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How to find a good martial arts school

Want to learn some martial arts? Good. It could change your life like it changed mine. That is, if you can find the right instruction. Believe it or not, all martial arts studios/schools/dojos are not created equal. The truth is that the majority of them aren’t very good. Dare I say it? Most of them suck!

So let’s look into what makes a good martial arts school and let’s see if this can help you find one that’s good for you.

HOW I FOUND A DOJO. I GOT LUCKY

I practiced karate regularly for many years and became somewhat proficient at it. I got lucky when I started by finding a truly legit dojo.

In my early twenties, I decided to practice martial arts. Armed with no knowledge of it at all, I set out to join a place that was in a strip center close to my house. I drove by the place when it was closed and looked in the window. The studio had a big open workout space and a hundred giant trophies in the windows and against the walls. It was a Taekwondo school and there was an oversized picture of some Asian guy in a colorful uniform with the name “grand master flash badass” or something like that engraved in a gold plate below the picture.

This of course, made the place look legit. I mean, all those big four, five, and six-foot-tall trophies had to mean this was a place for straight up badass winners, right? I was sold, so I went back to join and found out the price. It was seventy-five dollars a month and they were very aggressive about having me commit to paying for a year. The guy I talked to spent more time on the paying part than he did on explaining the martial art. That was pricey for the late eighties and I wasn’t making much back then, so instead of just pulling the trigger and joining, I decided to hold off and maybe look around a little more. That was luck.

A week later at a family party, I met a friend of my wife’s sister who, as it turns out was a black belt in karate. I told her I was going to take up martial arts and she recommended I go see the place where she practiced. She didn’t try to sell me on her dojo but she seemed like such a quality person and was so calmly confident that I was intrigued. Her school was a fifty-minute drive from my house and one town over, so I figured it wouldn’t be for me but I’d check it out anyway.

The dojo had classes on Monday nights, so the next day I set out to go see it. My sister in law’s friend said the school was built on this guy’s property out in the woods and that gave me pause. I didn’t know anything about martial arts at that time, but I did know I wasn’t about to take anyone’s shit, so I brought a gun in my truck for the journey. I was intimidated by the thought that some black belt asshole was going to try to initiate me somehow and I wasn’t gonna have that. It was silly for me to think something like that could happen, but the only thing I knew about martial arts at that point was from movies. For all I knew, I was walking into a Cobra Kai type dojo like in the movie Karate Kid.

When I got to the dojo in the woods, there were already a bunch of cars parked anywhere they could. The dojo looked solid but not like permits were pulled to build it. It wasn’t the clean cut looking strip center taekwondo spot I had gone to. I walked in and the place was big and open and very rustic looking. There were no trophies but there was a picture of a Japanese guy and another of a white guy wearing white workout uniforms and looking noble. A class was going on, and in the corner, there was an old tall white man moving very slowly and quietly in what looked to be some kind of meditative dance. That was Shihan. When he was done with his weird looking slow movements, he returned to this world, noticed me sitting there, and came over to talk to me.

With instructions being barked and “kiais” being yelled in the background from the class going on, this old guy talked to me. He explained that this dojo was built by him and his blackbelts and that he didn’t have any trophies because they didn’t compete in any tournaments. He told me that he came from Kentucky and that this school was a part of an international organization. It took maybe two minutes of Shihan talking to me and I knew I was sold. Then he told me the price. It was twenty dollars. I thought “wow that’s cheap”. I can afford that. I told him I wanted to give him some money right then and there, but he told me no.

“Come take a class or two and see if you like it. Then you can pay me,” he said.

“That sounds more than fair. Ok I’ll come back on Thursday (which was when the next class was) and if I like it, I’ll probably want to pay you at least a few months in advance.”

“Huh?” he said. “There’s no monthly fee. The twenty dollars is the yearly membership cost for the organization. I don’t charge anything.”

“Wait. What? It’s only twenty dollars a year?” I said.

“Yep” he replied. “We’ll take donations for things like repairs and stuff, but this is free”

That following Thursday I went to class and continued with Shihan until he died about thirteen years later. Like I said earlier, I got lucky.

WHAT MAKES A MARTIAL ARTS SCHOOL SUCK

Let me preface this negativity with an explanation of my disdain for poor quality schools. I started practicing martial arts a little before the trend of after school karate centers. I was studying something legit and then these bullshit McDojos started springing up everywhere. These really watered down the legitimacy of traditional martial arts as these glorified after school day cares were issuing rank and black belts to kids like candy. The whole thing used to make me sick.

Here’s a small list of things that make a martial arts school suck:

1. Most of the students are small kids getting picked up and taken there as an after- school program– Please don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against kids learning martial arts. Learning martial arts requires a large degree of discipline though, and in order to have a successful class, the teachers have to have control of the students. In this after school scenario, that is impossible.

In the dojo I learned and taught karate in, you had to be at least seven years-old. Even at seven, it was hard for them to maintain focus for more than just half an hour. Also, martial arts requires a fair amount of dexterity, and younger kids haven’t developed enough command of their bodies yet. So, between kids having short attention spans and limited dexterity, they can’t learn much under the age of nine and it’s almost a total waste of time for kids under seven.

Over the years, we would have a young kid or two sprinkled in a full class and that was fine. When they were done mentally, we could bow them out for a bit and the class could continue with little interruption. When a class is mainly little kids though (like in these after school Barney dojos), the class can’t last very long, and teaching is limited. As an adult, trying to learn something as complex and difficult as martial arts around a bunch of snot-nosed brats is a frustrating waste of your time. Move on!

2. Poor instruction due to a lack of knowledge – This is a big fail and one that’s hard to identify. Unlike becoming a doctor or a lawyer, anyone can proclaim that they are a martial arts master and start teaching. Let me bore you with another story.

The karate style I learned was called Chito-ryu and it wasn’t very widespread. The closest Chito-ryu dojo from ours was a four-hour drive and there were really only a handful of Chito-ryu dojos in the entire country. One day, my brother calls me and tells me there is a martial arts school on his side of town and they are teaching Chito-ryu. “That’s impossible” I told him. I know everyone in my art and I know of all the schools in Florida. He told me it said Chito-ryu on the wall. That weekend I drove over to see for myself and sure enough it said Chito-ryu. I walked in and watched the class and yep, the katas were pretty close to the same as ours.

“How was this possible?” I thought. I asked who owned the school and it was a guy I’d never heard of, so I called Shihan and asked him about it.

“What’s the name of the guy?” Shihan asked.

“Sensei so and so,” I told him. “And it says he’s a third-degree black belt in Chito-ryu.”

“I don’t know of him, but I’ll call Kentucky and ask about him.”

“OK let me know. By the way, this karate is shit. They are doing the katas like us but it’s all pretty crappy karate,” I said.

A week later I saw Shihan and he told me he asked about the guy and no one in the organization had heard of him. Then he said he looked in his old student records and found him. This guy had actually learned some Chito-ryu under Shihan at our school a few years prior. Shihan didn’t remember him but saw that he practiced for about six months and achieved an orange belt and then quickly disappeared. It wasn’t unusual for Shihan to not remember a student as our dojo was big and got hundreds of new students a year, most of which wouldn’t go for very long.

So here it was. A legitimate looking karate school with a half dozen teachers and hundreds of students (mostly kids from after school pick-up) being led by a Chito-ryu orange belt who probably stole a black belt manual. And the karate looked like it was taught by an orange belt. It was embarrassingly poor. And none of the students knew that what they were learning was watered down shit. Sucks!

When checking out a school, find out what you can about all the teachers there. See if they have any kind of lineage from teachers of the past. Learning martial arts from someone who doesn’t know much is like learning Italian from guy who’s only seen the Godfather movies and likes pasta. If he non parla Italiano, you won’t learn much. Capisci?

3. How they promote rank – Let me give you a general guideline. To become a legitimate black belt (or the equivalent), it’s gonna take about five years of fairly dedicated practice. There are no shortcuts to becoming proficient in martial arts. To get really good at it requires decades of practice. Yeah, it’s that hard to master. Some schools will grant you a black belt in one year and that’s sad. Some shitty schools will sell you package where it costs so much to make it to black belt. In that scenario, the faster they can promote you to black belt, the faster they can get to selling you something else.

The worst part of all of this is that there are guys walking around with only twelve months or so of crappy martial arts instruction, who have been promoted to black belt (or equivalent) and think they can defend themselves and their families. They can’t! We used to get guys coming into our dojo all the time with these fake ranks on nights we would spar or do kumite. Shihan would usually start them out against an orange belt and that would be too high a skill level for “Mr. McDojo black belt in a year” joker.

Here’s another general guideline. A kid can’t be a legitimate black belt. Let me bore you again with still another story.

Some years back, I was out drinking and seeing a show at a Hard Rock Live. One of the guys I was with was the CEO of Hardrock and he was a cool dude. When he found out that I was into martial arts, he told me his daughter was taking karate. “What rank are you?” he asked.

“I’m a first-degree black belt” I said with a buzz from drinking.
“Ha.” he said. “My daughter is a third-degree black belt. She can kick your ass.” he said drunk.

“Oh yeah? How old is she?” I asked.

“She’s only thirteen and can kick your ass,” he said laughing.

“Yeah she probably could.” I returned humbly. Inside I thought “This guy is an accomplished business man. He’s a fucking CEO of an international company and he thinks his thirteen-year-old daughter can defend herself successfully against a fully-grown man. What a bozo.” The next day I sobered up and thought about it. Of course he would think that. Titles create powerful allusions.

The art of self-defense takes more than just physical ability to achieve. Unless a kid is born into some war-torn country where they must learn to defend themselves from five years old on like from the movie “Blood Diamond”, they just don’t have enough emotional development to do what it takes to defend. Certainly not a privileged millionaire’s daughter who has probably never wanted for anything.

4. They are not a part of an organization – Let me back up. Just because a martial arts school is affiliated with an organization, doesn’t mean it’s good. And just because they may be independent, doesn’t mean it’s bad. Legit martial arts styles or organizations will have standards that the schools have to follow and that’s helpful in guaranteeing good instruction.

If the martial arts place you’re considering is with an organization, do extensive research on it. Check the lineage of the discipline and trace it to its beginning. This may help a lot.

If the studio isn’t affiliated with anyone. Find out what discipline they are teaching and look it up. Check out some YouTube videos on the discipline if available and match them with what they teach at the place. Lots of trial and error is helpful in the honing and practicality of a self-defense art, so a nice long lineage is better than some guy who only started doing his thing a couple years ago.

5. The dojo has too big of an ego – It’s great to have pride and confidence in what you do, but self-defense is about being humble. If you don’t learn to be humble, then you may not give your opponent respect. And if you don’t give your opponent enough respect, you’re gonna get hurt.

Avoid places that proclaim that they are all straight bad asses there. This is not at all what martial arts is about. Now, if you’re wanting to just go learn to kick a bunch of ass everywhere, then cool. Take up some boxing or MMA, watch Fight Club over and over again and decide whether you’re gonna be Brad Pitt or Ed Norton.

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