In my experience, the dojo or club at which you choose to study a martial art is as important as the style you choose. If you get into a good dojo or club, you'll learn more and probably stick with the style longer, thus gaining more benefits from your study. A bad club or dojo can discourage you from studying martial arts altogether; poor instruction can mislead students into thinking that they can handle fighting situations that they cannot, with injury or worse the result.
How do you choose a club? The best tactic is to select a group of styles that will likely benefit you, then narrow your choices down by dojo. As the writeup above states, the first step in this is to know what you want to gain from your martial arts study. Fitness? Competiton? Self-defense? Spirituality? Flashy moves? All these are possibilities.
The second step is to know your own physical limitations. If you're young and in good athletic condition, you can take your pick of styles. However, if you're older or out of shape or have a lingering injury, you need to investigate how the styles will affect your health. For instance, an out-of-shape 35-year-old probably shouldn't dive right into a strenuous karate class dominated by energetic 18-year-olds. Someone with a back injury should stay away from arts that focus on throwing and ground fighting like judo and jujitsu. Likewise, if you have wrist or finger problems, hapkido's focus on small joint manipulation would make it a bad choice for you.
The third step is to know your financial limitations. Arts like krav maga that have gained media attention or are otherwise experiencing a boom in popularity will often be more expensive to study than other arts. Conversely, more affordable clubs may be found at local colleges and universities. You also have to consider the indirect cost of taking a martial art, such as its effect on your health insurance. If taking karate is likely to raise your premiums, you might want to try tai chi instead (which is really kung fu slowed way down; the martial art aspects of the style become more evident at higher levels).
Every martial art (but not all sport forms) should:
- Improve your physical fitness. After a few weeks of martial arts training, you should have better flexibility, coordination, balance, strength, and cardiovascular conditioning.
But you shouldn't be beaten up. If you're hitting bags or practicing partner punch-and-block drills, you may be bruised up a bit -- toughening your hands and learning to take a punch is part of the conditioning process with some styles like karate, hapkido, and kung fu. Being a "uke" and practicing throwing and being thrown by your partner is par for the course in judo, jujitsu, and hapkido, and bruises come with the throws. But if you find yourself constantly injured, or if you feel you're being coerced into exceeding your body's safety limits, something's wrong.
- Provide you with useful self-defense training. Practical styles like hapkido and Krav Maga get down and dirty with a "whatever works" approach to defending oneself. You'll learn to gouge eyes and break arms. Aikido is a highly self-defense oriented form that helps you use your attacker's momentum against them. In karate and kung fu, you'll learn to hit and kick; in judo, you'll learn to use Mother Earth as a deadly weapon.
But self defense training goes beyond learning to maim an attacker -- your instructor should cover basic safety precautions to help you stay out of bad situations in the first place.
- Teach you the appropriate use of your new skills. As Prophet4's writeup amply displays, a lot of people are attracted to martial arts because they want to be like Bruce Lee. They want to be badasses. While that's totally understandable, a good instructor will do his or her best to dissuade students from such notions. The instructor should teach respect for the potentially deadly power they can wield -- and they should also teach them to realize that someone's always going to be a little better, a little bigger, better armed, or simply a little more vicious than they; that special someone will hand them their asses on a dented trash can lid if said students go around picking fights at bars or schoolyards. Students should have respect for their fellow humans drilled into their skulls so that they don't go around acting like thugs and get themselves pounded, stabbed, or shot -- or hurt someone else, and end up at the receiving end of a lawsuit or jail sentence.
- Give you a sense of camraderie and/or a social outlet. Socializing certainly should never come at the expense of learning your art; if people are standing around gabbing when you should be getting to work, that's time (and money) wasted. But if the people are cold or unfriendly and you yearn for a sense of belonging -- it may be time to seek a different club.
Some martial arts will:
Once you've got a handle on the types of styles you think would suit you, start visiting the dojos and clubs in your area. They should at least let you observe a class or two; some might let you try a session for free. Here are some things to consider when checking out a dojo or club:
- Do the students seem enthusiastic and disciplined? Or are people sloppy or just "going through the motions"? Are there too many students for the number of instructors?
- Is the students' age and size/gender range appropriate for you? Can you see yourself working out with these people? Some adults may feel awkward in a class full of teenagers, and vice versa. Likewise, a small woman may feel uncomfortable in a class dominated by large men, and vice versa. There is a safety/learning factor at work here; a strong, overenthusiastic teen can easily (and unintentially) injure an older adult whose joints aren't as flexible. Conversely, large person in a class full of smaller people may never feel that he/she can adequately practice his or her skills in partner drills. On the other hand, having a wide range of ages and body types in a class is good, because it gives students far better practice in partner drills. One will quickly learn that self-defense techniques that work on a large, muscular man will need to be modified to deal with a speedier, more supple attacker.
- Talk to some of the students after a class. How do they like it there?
- Are the facilities adequate and in good condition? Do the practice mats seem adequate cushioning for the amount of tumbling or throwing the style involves? Are the changing areas clean and do they offer sufficient privacy for you?
- Do they have first aid kits and neck/backboards ready in case of accident? Are the instructors trained in first aid? Are their certifications up to date?
- Talk to the main instructor when he/she has time. What are their credentials? What are their philosophies? Do you get the sense that you could comfortably learn from this person?
- Does the dojo seem to focus a lot on belt tests and selling extra stuff? Too many dojos are really "belt farms" that focus more on tests (and making money off those tests) and selling cool "extras" to the students than on giving the students a solid martial arts education. If the front of the dojo seems more like a store, you might be in the wrong place.
- Get to the nitty gritty of how much the dojo/club costs. Can you sign up for a relatively inexpensive trial period, or do you have to make an expensive commitment? If the instructor's sounding more like a high-pressure salesman, you might be in the wrong place.
One final note about choosing a club or dojo: beware of places that center on a cult of personality. Lots of dojos cultivate a sense of mystique and take an "Our art is the best! Our instructor is the best!" attitude. This can go too far, particularly if you're dealing with a smaller club/dojo that is run by a skilled, charismatic master who's on a power trip.
This happened about a decade ago at Indiana University. A jujitsu club there was run by a local man who encouraged fierce, unquestioning loyalty in his students. They accepted physical abuse from him, and he encouraged student instructors to abuse newer students. It was all justified on the grounds of "toughening up" the students. He eventually beat up and forced a female member to perform oral sex on him during a private training session. She went to the police, the instructor was convicted of sexual assault and sent to jail, and the club disbanded for several years.
The dysfunction in a bad club isn't often that extreme, but that kind of thing can happen. If you see an instructor using violence to "discipline" a student, or if club member are being pressured to live, worship, or spend their money in a certain way in line with the club's "philosophies", that's not a dojo you should probably be a part of.
"Introduction to the Martial Arts" booklet. Collegiate Copies. 1997.
Burns, Donald J., An Introduction to Hapkido: A Teacher's Manual. Collegiate Copies. 1994.
Burns and Thompson, An Introduction to Judo for Student and Teacher. Kendall/Hunt, 1976.
Assorted experiences in hapkido, judo, and karate classes and conversations with practitioners of other styles, including the girl who was sexually abused, and with a housemate of 3 years who was a karate instructor.