Martial arts/self-defense schools: how to choose
This is left over from a note to myself, June 21st, when I was in Seattle. I passed by a kickboxing/martial arts school as I was walking to the local post office. Watching them work out made me cringe. I'm no expert, but I have some potentially valid insights and opinions on what makes a good martial arts school.
I should also preface this by stating that you can find some good online articles on this subject by searching under "chosing martial arts school," or similar. To my knowledge, my thoughts (below) are above and beyond the usual advice.
Of course, it depends on what your goal is for taking a martial arts class. Exercise/physical fitness, self-defense/safety, and personal/spiritual development are all valid reasons. My comments below are inteded for people who are primarily interested in self-defense.
GENERAL ADVICE: Sit and observe a class for one full session. Taking a "free class" is also good -- but it's hard to see what's going on when you're actually particpating! Better to sit back and observe -- at least once.
(1) BAD: Throwing arts where people don't know how to fall. Here in Brisbane, I observed an introductary Aikido class where people were falling on their butts with their arms straight out behind them. I kept waiting for the instructor to stop the class and review how to fall properly; he didn't. That's a really good way to break an arm -- or at least sprain a wrist.
(2) BAD: Instructors who don't observe safety procedures -- or common sense. This includes not keeping an eye on maintaining safe distances between people who are sparring and the rest of the class. Also includes proper protective gear, using weapons in a controlled context, etc.
(3) GOOD: Logical learning structure. When you begin, are you taught the fundamentals? As you attend further classes, do you review the basics, but add on to them? Is new material added at a pace suitable for you -- neither a flood, where you never get a chance to master techniques, nor glacial, where you spend three months on the same two techniques. Neither is conducive to learning how to defend yourself.
(4) GOOD: Self-defense techiques are actually taught. Not just traditional stances and complex moves, but clear, straightforward, "Here are two ways of getting out of a wrist grab," "Here's an escape from a bear hug." Some styles either assume you'll figure this out yourself, or just aren't directly interested. That's fine for some purposes -- but not for a self-defense orientation.
(5) GOOD: Weapons defenses. Do they spend at least SOME time -- even at the beginning or intermediate levels -- showing you how to defend against handheld weapons? Ideally, both a knife-y sort of weapon and a baseball bat-ish weapon. It's good to know how -- ahead of time -- rather than experiencing an "Oh carp! [splat!]" moment.
(6) GOOD: Sparring -- at a relatively early stage. This includes both practicing blocks, locks, and punches on a partner, slow-motion and safely; it also includes more "free form" (though initially low-power and/or slower) working with a partner. If you've only practiced "one-two-three" pre-arranged exercises, you won't have had any practice with an actual punch coming at ya!!! So: if they don't allow ANY form of sparring until your way, way senior: no good for actual self-defense purposes.
(7) GOOD: Something tangible to hit and kick. A lot of "exercise kickboxing" classes -- and ones held in "temporary" locations, like church basements and shared exercise rooms at university fitness centers -- don't have actual punching bags. This is because they need to be portable, able to completely pack up at the end of each session. Some "portable" classes use focus pads, etc., which works pretty well. But a lot just have you shadow-box, kick the air, etc -- like most "exercise-kickboxing" classes -- which doesn't let you know whether you're holding your fist correctly (i.e. will your wrist collapse if you actually punch something???), whether you're getting the distance correct, or whether you're generating any power.
(8) PERSONAL PREFERENCE: Style of the instructor. Drill seargent? Gentle nurturer? Firm but fair? The personality/teaching style of the instructor that works for you is clearly a matter of personal taste -- but for myself, I don't see a particular advantage to someone that barks out commands and demands undying obediance. I go more for the "wise uncle," "firm but fair" type: someone that's encouraging, explains things clearly, and is open to questions for clarification -- but is willing to tell reckless people to "knock it off!" if they're horsing around.
(9) MINOR DISTRACTION: Memorizing forms. Some people love memorizing forms ("kata" in the Japanese arts). I'm willling to put up with them, as they give you practice in moving in the "correct" way for your style, can introduce some useful combinations, and serve as a memory device or encyclopedia for your style's catalog of techniques. You'll get a lot of these in "traditional" styles, including Tae Kwon Do, Karate styles, and Gung Fu styles. But I personally prefer schools where they just show you techniques, rather than filling my [limited!] memorization capacity with "which move comes after which." Aikido and Judo are good for just showing techniques; with other styles, it depends on the particular instructor.
(10) GOOD: Tricks of the trade Do they tell you why or how techniques are supposed to work? Do they give you little "tricks of the trade" -- the little nuances that separates the successful from the failed attempts at a block, a punch, a joint lock, a throw? The little tricks (e.g. "pretend like you're peeling an orange...")? Some styles (or instructors) will focus on this; others will only show you the physical movements, but not give you the "tricks" until you're senior enough. Or, they'll want you to "figure it out for yourself." You can ask about their orientation towards "tricks of the trade," but in my experience, you can only really tell after a few months. And it may vary from instructor to instructor, within the school.
(11) GOOD: Useful size and sex ratio of other students. It's good to have other students in your class that are (1) larger than you, and (2) male. This is particularly true if you're a female. Although it may be more comfortable to be in an all-female class, you really need practice in blocking punches and escaping from wrist grabs and bear hugs from large males. Partly for the physical practice -- techniques work a little differently against someone larger than yourself, compared to someone the same size -- and partly for psychological practice: getting used to physically competing against a large male. (BTW: statistically, everyone is MUCH more likely to be physically attacked by an acquaintance or family member than by a stranger.) Also useful: classmates who actually can punch and kick properly. I dearly loved my Aikido class, but too many of the guys were neo-hippies who were WAAAY harmonious -- and couldn't punch worth a darn. So there wasn't any "real" practice in trying to defend against them.
(12) SPORT VS. SELF-DEFENSE: Judo is cool -- but it's a bad tactic to turn your back on an attacker to attempt a hip throw (may result in a knife to the back). Tae Kwon Do is groovy -- but (depending on the school), they may emphasize "points/no points" techniques, thus rendering you vulnerable (for self-defense purposes) against people who try "illegal" tactics. If a school is heavily focused on tournaments, the training will be oriented towards maximizing points -- not keeping yourself safe in case of an attack.
(13) GYE GREENE'S PERSONAL LITUMUS TEST: How are the students holding their hands? If it's close enough that they can touch their hands with a drinking straw held in their mouth: too close. Try this: have one person hold their fists in front of their face in the stereotypcial "kickboxing-for-fitness" pose. Have the other person slap at the fist, in the direction of the fist-persons' face. The fist will, likely as not, collapse into the fist-person's nose; this is a bad thing. Holding the elbow flexed at a 30-degree angle is structurally weak; you want somewhat more than 90-degrees. If the instructor is telling the students otherwise, they're teaching garbage; go elsewhere.
(14) GUNS: Guns are scary. Martial arts are really only useful against punches, kicks, and hand-held weapons (knives; baseball bats). That said, guns are distance weapons: the WORST place to be, relative to a gun-holder, is a few feet in front. If you're immediately to the side of a gun-holder, you're better off (IMO) (1) immobilizing the gun, then (2) taking out the person. Running leaves you defenseless -- unless you're a few hundred meters away.
(15) SELF-DEFENSE COURSES: Taking a "four-hours-on-Saturday -- once!" self-defense course is a good introduction. But you need to stay in practice. Not necessarily enrolling in a martial arts class -- but every once in a while, get together with a friend and run through the drills. Gotta stay in practice: Being attacked is NOT the correct time to go "Um, um, um -- let's see..."
...and: that's my opinion, based on my experience and my musings. Take it as you wish; use at your own risk.