In this post I will share five criteria that I've used over the years when choosing a new martial arts school.
This question became very real for me in the last few weeks. Recently my youngest daughter expressed interest in studying Tae Kwon Do. She chases her sister around the house, trying to practice punches and kicks!
Tonight I will take her to a nearby TKD school to see if it is a good fit for her interests and personality. She is interested in TKD, and not Krav Maga (my current style), for a few reasons. I believe she likes the athletic and competitive aspects, as well as the uniform.
I practiced TKD for a year in the Air Force, and I also think she would enjoy the system.
When I visit the school tonight, these are the five areas I will evaluate. I always recommend visiting a class, either as the prospective student, or with the prospective student. Compare notes after the class, using these criteria.
1. Head Instructor. Choosing a school is heavily reliant on your personal evaluation of the head instructor. What is his or her attitude when you interact? Does he or she appear to take a personal interest in the prospective student? Do you and/or the student feel comfortable with the head instructor? Is the head instructor physically fit, and does he or she embody the movement and skill you would expect? What is his or her background and training? Does he or she have certifications or lineage that can be externally verified? In general, I am wary of "grandmasters" in "niche styles" who have no other connection to the martial arts world besides their own teaching practice.
I once briefly studied with a head instructor who seemed to enjoy kicking students in the groin. He also paused each class to watch attractive women pass the school. I think I studied there for less than six months, thanks to his poor behavior.
2. High Belts. How do the senior students or assistant instructors (the "high belts") in the school act? Apply the first four questions from the Head Instructor category to the high belts. While you will likely not own or run the school one day, you could become a high belt. Do the high belts act the way you would like to act? The Head Instructor sets the tone, so I do not expect solid high belts when the Head Instructor doesn't measure up.
On another occasion, I avoided studying at a school after watching their high belts perform. While I thought the head instructor moved well, I was not impressed with his assistant instructors or senior students. Perhaps the instructor had problem teaching his students to perform at his level, or he did not stress proper technique as a requirement for promotion. In either case, it was enough for me to avoid the school.
3. Trial Classes. Does the school permit prospective students to take at least one trial class? In my opinion, the more trial classes allowed, the better. However, be respectful of this offering and realize the school needs tuition fees in order to stay in business. There is no substitute for a trial class, because watching is not the same as doing.
On a similar note, consider paying for a time-delimited set of classes. When I started at First Defense Krav Maga, I enrolled in an eight week program. I figured that was an excellent introduction to the system, with enough time for me to decide if I wanted to sign up for more training.
4. Contracts. Beware schools that push students to sign lengthy contracts as an early requirement for enrollment. While contracts are not bad per se, they are a top topic of concern on Internet message boards and social media. Consider the perspective of a lousy instructor. If he dupes you into signing a contract that forces you to pay for a year, he doesn't care if you attend or not. In fact, it's better for him to run you out, keep the school empty, and collect fees. This is obviously ruinous from a reputation point of view, but consider how many gyms and fitness programs prey on those who don't read the fine print. Having said that, I am willing to sign a contract that fits the amount of time I would expect the student to maintain at least short-term interest, without causing undue financial stress. If there is initially a month-to-month option, I would likely sign that for a beginning child student. For a beginning adult, signing a longer contract is an option.
I signed a contract at FDKM at the end of my eight week Foundations class. I was happy with all of the elements listed in this post, and I decided I could commit to extended training.
5. Students. Students finishing a class should leave "sweating and smiling." Modern martial arts programs are not "basement dungeons" designed to "break weak students." Contemporary martial arts programs, especially for children, should be enjoyable and educational. If students look like they are glad to finish class, then you should not start there.
I will add a bonus item -- reputation. Reputation can be tougher to judge. Some social media sites are populated by bogus reviews. If you can get a referral from a trusted source, that is a more reliable measure. Nevertheless, what works for one student may not work for another. Some children may desire a more quiet, disciplined environment, rather than a noisy free-for-all. Some adults may want to hit wooden boards with their bare hands all night, because they watched too many 1970s kung fu movies. First-hand evaluation is a requirement!
I'll report back with news on my daughter's experience.
What criteria do you use to choose a school?