Thoughts on selecting a school

If you're interested in studying a martial art and are looking for a school or "dojo", you may wonder how you can find a good one. There is, unfortunately, no standardized accreditation for the martial arts.
Saturday, September 30, 2006
Chris
Desautels

If you're interested in studying a martial art and are looking for a school or "dojo", you may wonder how you can find a good one. There is, unfortunately, no standardized accreditation for the martial arts. There are various organizations that set standards for their members. (Aikido Kokikai International, for example), but there are no independent third party accreditation organizations. Even if there were, this would be no guarantee of quality. Just ask any malpractice attorney. So you are on your own when it comes to selecting where you are going to practice. I'm assuming that you done much of your research and you are ready to begin visiting some dojos. You should call before dropping by, if for no other reason, simple courtesy. Once you're there, here are some things that you should consider.

Students

There are plenty of factors that affect your decision but I'm putting this one first because I believe it is the most important for the topic at hand. The instructor is the dojo's compass and the training method is the dojo's map, but the students are the location on the map. They are the reflection of the dojo and the best indicator of what you can expect to achieve in the dojo. How are they responding? Are they enjoying themselves? Are the senior students helpful and patient with the less experienced students? The way they behave and carry themselves can tell you a lot about the experience you can expect at the dojo. If you like, try talking to some of them when they're not practicing. Some dojos may have certain standards about when and where you can have a discussion, usually in the interests of not disturbing the class, but If you are not allowed to talk to the students at all, you should walk away.

The Training Method

The way the class is structured and taught is influenced by many factors. There is the style of art. The organization the dojo is affiliated with, and the experience and personality of the instructor. It's best to find out a little about an art before you visit a dojo.

The organization that a dojo belongs to heavily influences its members' dojos. First of all, instructors tend to reproduce the training method that their teachers used on them. Second is the fact that organizations set standards and rules for their member dojos. With this in mind you should try to find out about the parent organization's philosophy and standards. The instructor should be knowledgeable about any such organizational philosophy. Second is the style of training. A traditional Japanese approach has very little talking: an instructor demonstrates a technique and the students try to reproduce it. A more American approach often offers explanation and analysis. Perhaps you'll see a hybrid of the two. All methods have their pro's and con's. Some dojo's have a very serious disciplined atmosphere about them. Some have a lighter more casual atmosphere. Some people like a lighter approach, some people don't. Some people like the intensity of a silent class. Some prefer more explanation and verbal give-and-take. None of these approaches are wrong. What matters is whether the training method appeals to you.

The Instructor

The instructor should be knowledgeable, patient, and open-minded. At the same time he or she should have a very clear set of expectations about what is proper behavior both for students and instructors. The martial arts are wrapped in a great deal of tradition. Many of these traditions are retained in the modern day because they facilitate and encourage a proper and safe atmosphere for training in what is inherently a dangerous activity. So while some of the traditions may seem strange or outdated, be patient with them. There is one proviso however. Don't tolerate any "traditions" that strike you as inappropriate or dangerous. Use common sense. One last thing to consider about the instructor. There is more to teaching than just being good at something. Passing on that skill is a skill in itself. Try to appraise the instructors skill at teaching.

The Facilities

There is an old truism that the best martial arts are taught in the dingiest spaces. While there is a grain of truth to this, you shouldn't take it, or this entire category, too seriously. Some dojos are very beautiful and some are not. Practicing in a beautiful well equipped space is very pleasant but don't be taken in by an extravagant practice space. A beautiful space may be an indication of a very dedicated, well-run school. On the other hand it could indicate a heavily commercialized business whose prime concern is cash flow to pay its high rent. You shouldn't be turned off by an unassuming space either. The only considerations here should be comfort level and personal safety. For example, a dojo may, due to economic necessity, be located in a less then desirable neighborhood. If the neighborhood makes you uncomfortable than maybe you should keep looking. What a dojo should have are facilities adequate for safeguarding your physical well-being. In aikido this means at its most basic level that there should be a good training mat. Aikido involves a lot of throws and falls and a top notch mat is absolutely required for safety. My first couple of years of training were on a thin carpet over a concrete floor. I was young then and healed fast, and it was a good thing too. These days I would never recommend such insanity to anyone.

Cost

Dojo dues vary widely, due to a number of factors. What you're willing to pay is up to you. There are a couple of things you should consider. Some dojos like to deal in contracts. Sometimes a contract entices prospective students by promising a rank. The new student pays a sum of money, usually quite large and in return they are assured a certain rank, usually black belt, at the end of the contract's term. Rank is supposed to be a recognition of achievement and skill and there's no telling how long it may take someone to advance. So ranks obtained through contracts like this can be hollow accomplishments and you have to question the motivation of the schools that offer them. This entire practice is sometimes scathingly referred to as "a belt mill". In my opinion the people who benefit most from a contract like this are the dojo owners. Selecting a martial arts school is a very subjective decision. You have no way of knowing whether your decision is the right one until you've been there a while. How will you feel if after a couple of months you change your mind about the dojo but you have already shelled out a couple of thousand non-refundable dollars for a "black belt" contract.

There's nothing untoward about a dojo asking for a larger sum up front when you start. Dojos put a lot of effort into new students and it's fair to ask for a few months dues in advance. There's also nothing wrong with a dojo using reasonable marketing strategies. Special packages or agreements, or cut rates for paying for 6 or 12 months in advance are also appropriate as long as there are no uncomfortable requirements or absolute guarantees of a certain rank. Whatever their stated reason for existing might be, dojos are still a business and need to be run as such. But you should feel comfortable with your dues arrangement. Dojo's sometimes succumb to the pressures of cash flow and when this happens, teaching martial art can become secondary. There's nothing wrong with a dojo going to great lengths to attract and keep students. Indeed, spirit like this often results in the best dojos. But the motive is all-important. If the motive is strictly profit, the results are sometimes undesirable.

Summery

As I stated earlier, all these decisions are subjective. Having little or no experience in the art you're thinking of starting, you have little to base your decisions on other than your intuition. The nature of martial arts training is to push yourself both mentally and physically and there will be times when you will feel nervous or self-conscience, but you should feel comfortable with the dojo, its instructors, and your fellow students. One last thing is you should not give much weight to awards and trophies. Many dojos love to display trophies in their window. They are not a measure of a dojo. Many competitions are legitimate. But if a dojo is interested in acquiring a collection of trophies for their window, it's an easy matter to sponsor their own tournament where everybody wins a trophy. Trophies are not much of an issue with aikido as few aikido organizations hold competitions. But the point is still valid regarding displays, articles, and memorabilia. Good luck in your search and wherever you end up, remember to enjoy your practice.