Ever since I stopped training TaeKwonDo, there has been a huge void in my life that has been difficult to fill. Martial Arts are so much more than what most people might think. The saying for the people that have practiced a martial art is that it is a way of life or “Do”. Well, I am going to start the difficult journey once again (Finding another martial art school that is) some day. In the mean time I want to give my thoughts in the subject and hopefully help others.
Finding a Martial Arts school is not so much about finding the best facilities, or the most popular art at the moment. You can always count on an ancient martial art becoming the latest fad, which is kind of ironic in a sense. To me finding the best Martial Arts school requires finding the best Master. I found the best teacher in the world, he is now a very good friend of mine, but I have moved out of the area and I still need to get back to training. It is not a requirement but hopefully finding the right school for you will also mean finding a good master.
I want to start with defining what this little article is not. You are not going to find a “What is the best martial art” information here. That is a whole other topic that is extremely subjective. I am going to try and look at the subject of finding a martial art school in an objective way. Even though in this guide I will touch on different arts a little bit, it is not meant to be a “how to choose a martial art guide”. To me that is the wrong approach to martial arts. Also this guide is for the beginner that wants to start looking for a local school. If you have your heart set on a style, then find the best teacher regardless of location.
Before you open your phonebook or do a google search for your local schools, before you even go to the first Dojo (common word used for a school in many arts), you need to decide what the focus of your training is going to be. I like to separate training into 3 areas, and that way you can either choose one, or at least use them as a priority list. The 3 areas are:
Why are they separate? Well, in my experience most schools will focus on one of those 3 areas more than the other 2. A well-rounded school will provide them all in some form. The norm will be that a school will emphasize one of these areas and in some cases ignore one all together. I think it is good to find out which one you are more/most interested in. You might ask yourself why isn’t “The art” there as an area of study… and again, if you are looking for a specific art, it is a totally different search. I am by no means implying that the art is not important, but in reality unless you are completely committed to a specific art, or you live in a very large city with every single art available to you, to me it is more important to find the right school than the right art. If finding the right art is your focus I suggest that you find the best teacher in the specific art or style and most likely move to where he/she is.
The first mistake people make when thinking of or talking about the martial arts subject is thinking it requires you to learn how to kick someone’s butt. In reality the ultimate goal of most martial arts has nothing to do with that, and it is as far away from violence as it can get. If you approach martial arts with violence in mind, you will never be consistent or really achieve the goal of being able to use martial arts to kick someone else’s butt.
The self-defense aspect of martial arts, believe it not, is not taught at all the schools. Some schools will go over it as a topic, but not practice it on a consistent basis. If this aspect is important to you make sure that you ask the school about what self defense techniques they teach, if it is weapon driven (defending against knives, sticks), and how often it is practiced.
Self-defense is most useful when it becomes second nature. Knowing how to react in a dangerous situation is a lot different than being able to do so. It has to almost become a reflex or second nature to perform the moves that are taught. Becoming proficient requires a lot of practice; so even if a school professes self-defense, make sure that it is in fact being practiced at least during each practice session. Make sure that self-defense is practiced towards the end of the lesson when muscles are already warmed up, this will prevent injury.
Fitness, yes fitness, martial arts are a fun way to get in shape. Because it is a structured workout it is a lot better for beginners than joining a gym with no trainer supervision in my opinion, also less expensive. Martial arts teachers are good motivators and learning the art requires performing repetitive exercises concentrating on the form of the movement. Repetition builds muscle, which are the bases for fitness. Do keep in mind that some arts do require that you are somewhat in shape before you start while others don’t.
If you want to compete at a regional, national or international level it is possible, and actually not hard in the Chicago area. The same can be accomplished at any school that promotes it. I think competition is a great compliment to your training, but if you are serious about it you should really pick an art first and then look for a school. TaeKwonDo and Judo are both Olympic sports, if that is the level that you want to reach. Karate has been strong in the US and there are a lot of competitions. Ultimate Fighting and other extreme fighting are growing in popularity as well as schools dedicated solely to this kind of training. Still, a complete school will provide you with the environment to at least test your skills with other students.
Competition even inside the school is important because you are testing your abilities against other humans vs. the air. It is important to learn how it feels to hit and get it. If you never have hit a solid object, even if your form is flawless, you might not be effective if you have to use your skills in real life. Competition is also not just about sparring; there are also competitions for forms, acrobatics, breaking. I think competition builds character and pushes you to be better. Make sure that you examine this carefully at the school that you are going to evaluate.
*Now that you have your priorities straight*
Ok, now that you have sorted out in your head what is important to you, you have done some of the work already. Organized schools in the US are businesses and like such they will all have a sales pitch. If you have your needs in mind, walking in, it is a lot better than if you just sign up at the first place you visit.
Now, a school is only as good as the people in it… not just the master but also the students. When shopping find out what class will you be most likely to attend (depending on your schedule and age) and watch a couple of classes. See the number of attendees, their age and attitude toward the class and instructor.
Depending on what is most important for you, at this point you should have a list of questions for your future master. Here are some sample questions and what area they are important to;
–How often can I come to class? Most schools have classes scheduled for a group that you might fit into; it does not automatically mean you are allowed in. Some schools only allow 2 classes per week, or have tuition tied to the number of times you can attend. (For fitness you should attend class no less than 2 times a week… I recommended at least 3)
–Do I get a chance to spar or practice the techniques I learn with other students? Is there ever full contact? Some schools do not allow any contact at all, some only light contact. IMO, if you want to learn true practical self defense you need to practice with another human, simulating almost real life situations. Also for competition, tournaments are not light contact and people 80% of the time people go all out… if you only practice light contact in class and then go to a tournament be ready for a rude awakening.
–How many students are in my age group? This is very important for all kinds of aspects of the training. It also makes you feel more comfortable during class.
–Is this school part of any association? Find out if the school has events with other local schools, if you have maybe places you can visit. It is not a requirement but it is always good to be a part of a larger organization if you want to join tournaments.
–Who will actually be teaching most of the classes? Sometimes schools have students teach the classes, which is ok if your focus is fitness, but unacceptable for competition training and self-defense. The master of the school should be involved in the teaching even in the beginning stages. Make sure you get to practice with the master of the school at least once a month. Keeping in mind that the students teaching have reached a level of competency and in most schools are very knowledgeable, experience cannot be easily replaced.
These are all sample questions, make up your own list and visit more than one school. Do not hesitate to look into other arts than the one you might have an interest in. For fitness and self defense it is more important to have a good school than what art they actually teach. Also now days many schools teach mixed arts; don’t be turned off by that, even if you are looking for just a specific art. True pure arts are only found in schools from their country of origin, there are counted exceptions but I call a true ‘pure art’ a place where your life revolves completely around the art. Good luck on your quest. I hope this helps out… and if you want to add something to it go ahead… or ask some questions. I will be more than happy to give you my opinions on the subject.