate organization or anyone else. 



Reproduced with permission of the author
(c) 2002 David M. Kalman
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED