Choosing a Martial Art:
for Beginners and the Experienced
If you’re new to the martial arts, or want to change clubs, a few pointers to help with the decision making process.
Just as the best technique is always going to be the one that works for you, the best martial arts school is going to be the one that meets your needs: so, first think very carefully what you want from a school:
Do you want to know how to fight and have some chance against weapons?
Do you want to know how to box or grapple, or both?
Do you want to end up feeling better about yourself, your place in the planet? And learn something about the strands of eastern philosophy that inform some of the eastern martial arts?
Do you want to learn to fight competitively? And if so, in which discipline?
Do you just want to get in some shape and do something less dull than the gym that might also give you a little more confidence?
Do you just want to get out and do something a bit fun with a like-minded bunch of people?
All perfectly legitimate reasons to want to start training.
First some general things to look out for and then a few specifics on the detailed requirements.
The General Stuff
Someone said to me years ago, “it’s 50% the style, 50% the instructor.” Now irrespective of the weight given to relative proportions there it’s very true in principle. There are some people, irrespective of how good they are that I just wouldn’t want to train with because I wouldn’t get along with their personal style, particularly if it tends towards the self-adoring. Conversely, there are others that I really like, but their stuff just isn’t for me, like most things in life, it’s a bit of a trade-off or balancing act.
So if you can go and check out a class before you commit. If the teacher is ok with you watching then cool, though I’d always recommend giving it a go first. If he or she offers a free first class then deffo give it a try.
If they don’t allow prospective students to watch, if they don’t allow a free or one-off fee first class but demand that you sign up to an induction course or a binding standing order gig before you start, then you are very probably in the McDojo zone. These guys care more about the dough than the propagation of the art and – probably – your progress: some of them may be good teachers that fulfil your needs but BEWARE. Personally I wouldn’t touch them unless I really had to.
Ask the Instructor who gave them their first teaching qualification and who gave them their most recent such award. This is often illuminating. As is a Google search on the organisations that they invoke as having given them their belts: we checked out a guy a while ago who claimed a range and seniority of belts that seemed a little above his apparent abilities; he turned out to have bought most from various people who specialise in selling certifications to the needy.
One of the guys who sold certificates to the individual concerned claimed to have Dan grades in over 20 martial arts: this doesn’t happen in reality and is one of the things that you need to look for and to fact-check. For me, I’d like to train with someone with a good background in a couple of martial arts, because if nothing else it shows a level of open mindedness: but if someone starts talking about Dan grades in 3 or more arts alarm bells start to ring, particularly if they are still young and pretty without any joint problems.
And don’t think they are any good just because they belong to some large prestigious organisations: these organisations can’t and don’t check everything, the guy that I talked about earlier belonged to a few such…..
If in doubt, contact Martial Arts Guardian: we know a few people and will try to check.
So, if you get as far as observing/doing a trial class:
the teacher should treat everyone with equal levels of respect, should invite questions after every demonstration and should create a reasonably relaxed training environment, people learn better in such a context;
the teacher should make the demonstrations, corrections etc. about furthering the knowledge and abilities of his students, not about making themselves look good;
if they like to hurt and/or humiliate their ukes, the people on whom they are demonstrating, walk out there and then;
check out how the Black Belts/senior grades behave towards the more junior people, we become like the people around us and attitudes and practices are often set by the example set at the top;
observe closely how they correct people, nobody gets it wrong on purpose so a loud intolerance of people making mistakes is someone to avoid, as is someone who screams at people to try harder without offering any detailed advice re how to get better;
look for detail in explanation without excessive pedantry, there is often a thin line between a good technique and a bad technique so make sure they are able to get that over with brevity and the ability to highlight what really matters.
finally, different techniques work for different people, be wary of those that insist on a rigid application not taking into account size and strength differences etc.
Does all this make teaching martial arts sound like a very demanding job that requires a wide range of skills? Yeah, because it is, no way around it.
More Specific Stuff.
Now here it depends so this is a bit of a mixed bag, but the underlying consideration is how best the school suits your priorities.
If you want to learn to fight and handle the messy tapestry of reality, then the class should cover the attacks that actually happen to people in realistic scenarios, multiple attackers, being attacked by someone bigger etc. etc.
Focus should be on taking the attacker(s) out very quickly and getting away, not hanging around to punish.
Training needs to have some focus on aggression drills as the ability to move from regular-peaceful to highly-aggressive mode is an important skill that needs to be trained.
Good but not 100% essential that the teacher has had a few rows; I’d prefer it myself, but I know some very good teachers in this field that haven’t had too many such confrontations, but it’s good if at least their teacher has.
If everything relies on a strike to the groin and the assumption that this will every time take the attacker immediately out of the picture, beware: life is not always like that.
For ground defences, it should all be about getting up from the ground as quickly as possible, don’t hang about and try to apply grappling techniques that you don’t need. BUT: on the ground especially you need a Plan B, if someone asks the instructor “what do you do if that doesn’t work?” and they can’t answer or say “try it again….” Beware.
Now the above re Plan B applies to pretty much all the arts: fighting is basically a game of chess with violence, there are a myriad of different responses and things don’t always go to plan so be prepared for chaos and find a teacher who understands this.
A lot of Reality Based Self Defence (RBSD) guys don’t have a base in the traditional martial arts. This can be a problem in my view. Ask the RBSD guys, and any martial arts instructor you’re thinking of working with, what they understand by the phrase “position then technique.” If they are surprised by the concept and stumble about looking for an answer, maybe look elsewhere.
If you’re looking to compete then check out the record of the club and the fitness of the students. You need conditioning and it should be specific to the fighting requirements.
For competitive and RBSD styles ask how they would defend and counter against swinging right and left handed punches plus left jabs and right crosses. If the blocks are totally impractical and don’t incorporate head movement, well……
If anybody recommends blocking a kick to the lower body by using the hands and arms and/or any technique dependent on an unattainable level of speed and anticipation, I’d look elsewhere.
For grappling arts I’d ask if and how they teach takedowns and takedown defences and what they recommend they do once you hit the floor. There are various answers to the latter, but the answer should show that they have at least thought about it. Also ask them if they train how to breathe on the ground and how it differs from the stand-up game (on the ground you need shallow breaths, especially with someone’s body weight on you).
Be wary in general of any rigid training that doesn’t allow for fluidity of movement, improvisation, stuff going wrong etc. Unless of course you want to do some of the more kata and form-based arts that incorporate cooperation, spiritual training etc. In which case I would ask the teacher how important the practice of the art is to him or her as human being, how important is their practice of the martial arts to their whole perception of themselves: for this type of training I’d want someone who sees themselves as inseparable from their existence as a martial artist.
Now life is a succession of compromises and few of us are perfect, so be prepared to compromise on your choice of teacher and art.
However, be aware of the few suggested deal-breakers above and, again as for life in general, keep an open mind and never stop looking.
Now obviously, we like our own martial art and we try to incorporate as many of the virtues listed above as possible. Check us out here: