This month will mark thirty years for me, in the study of Okinawan karate. I still remember the spring evening in 1989 when I walked into the New England Academy of Karate and Judo for the first time. Sensei was absent that evening and the class was being taught by a brown belt. I watched the entire class and was impressed enough that I chose to attend the following Monday. When I showed up, I met my Sensei and started the journey that I still haven’t completed.
One of the benefits of having done martial arts for so long is I generally know what I’m looking at when I walk into a martial arts school. People have frequently asked me what they should be looking for when thinking about joining. That’s often a dangerous question…
First and foremost, students should try and avoid schools that are open for the prospect of making money. The term “McDojo” was coined a long time ago, and refers to a martial arts school that teaches a watered down version of its art in order to make money. These are often noticeable by the fact that EVERYTHING has a fee. Belts, uniforms, registration, seminars, books the student is “required” to read and even belt tests that have no inherent cost to the instructor, will generally have a cost attached to them. To be honest, one of the first questions a prospective student should ask the head instructor is “What can you tell me about your style?” If the instructor immediately goes into the historical background and particulars about the style, then it should be fine. But if they start by explaining their fee structure, it may be an issue. These are not the only signs, but they are certainly points to watch out for.
Another problem are schools that promote students to black belt within five years. Realistically, with some very rare exceptions, most students should take approximately ten years to achieve the rank of first-degree black belt. Unless one already holds an extensive background in the martial arts, where most of the basics have already been mastered, one cannot truly achieve the skill required for such a rank in that short a time.
The purpose of this post is not necessarily a checklist as to how to find a proper martial arts school, but rather what to do once you’ve found one. Let’s say you’ve found a dojo that suits your needs; the style feels right, the instructor is sound and they have a good reputation. What should you be looking for next?
The martial arts can only be properly achieved through three obstacles, and require only one thing. These three obstacles are blood, sweat and tears. Plain and simple. In my decades of training, I’ve had lots of all three. The one thing required in order to make it through these obstacles is concentration. Through proper concentration, one can achieve a great many things. In fact, I’ve often seen athletes in prime shape be unable to continue beyond the first few classes.
The thing is, there are lots of martial arts schools where you’ll get a decent sweat, everyone high fives each other and you have lots of fun. You get a long with everyone in the dojo and you actively enjoy going to class. But there needs to be more…
There will be classes where you’ll feel as though you can no longer go on. Some classes where you’ll be learning the combat side of the martial arts and your nose will bleed, muscles may get pulled or sprained and after some belt tests, you’ll ache for days. I remember there being times when I would sit at home, weeping into my hands because I had felt I couldn’t advance any further. But these are all parts of the learning process and the need to grow as person in tandem with your chosen martial art.
Everyone has a different reason for getting into the martial arts. Maybe it’s to improve one’s health or get into shape. Perhaps you want to learn to defend yourself or you’re looking to learn about something old and traditional. You simply need to ensure that the school you’re joining has what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a place to socialize and have a work out, great! It won’t matter if your school focuses on belt ranks, proper process or how long it takes to achieve belts. In fact, you could join anything you like; it wouldn’t have to be martial arts. Go join a yoga or Zumba class. Join a gym group. If you want to test yourself and learn to fight, you may want to join a school that focuses on tournament attendance.
It’s important to find what’s right for you, and to stick with it once you do. As Bruce Cockburn once said “Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight.” True words. I’ll let y’all folks Google who Bruce Cockburn is.