Finding the right martial arts school can be a very confusing and challenging process. There are many fantastic schools out there, unfortunately there are also many schools which should be avoided.
For some, the decision may be straightforward with the choice based on limited options or a personal recommendation. In the case of the latter, it’s fantastic to have been given some level of guidance but it shouldn’t deter you from carrying out some research for yourself. Why assume there are no better options available? There is no harm in a little due-diligence.
Unfortunately, unlike other sports and activities, the martial arts industry is not regulated by any one governing body and relies upon individual martial arts organisations to keep their member schools in check. This opens the door for unqualified and inexperienced martial artists to open schools when they are not in a position to do so.
Keep in mind that being a black belt (regardless of rank) or a world champion doesn’t necessarily equate to being a good instructor or successful business person. Someone having attained a high level of personal success in martial arts won’t necessarily run a successful school offering quality instruction and value for money classes.
Let’s look at some points to consider in your search for a martial arts school…
The location of a school is probably one of the most important driving factors that will determine whether you will or even should join a school.
When conducting research it’s important to consider how far you are willing to travel. Remember the journey will be a regular journey that you would be committing to and on this basis you would need to confirm whether it is even feasible.
Travel costs and times should also be weighed up. Review the cost of travel and how long it would take to commute to your class to arrive for your designated start time. These are important factors to consider and form part of your commitment to a school.
The Venue & Facilities
The venue and facilities a martial arts school offers very much represents the type of school you are joining.
Consider what you find acceptable, the venue should be clean, organised and welcoming. If a school doesn’t look professional, it very likely isn’t.
It is for this reason why it’s important to physically visit the school you are considering, does the size of of the venue adequately accommodate the students/instructors and how well maintained is the venue for the classes offered. What are the parking, changing and toilet facilities like?
We often find that facilities and venues vary with classes being offered in purpose built professional studios, large warehouses, school gymnasiums and village/community halls. All have their pros and cons and will obviously impact on the martial arts training offered.
The Martial Art
If you’ve made a final decision on the martial art you would like to train in the next thing to do will be to visit schools that offer that style.
However, if you are open minded or undecided about the type and style of martial art you wish to train in then take some time to conduct research and visit schools to watch classes.
Choosing a martial art is a big decision (as discussed in our previous post) and you may well be limited by the styles which are available to you locally. Ultimately, the final decision will be yours so determine what’s on offer and conduct research accordingly.
The Instructors / Instructor Team
Factors such as the venue and martial art are important but something that overrides both will be the Instructor(s). It is the Instructor who leads the classes, teaches the syllabus, monitors safety and is charged with helping you achieve your goals. It’s with this in mind you should consider whether the Instructor(s) is/are capable of doing this.
Finding the right Instructor is ultimately what determines whether you will love your martial arts training or whether you will just go through the motions before you ultimately quit. Ask yourself does the Instructor fill you with confidence, can they help you achieve your goals and inspire you to work hard. On a one to one basis are they approachable, courteous and professional?
You may feel wearing a black belt may be an indicator of a qualified instructor but unfortunately, there are many Instructors who will happily embellish on their qualifications and experience in the pursuit of enrolling a new student into their school.
In bigger schools you should expect to see an Instructor Team in place. These schools will generally have experienced well drilled Instructors who have gone through an intensive training program before leading or assisting with classes. You should expect to see some level of teamwork and this would go some way in explaining why the school is considered successful. This may not be the case at smaller schools where either through circumstance or intention will rely on one or a handful of Instructors to lead classes.
Some feel that bigger schools are less student focused, or even what is commonly known as a ‘McDojo’ churning out black belts for a fee. Unfortunately, in some instances, this may actually be the case but every school is different and no assumptions should be made.
It’s more important to make a decision based on your observations at a visit. At a visit you can determine what the student to Instructor ratios are and whether you are comfortable with what is being offered. Review the teaching styles of the Instructors and establish if and how they work as a team. Most importantly, don’t be scared to ask questions and clear up any ambiguities or concerns.
The student base at a school will elude to a number of points you can consider. Regardless of total student numbers, high or low a school can be the right school for you.
Student numbers can be low for a variety of reasons ranging from a new school building up to holidays or natural attrition. Alternatively, it could be by design with the Instructor preferring to work with smaller numbers. In this instance it obviously works favourably with regards to Instructor/student ratios.
On the flip side, a larger (not necessarily successful school) may have a bigger student base. How the school handles this is important. Does it have a reasonable sized Instructor Team to cope with student numbers and how organised are they? How does the school cope with safety and the syllabus when working with students of different ranks and abilities?
In addition to student numbers you should note the number of intermediate and advanced students at a school as this clearly demonstrates the teaching staff’s ability to keep students motivated and help them achieve their goals. A school with a high drop out rate points to underlying issues which the staff should be addressing, not ignoring.
Finally, take the opportunity to speak to existing students (and parents). It’s important to establish how they feel about the school, teaching and staff. Don’t be scared to ask questions and query anything you have doubts about.
The world we live in is constantly changing with the internet readily available wherever you go. With this in mind, many schools have moved with the times and developed an online presence to help with both recruitment and student retention.
A martial arts school doesn’t necessarily need to have an online presence and in no way is there any direct relationship between the quality of the classes offered and having a website or social media page.
Schools with an online presence have clearly made a conscious decision to invest time, effort and finances to engage with new and existing students using a medium which isn’t the dojo. This clearly shows an engagement with technology and can elude to their investment in their students and school. Some schools will go beyond a basic presence offering online training videos or even a student portal.
Having a website also shows some level of professionalism and business savvy. Review the content of the site to see how they aim to engage current and potential students. Remember, at least they have made the effort to do this.
Costs & Contracts
Training in any martial art will cost you money. Like every other sporting/fitness activity you may choose to partake in, there will be associated cost ranging from regular training to equipment and exams. This isn’t something that should surprise you, but take note that costs can vary between styles, organisations and locations. It’s best not to make assumptions and treat each school as an independent entity.
The costs involved with training in martial arts can often be the reason for not joining a school or starting altogether. We will visit this topic at a later point but you should always look at what is being offered in return for the fees paid. Take a moment to consider what you think is value for money and consider the associated cost for staff, the venue, the facilities offered and the skills you will ultimately attain, this will be a factor at all the schools you are considering.
Some (but not all) schools will request new students make some level of commitment to the school they are joining, this usually would be in the form of a contract or training agreement for a set period of time where others may charge fees annually, quarterly, monthly or even by class. You will be limited to the options a school offers but it’s important to feel comfortable with whatever you commit to.
Most schools offer a trial period which I strongly encourage you to make use of to determine whether you are happy with the classes, Instructors, school and fees. It should be noted that these trials are likely to be for a set period and in some instances you may be pressured to make a commitment before the trial ends.
Many schools offer joining incentives which expire on the same day where others may have joining offer with no expiry. There is obviously a hard sell factor to one time offers or those with an expiry date so be wary about saving hundreds which you may never have spent anyway. Take your time, review what you are being requested to pay and commit too, then make your decision.
Keep in mind that in most cases schools are keen to recruit and retain students, so the opening offers may well be available or re-offered if you return back with a query.
Reviews, Recommendations & Testimonials
Reviews for anything be they toasters, hotels or martial art schools are completely subjective.
We live in a society where near on everyone googles everything. When researching and choosing a martial arts school you like many others before you are likely to do exactly the same.
Unfortunately the majority of individuals who will attend and train at a martial arts school won’t record or rate their experience in any way, be it good or bad. Some may through prompting leave a review or post a testimonial but the majority will go unheard.
On the flip side, similar to a very famous hotel/holiday/restaurant review site (let’s call it AdvisorTrip), many of those who leave negative comments will be those with unrealistic expectations or have some kind of axe to grind. It is a sad fact that the majority of those who have trained at a martial arts school won’t leave a review or testimonial and for all that have, how likely is it that your experience will match theirs?
As indicated earlier, it’s probably best to speak to the existing student base. There is no harm in asking questions and gauging what keeps them coming back to train at the school.
Insurance Cover, DBS Checks & Certifications
All martial arts schools be they professional dojo’s or small clubs should have a basic level of Insurance to cover the school, Instructors and students.
Although it’s not common place to request to see policy documents there is no harm in determining what cover (if any) is in place.
In the UK the Disclosure Barring Service (formerly CRB) checks are in place to safeguard vulnerable individuals or groups from unsuitable individuals. At a martial arts school regardless of the age and sex of the students, all instructors should have been vetted in some way prior to being permitted to work with the student base.
Before joining a school, you should determine what the school’s policy is on these checks.
This can be quite a vague area to consider. Beyond Instructors having a First Aid Qualification/Certification all other qualifications are really subjective however it is still important to determine what makes an Instructor at a school qualified to teach others.
Most (not all) martial arts will certify their instructors with a rank and instructor qualification. This demonstrates a level of competency but through personal experience I do believe it is more important to see how an instructor teaches (and performs) to determine their ability to teach.
Some may feel that they want to delve more into an instructors qualifications to teach. This may be more important for parents who are considering a martial arts instructor would be a role model for their child. It should however be noted that although you can always ask questions, there are obvious limits to what an instructor (who is also an individual and entitled to privacy) maybe willing to disclose. For example, an instructors sex, age, marital/family status, education, race or religion shouldn’t really be factors.
Conducting research and speaking to staff and instructors is important but nothing beats scheduling a visit and watching a class. A school visit gives you the perfect opportunity to see the venue, meet the instructors, watch a class and determine how well it is run.
The important first step will be to schedule a visit. This forces you to commit to the visit and gives the school notice of a visit allowing them to prepare accordingly. Some schools will allocate a greeter to meet you, conduct a tour and answer any questions you have. This will be an important indicator to the schools stance on customer service and allows the school to sell themselves to you.
Remember to arrive early and determine whether the journey and location works for you. Based on the training schedule this would be a regular journey so it’s vitality important you can commit to it.
Beyond this it’s really down to first impressions and asking as many questions as you feel comfortable with. Don’t loose sight of the objective of your visit and what you want to find out before you’ve left the school.
Ensure you have the following information to help make your next move…
Trial Period – Is there one and if so how many classes does it cover and what is the cost if not free.
First Class – How do you schedule the first class and what would you need to bring along?
Training Fees & Contracts – How much does it cost to train on a regular basis. Are the costs periodic or contract based and are there any additional costs to consider (exams/seminars/equipment).
Start Up Costs – What are the costs to start training. What equipment and clothing will you need to purchase and is there any promotional offers and/or discounts available.
Feedback – Feedback from other students and parents who currently train at the school and why they feel you should consider joining the school.
Training Schedule – When are the regular classes and when are the scheduled cancellations throughout the year.
How you feel after your visit will be an important factor in deciding whether a school is for you. First impressions are important and do count. If you have doubts about the school, instructors or students, it’s advisable to trust your instincts. On the flip side, if you feel positive and inspired after your visit don’t be scared to conduct further research and schedule a trial and take that next step.
In the end the final decision is yours and only you can determine whether a school is the right fit for you and you are the right fit for the school.
Author: Chandresh Lad
Chandresh Lad is a Sixth Degree Black Belt and Master Instructor of Choi Kwang Do.
He has over 20 years experience in martial arts and instruction, runs a professional Martial Arts
school in North West London.