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The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory
nor defeat, but in the perfection of the
character of its participants.
                           Gichin Funakoshi

Choosing A Martial Art School

On this page:
Be An Informed Consumer | Discuss | Observe a Number of Classes | Long-Term Contracts and Closed Classes | Level of Formality | Evaluate Teaching Skills | Tryout Period? | Accreditation | Limitations of Style | Other Styles and Schools | Women's Self-Defense Training |

Let's look at different martial arts styles: Shotokan Karate. Kempo Karate. Goju Karate. Issen Ryu Karate. Kubudo. Kung fu. Wing Chun Gung Fu. Ving Tsun Kung Fu. Wushu. Kuntao. Tai Chi. Bagua, Hsing-i. Jujitsu. Judo. Aikido. Brazilian Jujitsu (BJJ). Tae Kwon Do (TKD),  Jeet Kun Do (JKD),  Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Krav Maga, WWII Combatives. Sambo. Kickboxing, Muay Thai. Capoeira Hwa Rang Do, Hapkido. Silat, Indonesian Kuntao. Bando. Kali. Escrima. Arnis. Filipino Kuntao. Just to name a few!

Within each of those we just named are hundreds of different styles, versions and political splinter groups -- each of them saying that they do 'real' whatever. Last time we checked there were over 2,000 recognized forms of 'kung fu' (wushu) in China alone. Countless groups and individuals have split off from the mother country (and organization) and started their own schools and organization within this country. And who knows how many family styles (unrecognized versions) have begun to commercially teach non-family members.

Well, here's were it gets confusing. Even a person with absolutely NO knowledge or experience with the martial arts will see there are differences in the way these styles do things. And if everyone is doing things differently, then how do you know which one works?

To further muddy the waters, in the West, all of them tell you they teach 'self-defense.' Well, we have a different idea about that, so if that's what you are thinking about taking martial arts for, you might want to consider a few issues before you start spending your money.

As we have said elsewhere there are many reasons to go into the martial arts. Yes, many people go into the study of marital arts for self-defense, but that soon wanes as a primary motivation. They stay for other reasons. Some good reasons, some bad reasons, but those who stay are getting something out of it.

That makes choosing the proper martial arts school a rather important decision.

Choosing the proper martial arts school is relatively simple. There are three main elements: discussing, observing and acquiring some basic knowledge before you look.

Be an informed consumer: Check your local library for books, surf the Web or pick up various magazines to find descriptions of the many styles available, then narrow your search to those that appeal to you.

Discuss: Any owner or senior instructor in a commercial martial arts school should be willing to sit down and discuss the training offered, what is expected of students and outline -- pretty accurately -- costs. If an instructor doesn't have time to answer your questions, it's fairly obvious he's not real keen on attracting your business. At times, martial arts instructors may forget that they are in a "service industry."

Observe a number of classes before making your decision: When observing open classes, watch how the instructors interact with their students. Note the students' attitudes and general atmosphere of the school. Would you be comfortable learning in that atmosphere? Would your child?

If the school offers only long-term, closed classes … hesitate: Ask why. You may find yourself locked into a contract with a focus and atmosphere that is wrong for you.

Decide on the level of formality you are comfortable with: Some schools are more casual while others insist on strict and rigid protocol. You may not be comfortable with an instructor who insists that you address him as "Master Smith" or you may be uncomfortable with a more relaxed atmosphere. This comfort level is especially important for children.

Evaluate teaching skills: How well does the teacher explain what he is doing? Does he just say, "Do this," and proceed to perform a complicated series of moves that few beginning students could hope to emulate? Or does he break each move down and explain it fully? Just because a black belt moves well or has a wall full of trophies doesn't mean he is a good teacher. Larger schools will have several senior instructors and may structure classes depending on age, ability or experience -- watch the class you would be starting in.

See if there is a tryout period: Many schools offer one or two classes free of charge. It's a good idea to take a tryout, especially if the school or instructor requires a contract. You can find yourself locked into a yearlong payment plan after becoming disillusioned with the training early on. Check for short-term contracts if you are unsure that you or your child will finish a year of training.

Glance at accreditation: Lineage doesn't ensure a good school. Many instructors, however, can trace their training back through an entire line of martial artists or various professional organizations. Check the dates on the certificates and ask if they are still affiliated with the source. If not, ask why. Also watch for someone who is accredited in more than three systems -- unless he's 80.

Ask about the limits of the style: There is no ultimate fighting art. No style works everywhere and in ever situation. A good instructor will admit this and offer cross training suggestions to fill the gaps.

Ask about other styles and schools: This is the litmus test, not for the other school, but for this one. An instructor who is disdainful and hostile toward other arts and schools shows you what kind of students he attracts.

Women's self defense courses: Often martial arts schools put on self defense courses. Unfortunately, many of these classes are structured around the school's primary focus and curriculum rather than the realities of violence against women. This training is like the Titanic heading toward an iceberg. The incontrovertible issue that must be addressed during women's self defense class is that she will be contesting superior male upper body strength. If this and the psychological and moral issues about using violence, knowledge about how crime occurs, awareness, de-escalation and avoidance of violence are not emphasized, while fighting is emphasized over escape, keep looking.

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