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How to Find the Best Martial Arts School

Updated on November 4, 2016
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Katie is a 3rd degree black belt in Taekwondo. She has competed with team USA in the Goodwill Games and has taught martial arts for 15 yr+.

The Power of the Right School

I didn't medal in fighting in the Goodwill games because I'm superhuman.  I medalled in fighting in the Goodwill games because I picked the right school and never gave up.  This photo was taken in Cancún, Mexico a few days after the tournament.
I didn't medal in fighting in the Goodwill games because I'm superhuman. I medalled in fighting in the Goodwill games because I picked the right school and never gave up. This photo was taken in Cancún, Mexico a few days after the tournament.

Understand your Personal Priorities

The first thing to do when choosing a martial arts school is to prioritize what you want out of your experience. Martial arts has many things to offer including self-defense, exercise, self-control, character development, self-expression, behavior improvement, etc. Each school will have different emphasis, strengths and weaknesses. Look for a school that emphasizes what you’re most interested in.

Which Art is Right for You?

Once you have a list of emphasis you’re looking for in a school, consider what type of art you want to participate in. Do you want a harder or faster art like Taekwondo or Juijitsu? Or would you prefer a softer more fluid art like Tai Chi? Do you want a standing art like Hapkido? Or a ground art like judo? Take a little time and do a little research on the different arts. (You can find a list of martial arts here.)

Note, your list of emphasis should be more important than your preference in art. If you feel strongly about the art, then don’t waste your time looking at schools that don’t teach the style you’re interested in. However, be careful not to be so limiting in the schools you visit that you don’t have several in your area to choose from.

A good place to begin is in making a list of all the schools within a certain radius of your house (however far you are willing to drive for classes), determining the art they teach, and reading the first few google hits on each style. Many martial art schools will have a website from which you can obtain the information you need to do this. If they don’t, call in the evenings, when most studios hold classes, and ask.

The Martial Artists Make the Martial Arts School

Choosing the right group of people to train with can mean finding a second family.
Choosing the right group of people to train with can mean finding a second family.

Watch class

Go in during class, preferably unannounced, and watch class for a few minutes. Besides the discomfort of the unknown, you should feel completely comfortable in the studio. Pay attention to this. If you don’t feel comfortable in the studio now, chances are you’ll feel even less comfortable as a student. Attitude is essential to a martial arts studio. Complete chaos and cocky instructors have no place in the studio. The adult students should be focused and involved. (Children will be children, cut the school some slack if there are a few kids looking around) And the instructors humble and still able to command respect, instill discipline and focus into their students, and control the class.

Look for a good number of intermediate and advanced students. If a school hits rocky times the first students who quit are the intermediate students. If you don’t see a good number of intermediate students be sure to ask what class you were watching before you leave. If it is a low rank class ask when you could watch (part) of a more advanced class. If it is a class for all ranks, the lack of intermediate students is a red flag.

Talk to parents and students out of earshot of the instructors and employees. Ask them about their experience. Ask them what they like about the school, what they dislike about the school, and if they have had any issues. Ask about the safety precautions in place and how frequent injuries occur. Martial arts is a contact sport. Bumps and bruises are to be expected, but they shouldn’t occur more often than necessary because effective safety measures aren’t in place.

Find Instructors who have Become Black Belts, Not Instructors Who Just Wear Black Belts

There is no perfect age or gender for an instructor.  A black belt is something you become, not just something you wear or are given.  Having become a black belt is the most important quality of a good instructor.
There is no perfect age or gender for an instructor. A black belt is something you become, not just something you wear or are given. Having become a black belt is the most important quality of a good instructor.

Talk to the Head Instructor

Schedule a time to talk to the head instructor(s). Ask about the emphasis of the school. Share with the instructor what you want out of your experience and ask how their school can help you meet those goals. If a school can’t help you meet your goals or offer you something better than what you came up with before you stopped in, it is not the school for you.

Ask if the school belongs to a federation or governing body. A federation is a board that certifies the rank of the schools under it. Instructors must meet certain requirements to maintain membership in a federation. Belonging to a federation helps to ensure that the instructor is properly certified and hasn’t advanced himself to whatever rank he claims to have.

Ask how often the students interact with a master instructor. If the master instructor isn’t the only instructor, ask about the qualifications of the other instructors and how often they are in contact with the master instructor. Having more than one instructor is not a bad thing at all, as long as measures are taken to keep all instructors unified on the material taught, all instructors have sufficient training, and the quality of instruction is of utmost importance to the studio owner.

Logistics

Ask about logistics. How expensive is tuition? What other fees are there? It is normal to have an annual fee to join the federation, fees to advance in rank, competition and equipment fees, and tuition. But when asked, the instructor should be upfront and honest about fees and they should be clearly written out in their rank requirements and/or contract. Be sure you’re keeping all fees in mind in considering your financial commitment.

When is class? Beginning students should be training a minimum of two nights a week. Less than this leads to slow, frustrating progress. Are classes divided by rank or age? How long does it take to advance in rank? What “extra-curriculars” are offered? (examples include demonstration or competition teams or specialty classes in weapons or sparring) What fees are involved with these extra-curriculars?

Ask for a tour around the studio. Is there a place to change into your uniform? Are the floors sufficiently padded or are there gymnastic style mats that can be put down when activities involve throwing or falling? Are there targets and punching bags so you can try out your new techniques and get used to meeting resistance? What safety and first aid supplies are available?

What is the standard of excellence? A black belt should take a minimum 4-5 years to achieve if training 2-3 times a week consistently. The latest trend in martial arts schools is the McDojo. Come in, pay a lot, do very little, wait a very short time and they’ll give you a black belt. Don’t fall for this. A McDojo can give you a black belt, but they cannot help you become a black belt.

What's Your Martial Arts Status?

Are you a Martial Artist?

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Attitude

Ask for a trial or introductory period. Most schools will offer a few weeks of less expensive classes before you’re locked into a contract. Take advantage of this opportunity so you’re absolutely sure you’ve made the right decision in choosing which school to train with. Be wary of studios that won’t grant this request. They probably have something to hide.

The attitude is critical to your success in martial arts. Each school should have tenets and should strive to implement them into their material. Each school should have both mental or spiritual requirements as well as physical requirements in order to produce well rounded martial artists. Find a school with a positive attitude. Find a group of people to train with who are focused, dedicated, professional, respectful and are interested in helping you reach your goals and become the very best person you can be.

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