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Choosing a Martial Art

Shido Kan Kanji

This 'bonus' article turned out to be one of the most popular I posted, generating more hits than any other! While preparing some of the other articles I ran across a rather lengthy passage I wrote for a friend who asked some advice. So, after updating it and cleaning it up, here it is! I hope it is of value.

I am subscribed to a couple of Martial Arts mailing lists [ListServes] as well as a number of Martial Arts forums on the web. One topic that comes up on a regular basis is that age old question, “Which style is best?” Rather than getting into a flame war over a very subjective topic, I am going to discuss some factors to consider when making a choice of school for yourself or your children. Much of this article is based on my personal experiences added to the experiences of others that I have worked with. No real links are associated with this article, but I’m sure you will be able to get confirmation on the accuracy of these comments from any knowledgeable martial artists.

What’s Available in Your Area?

There is no use deciding that you want to learn Drunken Monkey style Kung Fu if there is no one within 500 miles that teaches it. I recommend beginning by opening the local telephone book. The internet is also an excellent starting point. Unless you are in a really remote area, chances are very good that you will have several choices of schools and dojos. Community Colleges, health clubs and the continuing education programs of the local school system often include a class or two in self-defense, tai chi or another martial art. Believe it or not, many churches provide classes! These can provide a good introduction to various styles at a reasonable price, as well as serving as a link into the instructor’s formal school.

The real challenge is finding the schools that have no signs, no building of its own and doesn’t participate in tournaments. These can be some of the best and most traditional martial arts schools. Word of mouth is the only way to discover these gems, so don’t be afraid to ask others you know that practice one of the arts about the school where they work out and train. My current dojo is part of a health club. The only requirement to participate is that you belong to the club. Meeting four times a week in a room in the basement, there is no advertising done despite the instructor being a 7th Dan with over 30 years of experience!

Location, Location, Location

Many times I have quoted Iha Hanshi’s answer to the proverbial question, “What’s the hardest part of karate?” His answer is, “Getting into the car.” The motivation to participate is a key factor in practicing the martial arts and having to drive for an hour and a half doesn’t help, particularly when one is just starting. A study of health clubs has found that the majority of members that regularly attend and participate live within a three mile radius of the club. There are other factors that greatly increase that range, such a demographics, a particularly good instructor, or your comfort level. If there isn’t something close to your home, perhaps there is something close to your work location, or on the route home. Personally, I stopped going to one school because it was on my way home when I started going there, but once I had married and bought a house, it was eight miles of surface streets in the wrong direction. Needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled enough with the school, style or instructors to go out of my way to participate.


Once you have considered the above factors, it’s time to look at the schools themselves. You should really consider all of the available schools before making a decision and signing a contract. Free classes and free lessons are a great opportunity to learn about the school and style. Talk with other students or their parents about the school. Watch out for the hard sell! Here are some additional items to evaluate and consider:


Look over and visit the facilities. Cleanliness is certainly one factor to consider. The lighting, the shower facilities and dressing rooms are all items that will affect your enjoyment of the art. I have studied in the most modern chrome, glass and mirror layouts as well as the storefront where the dressing room was a walk-in closet, no shower available and not a mirror, a picture or a certificate in sight. For a kids’ class where they all show up in uniform, a dressing room isn’t necessary. For an adult on the way home from work, it is a requirement!

What other facilities does the school offer? Are there martial arts training devices available, such as heavy bags or makiwaras? Does it provide weight training or weight machines? Sauna? Whirlpool? What are the hours of operation? Does it offer classes at appropriate times? Can you use the facility other than at class times?


This is probably the single most important factor. There are a wide variety of instructors with many different levels of ability running schools. What is it that qualifies the person running this dojo to teach others? Has he been certified as an instructor by an organization? How many instructors are there? If there is just one black belt running a school in a store front, a host of white belts and he gets sick, who will teach? Does he have access to other qualified instructors that he can bring in to teach or help?

How often do you see the lead instructor? Is he a shadowy figure that you don’t see from the time you sign the contract until he arrives to collect your promotion fee? Or is he, or a designated instructor, there every class, teaching and supervising? Are the higher ranking students encouraged to help teach? This is one way that the senior students solidify their knowledge, but there still should be an instructor present.

One of the things I like most about my current dojo is that there is one class for everyone. The senior black belt leads the class and the black belts rotate in a mix with the colored belts, providing everyone with a full range of partners to teach, to learn from and to challenge. I have not been impressed with places that strictly segregate black belts from the lower ranks even to the point of having separate dressing rooms. Yes, respect should always be shown to a black belt, but they are human beings! And the colored belts should also be shown respect. They are the future of every style, and scaring them off limits the ability of the style to survive.


Your fellow students are a big factor in determining whether you will return on a regular basis. They will become your friends and teachers in a new environment. Sometimes a simple phrase can clue you in to the whole philosophy of the school. There is a big difference between, “Take a partner,” and “Choose an opponent!” While both are designed to provide you with someone to work with, they indicate a whole different way of looking at things.

Are you comfortable?

Did you see more physical contact then you are comfortable with? Take a look at the condition of the other students! Black eyes, bruises and split lips are signs that things may not be monitored as well as they should be. Yes, accidents do happen, bruises will be a part of the experience! Does the instructor adjust students into position or smack them into it? There is no reason to become a punching bag for an overly macho instructor. Good techniques can be taught without having them beat into you.

How friendly are the other students? Do they seem excited to see a prospective student? Or are you going to be just another body that will spread the attention of the teacher even thinner? Do they help you with getting set up and learning the ropes, or do they leave you to figure it out on your own? What about ages? Are you surrounded by a crowd of giggly teenagers or little kids? Or are you with people of your own age?

Remember that if you are serious about studying a martial arts, you will be spending many years in the company of these people. You should like them!

The Style

You should educate yourself about the styles that you are considering. There are a wide variety of books and magazines, as well as many web sites, that provide the history and philosophy of the many styles. If you are older or less flexible, a high kicking style may not be the choice to make. Being full of energy and eager to move may lean against embarking on a study of a softer art. Do you want weapons training? Not all schools and styles offer this option.

Why do you want to study the martial arts? Is it self defense? For health and fitness? To win competitions and trophies? Improve your coordination and confidence? Is it because you want to loose weight? Looking for a new way to relax and reduce your stress? Simply to be able to say that you are a black belt? Knowing why you want to study can make a difference in your drive and motivation. If you don’t see older people participating, there may be a good reason! It may point out that this is not the style for a life long pursuit!

Schools can be broken down into three very broad categories. There are Traditional Martial Arts, often abbreviated TMA that stress following the old ways as they were taught to the current leaders. There are Sports Arts that focus on competitions in tournaments and there are Mixed or Modern Martial Arts that focus on fighting. Some schools offer a mix of all three areas and others two of the three.

And what about the school? Is it part of a nationwide organization in this style? This can be critical if you are the type that moves about on a regular basis and don’t want to start over in a new style every time you move. Is it a single independent school? A smaller school such as this can be pretty good for someone more interested in the art, rather than having something that they can flash around. What sort of qualifications are present for the promotion of an individual? You can buy Black Belt certificates through the mail, but does it really mean anything? A governing body with a history adds credence to the style and helps you relate to other martial artists.

$$$ - The Contract

The last thing that has to be considered is the contract. Pricing varies a great deal depending upon many factors. The facilities are a big part of it, the shinier and glitzier naturally being more expensive. What is included in the monthly costs? Do you buy your own uniform and belts, or are they provided? Do you have to purchase everything through the school? Are promotion fees included in the contract or are they additional?

A word about testing and promotion fees. I have heard of schools that charge as much as $1,200 to be tested to Shodan, or the first level of Black Belt. That seems pretty excessive to me. While certificates and belts cost money, and in some cases the testing judges have to be compensated and reimbursed for expenses, there is a limit to what is reasonable! Take a look at the 'total cost of ownership' before deciding what works for you.

The more pressure I am put on to sign the contract right then and there, the more suspicious I am about the financial soundness of the school. Some schools literally have salesman that may know little or nothing about the art being taught, that are just there to get their commissions. They will use every sales trick in the book. “Sign now and you can be wearing a black belt in only twenty months!” “This price is only good until the end of the week!” “I’ll throw in a Gi if you sign today!” “We’re almost at our maximum number of students!” These are all warning signs.

Never sign a contract on first sight! Take it home and read it. Most want you to sign up for a full year, some will even want their money up front for an entire twelve months. A school may have hooked up with a finance company that will allow you to make monthly payments, at interest and penalties, of course! Is there an escape clause if you have to move because of your job? What protection do you have if they go out of business?

And look for other contract clauses, such as "Senior students are required to attend two seminars a year." Naturally this is going to be at your cost and time, particularly if you have to travel to the seminar. Is there a requirement to attend a certain number of tournaments? And where is testing conducted? It isn't unreasonable to have to go to a specific place to test for a Black Belt level, but if you have to travel a couple hundred miles for every kyu test, it can add a lot to the effort. Where can you purchase uniforms and equipment? How does it compare to the market price? A small mark up is reasonable for having to keep things in stock, but there is no reason to gouge anyone on the price.


The study of the Martial Arts has often been described as a journey. It is a journey that can last a life time. While I wouldn’t equate this with selecting a partner for marriage, it can certainly lead to a life long commitment. Don’t rush into it! There is no substitution for good research up-front and asking lots of questions. Participate in a few message boards, visit web sites, send me an email! I’ll try to answer the questions that I can and refer you to places that can answer those that I can’t.

I encourage you to Get in the Car!

Originally published on Suite101 February 25, 2003

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