How-To
Posted By Matthew

How to Choose a Martial Art


Committing to a martial art can be a big hurdle. A lot of people dabble around with the idea, but aren’t sure how to make the leap into an art. Often when people hear I’m a karate guy, they spark up a conversation that goes a little something like this:

Person: “Ahh, so you do karate? That’s cool. I always thought about getting into that stuff …”(*makes karate chopping gesture*)
Me: “Yea…I enjoy it. Any idea what kind of martial art you would want to do?”
Person: “Not really. My one friend does _________ and he says it’s probably the best and most effective style around.”
Me: “I see.”
Person: “Yea, so maybe i’ll jump in there.”
Me: “Gotcha.”
Person: “How would you choose a school?”

Ultimately, if a person is truly interested in getting into the martial arts, they ask questions about getting started, rank and costs, the purpose (self defense, kids, tournaments), etc. For these individuals, I always try to break it down into three main phases –

1. Assess your needs and assets.
2. Assess styles.
3. Asses schools.

This may seem like a pretty basic structure, but it tends to get people where they need to be. Let’s examine each one in further detail:

Assess Your Needs and Assets

First and foremost – what do you want to get out of the martial arts? Here are some common answers:

1. Self Defense Skills (for you or your kids)
2. Physical Fitness (for you or your kids)
3. Involvement with a Different Culture
4. Philosophical Enlightenment
5. Secret Ninja Death Touches
6. Whoop Ass in a Can
7. Everything on the Menu

All good and relevant answers. The martial arts can provide…most of…these things, but different styles focus on different things. Once you figure out what you want, you can better analyze styles.

BUT! Before we move on, you have to assess your assets. Make sure you take stock in the following things before investigating styles or schools:

1. Money. Martial arts can be an expensive endeavor. First of all, you have the monthly fee. Fees can generally range between $50 and $200 a month. There are some schools that are much cheaper (or free), and some schools that are much more expensive. Furthermore, there is no guarantee you’ll be able to pay monthly. Some schools require a lump yearly fee instead. Beyond that, you have to consider federation fees, belt fees, uniforms, weapons, tournaments, and ohh so much more.

2. Physical Attributes. Generally, martial arts work for all kinds of ages and body types, but there are certain realities to look out for. If you are older and have injured joints, rough and tumble styles like Brazilian JuJutsu may not be for you. If you are young and full of piss-and-vinegar, Tai Chi Chuan may be too soft for you. Give yourself an accurate evaluation.

3. Time. Martial arts can be time consuming. REALLY time consuming. Especially if you want to rise through the ranks and become the next Bruce Lee. If you are constantly swamped for time between work, family, community, World of Warcraft, etc…you have to decide if you can make the sacrifices to train 2-3 times a week for 2-3 hours at a time.

Assess Styles

So now you know who you are and what you want. But what martial art fits the bill for you? Unfortunately, there is no way to encompass every school in little generalized blurbs. But what I can do is tell you the basic nature of the major styles you are bound to run into. Consider these snippets a launching point for further investigation into each style (hint: wikipedia is generally a good place to go for bulky info.)

1. Karate – “Empty Hand Way.” Karatedo originated on the small island of Okinawa and spread to Japan, and is considered a hard style. In general, most karate studios focus on kicks, punches, and other percussive forms of striking. Joint locks and self defense action plans are also commonly found in karate dojo. Some schools are integrating grappling into their curriculum due to the popularization of Tegumi (Okinawan grappling) and the popularity of Brazilian Jujutsu and Mixed Martial Arts, however most do not focus heavily on it.

Availability: High
Formality: Moderate
Impact: Moderate-High
Tournament Availability: High

Here is an interesting overview of karate’s history and general practice worldwide.

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2. Tae Kwon Do – “Hand Foot Way.” This Korean art is arguably the most popular style in the world. Focusing on flexibility and kicking predominantly, Tae Kwon Do also utilizes hand strikes. Generally, grappling is not part of the curriculum.

Availability: High
Formality: Moderate
Impact: Moderate-High
Tournament Availability: High

Here is a look at Tae Kwon Do in the Olympics. These guys are fast and flexible.

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3. Aikido – “The Way of Harmonious Spirit.” Aikido was developed by Ueshiba Morehei and is a bit different than our last two arts. Aikido uses suppleness and melding of force instead of percussive strikes. What you get is a highly defensive art that slip-slides out of harm’s way. Of course, Steven Seagal studied Aikido…and he didn’t really get out of harm’s way that often.

Availability: Moderate
Formality: High
Impact: Moderate
Tournament Availability: Low

Here is a really nice demonstration of the self defense aspects of Aikido.

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4.Judo – “Gentle Way.” Don’t be thrown off by the Japanese concept of gentleness…it doesn’t mean what you think it means. Judo is a grappling art that uses balance disturbance, throws, and submission techniques to eliminate opponents. Developed in Japan, there is a well defined competitive aspect to the art.

Availability: Moderate
Formality: Moderate
Impact: High
Tournament Availability: Moderate

Here is a cool old school video of Judo techniques. Have you noticed that my video selections have no sense of consistency? Youtube is a crazy scene and I’m just selecting ones I think are neat.

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5. Tai Chi Chuan – “Grand Ultimate Fist.” Pretty fancy name huh? You might be surprised to learn that this grand ultimate fist is one of the most meditative and cathartic martial arts in existence. Many practitioners use it to create a better sense of well being and inner peace, but don’t write it off entirely as a combat art – once you’ve trained long enough in Tai Chi, you can apply it to your self defense needs.

Availability: High
Formality: Low-Moderate
Impact: Low
Tournament Availability: Low

Neat Tai Chi demo that soothes me just watchin it.

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6. JuJutsu/Brazilian JuJutsu/AikiJujutsu – “The Art of Gentleness.” Please excuse my lumping these styles together, I need to keep the ball rolling here. Jujutsu is considered the empty handed style of Ancient Japan’s Samurai, and involves both striking and grappling techniques. While leaning more towards close quarters fighting, Jujutsu utilizes techniques of multiple ranges. Brazilian Jujutsu was made famous by the Gracie’s and is one of the hottest martial arts around right now. BJJ tends to be ‘octagon’ and ground fighting oriented.

Availability: Moderate
Formality: Low-Moderate
Impact: High
Tournament Availability: Moderate

This is an example of traditional Jujutsu. If you want a better peak at BJJ, click here.

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7. Kung Fu – “Skill From Hard Work.” The term Kung Fu is actually a bit of a misnomer as it doesn’t even need to apply to martial arts, it just implies a level of skill obtained. Wushu, on the other hand, IS a direct name for Chinese martial arts. There are many different kinds of “kung fu” and wushu, but most of them are characterized by circular movements. Wushu tends to use blending techniques to break, strike, or disable. Wushu forms are often very dynamic and theatrical.

Availability: Moderate
Formality: Low-Moderate
Impact: Low-Moderate
Tournament Availability: Moderate-High

I chose this video because I’m always an application type of guy. To check out some cool shaolin kung fu kata, click here.

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8. Mixed Martial Arts – “I Wonder How This Translates Into Japanese?” Mixed martial arts, or MMA, is THE hottest trend right now. MMA, as its name implies, borrows from many different kinds of martial arts. Over the past few years, MMA has actually developed into a full blown style that consistently focuses on basic boxing and mauy thai strikes, jujutsu grappling, and wrestling. MMA schools are often competition oriented.

Availability: Moderate-High
Formality: Low
Impact: High
Tournament Availability: Moderate-High

Here’s a little cage action. Forrest Griffin.

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There are other styles to consider, but these are the main ones you are likely to run into. If one catches you interest, do a little more research about it. Browse around, watch videos. Every style has a very wide range of intensity and purpose. It was fun watching clips and stuff though, right?

Assess Schools

Even more important than assessing style is assessing school. You may have decided on what kind of art you like, but if the teacher sucks, guess what – you aren’t going to get what you want. Let’s use an example – there may be three karate schools in your general area; one is 10 minutes away, and the other two are 25 minutes away. Your first instinct is to go with the close one (which makes sense). But you need to avoid the urge of just signing up for the most convenient school, and do some research into the other two. If the closest one is your favorite – great. But be honest with yourself if it isn’t.

Here are some common things to check into when browsing for schools:
1. Price, and what kind of contracts they require.
2. Student body. Does the school have hundreds of students, or just an handful? That can make a big difference on personalized attention.
3. Who runs the classes. Is it a mix between the head instructor and his top students? Is it just the students? Is it lower ranks than black belt?
4. The teacher’s reputation. Don’t take the teacher’s word for it, and don’t trust a parent sitting right there. Of course they are both going to talk up the school. Dig around a little. Since the schools you are checking out are almost undoubtedly local to you, use your local connections to find people that have had experience with the school.
5. The Intensity level. Are things casual or militaristic? Match up your needs to what is being offered.
6. Credentials. Does the instructor have solid experience? Can he trace the lineage of his style? Expect a lot of bullshit when listening to teachers espouse their credentials.

Consider this – You may be interested in judo, but their is an aikido instructor nearby who is considered absolutely top-notch. Both reputation and credentials check out, and he seems like a heck of a guy. You may go for judo anyway, but you may make the decision for aikido based on opportunity.

Common Pitfalls and Traps to Look Out For

1. Titles Above Sensei – Be careful of masters, grandmasters, great grandmasters, professors, ultimate warriors, and anything else that sounds super elite. These titles rarely have any grounding in traditional arts, and they are often just ways to stroke ego and use marketing to get new students. A grandmaster may have a lot of skill, but he should still consider himself a normal sensei (or Hanshi if he is the head of a style). Humility and character are factors when deciding a school.

2. Contracts – Contracts are a really great way to get scammed, so be careful. Some schools will have you pay three years up front, and then muscle you out of the dojo with overly intense training and abuse (leaving room for new students to come in, and the cycle continues). I’m not suggesting all contracts are bad; in fact, it’s likely you’ll have to engage in some sort of pen-and-paper agreement. I’m just saying be careful.

3. Student Abuse – This gray line causes a lot of problems. Martial arts training can be strenuous. At times, you’ll want to quit but your instructor will push you even harder. This is the good kind of tough love. That doesn’t mean an instructor gets to beat you with reeds if you don’t want him too. Watch out for teachers on a power trip.

4. Improbable Promises – No touch knockouts? Unbeatable prowess in 6 months? Mind control? Don’t laugh, these promises are made to students, and they believe it. Don’t get caught up in martial hype. If it sounds too good to be true – it might be.

5. Credentials – I’m a world champion…did you know that? It’s true. I hold world championship titles in self defense and kata.

Actually that’s not true, but it was damn easy to say. I have a patch that says “hall of fame” on it too for some reason. Not sure why. Credentials are the most important thing for an instructor, and the easiest thing to fake. If you see an instructor who boasts 4,5,6 black belts in different styles, be skeptical. If the instructor can’t readily trace the lineage of his style, be skeptical. If he says the roots of his style are a secret (even for ninjutsu) or that he created his own style, be skeptical.

hall of fame patch

I’m a hall of famer! Apparently.

6. Chain Schools – Chains schools are highly suspect if you want anything other than a sweat. These schools have very base-level requirements to become a teacher because they want as many franchises out there as possible. I’ve met some very nice people at chain schools with very good hearts, but it just isn’t the same as traditional martial arts. There’s a lot more to learn than just kicks and punches, and chain schools can get so caught up in rankings and daycare center activities that they lose all the deeper aspects. Again, not all chain schools can be summarized in that fashion. But if you see those symptoms, it may be time to look elsewhere.

Final Thoughts

At this point, you may be wondering if martial arts are worth all the hassle. They are. Without a moment’s hesitation, I tell you that if you can get through these trials and tribulations, the martial arts will be one of the most rewarding endeavors you’ll ever undertake. Do the research, and don’t get sucked into slick talk. Always keep learning, and keep having fun.

Who knows, maybe I’ll see you around!