The responses to my progress report on searching for a new martial-arts school made it clear that many people are interested in advice on this topic. The problem is especially difficult for new students choosing a first school, as they have yet to develop the kind of trained eye that can evaluate technique.
I have been training in empty-hand combat and contact weapons since 1982; more or less continuously since 1990. I have studied shotokan, tae kwon do, aikido, wing chun kung fu, and Mixed Martial Arts at five different schools and trained in sword-centered Western Martial Arts at two more. Along the way I’ve picked up bits and pieces of iaido, kenjutsu, escrima stick fighting, penjak silat, shaolin kung fu, Greco-Roman wrestling, Okinawan karate, naginata-do, and lua. I hold a black belt in tae kwon do and have been an instructor in multiple styles. I report these things to establish that my experience of styles and schools is very broad, equipping me to give useful advice on how to choose one.
This how-to will be aimed mainly at people new to the martial arts trying to choose a first school, but the questions I suggest can usefully be asked even if you are a much more experienced student.
The first thing you need to do is decide what you actually want.
Different schools and styles answer to different purposes. When speaking of these, martial artists commonly describe three categories: combative (practical self-defense), sport (competitive fighting), and do (self-control and self-improvement; this may just mean physical fitness, but in some arts shades into meditation and mysticism, most often of a Buddhist or Taoist variety).
The very first thing you should do is to figure out the relative importance of these paths to you, so you can judge each style and school on whether the priorities of the school match your own. Styles vary on this, and individual schools within any given style vary among themselves.
Suppose, for example, you’re like me (strong interest in the combative aspect, secondary interest in the self-improvement end, no interest in sport competition). A wall of trophies and ribbons at the school suggests that the art will have artificial technique restructions to make it safer for tournament fighting. This may be a bad sign; sumi-e paintings or Buddhist imagery on the walls would be better.
But in our internetted age, the first active step in your search (especially if you’re a newbie) is probably going to be a web search for schools near you. That’s OK, just bear in mind that the marketing glitz (or absence of same) conveyed by a school’s web presence is not at all correlated with the quality of the school. Start by shortlisting three or four that are conveniently located near you.
The next thing about choosing a school is that you must do it hands- and eyeballs-on. Visit each candidate school and least watch a class; if the school will allow it (and they usually will) participate in a class. Call to schedule this so you can be a guest in one that is suited to your skill level. You may need to sign a liability waiver; do not be over-concerned, as serious injuries are very rare (more rare than in, for example, golf).
The first and most important thing to watch for is quality of instruction. A style that is otherwise not a great match for you can be worth pursuing if the teaching is exceptionally good; conversely a style can be an excellent match for you but its school a poor choice if the instruction is inferior.
Evaluating the quality of teaching is especially important for newbies, who don’t yet have the eye to evaluate things like quality of motion. Here are some things to look for:
Do the instructors attend to individual students and solve problems, or are they running canned drills with little feedback?
Do the students look focused and attentive? (Bad sign if adults don’t, but don’t mark the school down if children look a bit scattered.)
Are senior instructors on the floor teaching, or have they delegated the grunt work to less-capable junior instructors?
Do you see the students helping each other? (This is generally a good sign, but if you don’t see it, it may only be that the school is strict about who can give instruction.)
Closely related to these are questions are about the general atmosphere of the school. Trust your gut about this; if something looks or feels particularly wrong – or particularly right – you may well be picking up on important information unconsciously.
Do the students treat their instructors and each other respectfully? Are they smiling when they start class, and when they leave? Is the school clean? Does it smell good? (Don’t discount this; humans emit different pheromones when they’re under negative stress than they do when they’re happily adrenalized, and your nose can tell that difference.)
Is the median age close to yours? This matters because physical capabilities change significantly as we age, and the instructor will be teaching to the median. Mixing preadolescent children with adults doesn’t work at all well; while you won’t see that often, less extreme age differences can create some issues if you happen to be among the outliers.
If it’s a striking art, do the students spar to contact – that is, are they actually touching each other when they strike? I think this is quite important. Without regular contact sparring, developing precise force control and the ability to deliver power is difficult. Some schools avoid this either for liability reasons or because students (or the parents of students) find it too intimidating. I think you should avoid such schools.
If it’s a grappling art, the analogous question is: are people actually throwing each other around? Without this, throwers don’t learn how to do it right and throwees don’t learn how to fall properly (that is, dissipating the force so the fall doesn’t hurt them).
Beginners often think that choosing the right style is extremely important. Relax about this, if only because empty-hand arts tend to converge with each other at their high ends – style defines where you start, not so much where you finish. And, overall, quality of instruction is the most important metric.
That said, you may need to be careful about style choice if you have an actual physical handicap. (I, for example, have a mild case of cerebral palsy that gives me range-of-motion issues in my legs and hips. This makes me a poor fit for a style that involves a lot of high kicking.) If you have a handicap, don’t try to struggle with it by choosing a style that relies on motions difficult for you; trust me, you’ll eventually get quite enough challenge advancing in an art you’re equipped to do well.
There are several qualities of martial-arts styles that can help you decide how well they will fit you. One important one is how well a style fits your build and the distribution of your strength. You should get a read on this by watching or (better) participating in a class and learning whether the movements are comfortable for you; but here are some principles:
If your strength is mostly in your arms and shoulders, you are likely to be served best by a striking art such as karate or boxing or kung fu. If your strength is more in your legs, a style with a lot of kicking (tae kwon do, muy thai, savate) may suit you better. If you have a lot of core (hip and torso) strength, a grappling style (ju jitsu, judo, aikido) may be for you.
Psychology is important, too. Do you like to fight at range or close in? Are you naturally aggressive, or does the idea of flowing like water and using the opponent’s force against him/her appeal more? Do you like using your strength, or prefer to move with precision and delicacy and apply minimum force for maximum result? There are styles that match every combination of these. If you can’t read where a style falls on these axes by seeing it done, ask a practitioner.
For example: If you’re aggressive, like to use strength, and like to fight close, the tiger form of Five Animals kung fu probably fits you. If you like to fight close but prefer to flow and use minimum force, on the other hand, aikido or judo will probably suit you. If you like to fight at more distance but are aggressive, tae kwon do or kyokushinkai karate may be the right sort of thing.
Yet another important variable (especially if your focus is combative) is how long it takes to achieve practical combat proficiency in the style. This is difficult to quantify because it depends in part on how frequently you train. But some styles have a reputation for fast takeoff to proficiency – krav maga and wing chun, for example, are often said to get a reasonably diligent student to combat proficiency in less than 18 months; at the other extreme, aikido and Shaolin and others among the more elaborate kung fu varieties are notoriously “10-year” styles. Most styles are intermediate, with combat proficiency developing at 3 to 6 years in.
So, why would you study a long-takeoff style at all? Mainly because the short-takeoff styles also top out sooner; they get you to proficiency faster by focusing on a handful of techniques, sacrificing breadth and finesse. Long-takeoff styles will often give you a bigger toolkit and more tactical options.
So far I’ve been mainly speaking of Asian martial arts. But there is a western martial arts tradition, too: boxing, wrestling, and various weapons arts centered on European medieval and Renaissance swordsmanship. Do not discount these as potentially interesting styles; they are increasingly cross-pollinating with Asian arts in interesting ways. Mixed Martial Arts combines Western boxing with Asian grappling. I train at a school of Western sword that combines Western historical sources with Asian-derived hand-to-hand and awards Asian-style belts. This sort of thing may be available to you; all the same considerations in choosing a school apply.
Now I’ll get into some areas of controversy. All schools insist that their practice is safe, and generally speaking this is true – serious injuries are very rare. But there is an unavoidable opposition between complete safety and learning to be combat-effective. I expressed one aspect of this when I noted that some schools won’t routinely spar to contact or do actual throws, and recommended they be avoided.
A related controvery is over how much safety equipment should be worn when you spar in a striking art. The advantage of wearing a lot of padding is that you’ll probably never get a bruise, and it makes the dojo’s insurance company happy. I, on the other hand, consider the right amount to be very little – maybe a groin cup, maybe a mouthpiece, maybe light gloves, but I frown on body or head padding – because I think that if I don’t at least occasionally take or give a hit that hurts, I’m not actually learning anything but dancing. And neither is my partner.
I think (and I’m speaking as a fairly experienced instructor, here) that this applies even to white belts. Good force control – delivering exactly the power you want to to exactly the place you want – is something you should be learning from the beginning. Taking hits and throws, and learning to tell pain that’s just pain from pain that means you have taken damage and should stop doing that, is also something you should be learning from the beginning. I think sparring ‘bare’ or with minimal protective gear promotes both objectives. But plenty of people disagree with me on this – though I also suspect that for many the ‘disagreement’ is largely a pretense that’s a form of appeasement to the liability insurers.
If you choose a striking art, one of the things you need to decide – and choose your school for – is whether you’re willing to take a few lumps to actually learn how to fight. If so, you’re closer to my philosophy and are going to want to find a school that goes light on the padding, or is at least willing to look the other way when more advanced students spar without it. If you’re not willing to take lumps, schools that will pad you up enough that you can barely move lurk in every other strip mall.
There is controversy of a completely different kind about martial arts “traditions”. I’m not going to get into all of the complicated reasons that martial arts erect elabrate mythologies around their own history, but I will say this: if a school you’re evaluating makes a big deal about being the One True and Only Traditional Lineage of the Foo Bar Style…ignore that. You might want to even give the school minus in your evaluation points for trying to flimflam you; you’ll be right about that far more often than you’ll be wrong.
A note about chain and franchise schools. They’re not all bad – I’m considering one now – but you’ll generally get better instruction at a standalone school where the founding master is in residence.
Finally: the days when having a round-eye as an instructor in an Asian art automatically meant you were getting second-best were already nearing their end when I first dipped my toe in these waters, thirty years ago. By the time I started steady training in 1990 those days had ended. Today many “Asian” arts are in better shape here in the U.S., with more students and more capable instructors, than they are in their home countries. (I have seen evidence for this first-hand in Asia – I think it’s related to the larger size of the U.S. market and the higher average wealth level here, which means we can support more specialists than they can.)
This doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of junk out there, but your instructor’s ethnicity no longer correlates with junkiness in any significant way. That’s one less thing to worry about when you’re evaluating a school.
UPDATE: Some worthwhile suggestions for women.