Factors to consider
IntroWhen looking for a school at which to train, there are several factors you should consider. When visiting schools look for these factors but how much emphasis you place on each factor depends on your needs.
Type of sparringSome dojangs stress "traditional" sparring, some stress "point" sparring, some stress "Olympic" semi-contact sparring, and some stress "full-contact" sparring. Full-contact sparring is tough on the body and it takes a tough personality to handle it. Point sparring is like flag football. You get to play the game and get an ego boost without having, or ever having had, the desire or ability to play real football. Semi-contact and traditional sparring allow you to realistically test your skills on a daily training basis with little chance of serious injury.
Some martial arts specialize in grappling. This means there is a lot of body contact, along with throws, chokes, strangles, pins, locks, and arm and leg bars. MMA style martial arts specialize in grappling and full-contact punches and kicks.
You should choose a school that uses the type of sparring that fits your risk tolerance, personality, and goals.
MarketingMarketing costs money; large ads cost more than small ones. The school must have enough students to justify the marketing they use. Therefore, the size of the school's ad will give you some idea of the number of students in the school and/or the cost of classes.
Class scheduleLook at the class schedule. Make sure classes are offered at times you can attend. Most schools do not have weekday class, only after school and night classes. Schools with full-time instructors will offer more hours of instruction. Depending on the size of the school, there may be separate classes for beginner, intermediate, and advanced, so consider that your class schedule may change as you advance.
Class age groupsAre classes are separated by age and/or belt level? Adult students may not appreciate training with children, some of whom may be able to execute the techniques better than they can. You may find yourself as the only adult in a class full of much younger students, and the different maturity levels could prove distracting to both you and them.
Who teaches classesWho teaches the classes? Does the head instructor teach most of the classes or does he or she only teach the advanced classes? If assistants teach beginner classes, what are their qualifications and experience? Ensure you watch classes taught by the person who will be teaching your class and whom will you be spending most of your class time.
Size of schoolMartial arts schools come in all sizes. Some are part of a large chain, others are small operations run by a single instructor. The quality of instruction you will receive at a school is not necessarily related to its size. You can receive poor or excellent instruction both at a small school and at a large school. Although large schools may have better equipment and nicer facilities, smaller schools offer students more personal attention.
Location of schoolA school's proximity to your home or work should be taken into consideration prior to signing up. Although an hour commute to class might not seem too bad at first, keep in mind that you will be making that commute two-to-three times a week for the next several years. Find a school that fits your needs, but is also within an acceptable commuting distance.
School atmosphereTake notice of the school atmosphere and the attitudes of the students and instructors. Are they friendly and respectful toward one another? Do they appear to be having fun while sparring or do they show irritation and anger? Does the instructor appear to enjoy teaching? Are there an unreasonable number of injuries in class caused by a lack of control? Overall, does it seem like a place you would like to spend an hour, 3 to 4 nights a week, for the next several years?
If you see students engaging in sparring and smiling and laughing at the same time, there is too much sport involved and not enough serious training. If they never smile, then they are too serious and probably not having fun. If everyone laughs and talks all the time, the school is mostly a social gathering, not a serious martial arts school. When someone does something dumb, such as falling while trying to kick too high, the students and instructors should laugh with, not at, the person.
Observe how injuries are handled by instructors and students. Injuries should be ignored if minor, endured if minor and painful, and immediately treated if major.
Weapons instructionIf weapons are displayed, do they look frequently used or just for display? If you are interested in learning weapons and you see shiny nunchaku with gold colored chains or brightly painted shuriken, it probably means real weapons are not taught at the school.
School facilitiesSchools vary in the type of equipment and amenities they offer. Some are large and modern, and provide weight-training equipment, showers, and lockers, while others do not. Remember, students are paying for these extras; it is up to you to decide what is most important and necessary for your training. All schools should offer basic comforts, adequate equipment, and learning essentials. Depending on your location, air conditioning may be a must. A pretty school is not necessarily a highly functional school and vice versa.
School business proceduresPersonally, I feel the best martial arts school is one with a good instructor who is affiliated with a "traditional” organization and operates a non-commercial school that is affiliated with a college, YMCA/YWCA, or other community organization. A commercial school is a business and must make money to stay in business.
At a minimum, commercial school owners must pay the lease, energy costs, insurance, etc. If they are full-time owners, they also must make a decent salary. If they are part-time owners, they must make enough salary for the effort to be worth their time. There is nothing wrong with a commercial school, but, if the owner is to cover the expenses of a business, the monthly student payments must be much higher than for a non-commercial school.
Most of the expenses of a non-commercial school are covered by the entity under which it operates, such as a college or community center. A good instructor does not necessarily need a school to train quality students. If you do not mind paying for the "extras" of a commercial school, then do so. However, do not feel you are getting less than the best if the instructor does not operate a commercial school.
Quality of studentsThe quality of instruction in a martial arts school may be judged by the quality of the students. Observe classes held for students of different belt levels.
Do the students appear to:
- Enjoy their training at all belt levels.
- Act friendly with each other during and after class.
- Show respect for each other, the instructors, visitors, and the martial art. Student respect and discipline may be forced or natural; watch how the students react when the instructor is not within sight. If they step languidly through the motions or chat with one another, their previous show of respect and discipline was a facade.
- Show the level of expertise expected of a student of that rank. If you saw the students training while not wearing any rank identification, could you accurately guess the belt level of each student, or would you be surprised to learn that a poorly performing student was actually a high-ranked student.
- Talk to several students. Ask them how long they have studied at the school, what they like about it, who teaches most of the classes, etc. Don’t ask them what is wrong with the school; that puts them on the spot to criticize their school and instructor. It will make you look bad if you decide to join the school. Just ask what they like about the school and read between the lines the best you can.
- At tournaments, watch how the proficiency of the students rates against students of other schools? When they are sparring, how do the students react when they lose?
- What loyalties do the students exhibit toward the instructor and the school?