Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Five Criteria for Choosing a Martial Arts School

Are you, or someone you know, sold on practicing the martial arts? If yes, how should you choose a school?

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?

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Five Criteria for Choosing a Martial Arts Style

When I decided to resume martial arts training six months ago, my first concern was selecting a style. This is not the most important issue when practicing martial arts, but I believe it is important to choose a style that matches one's expectations for the training experience.

Choosing a style is like selecting a field of study in college, known as a "major" in the American system. While it's important to choose a school that fits one's needs, it's probably more important to pick a fulfilling field of study. I would be miserable studying biology at Harvard, even though the school itself is excellent!

I will write a separate post on choosing a school. For now, here are my top five criteria for choosing a martial arts style.

1. Purpose. Are you interested in the "art" aspect of the martial arts, or self defense, or sport combat, or a fighting system? See my post You Call That Art? for details on that subject. Some styles are suited to multiple purposes, while others are not. Tai Chi has combat applications in the hands of an experienced practitioner, but I would not recommend it for someone primarily interested in self defense.

2. Nature. Do you want to spend more time standing up, or on the ground, or a mix of the two? Do you want to be hit, or not be hit, and how frequently, and how hard? Do you want to interact with others, or act in a more solitary manner? There's a big difference between rolling in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu studio versus punching a bag in a cardio kickboxing class.

3. Tradition. Do you prefer a style with hundreds of years of history, or does that not matter to you? Some styles are very rooted in ancient manners and cultures, while others may never mention history or tradition at all. Krav Maga is a newer system compared to Kung Fu, and some people really enjoy tracing their lineage over many generations of masters and students.

4. Physical Demands. How old are you? What can your body handle now, and what can it handle in the future once conditioned from training? Do you have any recurring injuries? How flexible are you, and how flexible could you become? Personally I am reluctant to train in styles that regularly expect me to endure wrist locks, due to a broken wrist sustained doing -- you guessed it -- wrist locks.

5. Community. Do you want to practice a style that is well-recognized? Do you want to engage in tournaments or other competitions? Do you want to be part of a national or international association? If the answer is yes, you may be happier selecting a style from one of the major "brands," rather than a more niche style practiced by a smaller community.

Reading these five criteria doesn't answer the question of which martial art is best for you. I tried several of the online "martial arts wizard/selector tools," but none of them produced outputs which matched my inputs, in my opinion. Perhaps that is a project worth undertaking! When I chose to study Krav Maga, I based the decision on my the knowledge and experience I already had in the arts, limited though they were, plus online study.

What criteria do you use to choose a martial arts style?

Sunday, May 8, 2016

You Call That Art?

Anyone who has spent time in the martial arts knows that practitioners love to debate the merits of their style. It's typically a very logical, calm discussion lacking any emotion or misunderstanding. Participants always enjoy the conversation and they finish feeling incredible respect for every point of view.

Ok, it's time to stop laughing. In this post, I don't intend to argue for the superiority of one style over another. However, I do want to share a thought about how we classify the styles we practice.

This post was inspired by the excellent Off the Centerline Podcast, which features three martial artists from Florida. Episode 20 asked the question "Self-Defense, Fighting System, Or Martial Art?" and mentioned my current style, Krav Maga, several times.

The consensus seemed to be that Krav Maga is a "fighting system," although its self defense aspects were also discussed. In March I blogged Is Krav Maga a Martial Art? which argued for the self defense angle. Here I'd like to expand on this idea, which I plan to share as a comment on the OTC Facebook page.

When I read self defense, fighting system, and martial art, I think of the following, which adds the category of sport combat:

"Martial arts are codified systems and traditions of combat practices, which are practiced for a variety of reasons: as self-defense, military and law enforcement applications; as competition, physical fitness, mental and spiritual development; as well as entertainment and the preservation of a nation's intangible cultural heritage." Yes, this is the Wikipedia definition, with which I agree!

A fighting system teaches students to win physical confrontations. When the practitioner physically fights, the ultimate goal is to achieve victory by submission, knockout, or some other measure that renders the opponent unwilling or unable to prevail.

Sport combat teaches students to win physical confrontations within the rules set by an athletic association. When the practitioner physically fights, the ultimate goal is to achieve victory by submission, knockout, or some other measure that renders the opponent unwilling or unable to prevail, including cessation as ordered by a referee.

self defense system teaches students to identify, avoid, and, if necessary, win  mental and/or physical confrontations. If the practitioner must physically fight, the ultimate goal is to escape to safety. It may be necessary to render the opponent unwilling or unable to prevail.

For me, the reason Krav Maga is more accurately a self defense system, and not primarily a fighting system, is that we learn Krav Maga to survive and escape to safety. We do not learn to stay and fight, as one would in a mixed martial arts octagon or boxing ring. If we have to fight, we do so until we can escape to safety.

You might consider martial arts to be broad category encompassing all "codified systems and traditions of combat practices," with fighting systems a subcategory. Sport combat and self defense draw on elements of fighting systems, but they have different purposes: sport combat teaches students to stand and fight in order to improve their record, while self defense teaches students to escape physical confrontation.

When discussing self defense in his book Meditations on Violence, on page 77 author Rory Miller writes "It is better to avoid than run; better to run than de-escalate; better to de-escalate than fight; better to fight than die." This captures the Krav Maga philosophy perfectly.

What do you think?

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Real Deal on Reality Week

Practicing Choke Releases in the Indoor Alley
How will you use your martial arts training outside the studio? That is the question we tried to answer last week at First Defense Krav Maga, where we conducted "Reality Week." All classes took place under unusual conditions -- wearing street clothes, and, most of the time, outside of the studio.

In the picture at left, we are practicing choke releases in an "indoor alley." I'm performing a P1 technique after my partner applies a choke. We're training in the concrete corridor connecting the back doors of the various retail properties of which our school is part.

During this session we also moved to a more narrow part of the indoor alley, perhaps four feet wide. In such a confined space, you lose control of distance and as well as some of the longer-range tools you might use elsewhere.

Donnie Yen as Ip Man Fighting in an Elevator, "Ip Man 3"
At the end of this class we simulated combat in an elevator. By boxing off the end of the narrow indoor alley, the instructors gave students a chance to defend ourselves until the "elevator door" "opened," and we were able to escape. Although I immediately thought of the scene in the recent movie "Ip Man 3," (my review here), my experience was nothing like Donnie Yen's!

In an earlier class, we trained outside, in the complex parking lot. One of the more enjoyable drills involved trying to walk past a series of parked cars. The goal was to simulate trying to return to one's vehicle. We all knew there were two or more other students lurking somewhere nearby, waiting to attack us. Regardless of knowing what was going to happen, I think every student jumped a bit when one or more simulated assailants leaped from behind a car.

I watch as another student (arms raised) is jumped by attackers.
The combination of the outdoor environment, the sun in our eyes, and the chance for the attacker to hide behind a large object all contributed to the feeling.

That word, "feeling," is key to the experience. When anyone starts training in a studio, there is a certain amount of apprehension. I felt uneasy, at least, when I first started training. I was unfamiliar with the location, the rules, the students, the system, the uniform -- practically everything was new. After several months, I'm still unfamiliar with many of those elements, but I'm more comfortable with my surroundings and fellow students.

By taking class outside, and wearing street clothes, two of the elements of familiarity were removed. We're still learning and practicing Krav Maga, but now we're working in odd locations and restricted to some degree by our clothing. Oddly enough, this is closer to the "real deal" than being in the studio -- we're in the real world in the sort of clothing we wear every day.

Although I had to travel midweek to the Air Force Academy, and had two family obligations on Saturday, I greatly enjoyed the reality week classes I could attend. I look forward to the next time we train this way!

How does your school or system integrate "reality" and environmental changes into its training?