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What Should Adults Look For In a Martial Arts School?

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I have previously written about the things parents should look for in a martial arts school for their kids, but what if you’re looking for a school for yourself? An adult’s needs in martial arts can be quite different, and I have isolated six tips for adults seeking a martial arts school if they are interested in taking lessons for themselves.

Here they are:

1. Know what you’re looking for.

First, ask yourself if you are merely looking for an interesting hobby, or “enlightenment,” or exercise. Are you looking for a combat sport? Are you looking for instruction in how to defend yourself in a life or death struggle?

Although “martial art” literally means “war skill” and thus should be about teaching the skills necessary to prevail in combat, not everything that passes itself off as “martial art” will prepare you for the mean streets of America. Here is a pretty good explanation of the differences in many of the martial arts we see today:

Tai chi is classified as a martial art, and actually it is a wonderful form of exercise, but it really does not equip you with any kind of martial skill necessary to fight off and defeat a vicious attacker. Likewise Aikido (meaning “harmonious way”) teaches some amazing throws and joint locks. But again, it’s primary purpose is not to get you ready for a bloody encounter with a killer.

Some combat sports, such as judo, wrestling, and Muay Thai kickboxing do indeed teach some terrific techniques that can most definitely be used in self-defense. However, they are still sports with rules. If you want a sport, go there. If you don’t, you may wish to consider something else.

There are great traditional schools that teach kung fu, karate, taekwondo, jiu jitsu and the like. And there are great non-traditional schools that teach what are now known as “combatives” (krav maga, police defensive tactics, and the equivalent of Army/Marine/Navy SEAL hand to hand combat). If you are looking for self-defense, make sure you talk to the instructor of the traditional or non-traditional school and tell him that you are NOT interested in tournament fighting, but rather in saving your life with simple effective techniques.

If they can’t provide what you want, go find another school.

2. Check the teacher’s qualifications.

Many instructors in traditional arts come from a long line of excellent teachers, belong to worldwide organizations, and have their credentials posted all over the walls. That is very good. If they are hesitant about you checking out their credentials, maybe you should go elsewhere.

Does the teacher have a good reputation in the community? Ask the police. If the local police like the teacher and say he/she is legit, then that’s a green light as far as I’m concerned.

Just because someone wears a “black belt” with all kinds of hashmarks on their belt does not mean that they know their stuff or that they are good teachers. I know of schools run by people with long careers in the military and police and their combatives instruction is excellent.

Watch for the attitude. I would not go to a school if the instructor came off with the attitude that they are the only “true” way of fighting and everyone else is just an amateur. Personally, I like schools where the teachers often invite teachers from other arts to come and teach. I am a kempo guy, but I have learned great lessons from my kung fu friends or my buddies with a black belt in Marine Corps Martial Arts. We are all students and we can all learn something new.

3. Observe several classes.

Watch the classes with the beginners as well as those with the advanced students. If the teachers seem abusive (humiliating or punishing students with physical harm), leave. Some people take pride in having a “dungeon dojo.” I don’t. It is not necessary to humiliate or physically abuse anyone when teaching them self-defense.

Does the school focus on safety in training? Do they teach the techniques slowly and gradually work up to full speed? Do they require all proper safety equipment before sparring (mouthguard, helmet and chest protector for the striking arts, cup for the guys)? Do the teachers closely supervise all sparring and drills?

If not, leave. I know that accidents happen, but good schools will go the extra mile to protect their students.

When doing drills against weapons, do they use “drone” (fake) knives, proper police/military fake guns or airsoft guns? If not, run out of there. If they do use proper safety gear in weapons training, training partners should also wear eye protection (goggles/safety glasses) as well as protection for the neck (like a sports safety collar or a fencing mask).

Is there a first-aid kit nearby? Do the instructors know first aid? It would be a good idea if teaching first aid were also a part of the curriculum.

Is the school clean? Are the mats, bathrooms, and changing areas cleaned on a daily and weekly basis? If you have dozens of sweaty people with dirty feet or dirty socks rolling around on the mats for any period of time without a daily and weekly cleaning, you are setting yourself up for some illnesses. Keep it clean.

4. Check for training aids.

Most schools have a variety of heavy bags, double end bags, speed bags, and the like. Do they have the Body Opponent Bag (affectionately known as “BOB”)?

This mannequin is an incredibly useful tool in mastering strikes or even choke holds. The school should also have plenty of kick shields, focus mits, and other striking/grappling tools necessary for practice. You can find all you need here at the Century website.

5. See if they teach weapons proficiency.

I love working with traditional Okinawan weapons such as the nunchaku, bo, and tonfa. However, it is impractical (and illegal in most places) to carry around nunchaku. Learning the bo or jo (long staff or short staff) would be more practical for self-defense purposes, but I am asking if the school teaches more than just traditional Asian weapons from long ago.

Do they teach how to use makeshift weapons or household objects? Do they also teach knife fighting, fighting with a collapsible police baton, or pepper spray? If they also teach proper gun safety and shooting, then that would be a bonus.

6. Make sure it teaches the laws of your state.

If you don’t know the laws of your state regarding self-defense, you are sorely lacking in knowledge, and possibly heading for a lawsuit or prison. It would be a very good idea to have a lawyer come in to the classes and explain exactly when and how you can use your skills, and the “use of force continuum” (how much force you can legally use in an encounter).

If someone is just being a jerk but not threatening your life, you do NOT have the legal or moral right to gouge their eyes or punch them in the throat. Does the school make that clear? If not, look for another school.

The martial arts are a great enjoyable lifestyle of fulfillment and protection. Please take your time to find out exactly what you are looking for, and enjoy the journey of practicing martial arts.