The reality is that the answer is going to be different for every person. What I will attempt to do in this article is give you a set of general guidelines. I will talk in very broad terms about different martial arts, and what to look for in a school. Ultimately every teacher, at every school, in every system is going to be completely different.
1. Dispelling a common myth
Just like with religion and politics, many people honestly believe that what they do is the best thing in the world. One only has to make a cursory study of the psychological principle of cognitive dissonance to see why this is so. So many schools out there claim to be teaching, "the ultimate, deadliest, most secret, guarded system of self defense ever invented by the gods of combat." To be quite blunt ? they are full of crap.
In one respect, much of this stuff is a marketing stance. Heck, everybody wants to study the best thing in the world. If such a thing existed everybody would study it. Some martial arts schools can become very cult like as well, and this is where the cognitive dissonance comes in. The practitioners actually believe their marketing stuff.
The truth is that style is not going to fight for you ? you are. Every person is different and there is not one best system for everyone. It would be quite scary for me to face a sumo wrestler in combat, but it would also be silly for me to expect to take up Sumo and be good at it.
Claims of superior systems that can make you as deadly as a Navy SEAL in 24 hours also stem from American culture. It is unfortunate that we of the MTV and Internet generation are always looking for a shortcut, a quick fix. It makes many of us miss a lot of very valuable and important stuff.
2. Let's start with you
If I can help you answer a few key questions about yourself and your interests, you will have done most of the work toward picking out a martial arts school that is best for you.
First and foremost, what do you want to get out of martial arts training? Yes, yes, I know you want to learn self defense ? put that on the list. But people study martial arts for a variety of reasons. You want to get some exercise, you want to meet new people, you want to get rid of stress, you want a new hobby, and you think the uniforms look cool. Really think about it and write down your reasons. Everything is valid and your reasons are your own. Then I would prioritize your reasons ? which ones are more important than others. Maybe getting into shape is your main goal ? if so, that may help determine a place to study.
3. What style?
Now, let's talk a little bit about systems or styles. A system is just the type of martial art you will be studying like Karate, Kendo, or Kung Fu. The differences between styles may also help you to determine where to look.
The main difference between most martial arts style is focus. Some arts like Tae Kwon do focus on large kicking movements, while others ? like Kendo focus on a particular weapon. Body type and interest (as we discussed before) will help you think a little about style focus. For example: I am built like a fireplug ? short and wide, am somewhat slow and am very interested in the self defense aspect of training. Ketsugo Jujutsu turned out to be the best style for me as it focused on unbalancing the opponent, the kicks were low to the ground, and the fighting in close where we short guys excel.
Beyond focus is a scale of formality to informality. To me formality is a measure of emphasis on things like training etiquette, ceremony, style of dress, method of addressing seniors etc. Many Japanese and Korean styles are very formal. On the far end of the informal scale you might have a cardio kickboxing class at local gym. On the far end of the formal scale you might have a style like Kendo which places a lot of emphasis on appearance and etiquette.
Neither formal nor informal is better or worse; it is a matter of preference. I personally enjoy some of the formalities of traditional Japanese martial arts. For me they build character and shape a strong state of mind that carries over into day to day life. For others, the formalities may be difficult to grasp and they may wish for something less formal.
The following is a list of styles I have arranged from most to least formal. This arrangement is from my own best knowledge and is neither absolute nor inclusive. Many would rightfully disagree with where I have placed things on the list, but this is meant to be a general guideline. Again, every single teacher in every different school is going to be different. This is meant as a starting point:
While you're on the web already, it would pay off to do some research. Look up a few sites for a few of the styles I have listed here. Get some general information about focus and formality. See what strikes you as interesting. Make a small list of styles you might be interested in pursuing.
4. Practical Issues
OK, now you've done some soul searching and some research and you have a list of styles you might be interested in learning. Now we have to talk a little bit about lifestyle. If Kendo interests you, but the nearest school is 200 miles away ? it may not be a practical choice.
You can certainly look through your yellow pages to find schools close to you or ask people you know if they know of any schools. A word to the wise: friends will always try to get you to come to their school and may get offended of you don't or if you visit and then don't want to sign up. That's definitely something to consider.
Some practical things to consider are school location and proximity to home / work, costs and your ability to pay dues and other fees, class schedule and how it fits into your schedule. Other things may also be important to you like parking, and facilities ? write them down.
You should narrow down your potential list of schools based on your criteria, but you should still plan on visiting more than one to give you a sense of comparison.
5. Choosing a school
The following are a list of things I suggest you look for when choosing a school or instructor. To me, these factors are more important than any other of the above factors and can make or break your martial arts experience.
?When you call the school, are all your questions answered, and answered honestly? Sometimes someone will answer the phone that may not be able to answer all your questions. They should pass you on to someone who can , or have someone call you back.
?Every school out there should offer at least one free trial class before you sign up. How else can you determine if you want to study there? Your best bet is to try out several different schools to give you some comparison.
?When you visit the school, is the practice safe, or are students allowed to train in dangerous ways or without proper supervision?
?Is the school itself hygienic and free from unsafe conditions?
?Do students and teachers show respect toward everyone? This extends beyond formal bowing and address to making sure everyone is learning and nobody is being abused.
?Be prepared that many schools these days require a contract like a health club. Make sure you are clear on the terms of the contract if you do decide to sign one, and do not be afraid to walk out if you are uncomfortable with the terms.
?Be very wary of cult-like schools that try to up-sell you to intensified black belt programs and the like. While some of these may be legitimate, there are many scam artists in black belts out there. You should be very clear about what you are paying for up front.
?Do the teacher and senior students display a lot of skill in the art they are teaching? This may be hard to determine since great martial artists are often very subtle. However, the teacher and students should display knowledge, skill, and balance which might be more obvious.
?Most importantly, trust your instincts. If something about the school doesn't sit right with you, then it probably isn't right. Look out for the fast talking salesman who tries to sweep your concerns under the rug.
Remember that choosing the right teacher and the right school is more important than the actual style. If you choose a school that you enjoy, study with a teacher you like, and train with students that inspire you ? you are likely to stick with your martial art. The longer you stick with it ? the better you'll get. Hopefully you will discover a very positive lifelong journey that will shower hidden benefits on you as my martial art has upon me.
John Moore is a recognized expert in personal protection and a founder of Martial Training Systems LLC. He resides in Boston and provides professional consultation and training, products, and services related to self-defense and physical conditioning. He has trained in martial arts since the age of 10 including Arnis, Kenpo, Kyokushinkai, and Ketsugo Jujutsu - in which he holds an advanced black belt. He is a sought-after speaker, entrepreneur, and author - spending 90% of his time consulting in the corporate world. See for more information.