Martial Arts Corner: Choosing a School

When I posted Martial Arts Misconceptions, I received a question on what art(s) actually center around defending oneself in a fighting situation.  I struggled with coming up with a comment that would sum up my analysis of the situation, and have come to the conclusion that it would be best addressed in its own post.

RVCBard asked:

Is there a martial art developed around the way fights actually happen, with greater degrees of mastery showing how much longer you would last in an actual fight with a real-world opponent?

For instance, your “white belt” would be someone who learns techniques to give them a window of opportunity to disengage and run away (that 30 seconds you mention) while a “black belt” would be someone who learns techniques to withstand a particularly tough or determined opponent long enough to disengage and run away.

And the answer is:  Almost all of them.  Unfortunately, it all comes down to the teacher.  In choosing both the art and the school, you really have to do your own legwork to find them.  And it mostly involves sitting in on some classes and observing both the students and the teachers at work.

Although I cannot really get specific about strengths and weaknesses of each art, I can tell you that there are things that you should look (or look out) for:

Avoid: Schools which boast a military motif, or brag about its use within a law enforcement department or military branch.  The impression that the school looking for is that their art is so “badass” that the military now uses it for their soldiers.  In reality, however, it is more that someone from the school joined the military and managed to get the ear someone important enough to change the hand-to-hand curricula of the service branch.  This is simply marketing.

Avoid: Any school with a preponderance of tough-guy types at the top ranks.  More often than not, this is more about image than anything else.

Look For: How the instructors interact with the lower and intermediate ranks.  Are the techniques being explained to them?  Are they being broken down and demonstrated?  Do the instructors show how the move can be applied in an actual confrontation?  Do the demonstrations always begin with an attacker performing a martial arts move from this or any other art?  If this answer is yes, it usually means that the instructor probably does not know many real-world applications of the move themselves.  You will see this alot.

Look For: The trophy case and the awards gallery.  A burgeoning case may be a sign that the school may be more interested in winning tournaments than teaching the art as a means of self-defense.  This is where listening to the instructors comes in handy.

Look For: A clearly defined curriculum for each rank.  Every martial art has a foundation.  Even Boxing.  Beginners learn a basic set of techniques.  Intermediates learn applications of the basic techniques along with a few new ones, and Experts spend most of their time learning how to refine their repertoire of techniques.  This should be visible after a class or 2.  Most American cookie-cutter schools have a tendency to get haphazard with what they teach, often including things like air attacks (jumping kicks) and roundhouse kicks for basic belts classes.  These were designed to maintain Americans’ interest in the art, but is often the wrong way to go.

Avoid: “Freestyle” schools.  Although many of these schools claim to take the “best” techniques of the other martial arts schools, they are often staffed by people who dabbled in one martial art or another, never staying long enough to make the most of their training.  Instead, their physical prowess may have been better than most of the other students, and decided on a whim to open a school.  Hilarity ensues should a member of this kind of school fights someone of a dedicated art of equal education.  Like this one:

(Bias note:  As it was, it so happens that instructors of the Shotokan student in question were once my senior instructors AND we all trained under the same chief instructor at one time.)

Remember: Every art is both offensive and defensive oriented at some level.  Most instructors tend to emphasize the offensive (attack) portions while often ignoring the defensive (block, parry, avoid) ones.  Some arts lend themselves to defense, like Tai Chi & Aikido.  Others, like Shotokan, Tae Kwon Do, and Jujutsu, are more offensive in nature.  A great instructor, however, will show to apply its moves in situations where striking an opponent at full power may not be the right or best option (like a fight between relatives).

Hopefully, this is of some help.

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2 Responses to Martial Arts Corner: Choosing a School

  1. tenacitus says:

    Thanks for posting this article, it was very informative.

  2. RVCBard says:

    Really cool! I did some research, and one of the styles that appealed to me was Xing Yi Quan. I tend to love the internal styles a lot more than the external ones – not as flashy, but very effective nonetheless.

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