How do you choose a martial arts club? When making most relatively big purchases or commitments, the average person will do at least a little research to make sure their purchase makes sense. But most people choose their first martial arts school for at least one of the following reasons:
- Their friends go there.
- It was the cheapest one around.
- It was the closest to their house.
- They saw an ad offering a special introductory rate.
- They really wanted to try that particular style AND [insert one of reasons 1-4].
Reason #1 can be a pretty good one, provided your friends have found a good club. Training with people you know and like helps make martial arts fun. The other reasons, however, are not the best criteria for deciding where to throw your hard-earned money when it comes to martial arts training.
I understand why people use these reasons, though. No one wants to spend more than they have to and no one wants to be inconvenienced. And when someone has no experience with the martial arts, it seems like all clubs are the same. Or even better, that a club’s quality is determined by the instructor’s rank. I’ve been there. I get it.
But the truth is, all schools—and all instructors—are not the same. So how do you know what to look for when you choose a martial arts club?
Remember: the instructor is more important than the style
Many people come into the martial arts with a particular style in mind. They may already know they want to study Taekwon-Do. Or maybe it’s Karate. Or Judo. People get attracted to the particular aspects of specific arts. But when you have a certain style in mind, you’re limiting your options. If you’re looking for a Taekwon-Do school, but the only TKD club in the area is mediocre, you may miss out on a fantastic Karate club just down the street.
If you have a particular style in mind, ask yourself why. If you think you want to try kickboxing, but you could live with Taekwon-Do too, then check out both. Narrow your choice down to whether you want to study striking or grappling and check out all of the styles that match your criteria. You never know, you might just like another style better than the one you had in mind.
The reason this is so important is because anyone can teach a martial art, but it’s hard to teach it well. Would you rather go to a terrible Taekwon-Do club or a world-class Karate school?
This even applies if you’ve previously studied a martial art. If you’re looking for a new club, do you have to stick to the same style you studied before? What’s more important to you: continuing to move up in rank or perfecting your skills?
Speaking of rank, it’s not a great indicator of an instructor’s skill. I’ve seen so-called “masters” who really didn’t know much about the arts they teach. To understand whether an instructor is any good, you have to watch him or her in action. I understand that it’s hard to assess an instructor’s knowledge when you have no experience in the martial arts. But the more you shop around, the more you’ll get a sense of what people know.
Of course, finding a good instructor isn’t just about what he or she knows. You also have to get along with the person. Does the instructor seem friendly? Do the students really seem to enjoy being in class? Does it feel like this is the kind of person you want to learn from? These are all very important questions to ask yourself.
Figure out what’s important to you
I can give you some guidance, but no one knows your priorities better than you. You will have to figure out what’s important to you and narrow down your choice based on those priorities.
For example, why do you want to study martial arts in the first place? Is it for fun? Exercise? Sport? Self-defence? Every school will have its strengths and weaknesses in these areas. Assess your potential new club to make sure it aligns with your goals.
Is budget a huge concern for you? The prices for martial arts clubs can be all over the map, and there are some great clubs out there that charge very little. There are also awful clubs that charge a small fortune. Price is not necessarily an indicator of quality. Clubs at YMCAs or rec centres can be very good, and may cost less because they have fewer expenses and often don’t operate for profit. Private clubs with their own locations can also be excellent, and they may offer benefits like more equipment, padded floors and more flexible schedules—but they often cost more.
In my experience, a lot of people choose the first club they try. They have no real frame of reference, and they assume that all clubs are pretty much the same. It isn’t until you start observing several schools in action that you start to understand the differences. Take some time to make your decision. Visit all the martial arts schools you can. Watch closely. Take notes. Ask questions.
How does the club feel to you? If you’re looking for adult classes, are there plenty of adults? Are there too many kids in the way? If you’re looking to take classes with your kids, can you do that? If you’re looking for classes for your kids, does it feel like the children in the class are learning something or just playing around? Does the club feel too pseudo-Asian for you? Not Asian enough? Is there too much discipline for you? Too little?
This next question is very important if you’re looking for quality technical instruction and not just a workout. How do the students look? Every school will have sloppy students because not everyone is a world-class athlete. That’s OK. Students will also normally get better as they progress in rank, so you can’t expect the lower-ranked students to look as good as the black belts. But if all of the students look terrible, that’s not a good sign. If a few black belts don’t look amazing, that’s nothing to worry about. If they all look awful, run.
Other things to consider:
- Is the facility clean? Do you really want to train in a dirty gym, especially when you’re running around in bare feet?
- Are there classes just for beginners? This isn’t a necessity, but it can help lower the intimidation factor and give beginners the focused attention they need to learn well.
- Are you given an introductory private lesson before joining class? This can be good because it allows you to learn a few things before joining the group, but it also won’t be run the same way a class will be. An intro lesson is basically a sales tactic. You can’t mistake the feel of a private intro lesson for the feel of a class.
- Is the sparring well-supervised and safe? Especially if you’re choosing a club for your kids, you don’t want any sketchy situations when it comes to hitting other people in the name of sport.
You’ve started shopping around and you’re assessing the general feeling of a place, but how do you find out about the details? Things like payment, classes and belt exams? Aside from class schedules, you usually won’t find much of this information on a club’s website. So what questions do you ask to help you choose a martial arts club?
A “wrong” answer to a few of these questions doesn’t mean that you should rule out a school, but the more bad answers there are, the more you may want to consider looking elsewhere.
Payments and contracts
- What are the fees like? Not just the regular tuition fees, but any extras as well. Do you have extra fees for belt exams, certificates or belts?
- Can I pay on a month-to-month basis or will I have to pay for a longer chunk of time (e.g. six months or a year)?If I pay for a longer term, is there a discount? If I quit before that time is up, will I get any sort of refund? You may want to pay for a longer block of time, but the ability to pay month-to-month is good because it means less financial commitment on your part.
- Will I have to sign a contract? Is there a termination fee for quitting? Does the club collect the payments or does it use a third-party billing service? I strongly urge you NOT to sign a contract. You’ll be locked in for one to three years (sometimes longer), with a steep penalty for leaving. Who knows where you’ll be in three years and if you’ll even still like the club by then? Third-party billing services are also not great. They absolve the club of some administrative responsibility, but they automatically take money from your account each month and will quickly report you to a collections agency for missed payments or refusal to pay a termination fee.
- How many instructors are there? Multiple instructors can be a good thing, provided you’re aware up front that you or your kids will be taught by multiple, well-qualified people. But if you were led to believe you would be taught by the head instructor and end up being taught by a bunch of kids with fresh black belts, that’s not so good.
- Does the head instructor do a lot of teaching? In many schools, the instructor runs the club and leaves much of the teaching to the assistants. In many cases, these assistants are not compensated for their time.
- Are the instructors kids? Many clubs use teenagers to run classes. You may be fine with 16-year-old instructors. Or not. If you’re putting your 4-year-old into a martial arts class for toddlers, a teenaged instructor is probably OK. But kids running adult classes isn’t the greatest thing in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some very capable teenagers, but they still don’t have the knowledge and experience of adults who have been training for a long time.
- Do the instructors have CPR and first aid training? If something goes wrong, they should know how to take care of it.
- Does the club make instructors do criminal background checks? I can pretty much guarantee you they won’t require this, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Belts and exams
- How long does it take most students to get their black belt? You’re looking for a range here, not a set number. You’re also looking for an explanation like, “It depends on the individual student: how often they come to class and how hard they train.” A range of 3-5 years is good. If everyone gets a black belt in 2-3 years, that’s a bad sign. It means the school is a belt factory, pumping out students with the rank, but not the skill to back it up.
- How long do students wait between belt exams? If the club uses the number of classes or hours of training as a gauge, that’s good. If they have set waiting periods between belts, that doesn’t reward the students who put in more time and effort on the mat. If the answer is, “When I think they’re ready,” that’s tougher to gauge. It’s usually not good, but it could also mean that the instructor really knows his or her students.
- Is there a “Black Belt Club” or some other guaranteed fast track to black belt? Some clubs will guarantee that if you sign up for a certain number of years, you will have a black belt by the end. This is a very bad thing. For one, it produces black belts who haven’t fully developed their skills. And for another, it locks you into a contract (see above).
- How is the typical belt exam run? What’s involved? Here, you’re trying to get a sense of whether the exams are used as rites of passage. Are they meant to actually test a student’s knowledge and skill or to push them to the physical limit to feel like they suffered and “earned” their belt? Maybe you want that sort of thing. Maybe you don’t. I’m all for testing skill and knowledge, but personally, I rarely see the need for a rite of passage.
- Do you teach multiple martial arts? If so, are there different instructors for each? It’s pretty rare for one person to be a real expert in multiple martial arts. On the other hand, some clubs have multiple arts, taught by separate qualified instructors, each with its own specific class time.
- Does the school have insurance? Accidents happen. Insurance is a good thing.
- [If you’re choosing a club for your kids] Am I allowed to stay and watch classes and belt exams? A transparent club that involves the parents is a good thing.
Watch a class then try it out
Watch a class or two and talk to some of the students before you take part. It’s easier to be objective about a club when you aren’t involved in training. And by talking to students you get the opinions of the people who train there, not just the instructor who is trying to sell you a membership.
If the club feels like it might be a good fit, go ahead and try a class or two. Most clubs will let you try at least one class for free. Remember you don’t have to commit once you’ve tried that free class. You can still shop around and make your decision later.
I realize this sounds like a little bit of work to do when you’re eager to jump in and try a martial arts class. But if you want to commit to something worthwhile and have fun doing it, doesn’t it make sense to find the best club you can?