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Not all Schools or Instructors are Created Equal

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Not all Schools or Instructors are Created Equal

To begin I want to tell you a little story.  I was about 14 years old and I found a martial arts school I really enjoyed going to.  I would walk from school right to the dojo, do my homework, and stretch.  Then I would be a part of the little dragons class, be a part of my class, and would also stay and participate in the adult class.  My mom would pick me up on her way home from work, so on average, I would there 5-7 hours a day.  Things were going great.

For the summer I needed to go to Florida and visit my grandparents for about 3-4 weeks.  Once I got back home I excitedly rode my bike to the dojo to get back into training, and much to my surprise it was gone.  No signs, no information, just an empty space. 

Now keep in mind, this was before cell phones and email, and none of my immediate friends were in the classes with me.  So, it wasn’t until school started back, did I see anyone I knew from the dojo.  I won’t bore you with all the stories of what may have happened.  The gist was that our Sensei owed a lot of people money and his instructor took back his rank. 

Then one day I was going to 7-11 one day I saw a sign in a window that said Karate, so I proceeded to check it out.  No kidding it was my old instructor teaching under a new school name and had a new Black Belt certification with a different association.  It is worth mentioning that all this happened in about 5 weeks. 

This leads me to today’s article.  When we choose a martial arts school to train at and put our trust in someone that is eitherFunny Ninja Postergoing to teach us or more importantly our children, how do we know if they are the real deal?  Do you just look at the certificates on the wall? Do we look at their Facebook Page and see what others are saying?

The world of martial arts is a funny one when it comes to this subject.  There are no governing bodies that regulate or even check on the credentials of people that teach self-defense.  So, the burden falls on us as customers and parents to decipher if this individual is certified or just trying to make an extra buck. 

Even more importantly the styles that are taught are not even that important, as I have had Karate instructors that taught things from Aikido, Escrima, and Jiu-Jitsu in an extremely accurate and practical manner even though they did not officially ranked in any of those arts.  What is even worse is I have met professional instructors from various styles that either didn’t care or just lost the desire to teach and were some of the worst instructors I have ever trained with.

Luckily, both of these examples have not been the norm in my experience.  Most instructors are ranked and are certified by some association or something.  Also, most actually have a desire to teach their very best and leave it all on the mats in a matter of speaking. 

So how do we not get scammed by those small few that ruin it for the rest of us?  In my almost 20 years of teaching, only a handful of people have ever asked my lineage.  Even fewer ever asked if I was any form of a certified instructor. 

Martial Arts Unlimited Association has a certification process for all potential Black Belts and those that want to teach.  The program is called the Instructor Candidate Course, and when a student is at the Brown Belt level they are enrolled in the program.  Even if they may never teach, they complete this program, just in case. 

The program consists of a guidebook, with assignments that require the potential instructor to know the history of their art and a few core others.  They also learn the basic methods that students learn as well as potential correction methods.  Finally, the course covers things like basic CPR and how to keep students safe while they are training.

Not all martial arts schools or instructors go through this kind of program and I do think that shows in some cases.  Some people are natural teachers and are also very caring people and the majority of these skills are presented in their programs.  Those that don’t know about these things, usually seek out and get the desired training to help them present the best instruction all the while making a safe and stable environment for their people.

As a potential student/parent, ask some of these questions as they pertain to you or what your goals might be for yourself or your child:

  1. Where did you get your rank from?
  2. How long have you been training?
  3. What associations or affiliations are you a member of?
  4. What awards or titles have you won?
  5. How long have you been teaching?
  6. Do they have a curriculum? Or what is the mean for advancement?

These are just some example questions, of course, you can ask whatever, and then don’t just take their word for it.  Do some homework and fact-check some of the answers that were given.  It’s not unheard of for people to lie or embellish to sound better to make some more money.

Use the internet and see if they have a website, Google Business listing, and Facebook page.  See what people are saying about the school, instructor, and instruction.  Ask for recommendations from others that you may know that either attend that location or others in the area.  Look at the reviews if they have some.  No one will likely have all positive reviews, and that can be ok, how are those complaints addressed if at all.  If those things are not available or turned off, that very well could be a red flag that something is up. 

Check out the associations too, there are a lot of people doing online schooling now, and the world of martial arts is no different.  Online training is often more about the “all mighty dollar” and less about the martial arts.  Almost anyone can join an online association a get a rank with almost no actual training. 

See if you can observe a few classes or better yet get some kind of trial offer.  Martial Arts schools that have nothing to hide will let people watch a few classes, be willing to answer questions, and even let someone try out a class.  I know some schools offer a paid trial which might not be ideal, however, if you were able to observe a few regular classes and talk with other parents or customers, and even ask some of your questions to the staff then a semi-private trial class should be fine.  Not all people are comfortable just being dropped right into the class, and some instructors have lessons that might not be conducive to having a new person just stuck in their class. 

Finally, don’t get wrapped up in this style or that style.  If you are an adult seeking Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu then surely you will be looking for a BJJ gym and based on what is located around you will dictate what you find and what you decide.  But, I caution not to discount a Catch Wrestling gym simply because it is not Brazilian, or Japanese Judo.  Those are both great grappling systems, even more so when taught by the right instructor.

If you are seeking a program for your child, the art will likely matter even less.  Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Kenpo, or even Youth MMA are all programs that I have seen.  What I feel is more important is:

  1. Do you like what is being taught?
  2. Do you like the instructor, the staff, and the facility?
  3. Is the location and cost within your means?
  4. Do you like the overall atmosphere and do you feel comfortable?

If you can answer these questions with positive responses.  There is a highly likely chance you will be happy at that martial arts learning center.  If not, then you will either need to decide how valuable that issue is or continue looking for another gym. 

If you have a bad martial arts experience, please do not hold all other martial arts schools and instructors accountable for the one.  Just like you may have a bad experience at one restaurant or store, there is a chance that it is just that location.  Also, don’t forget that works both ways, if you have a good school, and need to move, there is a chance you will not find exactly what you had before, keep an open mind and see what others offer.


Personal Pet Peeves:

  • The outside sign says KARATE – inside is a Tae Kwon Do school
  • The certificate says BLACK BELT – although no mention of style or martial art.
  • Strange school names – Mixing a Korean-style name with Japanese or Chinese. 
  • Karate Belts for MMA programs
  • Mixing uniforms – wearing a Hapkido, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gi, or even Kung Fu uniform when you don’t offer either style.
  • An instructor not knowing what their school or style name means.

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