As with many instructors and experienced martial artists, I am often approached for advice in selecting a school, art, or instructor for training in the martial arts. While I can’t effectively answer this question in an article (for reasons which will be explained in a few moments), I can provide the basic framework of an answer. It is up to the individual student to use that information as a part of the selection process.
What are you looking for? This is a question many new students (and even some experienced martial artists) neglect to answer before beginning their search. Yet, it is as important a factor in the selection as any other. If you want effective self-defense that is clearly focused on real-life situations , then a competition-oriented school is probably not a good fit.
However, if you are looking primarily for the fun and fitness aspects, competition may well be for you. If you want competition, look for schools that advertise competitions and awards, and which have trophies in the training hall. If they don’t have trophies, they’re probably not any good at competition.
If you are looking for a self-defense oriented school, the preference should be that the school have NO trophies, because you don’t want to compete. Competition is based on rules, and those rules don’t exist in the street. The self-defense schools should have evidence of full-contact practice in their primary skill. If it’s a grappling or throwing art, there should be good pads on the floor. If it’s a striking art, there should be evidence of sparring gear around – preferably including a RedMan suit, which allows students to strike each other full-force with safety.
Check out the instructor. Make sure you watch at least one entire class being taught by the instructor under whom you’d be training. If it’s not the chief instructor of the school, be sure to watch a class being taught by the chief instructor, as well. The character and respect shown by an instructor has a tremendous impact upon the training experience. The instructor should be respectful of his students, visitors, other instructors, and other arts. If this respect isn’t evident, move along. Also, does the instructor actually DO what he’s teaching? When he teaches a strike or throw, does he do the technique being taught? If so, does he do it well? An occasional mistake is only human, but poor technique from an instructor is a bad sign.
Check out the students. Are there many injuries among them? The odd bump or bruise is to be expected in any activity. Several students sitting out with broken or strained joints is a clear indicator of a lack of safety in the school. Move along.
Are the students respectful of the instructor and one another? It’s okay if they joke and laugh (if the instructor allows such in the school), so long as they do so with respect and reasonably good taste. If a student makes a mistake and accidentally bumps or hits another student, do they apologize?
Do the students seem capable? Look at the difference among the ranks (if ranks are used), and see how the students progress. The more advanced students should be clearly more skilled than most of the lower-ranking students.
Check out the school. What’s the overall “feel” of the place? This is very subjective, but it should feel “right” to you. If something doesn’t feel like a good fit, it probably isn’t. Try to talk to as many of the students as you can between classes (NEVER disturb a class to ask a student or instructor a question, unless you’ve been given permission by the instructor). Pay attention to everything.
Make sure you visit at least one other school for comparison. Without a comparison of some sort, you’re judging against an imagined ideal (either good or bad) and will have a hard time making a fair assessment.
You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t said anything about the specific style here, and there’s a reason for that. The instructor, the other students, and your frame of mind will each have a far greater impact on your training than the style you study. Yes, the style does matter, but only when all else is equal. And, most likely, the environment and instructor that interest you the most will exist in a style that greatly interests you, because like-minded people will have been drawn to that art, as well.
Gerry Seymour is the founder of the Self-defense Academy of Western NC, in Hendersonville, NC.