Choosing a Martial Arts School, part 1: Which Martial Art?

Choosing the right martial arts school is sometimes more important than choosing the right martial art--pick a bad school, and you could be so turned off that you don't bother trying any martial art at all. In this multi-part feature, we'll show you how to choose a martial arts school.

So how do you pick the right martial arts school? Here's what to do:

  1. Choose an art to study
  2. Find schools that teach that art
  3. Visit the schools
  4. Start training!

Easy, huh? Actually, there's lots of stuff to consider, and some legwork to do. But this process can be fun in itself, so let's start!

1. Choose an art to study

We've discussed this before, but in a nutshell, choose the art that feels right to you. Don't be swayed by the trend of the moment (in the 80's: ninjitsu, in the 90's: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, in the 00's: light-saber fencing?). Research a number of arts to see what they might be like, and pick a handful to check out. The directory in this site's Netlinks section is a great place to start your research--if I may say so myself. :-)

After I posted my previous article on choosing a martial art, some folks wrote in to get more suggestions on how to choose the right martial art for them. Here's some additional questions folks sent in:

Many arts offer competitions where you can compete for trophies, money, the accolades of your fellow martial artists, or even gold medals, as in the case of the Olympic sports fencing, judo, wrestling, and now tae kwon do.

Competition might be in sparring, where you fight against another person under strict rules to ensure safety. Sparring competition can range from non-contact, where judges award points to determine the winner, to no-holds barred events like the Ultimate Fighting Championship, where the winner is the person who didn't tap out (surrender). Other arts that have sparring competitions include arnis, escrima, and kali, ju-jitsu, karate, hapkido, kendo, kickboxing, kung fu, muay thai, savate, and tang soo do.

Competition can also be in technique demonstration, usually in the exhibition of forms or kata: dance-like routines that string together techniques, thus modeling a defense against one or more attackers. In forms competition, judges observe the competitor's demonstration and award points for execution, excellence, and attitude, similar to competition in gymnastics or figure skating. Arts that have form competition include karate, tae kwon do, kung fu, hapkido, and tai chi.

Some arts don't have any competitions at all--the study of the art is the goal, rather than competition. Aikido, kyudo, and most tai chi styles fall into this no-competition category.

Undoubtedly you've seen martial arts weapons used in films, like the fantastic nunchaku scenes in many of Bruce Lee's movies. Many arts include weapons training as part of the curriculum. The Filipino martial arts of arnis, escrima, and kali often start beginners with weapons (short stick) first, before teaching empty-hand techniques. Other arts, such as aikido, hapkido, karate, kung fu, tae kwon do, and tai chi teach weapons at higher ranks once the basic techniques are mastered. And yet other arts are weapons-only: for example, fencing, kendo, kyudo, and naginata-do.

But don't get the wrong impression that all of these arts are useless without the weapon: kendo (Japanese sword fencing) and kyudo (Japanese archery) are more about mindfulness and "moving meditation" than walking around with a sword or bow and arrows. The resulting awareness and fitness are excellent goals in themselves.

"Hard" martial arts styles are characterized by linear, direct techniques where force is met with force. A block in a hard style is often an attack on the opponent's kick or punch, as in the limb destruction techniques of kali.

Examples of hard styles include karate, some kung fu styles, muay thai, tae kwon do, some Filipino styles, and many weapons arts, including kendo and naginata-do.

"Soft" styles are characterized by circular techniques that seek to redirect force rather than meeting it straight-on. The opponent's energy is often redirected into making the opponent unbalanced and vulnerable to a striking attack or a throw.

Examples of soft styles include aikido, some kung fu styles, ju-jitsu, ninjitsu, and tai chi.

Which one is better for you? Well, all sorts of folks enjoy and excel in both hard and soft styles. While in the old days a body toughened by repeated conditioning exercises (in order to better withstand blows) was essential for hard styles, it is less so today. If you're a rough-and-tumble sort of person, hard styles might appeal more to you. If you're more pacifistic in nature, soft styles might appeal more.

For more considerations, see my previous article on choosing a martial art.

Next Steps

Once you've found a martial art that interests you, find schools that teach that art in your area.

Onward to Finding a Martial Arts School >>

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