Choosing A Martial Arts Program And Instructor


With assaults increasing in every city in the US, it is no wonder that more and more people are looking for effective self defense programs. In the past decade rape has increased 4 times faster than the total crime rate. A woman is beaten every 18 seconds, and is raped every 6 minutes. But it is not just women who are raped and sexually attacked. There are an increasing number of assaults and sexual attack or abuse on men and children. As a result men, women, and children are seeking self defense training.

There are two types of self defense training programs available in most large cities. One deals with discussions on how to avoid and prevent attacks. These programs are usually taught by police departments and are free to the public. They concentrate for the most part on prevention, home safety tips, and answer questions about what to do if attacked. The problem with these programs is that they don't provide a knowledge of how to handle a physical attack.

The second type of self defense program incorporates actual hands on training. For the most part, these programs are taught as part of a martial arts program. The student learns how to hit, kick, throw, hold, or otherwise control an opponent and win a fight. The better programs however stress how to avoid a fight if possible. These programs also build confidence, discipline and a degree of physical fitness that yields weight, health, and beauty dividends. The long term appeal of martial arts training goes beyond exercise and learning techniques to a discipline of the mind and integration of the martial arts into everyday life.

Serious students practice a minimum of three times a week and studies can begin as early as age 4 or 5 and continue throughout life. In a typical session the student can get the equivalent of a 45 minute aerobics workout, a 45 minute calisthenics workout, and 45 minutes worth of stretching, plus learning an effective self defense technique. Martial arts training is outstanding in for building strength, flexibility, and in some arts such as Judo, endurance and cardiovascular conditioning.

Types of Programs

There are over a thousand different forms of martial arts. However no one art is suitable for everyone. The selection of a martial art should be based on an individual's temperament, physical abilities, and size. Generally what makes one art more desirable than another to a prospective student is not the art itself, but the approach taken by the instructor, the proximity of the school to home or work, and the cost of the lessons.

Most martial arts are classified as either hard and soft. The hard styles emphasize hitting and kicking with the intention of injuring or killing an attacker. The soft martial arts emphasize controlling the attacker through grabbing, throwing, joint locking, and holding techniques that allow the defender to defend himself without necessarily injuring the attacker.

Some of the more popular martial art forms in the United States are:

In traditional Karate the aim is to injure or even kill an attacker with one well placed blow or kick. The hands, feet, and many parts of the body are used in blocking and defensive movements. Strength is a significant factor in learning Karate, however people of slight build can become formidable adversaries if they concentrate on moves tailored to their size and weight.

Karate can be a big confidence booster for a passive child, but if the child is already aggressive, you might want to steer him towards one of the softer systems like Aikido or Judo.

There are more than 100 different styles of Karate, with the most popular forms coming from Okinawa and Japan.

Tae Kwon Do
Tae Kwon Do is a Korean variant of Karate. It embraces kicking, punching, jumping, blocking, dodging, and parrying. While hand techniques are becoming more important in this art, Tae Kwon Do is primarily known for its kicking techniques.

Kung Fu
This Chinese martial art uses techniques adapted from predatory animals such as cranes, snakes or tigers.

There are literally hundreds of different Kung Fu systems. While some systems emphasis strenuous, energetic kicking and punching, most systems stress more subtle techniques. Wu Shu and Tai Chi are probably the most popular Kung Fu styles practiced today. In these styles, emphasis is placed on physical and mental health, and the principle of non-combativity. Breathing and meditation play an important part in its study.

Jujitsu is a combination of hitting and kicking along with throwing, strangulations and joint locking techniques. Its emphasis is to injure or kill an attacker. Often jujitsu students are bruised and hurt during training. There are 18 more commonly practiced forms of jujitsu. Jujitsu is the forerunner of Judo, Aikido and the Japanese karates.

Among the martial arts Judo may be best for those who want to learn a few reliable techniques fairly quickly. While taught as a sport, the techniques form a formidable personal defense system. Judo is the most sportslike of the martial arts. It incorporates effective throwing, holding, strangulation, and joint locking techniques. It literally turns an opponent's strength against him.

Judo is also the most organized of the martial arts, is practiced throughout the world and is an Olympic Sport.

Like Judo, Aikido is a soft martial art utilizing throwing and joint locking techniques to control rather than injure an attacker. In Aikido you learn to slip around your attacker and then guide him to the ground by applying pressure to his arms or neck. Once down, a single arm hold can incapacitate or maim him. Most students need at least a year of training, more likely two or three, before they can effectively use Aikido for self defense.

Aikido's primary aim is a healthy mind and body, and a wholesome spirit. There are more than 14 different sects of Aikido in existence today.

Is there a standard course?
There are as many formats for training as there are martial arts. Courses may be as short as 2 hours or as long as 16 weeks. Whatever the length of the course, it should be enjoyable and present you with techniques you can use.

On Selecting A School

The first thing you need to do is to determine the style of martial art that is best suited to your size, ability, and temperament, and you need to determine what you want to get out of the art. Once you have an idea of what martial art you want to study, you will need to then select an instructor or school. The selection of a martial art school and/or instructor should be considered carefully.

Determine what you want from the instructor.

There are many good schools and instructors who teach self defense and the martial arts. Some of the best, and most reasonable, ones can be found at:

If you still cannot find a class that suits your needs contact your local women's organizations, rape crisis centers, inquire at your police department

If there isn't a martial arts school in your area, try to organize one. The United States Judo Association will be more than willing to help you out..

  • Local colleges and universities
  • Parks and recreation centers
  • Local community centers 
  • Boys Clubs
  • Churches

About The Instructor

Since most martial arts instructors are not certified this presents a dilemma for potential students and parents who want their children to learn a martial art. Following are some guidelines in selecting a martial arts instructor.

There are some excellent instructors who are not certified. It is a mistake to assume that a person who holds a black belt in a martial art is automatically qualified to teach. Tournament skills and teaching skills are not the same. Teaching requires the ability to communicate concepts, it requires patience, tact, and the ability to help students. None of these abilities are developed in contest. The black belt does not an instructor make.

When choosing a teacher make sure that he teaches the classes, has adequate warm-ups and immediately discusses any problem encountered.

Check out the instructor's background, training, teaching experience, and credentials.

Is the instructor's rank in line with his age? It takes years of study to achieve the black belt and generally it cannot be achieved under age 18.

Also how was the belt achieved - through competition or study. Competition is the shorter way to achieve a black belt but it doesn't mean that the holder knows how to teach or knows all the techniques required of that rank.

What organization certified the instructor to teach? Is it a reputable organization?

If the instructor/school are not members of a national or international organization ask yourself "WHY?"

How long has the instructor studied the art?

How long has the instructor been teaching?

Is the instructor on a pedestal or human?

Does the instructor listen or is his way the only way?

Does the instructor treat the classes as a cult

What is the attitude of the instructor?

Does the welfare and safety of the student come first?

Is the instructor up-to-date on the latest training techniques and exercises?

Does the instructor have a well grounded knowledge of anatomy and physiology?

Is too much emphasis placed on over stretching, exercising, winning, etc?

Does the instructor adapt techniques to the student's limitations?

Has the instructor undergone training in learning theory and taxonomies, and proven training techniques?

Is the instructor patient?

Is the instructor tolerant?

Do the students look up to the instructor?

Does the instructor allow the students to go too far or does he step in to protect them?

Are his values comparable with yours?

Is the emphasize on defense rather than aggression?

Does the instructor promote non-violence and humanity rather than violence and destruction?

Ask instructor what he hopes to teach. The better instructors place emphasis on non-combat virtues such as:

  • patience
  • humanity
  • honor
  • courtesy
  • knowledge
  • kindness
  • wisdom
  • loyalty
  • courage
  • self-confidence
  • trust & friendship

Does the instructor hold to the art's values and traditions?

Always watch a prospective teacher when he is working with kids not adults.

Is the instructor the leader of his own organization?

Don't be mislead by photographs of the instructor with dignitaries or the trophy display case.

Look at what the school teaches not what it claims to teach. No instructor can be qualified to teach in all the arts. One to three arts are possible but not more than three.

Does the instructor have liability insurance?

Is there sexual discrimination or harassment in the class?

Is proper language being used?

Does the instructor understand the nature of violence and how to deal with it, not just teach techniques to use against it.

Is there a written program of instruction or does the instructor just come up with what will be covered in a lesson?

Select an instructor who knows how to teach. Most martial arts instructors in this country have little training, formal or otherwise, in teaching methodologies, first aid, kinesiology, proper exercise techniques, etc.

All martial arts contain both thinking and doing activities. The instructor must be able to modify his approach to meet the needs of his students. He must be able to analyze and synthesize his teaching activities and the practice activities of his students. He must teach in a sequential manner, make on the spot corrections, and provide positive reinforcement. As part of each class the instructor should demonstrate and explain each technique, make on the spot corrections, and motivate his students.

In addition, the instructor should have a knowledge of

  • motivation techniques
  • teaching methodologies
  • sports planning
  • training principles and development theory
  • nutrition
  • injury prevention techniques
  • treatment and rehabilitation of sport injuries
  • ethics

When you observe a class, watch the teacher and the students. Does the teacher actually instruct? Does he give clear directions and explain what is to be done, or does he merely demonstrate and leave the students to imitate as best they can? Is the teacher patient and does he encourage the students, or is he cross and rude to students who need correction or help?

The instructor should consider the physiological, psychological and emotional differences between men, women and children.

Is there a balance between instruction, lecture, demonstration, and practice?

Are students allowed to master techniques adapt themselves to before moving on to new techniques?.

Is a male or female instructor better?

It usually doesn't matter if an instructor is male or female. An instructor should be selected on the basis of their knowledge, attitude, philosophy, and ability to teach. The instructor should gear training to the student's strengths and abilities. An instructor should build a safe and trusting environment.

About The Students

To become a competent player, a student needs both instruction and practice. Without proper instruction the student will practice his own mistakes over and over again; without adequate practice, his body won't be ready to execute what his mind has absorbed. Remember, when searching for the right school, look for one that regularly provides its students with a balanced diet of instruction and practice.

Ideally, the program should be well-rounded, and the instructor should have a working knowledge of the various aspects of the style and how to help students get what they want from their training. Realistically, as a beginner, you know very little about the art and thus have little information or experience by which to judge the quality of your instructor. However, you should know after a month or so whether or not the program is meeting your needs and interests. If not, you may want to examine another program or instructor. Just make sure you give one program a chance before moving to another.

If children are enrolled in a course or school, are the parents actively involved?

Is there trust between the instructor and students?

What are the student's attitudes?

Why do students stay with the instructor/school?

Talk to parents who arrive to pick up their children

Is there active participation by everyone present?

Are there a lot of injuries?

Do the students seem enthusiastic about what they are doing?

Do they help one another?

Is there a friendly atmosphere?

Are the students well behaved?

Is there discipline and control?

Are formal courtesies observed?

Are the students too aggressive or exchange harmful blows?

Is liability insurance required/provided for the students?

On Paying And Signing Contracts

Learning a martial art doesn't have to cost you a lot. Whatever you do, don't select an instructor or martial arts school on the basis of how much the lessons cost. Paying a lot of money does not mean that you will get better instruction. On the other hand, don't assume that all programs are the same and just go for the cheapest. Become an educated consumer.

Is there a hard push to sign up, buy lessons?

Don't sign a contract, especially a long term contract, unless you are absolutely certain that you understand what you are signing and that it is a fair contract. Unless you are familiar with contracts, you may want your attorney to review it. If you sign a contract without reading or understanding it, you may find yourself obligated to pay for lessons you don't want, or you may find that you cannot get a refund in case of emergency.

As a general rule, pay for lessons as you go along rather than in advance. If you make partial payments, and then change your mind, lose interest, or move, you are not tied to an arrangement which might be a financial burden. Don't pay advance tuition unless the school is well established.

Lessons range between $25-80 per month. Price depends more on rent and the amenities of the training facilities than on the quality of instruction. A commercial studio will cost more and the emphasis of the owner may not be on the student, but on meeting overhead costs.

Shop wisely but remember the quality of instruction is more important than a small differences in cost.

The School & Organization

Is the school registered with a recognized national or international organization?

Does the school carry liability insurance?

Are promotions standardized and from a recognized organization?

Is there adequate safety equipment and is it in good condition?

Does the school look professional?

Is the school clean and neat? Does it need dusting, mopping, picking up, cleaning?

Does the organization have publications?

Does the organization have a fixed mailing address that doesn't change with new officers or when an instructor moves?

Don't be impressed by the number of trophies on display. They can be bought at any trophy shop.

Observe several classes before deciding whether or not the teacher or school suits you. If there is more than one school, visit and others and compare. You are the best judge of what is best for you even though you do not have a technical background.

Any reliable school or teacher will let you observe a few sessions before making up your mind. Avoid those schools which deny you this courtesy. Don't allow yourself to be dazzled by what the teacher can do. You will not be paying to see him perform, you will be paying for what he can teach you.

A club or school should bring three things together: the instructor; the student; and the facility.

Any class should begin with a formal opening followed by stretching, an instructional period, a practice of the instruction, application of techniques (free play) and formal closing.

Look for a school that has been in business for at least 3 years.

Are locker rooms available and are they clean?

What To Expect

No matter what martial art or school you choose to attend there are some basic things you can expect. These include:

  • paying dues, fees, or tuition
  • purchasing a uniform
  • learning basic terminology
  • being courtesy and respectful of others
  • learning safety requirements and techniques
  • learning how to stand, move, and breath
  • learning the techniques of the art
  • becoming humble
  • having sore muscles and minor aches but not bruises

Is the material being practiced what you think you would like to learn?

If you like what you see, the school is right for you. If you don't like what you see, the school is not right for you, even though the teacher, the material and the method might be quite acceptable to other individuals.

You need to learn how to defend yourself while standing and while on the ground.

A deficiency in many self defense programs is to teach against sneak attacks.

Are tactics in addition to techniques taught?


There are no guarantees when it comes to the martial arts or self defense training. Studying a martial art and self-defense can be rewarding and exciting.

There will always be poor instructors and good ones. It's your responsibility to find a good one who meets your needs.

There are no short cuts to learning a martial art or self defense techniques. It takes at least a year to acquire a basic level of proficiency and 3-5 years to attain a black belt. Not only do you have to learn the techniques but you must also know how, when, and to what degree you can apply them. This takes lots of training. Often we are led to believe that by watching video tapes, reading a few books, or practicing once in awhile that we can learn self defense or a martial art.

We are also taught that one can become invincible in self defense after taking ten easy lessons in two months. While there are definite benefits to a short course, but the real benefits come from long term study.

There are no secrets in the martial arts. There is no magical hit, kick, thrust, or throw that will kill an opponent so many hours, days, or months down the road. This is hype generated by a lack of understanding and television. Every martial art is comprise of mathematics, physics, anatomy, and all the other sciences.

Ten Question to Ask Before Joining Any Martial Arts School

  1. Who is the head instructor? What is his/her background?
  2. Who teaches the classes?
  3. What are the instructors' qualifications?
  4. How many times per week can you come to class and how long are the classes?
  5. Is physical conditioning part of the class routine?
  6. Are beginners separated from the more advanced students? Why?
  7. Is the style of instruction oriented more toward tournament techniques, self defense, or understanding the art?
  8. How are children disciplined?
  9. Are the physical or philosophical aspects stressed?
  10. What are the fees? Can you afford them?
  11. Can you commit the time it will take to learn the art or complete the course?

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