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Courtney Leal - Martial ArtistOne of the most frequent questions young women ask is “How do I pick a good martial arts school? This is an important decision, and the time you spend doing your research will pay off in the end.The first step in picking a style and school is to ask yourself a series of questions about what you want from your training experience:

  • Why do you want to train? Are you interested in getting in shape, learning a little basic self defense, competing, exploring a whole system of personal development, becoming part of a community?
  • Are you interested in a short-term program or do you envision at least the possibility of making the martial arts an integral part of your life journey?
  • What kind of school do you want to train in (encouraging, supportive/ brass tacks, let’s just do it/ top down, authoritarian)? Do you want to push your limits, grow as a person, or just get a good workout?
  • Do you want to train with men and women, or in a women only environment?
  • What kind of teacher do you want? One who’s a coach? A taskmaster? Both?
  • How important to you are martial arts traditions and cultures? Do you want a school that observes them strictly, or do you prefer a different sort of atmosphere?
  • How important is the spiritual/philosophical component of training?
  • Do you want to train at a school that is part of a large network of affiliated schools (this is often important if you’re interested in competition)?
  • Next, consider any limitations that might narrow the range of possible schools. Can you only train in the evenings? Do you need on-site day care? Do you want to be able to train in the same classes as your children? How far can you realistically travel? How much can you afford to spend on training?

Once you’ve got those nailed down, it’s time to start checking out the schools in your area.

If you’re a beginner, it’s generally less important to focus on a particular style than it is to focus on your overall goals – they can often be met by any number of individual styles. Make a list of the schools in your area and prepare to spend a bit of time on the phone. Ask for descriptions of the style(s) taught, the structure of the curriculum, the cost of training and any additional fees (uniforms, required equipment, testing fees), and whether or not long-term contracts are required.

Don’t be put off if the person you speak with requests that you take a trial class before discussing fees – that’s a common practice in this business. Ask also about the qualifications of the instructors – how long they’ve trained, how long they’ve been teaching, the extent to which junior belts are involved in instruction. Be sure to make your own goals very clear as well and listen carefully to how your needs are addressed.

Based on what you hear, set up trial classes in several schools (3 is a good number to start with). If you can attend two classes at each school, that’s great. If not, take the time to at least observe a variety of classes to be sure you’re getting the complete picture. While you’re there, observe and ask a lot of questions. Talk to the instructors, the other students, and parents whose children train there. And spend some time just “feeling” the environment. All these things are important. As you check out the schools, here are some specific things to look for:

  • Do the people you spoke with on the phone act professionally? Are they knowledgeable and forthcoming with information? If they don’t have the information you need, do they refer you to someone who does?
  • Are costs, contracts, etc. clearly explained? How do they compare with other schools in the area? If contracts are required, can you take an initial short-term contract (one or two months) before making a long-term commitment? How often do prices go up?
  • Does the school provide a clean, safe training environment?
  • Do the instructors treat each other and all students with courtesy and respect? Do you see any signs of abuse (mental, physical, or emotional) masquerading as “discipline”? Trust your instincts on this one – if it looks and feels abusive, it probably is. Run, do not walk, away from that school!
  • Are qualified instructors teaching all classes? In many traditional systems, students are expected to assist in class while they’re still junior belts – but watch out for schools in which junior belts are providing primary instruction in beginner’s classes, women’s classes, etc.
  • Do all students in a given class receive the same quality of instruction, or does one group (women and girls, all too often) receive less attention from senior instructors, fewer challenges, etc.?
  • Are women represented among the advanced ranks and/or instructors in the school? If not, why not? And don’t be afraid to ask!
  • Do the instructors appropriately tailor instruction to students with different abilities and/or needs? Can physical limitations be accommodated safely without compromising the quality of training?
  • Does the school owner/head instructor guarantee promotion to black belt (or its equivalent) within a fixed period of time? This is a good warning sign that the school may be more of a belt factory than a place to embark on a true path of lifelong development.
  • Most students seem to find that it really doesn’t take long to figure out which school is right for them, based on a combination of these factors and their own “gut” feeling.

Finally, here are a few miscellaneous caveats that may help: Certificates don’t guarantee quality. A huge number of organizations offer “certification” of rank. Many are legitimate, conferring rank based on real accomplishment and sound criteria; others can simply be bought. Unless you already know something about the organization(s) conferring certification, pay more attention to what you see and hear than what you see on someone’s wall. Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask what those certificates mean and where they come from!

Martial arts training is not necessarily the same as self defense training. Although all martial arts were originally developed as systems of defense, the degree to which practical self defense techniques are integrated into the formal curriculum varies widely among schools. So if self defense is your primary interest, make sure you find out exactly how a school’s curriculum will help you meet that goal.

“Masters” may know a lot, but they can’t make your decision for you. Don’t let a school owner/head instructor tell you what you need or want! So, that’s about it! Good luck with your quest, and let us know how it turned out!

Adapted from National Women’s Martial Arts Federation

July 2, 2009

Choosing a Martial Arts School

One of the most frequent questions young women ask is “How do I pick a good martial arts school? This is an important decision, and the […]