Martial arts has become a multi-million dollar industry, and organizations of "professional martial artists" such as NAPMA and MAIA are leading the way. Seminars are being held all over the country, but not for the advancement of training or information. The focus of these seminars is how to run a better business. A recent seminar even went so far as to show you how to develop a "cult-like following." Now, before I continue, I must say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with an instructor being fairly compensated for their time and expertise. However, when the entire focus of your school is aesthetic appearance, there is a problem.
Choosing a martial arts school can be overwhelming, especially if you have no prior experience. Please visit our page "How To Choose A School" for an in-depth analysis on choosing the right dojo for you.
Martial arts is unlike any other endeavor. It takes a tremendous commitment and is often both physically and mentally demanding. Martial arts often pushes you to your limits and beyond, and the right instructor will nitpick at the smallest details to ensure you're reaching as close to perfection as possible. Unfortunately, the instant gratification mindset of the American public isn't conducive to the "old school" training methods used for generations to pass on martial arts. The benefits of martial arts training often cannot be physically held. Instead, people are willing to pay higher tuition to receive something tangible (rapid belt progression) regardless of what they're actually learning. As long as it's fun, that's all that matters, right? The law of supply and demand created the industry of martial arts instruction, leading to what many people refer to as McDojos. My definition of a McDojo may not be the same as everyone else's. Read my thoughts about what a McDojo is by clicking here. Therefore, the student base that the traditional, high quality instructor is seeking is a niche in the community. His/her potential enrollment is drastically lower than that of a "professional" school simply because they do not adhere to supply and demand, teaching the art as they learned it opposed to giving in to what the masses want.
Now, before people start putting words in my mouth I must clarify that not all state-of-the-art facilities offer watered down, superficial training and not all "holes in the wall" offer the highest quality. Unfortunately, there is no "one size fits all" classification of martial arts schools. It is up to you to do the leg work and research to determine which instructor in your area is offering a program that meets your training goals, and to study with them regardless of where the training takes place. If you're truly in it for the art and the knowledge, then the aesthetics shouldn't fool you anyway. What's truly prestigious is learning quality martial arts from a legitimately qualified instructor. When many people study the arts to learn how to properly defend themselves, isn't your life worth more than a shiny new belt? And really, would you rather train with Mr. Miyagi on the beach or with the financially successful Sensei Kreese of the Cobra Kai Dojo and his large number of delinquent students?
That being said, how does one determine if their instructor is legitimately qualified? Most, but certainly not all, qualified instructors will have received instructor certification from a large governing body (either style-specific or multi-style). However, with the huge margin of differentiation between organizations and federations, certification alone is not a good judge of whether someone is qualified to instruct you or your child. Unless you spend weeks at a time researching the various organizations in the martial arts community, they all seem pretty standard. Even ours! And with no government regulation of martial arts here in the United States (thank God!), there really is no piece of paper that I would trust as being the sole indicator of someone's ability to teach martial arts. Below is a checklist of things to look for when determining if the instructor you're interested in studying under is truly qualified to be teaching:
- If they are teaching an already established system, they need to have a verifiable lineage direct to the founder of that system. Any breaks in the line of transmission can mean a loss of valuable information necessary to the study of that system.
- If they are teaching an already established system, most are governed by style-specific organizations. Do they belong to at least one of them? It does not have to be the mainline organization, as instructors often split and form their own organizations. Refer to the lineage of the organization head to determine the legitimacy of the organization in question. Keep in mind, however, that many organizations have driven people away due to political in-fighting, financial reasons, etc. While important to belong to a governing body, if the instructor you're interested in studying under does not, it doesn't mean that they are not legitimate. They may simply be independent, or they may belong to a multi-style open organization like the US Association of Martial Arts (shameless plug) and that's perfectly acceptable.
- If they are the founder of their own system, have they received legitimate foundership credentials? Not all organizations are qualified to recognize new systems. For a more in-depth of how to determine a legitimate founder, please click here.
- Does the instructor have a great rapport with their current students? Martial arts systems started out as family traditions and while the study of budo has been opened up to the masses, there should still be a family-like atmosphere in the dojo. Class times may stick to a strict schedule, but do students often hang out afterwards to mingle or is the instructor rushing out the group to bring in another? You should feel like you belong to a family and the dojo should be like a second home. If you get an uncomfortable vibe when you first walk in the door, there's no reason to stay any longer.
- Watch as many classes as possible before joining, and participate in as many free trial classes as you can. Legitimate instructors have nothing to hide. Be cautious of instructors who do not allow newcomers to watch class because of some "mystical secrets."
- While participating in the class, does the instructor break down the information in a way you can easily understand? A good instructor can adapt the information to your learning style so that you can pick it up and start practicing. At the higher levels, it is acceptable and even encouraged for students to figure things out on their own with minimal direction (because they already have an understanding of the system and its principles, mechanics, etc.) As a beginner, however, everything should be explained in as much detail as you need. An instructor who cannot do so may have great personal skill but may not be able to articulate the information to another person, therefore causing their students to struggle in their progression.
- The instructor should clearly be following a set curriculum that leads you through a natural, steady progression of information. If the art covers a wide-range of material (striking, joint manipulation, throws, grappling, weapons, etc.) it's okay if they change the focus of the training each session or even cover multiple aspects of training in a single session, however the classes should never feel like you're bouncing all over the map. Every new technique you learn should be built upon principles learned throughout your previous training. By this I mean that a beginner has no business learning advanced techniques when they have yet to master the basics. It is both dangerous and irresponsible of the instructor.
- Be careful though. Never ask when you will be testing for or receiving your next level! It is disrespectful and shows a lack of confidence in your instructor. Instead of asking when you will be progressing, it's perfectly acceptable to ask what the next stage of your training will consist of. Often times, the instructor will have "cheat sheets" available for you so you can see what is required of you to reach the next level. Even if they don't show you the physical curriculum, the instructor should be able to give you a rough idea from memory of what you should be learning at your current stage and what's left before you can move up in rank.
- Are you continually learning new material or are the majority of classes centered around fitness? While fitness and health are important, many instructors confuse endless exercise with martial arts instruction or they attempt to hide their lack of knowledge by repeating the same drills ad nauseum with the cliche "practice makes perfect." On the flip side, don't be fooled by schools claiming to teach over 3,000 techniques, etc. This is a common marketing ploy to make it seem like the art they teach has more substance than it does. More often than not, a system is developed around a handful of principles and every technique (including the countless variations of those techniques) you learn is based upon those principles. If you are simply learning numerous techniques and not the principles behind the techniques, you will never be able to apply your knowledge under duress. People do not remember "wrist technique number 73" when an assailant is striking them in the face. What they do remember are principles such as get off the line of attack, redirect, counter, etc. Drill the principles, and the techniques will start to come naturally.