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Finding a good martial arts school

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 who's not.

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 different school.

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 Norris.

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 got hurt.

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.


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