How to choose a martial arts school

Introduction

Most people new to martial arts have a difficult time figuring out how to choose a martial arts school.

Some of the unlucky ones, end up getting swayed by some fancy billboard or clever marketing techniques that lure them into a high-pressure sales situation that ends with them walking away with a brand new spanking long term contract with overinflated prices.

The fortunate ones, however, end up instantly falling in love with the martial art, form close-knit relationships with their instructors and classmates, and go on to become dedicated practitioners of the martial art for decades to come, and help pass on the tradition to the next generation.

Which one would you like to become?

Many people don’t put nearly as much thought into selecting a martial arts school as they should.

For most people, they simply select a school based on convenience rather than due diligence.

It’s not surprising then that after a few months of studying there, they just stop showing up to classes and flush all of their tuition fees down the toilet.

Luckily for you, this article will help steer you away from making one of the worse decisions of your life.

If you choose to study martial arts then you will spend an enormous amount of time, effort, energy, not to mention money on a hobby.

That’s why it’s important to spend a bit of time researching what to look out for and what to avoid when choosing a martial arts school.

I like to view selecting a martial arts school similar to looking for a partner in life.

If you pick a crappy one, what makes you think the marriage will get any better?

Here are the things you should consider when trying to select a martial arts school:

  • Instructor credentials
  • Who teaches the classes
  • Student to teacher ratio
  • School philosophy
  • School atmosphere
  • School facilities
  • Membership Fees
  • Convenience of location
  • Class Schedule
  • Trying out a few lessons

Let’s dive deeper into each one now, shall we?

Instructor Credentials

No such thing as bad student. Only bad teacher.

Mr.Miyagi

What makes the instructor there qualified to be teaching you martial arts?

How long did they study martial arts and where did they go to study martial arts?

Did they obtain the rank of a master instructor through rigorous testing and examinations?

Did any of their students go on to become world champions or obtain any titles at tournaments?

I’ve seen numerous martial arts schools through the years run their schools more like a zoo and daycare center rather than a proper martial arts school that instills discipline and respect for their instructors, classmates, and society outside of the school.

They say you can tell a lot about a school by just observing the students there, especially the senior students.

If most of the students lack good form and are very rowdy in class then that’s a telltale sign that the level of instruction there isn’t that great and that the school only cares about money.

When your visiting a martial arts studio for the first time and evaluating whether or not you should be attending that school, ask the owner and instructor a lot of questions regarding their background in martial arts.

Furthermore, ask if you can observe a class before deciding to signup, preferably one from a higher level.

This will give you some good clues on the level of instruction there.

If you notice that a lot of red belts or black belts can’t even perform a sidekick with good form then you better run for the hills.

That school is most likely a Mcdojo, meaning a low-quality school that is focused on money only.

Here’s a little sneaky way of finding out any potential red flags from a school.

Sign up for a trial lesson or trial offer. Most schools offer anywhere from 1 lesson to a 1-month trial. During the trial lessons try to befriend a few people and then ask for their opinion about the school and instructor.

Are they happy and satisfied with the level of instruction and the school in general?

Is there anything that could be improved at the school?

You’d be surprised at what some of these students will tell you.

At one Taekwondo school that I attended, I remember hearing from 1 or 2 students about how a senior black belt student quit her lessons and got a refund because the instructor was pressuring her to pay a black belt membership fee and she refused. All of the black belts were being asked to pay the fee yet no one was particularly happy about it.

Another black belt student told me how another student and the instructor always got into heated exchanges at their school.

These were red flags that didn’t make me confident in continuing my training at that school.

If I hadn’t gotten to know the other students there and asked for their opinions, I would never have known about these issues.

Who Teaches the Classes?

martial arts school: man breaking bricks with his elbow

A lot of people make the mistake of assuming that the owner or the person that they talk to will actually run the classes when in fact it’s a completely different person.

A lot of students sign up at martial arts schools thinking that they will study under a great martial arts master only to later discover that the classes are in fact taught by a less than stellar instructor and that the owner or grandmaster rarely ever teaches at all.

I, myself have experienced this a couple of times as well when I studied at a few Muay Thai gyms.

The person who I thought would be teaching the class actually had their students who were less experienced running the classes and only taught the higher level-ups.

Needless to say, the lessons were disappointing.

Before you signup for lessons at the school, make sure you know who will be teaching the classes beforehand.

In some schools, they actually have a class schedule posted somewhere and you can see who the instructor is.

Student to Teacher Ratio

martial arts school: karate class

Now in addition to evaluating the credentials of the instructor, you should also look at how many students there are in a class compared to how many instructors there are present.

I remember taking Muay Thai lessons at a well-known studio one time and it was awfully packed.

There were probably at least 40-50 students crammed into the class yet there was only 1 instructor.

Not only was it too crowded and cramped, but I felt the instruction wasn’t up to par. There was next to zero individual attention given to most students as it was nearly possible to pay attention to each student when you have that many people in a class.

Needless to say, I didn’t renew my membership once it was over.

Having a small student to teacher ratio means that you will get a lot more individual attention from the instructor, which in turn means higher-quality instruction.

When selecting a school, see what the student to teacher ratio is like.

The lower the ratio, the better.

Schools that have a tonne of students attending classes, should be hiring additional instructors or assistant instructors to help supervise and assist the class.

If you see too many students in a class but only 1 or maybe 2 instructors, it could be a sign that the school doesn’t take their level of instruction seriously.

School Philosophy

Just as equally important as the above two points are the school’s philosophy towards training and what they emphasize there.

Is there a specific aspect of the curriculum that the school emphasizes such as competing in tournaments?

Some schools are very competitive and lean towards the competition and sporting side of the martial art as seen nowadays in a lot of Taekwondo schools that want their students to compete in the Olympics.

Some others are much more lax and only focus on the fitness and weight loss aspect of it.

Think weight watchers and you have a good idea of the types of people it attracts.

And then there are some old school types of schools that focus on self-defense and discipline.

I remember attending a Taekwondo school that followed this old school philosophy.

The instructor was super strict, beat students with a stick, but a lot of the students could probably kick your ass if they wanted to due to the high teaching standards there and self-defense focus of the school.

When evaluating which schools to signup for, ask yourself whether or not the focus of the school aligns with your own goals.

Do you have aspirations to compete in tournaments and become a pro athlete and fighter or are you just looking to learn about self-defense or improve your fitness levels?

What Is the Atmosphere Like?

martial arts school: orange belt

Since you will be spending a lot of time there, it’s important to enjoy the atmosphere and feel welcomed there.

At one Muay Thai gym that I studied at, the same one that I pointed out earlier, had a few obnoxious students that attended the afternoon class and took it upon themselves to feel like they had the rights to be ordering new students around despite neither one of them being an instructor or an assistant instructor.

I remember one of them just coming right up to new students and kicking their stomachs when it dropped a little low.

Now, this wasn’t an easy class either.

If you’ve ever attended a Muay Thai class that has a lot of strength and conditioning you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

We’re talking about non-stop high-intensity drills for at least 45 minutes with bearly any rest.

A beginner most likely won’t be able to keep up with the class due to not having developed tolerance for the high-intensity drills yet.

The last thing anyone wants is to have some obnoxious arrogant member start yelling at their face or kicking or hitting them.

Now I don’t have any issues with an instructor or assistant instructor doing this but if your just a regular member like myself, you shouldn’t be going around acting all high and mighty like that, and also people are pretty sensitive when it comes to allowing strangers to touch their bodies.

I was close to giving these guys a mouthful.

Now in addition to the students, you should also consider what the instructor is like at the school.

In my previous example where I mentioned the Taekwondo school that I attended, the instructor was pretty old school and therefore she followed the old school way of teaching which involved a lot of yelling at students for the smallest of things and even carrying around a stick that she would use “to help” a student correct their form.

She was one of the scariest instructors I ever had, but I also developed great form and technique due to her strict standards.

Now her style of teaching did not mesh too well with some of the other students and often times they would get at it due to her rigid old school teaching style. Now if you’re trying to run a business, this may not be the best approach as you do want to keep your students happy as they are paying your bills.

Needless to say, her school closed the doors a few years later after I moved away.

Before signing your life away and enrolling in some 3 or 4 year black belt program, try out the school for a month and see how you vibe with the atmosphere.

Do you look forward to attending classes and do the other students and instructors make you feel welcomed and a part of the family?

Or do you dread attending classes because you are afraid of the instructor or don’t get along with some of the people there?

What Are the Facilities Like?

Girl kicking a punching bag

Another key point that you should also consider is the facilities and amenities offered at the school.

While having quality instruction should be at the forefront of your decision when deciding on whether or not to study at a particular school, there are some amenities that should not be overlooked as well such as:

  • Is the training space large enough to train comfortably?
  • Is there change rooms and washrooms available?
  • Are there any special training tools that are available at the school? ie. punching bags, wooden dummies, sparring gear, etc.
  • Is there weightlifting equipment available?
  • Is the school nice and clean and tidy?

Some of these are nice haves but do add to the cost of a membership, while others such as having a washroom and changerooms should be absolutely necessary.

I remember training at another Muay Thai gym that was conveniently located right downtown, however, the biggest drawback of the place was its small size.

The school floor was small and cramped, the change room was tiny and probably no more than half the size of a typical kid’s bedroom.

Now, this doesn’t sound too bad at first until you are forced to share the change room with no less than 20 guys all wanting to change at the same time.

The membership price wasn’t cheap neither, therefore I couldn’t see why they couldn’t have offered better facilities for the price I was paying.

To me, this was a big NO NO.

If the school only had a handful of students then this would have been fine, but when you have 40+ students training there in a tiny studio with inadequate facilities yet are charging an arm and a leg for membership dues, it just doesn’t justify it.

Ask yourself what are you looking for in a training facility and whether or not the school has all or most of what you need to train there.

Membership Fees

Signing a contract

Another big consideration you should consider is the membership fees.

While it’s understandable that martial arts schools have bills to pay and need to survive, the costs should not be outrageously expensive and cost-prohibitive.

You want to pick a school that has high-quality instruction yet is affordable otherwise you will end up not being able to continue after a while because you can’t afford the membership fees anymore.

Also, you should watch out for hidden costs.

Things like belt testing fees, sparring equipment, tournament fees, registration fees are sometimes not mentioned upfront, and then a month or two later you suddenly found out that your membership costs have now suddenly doubled.

When your considering signing up with a school, make sure you ask them about any other costs associated with the membership fees so that you can feel comfortable on whether or not you can afford those monthly or yearly fees.

In addition, a common mistake a lot of newbies make when it comes to selecting a school is that they associate high membership fees with quality instruction.

What happens oftentimes is the naive student falls prey to a Mcdojo due to their clever marketing tactics.

Sometimes, the cheaper schools often offer better instruction because the instructors are teaching not to make a good living but because they love to teach and spread the martial art to others.

If you are not able to afford the higher prices at martial arts studios than another option would be to go look at community centers where the instructors teach for non-profit.

I remember joining a Wing Chun club at my university one summer.

The cost was very reasonable and I think I paid like $25 a month or something for 2-3 lessons a week.

The student to teacher ratio was extremely low and I think there were only 1-2 other people that attended the classes.

This meant that I got a lot of individual attention from the instructor and was able to progress faster in the martial art.

Now, while the amenities were lacking in this Kung fu club, the extra attention and very reasonable prices made this one hell of a deal!

Likewise, that previous Muay Thai club that I mentioned with a very high student to teacher ratio was one of the most expensive gyms that I ever attended yet teaching quality was not very good.

With affordability aside, It’s a dangerous game to associate high membership fees with quality instruction.

How Convenient the Location Is

Let’s not kid ourselves here.

If the school took an hour or more to drive to, I’m sure most of us wouldn’t want to be attending classes on a regular basis.

How close the school is to you makes a huge difference.

When selecting a school, its a good idea to have some sort of limit as to how far you are willing to travel on a regular basis to attend classes.

The cost of gas can quickly add up the further away you need to drive to attend classes, not to mention the time you waste being stuck in traffic.

The closer the location is to you and the easier it is to get there means you’ll be showing up much more often for classes.

Class Schedule

This is another biggie that people often ignore.

Does the class schedule fit in with your own schedule?

Back when I was still in university, I had no problems attending Taekwondo classes in the evenings because I had plenty of time.

However, this all changed when I graduated from school and was now working.

Suddenly I found myself always in a rush to make it to classes on time yet feeling exhausted from work every evening and not wanting to go anymore.

It also didn’t help that my new job took about 1.5 hours to commute to either.

In the end, I stopped attending classes due to the conflicting schedule.

Before you sign that red dot, make sure that the schedule works for you and that you can attend regularly, otherwise you are just wasting your time and money.

Signup for a Trial Lesson or Two

You wouldn’t purchase a brand new car without giving it a trial run now, would you?

So why would you not do the same when studying martial arts?

You’re going to be spending thousands of dollars and years studying martial arts so why not give it a test run before fully committing yourself to the school.

Nearly every single school will offer at least 1 trial lesson and most schools even let you try out the lesson for free so why not test out the school first before handing them a wad of cash.

And don’t feel pressured into joining the school afterward if you don’t find the school to be a good fit for you.

It’s better to walk away rather than joining a Mcdojo.

Conclusion

Spending time and finding a good quality martial arts school should not be taken lightly.

With the number of schools out there, there’s bound to be some bad apples in the mix.

In this article, we looked at several factors to consider when deciding on a martial arts school.

These factors include:

  • Instructor credentials
  • Who teaches the classes
  • Student to teacher ratio
  • School philosophy
  • School atmosphere
  • School facilities
  • Membership Fees
  • Convenience of location
  • Class Schedule
  • Trying out a few lessons

As you will be spending an enormous amount of time studying the martial art, not to mention money spent on lessons, why not be more selective at where you study?

There’s nothing worst than wasting years studying at a subpar school and getting nothing out of it.

Hopefully, after reading this article, you now have a better idea of what to look for when selecting a martial arts school to study at.

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