In my experience, I have to say that there is a major attitude difference in the openness to new things between instructors with day jobs, and those without. Instructors who make their living teaching martial arts tend to protect their "turf" much more, often claiming the superiority of their systems over the "Brand X" systems. After all, this is how you get market share. Instructors with day jobs teach for the thrill of transmitting information to students and having them learn. It matters a lot less [to them] whether there are 10 or 50 students in the class, as long as those students are there to learn.
he preceding chapter addressed the issue of commercialism and its "impact on the coveted black belt." Its conclusion was that too many martial art instructors inflate their credentials to maintain or increase market share. The end result of their actions is a cheapening of the value and real meaning behind "black belt" rank. Certain instructor ranks from among "commercial" martial art schools are reported in that chapter because, being published in the Yellow Pages, those ranks are readily available. In truth, there are many other instructors who are not listed in the Yellow Pages who make equally outlandish claims. Some of them teach on college campuses, others in recreation centers, and a few offer their services to various law enforcement agencies. I can't say there are more good guys out there than scoundrels, but I can say there are many talented, highly skilled and qualified instructors operating and teaching in reputable schools. The trick is finding them.
My purpose in this chapter is to cut through the mystery, marketing hype, and sometimes misguided consumer advisors, to help you be a savvy martial art shopper. Let's begin with this chapter's two opening quotations.
Given a choice between the two, which school would you choose to train in: the one whose instructor seeks to make $100,000 per year, or the one who works a "day job" and teaches simply "for the thrill of transmitting information to students and having them learn?" I know what my initial reaction would be. However, anyone seeking good martial art instruction must, first of all, recognize that "commercial" does not automatically mean bad; neither does the "not-for-profit" label necessarily mean good. Many other factors figure into the complex equation used to find the right martial art school, including school size, organizational affiliation, international certification, tuition (high and low), and teacher motivation to name just a few. But before we tackle those factors, let's look briefly at martial art consumer guides.
Questions Consumers Should AskEvery year, numerous articles are published on "How to select a martial art school." Many metropolitan Yellow Pages even provide a telephone number that you can call for suggestions about how to choose a martial art club. Surprisingly, the recorded advise I heard when I called the public service number was not too bad. However, too many of the other published "helpful hints" are often as misguided as they are helpful. For example, an article entitled, "Do your homework on martial arts schools" suggested that prospective consumers ask if the instructor studied with a Japanese master. Also deemed important in this article was knowing if the school is owned by a national chain or an individual. On the surface, such questions seem reasonable, but each displays a lack of knowledge on the writer's part or a bias on the part of the writer's sources.
Assuming that the writer's source in this case did not deliberately exclude Korean, Chinese, Filipino, and other martial arts when he suggested finding out if the instructor had "studied with a Japanese master," the question still implies that Asian instruction, or at least direct lineage to Asian masters, is necessary if you expect to receive authentic martial art training. If you study an art for some cultural benefit, then yes, direct Asian lineage is important, but beyond this it offers no guarantee of training quality or effectiveness.
If the writer's second question referred to some kind of financial association with a national organization or franchise, then understand that in the martial arts, franchises and other financial arrangements are no guarantee that the school (and the instructor with whom you sign up) will even be around by this time next year. Likewise, professional affiliation with national or international certification boards are no guarantee that your son or daughter is receiving the best possible instruction. The idea that you should carefully check out a school and its instructor before enrolling is correct, but some of the questions these shoppers' guides suggest completely miss the mark when it comes to martial arts.
School Size: Bigger or Smaller?
Smaller schools, on the other hand, have their own advantages. Offsetting their disadvantage of fewer training partners is the benefit of a much lower student-to-teacher ratio. Whether in a neighborhood club, semiprivate studio, small school setting, or "backyard dojo," having the opportunity to work with the chief instructor is hard to beat. My last teacher, for example, taught out of his backyard for most of his teaching career, and despite the often less-than-desirable training conditions (like rolling around in dirt dotted with occasional cat droppings and other unpleasantries), the instruction there was exceptional. Some may frown on this kind of training environment, but you must remember that Bruce Lee frequently taught out of his home. Thinking that bigger is better may just cost you the opportunity to train with the likes of a modern day Bruce Lee. Traditionally speaking, small schools and backyard dojos have been very much the norm throughout the East.
All of this is not to say that bigger or smaller is better; both have advantages and disadvantages. Simply use these points and counterpoints when size becomes a factor in evaluating a school.
Without a doubt, students from unaffiliated schools have a more difficult time transferring to other schools because their rank may not be recognized by the receiving instructor or organization. (This is not as much of a problem in black belt ranks as it is among underbelts. Black belt skill is quickly evident, and, once recognized, black belts are often extended the privilege of wearing their hard-earned belts in class – even in a school that is part of another organization.) Despite these difficulties, unaffiliated schools continue to thrive, even without benefit of national or international affiliation. This is because more and more practitioners recognize that comparing ranks between organizations is like comparing apples and oranges. Moreover, most of those joining local, unaffiliated schools are less concerned with rank and international certification than they are with content. Since unaffiliated schools are less interested in maintaining tradition, they usually have broader, more flexible training programs that easily incorporate changes and new ideas. This is often a good fit for the martial art student seeking instruction in self-defense.
Tuition, et al.
In some schools, tournament competition is a requirement for advancement. Some of the events are intraschool competitions, where the students compete against the same classmates they train with every week. You need to find out how often these events are held, and how much is the entry fee? (Required attendance every two months, at $15 a tournament, increases your monthly cost by $7.50.) Also, find out if you are required to break boards or bricks at tournament (or belt testings for that matter). Do you have to buy your own boards? Beyond the financial pressure, anyone making his living with his hands – like a dentist – might find "breaking" an unacceptable risk to his livelihood. It is important for anyone in a similar situation to find out how passing on the "breaking" requirement might affect promotions.
Other schools avoid contracts, but offer the individual an incentive to pay for three months, six months, or a year in advance. Even those schools that push contracts usually accept students who pay only monthly. You may pay a more per month, but at least you are not hooked into a contract. If, on the other hand, you don't mind a contract, then remember that a contract of six months to a year is a reasonable term. It benefits both you and the school. The owner gets a smooth cash flow, and you are not unduly committed. This is important because many things can happen in a year: the school can go out of business, you might be transferred out of town, or your priorities may change (marriage and children have a way of changing a lot of things).
Public openness, school size, organizational affiliation, commercial versus not-for-profit, tuition, and contracts – all of these are factors that you must weigh carefully when selecting a place to study and train. But a bigger indicator of instruction quality is teacher motivation. Why does this individual have a martial art school?
Some of the reasons given for having a martial art school sound good; others, perhaps, not so good. However, even the ones we think are questionable may not be as bad as they first sound. Take the fellow who opens a school because he wants to make a living doing what he really enjoys. This is a perfectly legitimate reason for having a school. Everyone should be so fortunate as to make a living doing what he or she loves.
Let's face it, the most disparaging remarks are inevitably reserved for those who are "out to make a million bucks." We've all seen them: instructors who have the marketing savvy to successfully operate the largest chain of schools in town. Ever notice how these guys are always the targets of most of the other (smaller) school owners? Admittedly, on the surface this "earn a million bucks" motivation seems somehow beneath the ethereal standards of the art, but is it really? Who says that a karate school owner shouldn't be rich, that he should be pennyless and always scraping to make ends meet? In the martial art business very few become wealthy, but what's wrong with wanting to be? And, what of the handful who do make it? Can anyone fault Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, or Jean Claude VanDamme for parlaying their martial art expertise into financial success? Martial artists need not have the selfless motives of a cloistered monk to be good martial art teachers.
Finally, we come to the individual who has what many see as the purest and highest motivation of all: namely, owning your own school so that you can have a positive impact on the lives you touch. This is truly a noble reason, and there really are teachers so motivated. Many start schools in rough ghetto neighborhoods because they are intimately familiar with what it's like to grow up in such environments. More important, they are equally aware of the kind of positive impact that disciplined and dedicated martial art training can have in helping kids overcome the many disadvantages associated with growing up in ghettos. We often find such individuals serving in the Peace Corps or teaching in the public schools for the same reason. But is even this noble motivation a guarantee that you will receive quality instruction? On the other hand, does a "poor" motivation or reason for being a teacher and operator of a martial art school mean that the instruction you receive there will be equally lacking?
Quality From Many SourcesThe motivations for owning and operating a martial art school are numerous, and all of them have their merits and detractions. Are there good and bad motives? You bet. Do motives determine the quality of instruction one can expect to receive? To some degree, yes, but the real determining factor is still the instructor's ability to teach you what you want to learn.
When evaluating a martial art by its technical capabilities, skills, and potential, it is important that you find out what the school teaches and what the teacher's philosophy of training is. Ask, "What do you teach (striking, grappling, both) and why? Do you emphasize self-defense, sport karate, low or high kicking?" If you have a bad back or problem knees, find out what percentage of their training consists of hand techniques as opposed to kicking techniques? Then, and only then, do you tell them what you are looking for. (There are, unfortunately, those who will promise you anything, so that they can take you for everything while giving you nothing.)
The instructor's motivation for having a school is important, but even this is not as important as his character and teaching ability. Even seemingly questionable motivation for operating a martial art school can still result in quality instruction if it is coupled with integrity and good teaching skills. For myself, I confess, I have a martial art school so that I can train the way I wish. I teach, however, for a different reason. I teach because I love it and I'm good at. And for me, those are the best reasons of all.
©Copyright Bob Orlando, 1993-2016
All rights reserved.
Aug. 6, 2016
by Bob Orlando