The Boston area is overrun with martial art schools. There are over fifteen schools in Somerville, alone. It is extremely important that you pick the best school in which to enroll, because the first six-months-to-a-year of your training can either make or break you as a martial artist.
1. VISIT THE SCHOOL AND VIEW THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT
in which you would have to train. A school of Asian martial art is a sacred place like a church. While air conditioning, beautiful lighting, and wall-to-wall carpeting are nice- they are not necessary. Chinese martial arts have traditionally been taught out-of-doors (to be close to nature), or in the most cramped or spartan facilities. If the school has a permanent space of its own, look it over, and feel the atmosphere. Is the school set up as a facility devoted to training students and practicing martial art, or is it a shrine to the instructor? If there are photographs on the walls, do they portray happy people; or do they display grim faces and bad attitudes?
2. THINK ABOUT THE TRAINING UNIFORM which you would have to wear were you to train at the school. In the Chinese martial arts we wear comfortable clothing and soft shoes. Many schools require you to wear an uncomfortable, expensive uniform; to exercise with an annoying rank belt banging around your waist; and to go barefoot.
3. OBSERVE THE PRESENT STUDENTS within the prospective school. These students can tell you much about the school and its teachings. Are these people with whom you would want to be associated? Are they clean, bright, friendly, and easygoing? Or are they scruffy, dull, sullen, and acting like cardboard samurai? You must feel comfortable with the present student body, because you would be training with them.
4. INVESTIGATE THE INSTRUCTOR. Make certain your future instructor is authentic, and qualified to teach the art(s) he/she represents. There are absolutely no governmental regulations regarding the martial arts industry. Anybody can open a school and represent him/herself as an instructor- and anybody and everybody has!
If the school wears rank belts, ask to see the instructor's certification for the rank he/she claims. Better yet, get the telephone number of the certifying organization, and call them. Be aware, however, that rank certification is almost meaningless! There are hundreds of organizations, ranging from small groups run by one individual, to vast international organizations. But, even the well-respected international organizations routinely hand out rank for political reasons, and not for skill. Nevertheless, if the school teaches any form of karate, Tae Kwon Do, Hapkido, Judo, Aikido, or jujitsu- make certain your instructor is affiliated with a large organization, and not just certified by another person.
Just as rank is largely meaningless in this country, so are titles. Common titles you will encounter are master; grandmaster; shihan; renshi; kyoshi; hanshi; guru; professor; and even, doctor. Someday soon someone will use the title, god. Also do not be deceived by "hall of fame" awards: because there is no real martial arts hall of fame; but only scores of for-profit, self-appointed ones which exist only on paper and in the imaginations of the participants.
If the school purports to teach a Chinese martial art, make certain the instructor descends from an authentic lineage. Simply being Chinese is no guarantee of authenticity. See if the instructor's instructor is honored within the school. Never trust an instructor of Chinese martial art who does not mention or honor his or her own teacher(s). Also, there must be some direct connection to China (or the Chinese) in the lineage of the school. Westerners only began to be taught Chinese martial arts in very small numbers in the 1960's, with the real explosion not coming until the 1970's and 1980's. If there are only non-Chinese in your instructor's lineage- look out!
One word of caution is due at this point. Do not go overboard in asking questions of the potential instructor. Do not cross the line from polite information gathering to interrogation. It is rude and offensive. Seasoned instructors know from experience that people with skeptical attitudes make poor students. You might find yourself disingenuously guided back out onto the street, missing an authentic training experience. Also, once you have made the decision to begin training at a school, be quiet and train hard.
5. OBSERVE THE INSTRUCTOR. Since it is almost impossible for someone new to the martial arts world to evaluate credentials, titles, and awards- the only real test is to observe the instructor teaching a class. Does the instructor personally teach the class and demonstrate the techniques? Is the instructor knowledgeable, skilled, and articulate? Or is the instructor absent, or monosyllabic and/or threatening to his/her class? Overbearing, threatening, and grandiose behavior (verbal or physical) is how the unqualified try to deflect attention away from their inadequacies. Another bad sign is an instructor who talks a good game, but never physically does anything.
Perhaps the best test is to simply ask yourself if this is someone to whom you would be proud to point and say, "This is my instructor."
6. OBSERVE THE ART. Does what is being taught meet your needs and expectations? Does it emphasize intelligent self-defense, or macho fighting? Does it encourage the seeking of self-knowledge, or the pursuit of trophies? Does it promote health, or just fitness? Does it stress the development of the whole person, or just the physical body? Is the art deeply rooted in its Asian matrix, or is it "Americanized"? Ask yourself what you would become as a person were you to submit yourself to this art for an extended period of time.
7. BE CONCERNED WITH THE FINANCIAL ARRANGEMENTS. Many schools try to get you to sign a long-term, legally-binding contract the minute you enroll. It is wiser to find a school which will let you simply pay monthly- with no contract- in case you eventually decide to, or have to cease training at the school. If you sign a contract, you are legally obligated to continue making monthly payments for the term of the contract, whether you continue training or not! Everybody begins a journey with great enthusiasm, but few foresee the potholes in the road ahead.
Also investigate the fees you would have to pay. Registration fees are a necessary curse at many schools of martial art. New students necessitate additional administrative and instructional costs for the school. Additionally, most people who begin martial art instruction will quit before three months have expired, with the majority of the rest being gone before a year is up. Therefore, a school is forced to find ways in which to shift the burdens of these costs to the new students, rather than to the existing students in the form of higher monthly tuition. The solution is either to have the new student sign a longterm, legally binding contract; or to charge a registration fee. To require one or the other is a reasonable attempt by the school to protect its interests, by not having its time wasted and its resources squandered. To require both a contract and a registration fee might be unreasonable, however.
Compare rank testing fees: you work hard to perfect yourself, so the occasion of a rank test should not be used for financial exploitation. Compare the costs of uniforms and equipment required and/or sold by the school.
8. INVESTIGATE THE CLASS SCHEDULE. Most schools limit the classes you may attend each week for your monthly fee. This is done by the terms of your contract, or by the amount of your monthly payment, or simply due to the fact that the school offers classes only at certain times of the week. Doess the class schedule offered to you by the school mesh with your personal schedule of work, school, and family responsibilities?
9. BEWARE OF TOURNAMENT SCHOOLS. A tournament school is one which attends a lot of tournaments. If the school attends more than one or two tournaments a year- it is a tournament school. Attending a tournament-oriented school costs money- lots of money. People spend thousands to tens-of-thousands of dollars each year attending tournaments trying to acquire pieces of plastic and marble, and chasing nebulous championship titles.
You should also be aware that tournament schools do not teach real Asian martial arts. The sole purpose of a tournament-oriented martial arts school is to win tournaments. Anything that can be utilized to grab attention in order to be noticed and scored higher than the next person will be incorporated. Thus, tournament martial art in America is a bizarre blend of karate, gymnastics, dancing, and capoeira.
Further be aware that academic research has been done comparing the aggression levels between children attending traditional schools of Asian martial art, and those attending tournament schools. It was found that after only six months of training the aggression levels in children attending traditional schools decreased, while the aggression levels of children attending tournament-oriented schools actually increased.
10. Overall, the most important consideration when choosing a school in which to study an Asian martial art, is the instructor. Look for an experienced, clean-cut, articulate instructor with an authentic resume. Shun those who act tough, tell tales, and cover themselves in rank and titles. Look for an instructor who has accomplishments in life other than martial arts.
Whatever school you choose, totally devote yourself to that school, that art, and that instructor. Martial art is not an area where the lukewarm reap benefits. Only by complete commitment will you ever begin to understand the art you have chosen to study.