When it comes to selecting a martial arts instructor or a martial art, it’s not always an easy task. In this day and age there are dozens of martial arts and an abundance of schools to choose from. While you are never married to staying with any class you decide to visit, your first experience with any martial art or instructor should be a positive one. Ideally it should result in you wanting to stick with your choice. There are few important things to consider before visiting a class for the first time or meeting with an instructor.
First and foremost, think about why you want to learn a martial art. Ask yourself the question, “What do I desire from my study?” I fully believe that there is no wrong answer for this but it’s good to know what you are looking for just the same. Even if you just are looking for a fun social activity that will get you in shape, knowing your goals will allow you to select a school or instructor that will help you meet them.
Here are some common reasons for wanting to start martial arts:
Physical fitness or “getting into shape”
Engaging in competition
Building self discipline
Wanting to train with a particular instructor you met
Studying a cultural activity
Any combination or all the above
Whatever motives you have for beginning martial arts, make sure that the school or instructor you select will be able to support them and help you progress. Many martial art schools will tell you that they offer everything, that they are complete, and that they can meet any need. While this can be true, more than likely they will have a particular emphasis. Some schools specialize in competition, whereas others focus more on fitness and self defense.
Some arts have a particular “purpose” attached to them — Brazilian Jiu Jitsu often draws people who want to compete and who are looking for a social way to get in shape and discipline themselves. Karate often appeals to people who enjoy bettering themselves through hard work and self discipline, whereas some arts, like the Filipino Martial Arts, offer a more casual approach that appeals to people seeking immersion in a particular culture and social gatherings.
Once you’ve figured out your reasons for wanting to train, it’s time to figure out where and who to train with. Options range from large commercial schools to one-on-one training in backyards and living rooms, and everything in between. There are great, good, not so good and bad instructors, and there are martial arts that will be suitable for your needs, and some that you just wouldn’t enjoy.
The Commercial School
Usually these schools are a storefront at a strip mall or a standalone building. They will have signage and will unmistakably be a martial art school. People are sometimes leery of these schools because they fear becoming simply another number (and that’s not always without reason), but there are world class instructors who have big schools. A commercial school or academy shouldn’t be ruled out just because it’s big.
See if you can observe a regular class at the level you would be training at, or ask if you can watch a couple of back to back classes so you can see different instructors. Don’t be rude or intrusive but be wary of an instructor who won’t allow you to sit and watch. Typically, they don’t (or, at least, shouldn’t) have anything to hide but they usually are trying to funnel you into introductory lessons which are designed to culminate with you signing a long term contract. Long term contracts to train aren’t a great thing to get into sight unseen.
Most martial art schools offer a series of trial lessons that is sometimes combined with a free uniform. This is always a good deal but will more than likely end with you being asked to sign up for a long term commitment. If you don’t desire a long term commitment then it would be a good idea to steer clear of most storefront schools. Some schools may allow you to request a month to month contract instead, although the price per month may be higher.
Most commercial schools teach traditional or competition martial arts, like karate, Taekwondo, judo and jujitsu. This type of learning environment and the most common types of arts offered tend to appeal to people who are looking for self discipline, fitness, or competition training.
The right teacher may be at a community center, YMCA, or completely underground. Most martial arts instructors aren’t business people. They are hardworking, passionate and even extremely talented people, but they often don’t have the know-how for the day to day operations of a small business. Unfortunately, sometimes the inverse can be true — there are far too martial arts business owners who don’t have the same level of talent for teaching. While this is a generalization on both sides I will state that I’ve rarely been taught at a commercial school. Most of my teachers never had a place that they controlled completely. Two taught in local parks (an advantage to living in Los Angeles and Phoenix).
Check your local parks and rec for lists of classes they offer. There are always at least one class available. Also, check out your local Y. You will find excellent and passionate instructors who are hidden gems. Most martial arts instructors hold down full time jobs and family. Their passion leads them to squeeze out a few nights a week to instruct.
Get a referral from a friend who is involved in the arts. Everyone knows at least one person who is or has been a black belt. Sometimes that person can actually wind up being your teacher!
Be wary of name chasing. Not all big name teachers are a fit for everyone. Buyer beware. Some of the bigger names are extremely commercial, whereas others draw people who seek power or other ways to “get ahead.” The environment around some of the more well-known instructors isn’t always conducive to learning, so always make sure to research, research, research. Know what you’re getting into.
There is some conventional wisdom to choosing an art by body type. Long legs? Try a kicking art like Taekwondo. Stout and short body? Try a throwing art such as judo. I find this approach to be too limiting to a student’s potential experience, though. Feel free to explore and challenge yourself. Also, not all areas are inundated with martial art teachers. Some areas might only have one school, and in that case, you either have to be willing to travel, or you have to be willing to work with what you’ve got.
When it comes time to finally go and train for the first time, let your gut guide you. Your initial inclinations (and misgivings, for that point) will rarely be wrong. Do what feels right — your martial arts training should restore, rejuvenate and build you up, not break you down or make you feel worse. If it feels right, it probably is. Challenge yourself with your training, and always seek to meet and surpass your goals. If you aren’t seeing or achieving the results you desire from your training, it might be time to reevaluate and reassess what you’re doing and why.
Don’t do more than one style or train with more than one teacher at a time. It can be tempting to jump around from art to art, but until you form a solid training base, you won’t be able to benefit from cross training. Of course, that assumes the art and instructor you’ve chosen are a good fit for you, your needs, your goals, and your reasons for wanting to train. Never feel as though you have to stay with a toxic instructor or one who isn’t meeting your needs, but also be certain that you’re not continuously making excuses to “move on” because you’re being challenged past what you’re used to. Be loyal to your instructor but don’t be blind Don’t be afraid to move on when or if the time is right.
Above all, have fun. Training itself will not always be fun — sometimes it’s hard, grueling and occasionally painful — but you should enjoy the path you’re on and the progress you’re making. When you’ve found the right art and instructor, things will seem to “click” and you’ll feel at home. That’s when you know you’ve made the correct choice.