5 Tips to Help Choose a Martial Art School

So you’ve decided to finally start your journey into Martial Art.  Congratulations!  This is the first and most important step in a journey of 10,000 punches that will no doubt result in you being the next Conor McGregor, Jason Bourne, or even YouTube superstar. But before you are exalted as the greatest martial artist since Bruce Lee, you’ve got to pick a school in which to carve away the proverbial excess clay of your persona and reveal your inner warrior. The good news is this is the fun part.  The bad news is there are likely a lot to choose from.  From MMA (Mixed Martial Art) competition team gyms to traditional Karate and Aikido dojos, the abundance of options in this time in history is both a blessing and a curse. With so many locations to choose from, how is a martial art new-comer in the 21st century supposed to know what environment best suits them?  Are traditional martial arts still around because they are the best?  Do colorful belts still matter?  Should a martial art teacher function like a Drill Sargeant, a Warrior Poet, or a Group Fitness Instructor?  Does it only count if cage fighting is involved? And just who’s reality is “Reality-Based Self Defense” based in? There is no simple answer, of course, but what follows is a list of things to consider when considering taking the red pill.

1.       Proximity Encourages Participation

While there are lots of styles of martial art to choose from, those new to the experience will likely find that selecting a school located near their home or work will prove to be a critical part of a plan for success.  Like any new activity, consistency and practice are the only ways to not only improve your skills, but to actually have the full experience found in that particular endeavor.  Therefore, the school with the lowest barrier to access will likely be a smart choice.  Apart from being spectacularly fun and engaging, martial art training can also feel intimidating, strenuous, and uncomfortable – all very normal feelings at any school, within reason.  So it may be best to not add inconveniences like a long commute through rush hour traffic to the list of inherent challenges.

2.       Size Matters

Like so many things in life, martial art facilities come in all shapes and sizes.  There is no perfect size, only the size that feels perfect for you. Innuendo aside, square footage and school population are in fact good things to consider when scoping out your local options.  Traditional schools and dojos are often, though not always, found in commercial shopping centers, while it is not uncommon to find an MMA gym in an industrial or corporate park. While nothing is absolute, large gyms (let’s say over 3,000 sq ft) tend to have larger student populations, and an extensive coaching staff.  The tendency is to assume that a large school is great, simply because they couldn’t afford the space if people didn’t love their stuff.  While there is some truth to this, it bears mentioning that warehouse MMA gyms often cater to competitive fighters, which is worth keeping in mind if ring or cage fighting is not your cup of tea. That said, if you love high-energy classes that are loud, busy, and filled with a ton of people, then this might prove a proper fit for you. For those who would prefer more direct instructor attention and a greater emphasis on refining technique, the more intimate setting of a small “boutique” gym may be the ticket.  While often lacking in certain amenities like showering facilities or certain training equipment, boutique gyms tend to promote tighter-knit student populations that function more like teams or communities than simply groups of training partners. This is the same reason that small boutique-style fitness centers have become arguably more popular than large health clubs in the 21st century.

3.       Context Clues

The reasons why one may gravitate toward martial art training are as diverse as the people practicing.  Every person who has every walked through the door of a school, gym, or dojo, has done so for their own specific and often very personal reasons.  Perhaps the most common motivators amongst adults who study martial art are: fitness, self defense, stress relief, competition, discipline, mind-body integration, and a desire for a new social outlet. Schools that take a more mindful and modern approach to website design will likely give you a sense of the culture of their program just by reading their site content.  However, this is by no means always the case, and as such it is worth taking a facility tour of a couple places to see which one “feels right” for you.  Try paying attention to how the school is decorated to get some context clues for what benefits that particular school prioritizes.  Are there trophies and belts in cases or on the walls?  If you want to compete, than those are great indicators of the level of instruction present. Are there weapons everywhere, but you’re just looking for fitness kickboxing? This might be a sign to keep shopping. Seeking a peaceful sanctuary?  You should feel that one right away. And don’t hesitate to ask the staff, or even students, why most people choose to train there.

4.       A Teacher by Any Other Name…

Traditional martial art training often includes immersion into a pre-existing culture that may trace its roots back decades, or even centuries.  As such, these traditions are rather critical to the accurate transmission of arts from one generation to the next. Such programs often require the use of terminology and titles that reflect both the school’s lineage and its current established forms of hierarchy. For example, words like dojo (school), sensei (teacher), and oss (the word that means basically everything) are commonplace in Japanese and Okinawan martial art schools, as is the act of bowing or genuflecting to the teacher(s) present.  Memorization of titles that differentiate one teacher from another is also common, and their misuse is sometimes a punishable trespass.  While largely used as wonderful ways to express respect within the context of training, these terms are applied with startling rigidity in some schools.  Those who do not enjoy, or do not feel they may benefit from, this culture of discipline may do well to seek out a more non-traditional program (where teachers usually go by their given names, or simply, “Coach”). 

5.       Trust Your Guts

While this may seem obvious, it’s worth mentioning.  No one can tell you how to feel about anything, and be cautious around any instructor or gym staff who attempts to do so.  Martial Art and MMA can be intimidating to any new-comer, and as such it is critical to your success that the environment you train in be welcoming, clean, safe, and a proper fit for YOU. They say that in life, “your vibe attracts your tribe.”  This is true, but it never hurts to be sure any new tribe you join puts out the vibes you’re attracted to in return. Never feel bad saying no, and moving on – any teacher who is truly committed to seeing you spark your interest in martial art should be interested in helping you to find a good fit, regardless of where that might ultimately be. 

The Martial Art Lifestyle is as rewarding as you make it, and can be one filled with passion, excitement, good health, and endless novelty. Training is not always comfortable, so prepare for that, but discomfort and anxiety are not the same as injury and fear.  Keep an open mind when shopping for a place to call yours, but never waiver from what your gut tells you. Now go forth, hit things, and be merry. 

Kurt CornwellMKG Detroit