How to choose a Martial Arts class for any age. an article

I was surfing the web the other day and started looking for articles on how to find a good dojo. I was amazed at how much really bad information was out there. So as the saying goes, "If you want something done right do it yourself".


I was surfing the web the other day and started looking for articles on how to find a good dojo. I was amazed at how much really bad information was out there. So as the saying goes: "If you want something done right you....."

When I was scouring the web for articles the first thing I noticed was the shameful self promotion that was actually going on in the guise of trying to help a reader or parent. Most of the articles were written in order to bolster the reputation of the writers dojo. It's the oldest sales method in the book. It works something like this; the salesperson becomes the "consultant" on what to look for in a product or service, and then gives the consumer a list of important items that are really the "sales points" of what the salesperson is trying to push. In other words if I sell red cars, and you ask me what I should look for in a car I'd say something like: "Well there are lots of choices out there, but probably the most important thing to look for in a car is it's color, and clearly you should look for cars that are RED."

My way is not the only right way.

At my dojo there are a lot of things I do a certain way because they grew out of my personality, my community, and my life experience. One example is our very short term contract policy. (We do three months). The reason I do our programs this way today grew out of my real life experience and our community. I know this is against the Martial Arts industry philosophy as a whole, but my perspective is I'd rather bring someone in who is new and fresh and really wants to learn, than keep someone who is unmotivated on the mats because of their sense of obligation to pay. This is the way I do things today, not because it is a "sales point" but because it helps me create the culture I want in the dojo, and be a better teacher.

But all of that said I would not tell you to use that as a criteria for choosing a dojo. Why? Because I know some of the best teachers I've ever met who DO use longer contracts, and some awful teachers who DON"T. So there really is no hard and fast rule, my belief is what matters is being congruent; does the teacher believe what they do and say, and have they created a culture that's a reflection of them rather than having created some commodity that they are selling to the public.

Am I the only one who is getting tired of internet content farms?

The second thing I noticed was the amount of really poor search results you seem to get these days. Articles that were clearly written simply to pick up Google search phrases and said basically nothing were everywhere. Do we really need another article that suggests that we figure how far a dojo is from our home to see if it's an option? Do we need another article that suggests we check our budget first to figure how much we can afford to spend?

I'm to the point where I think some of these articles are written by templates, and somewhere there is a computer program that simply swaps in the keywords and PRESTO - new article!

So here is my shot of providing useful information. Before I do it's important to really understand this one thing first and foremost: The Martial Arts are an ART! Performing them is an ART, teaching them is an ART, and directing a dojo - like it or not - is an ART too! There really are no hard and fast rules when it comes to a dojo. Consequently there is also no hard and fast rule for finding one either.

The foolproof method!

I think the best model for a great Martial Arts teacher is the example of Mr. Miyagi in "The Karate Kid" movie. Although this was a fictitious character, I think he best embodied what we are all looking for in a teacher.

The easiest and most powerful way of picking a good dojo or teacher is to use what I call the “Mr. Miyagi Test”. It's very simple; when trying to figure out the criteria for what your looking for first ask yourself this simple question. “In the “Karate Kid” would Mr. Miyagi have passed this criteria?” If you use the “Mr. Miyagi Test” you will find yourself almost always on the right track, and you can quickly skip the dozens of articles and books to get the education you are looking for.

A simple list of what NOT to look for in a dojo. 

1.) Relying primarily on larger governing bodies to determine a dojos quality.

There's a saying for Martial Arts insiders that is appropriate for this one. “All Chiefs and no Indians.” There are hundreds – if not thousands – of martial arts associations. Almost every one of them has a main purpose to make the member dojo look good on paper by charging for this priveledge. Very few of these organizations have rigid standards - many are run by style figure heads who HAVE NEVER EVEN VISITED THE SCHOOLS THEY ARE SANCTIONING. Even those who may visit or provice professional guidlines have no way of standardizing the way classes are taught on a day in day out basis. That's just a fact of life when it comes to studying an art.

There are those that pretend that being sanctioned by a governing body somehow makes a rank more "valid". I beleive that what makes your rank "valid" is the results you see in your life. Are you getting in better shape? Are you learning to defend yourself? Do you have a calmer and more peaceful state of mind? All of these are more effective measurements of what makes a rank real than any other criteria.

Beleive me, if you want rank, and want it to be sanctioned by a style head or organization, finding one that will give you rank and credintials will be the easiest thing in the Martial Arts you will ever do.

Is being in one of these organizations a bad thing? Of course not; I've been members of several over the years myself, but DO NOT rely on this information at all to determine the quality of the school. Instead rely on your own eyes, ears, and mostly your heart. Your emotions will tell you more than any endorcement by person or organization.

2.) Relying on the head instructors Rank or qualifications.

The same as item number one. If you can't rely on organizations, then how can you rely on the rank that these same organizations sometimes give out?

In the mid 1980's I was sitting in the late great Robert A. Trias's office in Phoenix Arizona. (Mr. Trias has the legacy as being known in the Martial Arts world as the “Father of Karate in America” - having introduced the art to the US in 1942. His accomplishments are far to numerous to mention but he is known as one of the true pioneers of Martial Arts in the U.S. - check out the link)

He walked in and said: “Joe, you should congratulate me, I was just promoted to 10th degree Black Belt!"

I was taken back; I didn't think it was my place to comment to someone of his magnitude – I stayed quiet - and felt a little uncomfortable.

He smiled and said: “But Joe, do you know the only problem?”

“No Sir” I said.

“The problem is (and I'm quoting here) I don't know any of the S.O.B's that promoted me!”

The point is you can't rely on rank promotions, don't hold it against anyone, but don't use it to judge in their favor either.

3.) Relying on the head instructors accomplishments or qualifications

I'm starting to get redundant here; suffice to say I'd love to use this, I have a lot of things in my life that I've done in the Martial Arts field that I'm proud of but you really can't use them to judge a teacher. What matters is that there is a fit, a connection between YOU and the TEACHER. (How many awards or trophy's did Miyagi in “The Karate Kid” have?”

For a list of my accomplishments that you should NOT consider click here. (I'm proud of these accomplishments but truth is I know people who have done more but are not good teachers, and I know those who have done none of these things that are simply marvelous!)

4.) Relying on a particular style as your reason for selecting a school.

This comes up for me all the time. A student who is moving to another part of the country or world will ask me for someone who is teaching the same style that I teach. My answer is always the same; I go strait to "The Miyagi Test" but with a twist:

I say: “In the movie “Karate Kid” there was a good teacher, but there also was a bad one.” Which Martial Art did they BOTH say they were teaching?”

4.) Relying on what you are told.

I hate to say it but it's true of every field. Some lie, and some simply leave part of the truth out, very few are truly honest. Trouble is, it's almost impossible for you to tell the difference. Some liars will look you directly in the eye. Some honest men and women will sometimes stutter.

I would honestly beware of office conferences. Decades ago when the culture of my dojo wasn't what it is today I relied heavily on office conferences. It was important to separate people who were inquiring about lessons from the actual classroom; because the classroom was not well run, focused, or organized. If you are interested in a school you really shouldn't need to be told much at all - the classroom is a visual thing. If it takes more than five minutes to explain chances are you are being sold something. I believe the floor should sell itself - and if you watch regular classes you will get a keen sense of whether the dojo is right for you. Don't sign anything until you visit actual classes - not private lessons with office conferences!

The fact is you can't rely on what anyone says -myself included! Instead rely on what you directly observe, make your decision with your eyes not your ears - and then trust your heart.

6.) Relying on the quality of the facility or the training equipment.

I believe in the Zen saying “How you do one thing is how you'll do everything.” So it is fair to base some of your judgement on cleanliness and attention to detail. Other than that your on your own because 99% of all dojos are empty space anyway. It's what happens in that empty space that really counts.

I grew up studying Karate in a hole in the wall in the inner city. Today my main location is in the heart of our areas newest and most beautiful outdoor malls. But the truth is the Martial Arts at either place could be equally good. Judge on cleanliness; other than that location should not be your main deciding factor.

7). Do not place value on the length of classes.

In the old days I used to teach much longer classes. But in those days our warm up was at least 20 - 30 minutes! On top of that the system I used to teach was filled with dozens of forms and waza; all of which needed to be covered. What I found today is my classes are much shorter - but everyone learns so much more and gets a much better workout. Frankly in the old days there was way to much standing around in various positions and stances; and not nearly enough training.

In the old days the classes were indeed longer; but the certainly were not as good.

What should you look for in choosing a Martial Arts school?

So by now you're seeing the pattern. Maybe it's this pattern that explains why there are so many bad articles on the web. The pattern is really the heart of my "Miyagi Test"; you must rely on your own best judgment based on your direct observation. In the end it's all you can trust.

If you need to rent the original "Karate Kid" and watch it again. Notice the lack of emphasis on ego, belts, and competition that the fictional Mr. Miyagi represented. I believe there has never been a better representation in film of the true spirit of Martial Arts.

A life example: What does a good mechanic have in common with a good dojo?

In closing I want to tell you how Sempai Shelly selected the mechanic that we now use for our cars today. We've been using him for over twelve years now. His name is Dave from the Shell Service Center on Reynolds Road in Toledo. Some years ago Sempai Shelly was waiting for an oil change on a company vehicle in Dave's lobby. A young college student came in with a problem with her car; it was obvious the girl needed transportation an didn't have much money.

As Sempai sat quietly in a corner of the lobby pretending to read a magazine she overheard the following interaction:

Dave told the girl kindly “You know I could fix your car, it would cost you four hundred dollars, but I think with the miles it's got on it, I can make an adjustment or two and get you through the next year safely. Then next year, if it breaks again, I think you'll be better off with buying another used car rather than having us fix this one. When that time comes, bring the car your looking at in to me before you buy it and I'll look it over for you and make sure your getting a good deal."

The girl left that day paying less than twenty-five dollars. From that day forward (without Dave ever knowing what had happened) Sempai decided that that was the person she was going to bring her car to. Since that time we've spent thousands of dollars with Dave. In addition we've referred probably a dozen different people to him over the years amounting to literally tens of thousands of dollars of business. Dave continues to prosper, but (unless he happens upon this article) will never know why we continue to trust him and his business to this day.

No Gimmicks

Choosing the right dojo is just like the decision to bring any new complexity into your life. You just don't know what your going to get from it until you get involved. I've seen people start Martial Arts for one thing and in a short period they are getting some other benefit that means so much more to them than their original plans. Since teaching is really an ART so it is that finding the right teacher is also an ART. In general you should do all you can to avoid sales conferences, slogans, and any other form of hype. At the end of the day what really counts is the character of the teacher and staff.

When choosing a dojo, for good or bad, you are pretty much on your own. My ending advice to you is this: don't settle. Your life has gone on fine so far without Martial Arts just fine, and it will continue to do so either way. What you are looking for is a place where you are wanted, welcomed and valued. You are looking for a teacher who genuinely cares, both in the integrity of the art, but also in you. What you want is someone who is thinking of your development and well being even when they are not face to face with you. This is genuineness; and you will know it when you experience it and it cannot be faked.

It's true; it may be hard to find the right teacher, great teachers are truly few and far between. There are no hard and fast rules, no formulas, and no manuals. One things is certain however - just like Sempai Shelly, at the Shell station - when you find the right person for the job in your heart you will know.

Joe Hurtsellers - Sensei