By Mark Lamendola, 4th Degree Black Belt
I've trained in several martial arts, but mostly in Kung Fu. In the USA, martial arts schools have had to adopt belt systems for
a number of reasons--and that includes Kung Fu schools. Some choose not to, but
it does help us all kind of sort of figure out who's an expert in their art and
Before you decide on a martial arts school or a particular style,
decide what your goal is. If, for example, you want to learn how to
defend yourself then take up Kung Fu, Aikido, or MMA. While Tae Kwon
Do claims to make people street tough, it simply does not. This has
been proven to such an extent, nobody who knows anything seriously debates it.
If you want to compete in tournaments, earn belts, and look
really graceful, then Tae Kwon Do would be a good way to go. The
less flashy styles won't give you what you want.
You'll also need to pick a style that makes use of your particular physical
attributes. If, for example, you are tall then don't go for a low stance style
such as Shotokan. Again, Tae Kwon Do is a winner; it works well for tall people
because of its dramatic high kicks (conversely, these same people will not do
well in a street fight because the high kicks give an advantage to short people
but a disadvantage to tall people).
If you just want good physical exercise and the camaraderie of people who
train seriously, then just about any style will do. Parents who want their
children to develop internal discipline almost can't lose no matter what style
or which school they choose.
But some notes of caution, here.
- If you watched any of the Karate Kid films, you saw the
darker side of martial arts schools. There are some that have an
owner or instructor who is simply nuts. Just listen to the
person talk, and you can pick up on this in short order. Don't
go back to that school.
- Some schools focus on hard strikes. Students will do knuckle
pushups on hard floors, and strike hard objects. This kind of
thing isn't necessary to be a good fighter, and it will result
in joint problems later in life. Look at the hands of the black
belts for knobby knuckles and other disfiguration.
- Some schools focus on money. If the school has belts of
every color and stripes on those belts, ask about exam fees. If
it's only a couple of bucks (or free) for an exam, no problem.
The school is just catering to a cultural need to be graded. But
if you multiply the number of belts/stripes by the amount, it
may be the school isn't concerned about teaching.
Don't expect the school to change your kid into Chuck Norris in six weeks,
and if you're an adult learning a martial art don't expect to be winning an MMA
tournament by year's end. If the school tends to fuel such expectations, find a
If the instructor comes off as a tough guy, find another school. He's
compensating for a lack of ability by acting tough. A true martial artist has no
need for such pretense. And really, do you want your kid acting that way? Pick a
school whose instructor(s) you like. They are going to be role models for your
kid, so such things as a pleasant disposition and a respectful attitude are
paramount. These are not wimpy characteristics; watch any interview with Chuck
Look for good posture, too. Bad posture will tell you quite a bit about
what's wrong with the instructor(s) and their school. If they have not mastered
this fundamental, their school is a sham.
Be patient. A martial art worth learning takes time to learn. A good school
sets up its program with this in mind. That said, a school may jump
past the long learning process to equip students with practical
knowledge they can use right away.
This was my approach when I ran
my own school. I began with a few techniques and
turned my students into effective fighting machines:
- One girl studied with me for a few months. She was attacked by a much
larger boy at her school; she broke his collar bone.
- Another girl studied with me for about a year. She was attacked by a
gang of girls at her school; they started it, but she finished it. She was
the only one not needing medical attention when the dust settled.
- A male student studied with me
for six months, then competed in the Dallas citywide open style tournament. He
took second place.
- A male student studied with me for four months. He walked into a
convenience store that was being held up. He disarmed the robber, and nobody
Did you notice the difference in outcomes? The girls used much more vicious
techniques. That's something that many martial arts schools don't do. They have
a one size fits all approach, without doing anything to teach a 110 lb girl able
to really defend herself. The smaller and weaker you are, the more vicious your
techniques must be to equalize the situation. It's nice if you don't have to
hurt the other person, but typically a small fighter must do exactly that or
become a victim.
To get this kind of training, you may need to get one-on-one instruction
rather than a classroom format. Depending on the school, you may win the trust
of the instructor to get the advanced technique training. Just don't expect that
upfront, as reputable schools do not offer it to just anybody and it's a good
thing they do not.