How to Assess Character in Martial Arts


Nothing defines a martial arts school more than its instructor. In fact, the instructor often is the school. He gives it its char­acter—and every martial arts school has a definite character. It can be strict or unstructured, friendly or unsocial, excited or low-key, or just about any combination of characteristics. Observing just one class and meeting with the instructor can go a long way in revealing those personality traits.

One way to assess a school’s character is to take a class; another is to observe one. Not all schools allow potential students to observe classes. Often they’ll require them to pay for, and take one or two, trial classes. While this seems to be a growing trend among schools, with the intense competition among the various martial arts studios, it may be possible to get around this requirement. Certainly, observing is a simpler, less stressful way to assess a school and its instructor.

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Flip through the yellow pages to find martial arts schools in your area. You’ll probably find schools listed under “karate.” Then make a list of the schools you’d like to visit. If you know someone who trains, ask them where they study and what they like and don’t like about the school. Indeed, word of mouth is a strong advertising tool for any instructor. Remember the Black Belt survey of forty female martial artists? Twenty-five percent of them joined a martial arts school because a family member or friend was already enrolled and enjoyed the training.

Even if you’re sure you’ve decided on a particular style, check out some others. Styles vary from school to school, from teacher to teacher. You’ll be surprised how differently, say, aikido is taught at one school compared to another. In fact, it might appear to be two different styles. That’s because the techniques taught in any particular school depend on the instructor’s training background.

In addition, instructors often enhance their training by studying additional martial arts. Some instructors might even incorporate them into their lessons. The result is schools that don’t teach pure forms but a mix of martial arts. You might be watching a karate class in progress, and notice that students are practicing moves in which one student grabs another student’s wrist, then throws her to the ground—an aikido technique. Perhaps the instructor is studying aikido and incorporating it into his lessons.

Because of this melting pot of styles, it’s best to visit at least five schools if you can—even if they’re all karate schools.

At least you’ll have other schools to fall back on if the one you choose doesn’t work out.

Call a school on your list. Tell whomever answers that you’re interested in the school and would like to observe a beginner class. Some schools offer beginner and advanced classes, as well as classes in which all students train, regard­less of rank. On the other hand, some schools hold only the latter type of classes. I appreciated the fact that in my early training, my school offered beginner classes once a week for white and yellow belts.

When you call a school, ask with whom you’re speaking. Is it an instructor or a student? You’re better off speaking with the school’s head instructor—the school may have just one instructor, the owner; or it may have several who work for the owner.

At this point, however, you needn’t ask specific questions. Save those for when you visit the school. Stick to such gener­al questions as how long the school has been around, the cost of membership, what time classes start, and how long they run. By asking just a few general questions, you’ll learn a little about the school, and get an idea of what the instructor is like.

Choose the type of class—beginner preferably; mixed if there is no beginner class—you’d like to observe. Then set the time and day you will visit the school. That way, the instruc­tor can, and should, be prepared to sit down with you before or after class. He—and in most cases, it will be a “he”—should also plan the class accordingly, selecting techniques and exer­cises that typify a beginner class.

Avoid the temptation to bring a friend. Unless your friend is interested in joining, too, she’ll probably be bored and keep you from properly observing the class.

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When you arrive at the school, check out its surroundings before entering. Are they safe? Well lit? I remember visiting one school, and having to drive down a long, narrow dirt driveway to a parking lot behind the school. Not only was parking tight and limited, but there were no lights. Was the instructor trying to improve students’ ability to move about in the dark? Was he creating an inviting place for attackers to test their skills against those of his pupils? Was it simply a matter of a burned-out bulb? Whatever the reason, I was immediately put off, and almost didn’t bother entering the school.

Once you’re inside the school, take a good long look around. It should be clean, neat, and odor-free. It should also be well-lit, and the temperature should be comfortable. If it’s hot outside, the air conditioning shouldn’t be on full blast— cold air prevents muscles from stretching and can even tear them.

Observe the students. Do they bow before stepping on the training floor? If they do, that’s a sign that the school adheres to traditional rules. Do students bow to one another? That too is a sign that traditional rules are observed.

Before class officially begins, students should be working with one another or stretching out on their own. Talk should be kept to a minimum, and should be limited to instructional advice. If you observe loud talking and fooling around, it’s a sign that discipline is lacking. This is not to say that even in schools where discipline is stressed that students don’t get loud. My instructor remedies this by ordering the class to do push-ups before class begins. After several of these instances, students get the message.

Notice the appearance of the students and their uniforms. You’ll be coming into close contact with all of the students at some point if you join the school. Uniforms should be clean and belts should be tied neatly. Long hair should be tied back, and except for wedding bands, no one should be wearing jewelry.

Most schools I’ve seen have sitting areas off to the side of the training floor where potential students can observe class.

However, one school I visited allowed potential students to sit on a bench in the same room where classes were taught. Though off to the side, I felt as if the students were observing me rather than vice versa. During class, the instructor would even encourage me to attempt to duplicate a stance and throw a punch. While I appreciated the time he spent with me dur­ing his class, I would have rather remained a nonparticipating observer.

When you enter the school, don’t take it upon yourself to find the instructor. Walking in anything other than bare feet in certain areas of a martial arts school is a definite no-no. Get the attention of one of the students. Tell her who you spoke with on the phone, and that you’re here to observe the class. The student will either get the person with whom you spoke, or someone else who can help you, and show you from where you can observe the class. The level of courtesy extended to you is another telltale sign of the school’s character.

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Since you will have called, the instructor should be expecting you, and should therefore extend you the courtesy of at least stopping by to say hello. He may sit down with you and tell you a little about the class you’re about to watch. Take this opportunity to observe his personality. Is it one you think you’d be comfortable with? Is he laid back or nervous? Does he speak clearly? You’ll be taking a lot of instruction from him if you join the school, so you must be able to understand him. Is he in shape? If he’s not, how will you learn technique if he can’t perform the moves properly?

When the instructor walks on the floor, notice how students react. At this point, no one should be talking. They should be anticipating his command to line up according to rank. After they’ve lined up, the instructor will often give the command to bow and then sit, followed by a short meditative period during which students breathe quietly and empty their minds of the day’s events.

Notice if the class started on time. That’s an important sign of how well the school is run. Also, notice how students who arrive late are treated. Some instructors understand that students will be late and simply allow them to join the class— though usually behind the newest student in the back of the room so as not to disturb the rest of the class. Others might have the student do push-ups as a form of punishment. Which school would you want to belong to?

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About the Author: Alan Kennon lives a very happy life with two kids and a lovely wife. He likes to share his life time experiences with others about how they can improve their lifestyle and personality.

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