How to find a martial arts school
by Heather Gawlick
Over the years, I've been asked by a variety of people for advice on how to choose a martial arts school. Obviously, my answer is "We're the best!"
Joking aside, it can be a daunting task to figure out from the myriad of choices available which one is right for you. First, I would recommend doing a bit of self-reflection. What is it you are looking for? Some common themes include:
After you've considered what is drawing you to the martial arts, it's time to begin your search.
Try using tools like Google, Yelp, and Facebook to help them learn what is available in their area. Search terms include phrases like "martial art," "karate," "aikido," "judo," "tai chi," "kendo," etc., plus your city name. Don't forget to check your local gym and community center listings of classes, too.
You can learn a lot by the look and feel of the web site for each particular school or dojo.
Does the school focus on friendliness or power? It is important to continue your search until you find a school whose atmosphere matches your personality. A good match can be worth a commute, as you may make lifetime friendships.
Do they have photos and/or videos on their web site so you can see their ambiance, teaching style, and what the martial art looks like? Are the teachers confident, relaxed, calm, and patient?
Look for the credentials of the lead instructor(s). Is the teacher a first-degree black belt whose been teaching for one year, or is it someone who has a tenth-degree black belt who has been teaching for fifty? Do they specialize in one art, or do they study and/or teach multiple disciplines?
When you feel you are getting close to what you are looking for, call the school and talk to the instructor. (In Japanese arts, you may see terms such as sensei - teacher, or shihan - master teacher.) Are you comfortable with the person on the phone? Do you like the answers to your questions? Do they listen to your concerns?
What is the safety record of the school? Do they focus on "pressure points" and "pain compliance" or do they talk about "off-balance" and "timing?" Are you comfortable with the answers? Would you want someone performing those techniques on you?
Ask them if they allow you to participate in a first class for free or if you can at least watch on the sidelines before signing up. What kind of gear must you purchase and how often?
What is the pricing structure for the classes? Do you need to sign a contract or is it on a monthly basis? Are there association/insurance dues you must purchase?
What are the promotional standards? Are there fees for the promotions? Are they refundable if you don't pass an exam? (Most are not, but it is worth asking.)
Are you required to attend seminars locally or otherwise? How often? What are the additional costs?
Do you have to be in shape before joining? Is this a martial art for everyone or only for those who are fit? Does this work for you?
Talk to the instructor about what it is you are looking for and why you called. This place may not be the right one for you, but perhaps he or she can make a recommendation.
Finally, be sure to thank the teacher for the time on the phone (or by email if you choose that route). Most of the instructors I know are very busy people who work another job in addition to their martial arts school and teach because it is their passion. Very few make enough money to cover the expenses of running the school, much less earn any sort of profit.
Joining a school with a good fit can lead to a lifetime commitment not only to the art itself, but also the people you meet. Most of my martial arts friends say their dojo community is more important to them than their own families.
Good luck! I'm sure you will find the perfect fit!
Heather and Roy Gawlick love Aikido and have a passion for sharing it with others. They hope you'll catch the Aikido bug, too!
Shinju Dojo Aikido Martial Arts School in Longview / Kelso, Washington