Choosing a Martial Arts School

Often when someone decides to learn martial arts they give little thought about where to study. They pick the first place that comes up on Google or the first leaflet that comes through the door. This is a very bad idea.
Martial arts in the UK is a completely unregulated industry. Anyone can put on a uniform, a black belt and give themselves any title they choose and open a school. At best a bad school can waste your time and money at worst it may destroy your health, put you at risk and give you a false sense of security.

A belt rank is a relatively new idea in the martial arts originally brought in by the founder of Judo Kano Jigoro in the early 1900s and copied by many (but not all) martial arts groups. A belt rank is not a reasonable way to assess skill due to varying requirements in different arts and different associations, with political and/or bought ranks being common place in most associations. Indeed some martial arts associations award black belts to students after a couple of weekend courses and then have them teach (they even advertise in job centres) this, in my opinion, pyramid selling. It is unlikely someone is capable of teaching martial arts to even a basic standard with less than two years of intense training.

Yet length of time training in itself is not a qualification, I have students who have been with me for over a decade who I wouldn’t rank above beginners simply because they rarely attend class and don’t train hard enough to develop any skill. I have other students who have been with me a little over a year who are quite skilled. All things being equal  If someone trains an hour a week for 10 years they will have significantly less time training then someone who trains two hours a day for a year.

The most important thing when searching for a school is knowing what you want to get out of your training. Write a list of things you would like to develop or learn more about through your training. Right down a list of things that attract you to the martial arts. This will really help clarify what you need to look for in a school.

If you want to be a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) competitor there is little point in attending a Tai Chi or Aikido class with no emphasis on competition. If you want to get fit there is little point in joining a class run by an obese person. If you want to learn ‘classical arts’ to get an understanding of the wider culture and be a part of the tradition there is little point in joining a ‘reality based self-defence’ course (RBSD) which is based on an eclectic mix of ‘what works’. All of the above classes are perfect for some people not for others.

I personally recommend viewing classes before joining any martial arts class (if they are an open school and won’t let you respectfully watch a lesson then straight away there is a big question mark).

Sometimes you may go to view a class and it may not be representative of a regular lesson – the instructor may be training his/her students for a competition or looking at a specialist subject for a change. Take the time to watch a few classes (if that sounds too boring for you then perhaps your interest isn’t as strong as you think). Research the background of the art/s you have an interest in.

Here is a quick checklist of various things I would to look for:

  1. Do the instructor and senior students exemplify what you want to gain from training? If you want fitness are they fit? If you want discipline do the students show good discipline? Do the students have good ‘uniform’ technique? If you want to be pushed does the instructor seem capable of pushing you?
  1. In a similar vein – does the atmosphere suit you? If you thrive in a competitive atmosphere you may like the gym where other students ‘size you up’. If you like a supportive atmosphere do the students seem friendly and approachable? Again this is about how you feel and what will suit you.
  1. Does the instructor answer your questions directly or are they evasive? Any instructor should be proud of their training and happy to tell you who they trained with, where and for how long. If not why not? Then research the names, arts and places.
  1. If you want to become a skilled fighter or gain some self defence skills then you should observe whether the school tests what they practice in a realistic context or is it all theoretical? Does what they do look like it would work to you – even if you have no ‘Martial arts’ experience do not discount your own intelligence. Consider what violent attacks look like and whether the training looks like it could deal with a really aggressive attack. Is the changeability and resistance of the attacker represented at any point in the drills?
  1. What costs are involved? Make sure you know how much lessons are and any hidden fees (insurance, club membership, gradings etc). It is not uncommon to have to pay an insurance fee and some kind of membership in the first few months of training but this should not be too costly. One vital piece of information is never sign a contract up front! In the last decade (at least in England) a number of schools have shot up offer claiming to offer “30 days free” and similar but then hard sell people very long and very expensive contracts. In my experience of viewing these places they offer very poor levels of tuition but by the time people realise that they are locked into a contract often for thousands of pounds! It breaks my heart to see these people who have been financially drained by these schools. Buyer beware!
  1. Do you have similar views on home training? If you are basically after a once weekly keep fit class and the teacher is a traditional martial artist who expects you to come to class three times a week and commit a great deal of time to home practice then the relationship is clearly not going to work. Likewise if you really wish to become a skilled martial artist but the school only offers an hour a week under a ‘hobbyist’ teacher with a relaxed approach to his own training then you are unlikely to achieve your goals.

This ties in with the requirement to manage your expectations – if you are only prepared to put in a couple of hours a week you won’t attain any real skill. There is no silver bullet to martial arts and if you aren’t prepared to ‘eat bitter’ and sweat on a daily basis you can’t expect the teacher to ‘make you good’.

So there is no simple way to evaluate a martial arts club but you can put yourself in the best possible position by researching well, observing closely, asking questions and listening to your gut. If you decide to join avoid signing lengthy contracts. I hope this help you find the right school for you!

Train hard and keep well,