This article is designed to help aspiring martial artists who are struggling to choose between the different martial arts schools available in their area. It may also serve as food for thought for experienced martial artists who feel somewhat uncomfortable with their style or dojo, but aren't sure what to do about it.
I've been involved off and on with the martial arts since my childhood. I do not teach and do not consider myself an expert. However, I have had an opportunity to train with a lot of different people over the years, and I believe I've reached a point where I can at least share my opinion. (Plus, I myself just finished choosing a new martial arts school.)
I don't expect you to agree with everything I say, but I hope to at least state my views clearly enough that, after reading this article, you know exactly why I am wrong and exactly why you disagree with me. In a nutshell, I want to help you clarify your own views on these matters, whatever they may be. Let's move to the substance of the article.
There are numerous different ways to approach the topic of choosing a martial arts school. I've decided to break this discussion down into five general categories based on the type of student that you are. These are: the Comfortable Professional, the Young Person, the At-Risk Individual, the Professional Fighter, and the Police Officer/Soldier.
The categories vary depending on your occupation and your risk of suffering a violent crime. (In the future, I may revise this article to include a detailed discussion of crime statistics, but for now, I leave it to the readers to assess their own likelihood of suffering a violent crime and to slot themselves into the appropriate category based on what they find.)
All of the advice below applies regardless of your gender/sex.
THINKING ABOUT RISK
For many adults living in developed nations, the risk of experiencing significant injury or harm from a violent attack is low. The risk of dying from a violent attack is even lower. To put things in perspective, an American is more likely to die from intentional self-harm than to die from criminal violence (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death.htm).
That's not to say that the risk of a violent attack is negligible or should be ignored. That's not to say that you, as an individual, are more likely to die from self-harm than to die from criminal violence. An individual's risk of experiencing a violent attack may vary based upon age, gender, history, income, neighborhood, occupation, race, sex, and many other factors.
Studying martial arts can be a useful way to reduce this risk. However, we have to keep in mind that many of the most effective tools for reducing our exposure to criminal violence require very little physical skill in martial arts. For example, skills like awareness, avoidance, and de-escalation can be powerful instruments for avoiding or defusing violent situations before a single punch is ever thrown.
The truth is, physical martial arts skills are only a small component of an overall suite of self-protection skills. And it's important to acknowledge that it takes commitment, experience, and practice before most individuals will be ready to use the martial arts in an actual criminal violence situation. In many cases, even experienced martial artists will find it difficult to defend themselves successfully, due to problems like 1) being caught by surprise, 2) being attacked by multiple enemies, or 3) being attacked by someone with a knife or gun.
THE BOTTOM LINE
When you look for a martial art, you should always keep this ambient level of risk in mind. There are many martial artists who dedicate tremendous amounts of time and energy to learning physical self-protection skills, but who will ultimately never use those skills in an actual confrontation with criminal violence. That's why self-protection skills are not the only thing to look for when choosing a martial art. Sometimes, it's OK to pursue to a martial art simply because it makes you happy, or because it makes you healthier, or because you like the aesthetics of it. A lot of people have forgotten this.
Having said that, you first need to consider your own exposure to risk. That's what the categories below are intended for.
ANALYZE YOUR RISK LEVEL
I expect that some of you will disagree with these categories or will have trouble slotting yourself neatly into a particular category. That's OK. At the end of the list I'll provide some guidance on how to address that.
The Comfortable Professional/Weekend Warrior
Who is this person? This is an individual who has a safe, steady job, who lives in a safe neighborhood in a developed country, who isn't planning to switch careers or move long distances in the near future, and who wants to get involved in the martial arts in his or her spare time.
The most important characteristic of the Comfortable Professional is that he or she is at low risk of experiencing significant harm or injury from a violent crime. He or she is not likely to experience a massive "return on investment" from dedicating his life to mastering effective physical self-protection skills. He or she would likely see greater benefits from pursuing a martial art that 1) is enjoyable and that 2) will capture his or her interest enough to make life-long study fun and rewarding.
How should this person approach the martial arts?
Study whatever you want. Study as little or as often as you want. Find whatever martial art you most enjoy and jump in. Bounce around from style to style if you want. Cross-train. You are lucky to live in a safe society, you are lucky to have the freedom and the luxury to do this, and you should appreciate that and make the most of it.
What is the challenge for this person?
Honesty will be your biggest challenge. What I mean by that is honesty about your martial arts skills and your physical capabilities. If you aren't practicing holistic self-protection skills (including "soft" skills and hard skills) regularly and intensely, you aren't studying self-protection. If you aren't grappling against resisting opponents on a regular basis, you probably don't have grappling skills. If you never practice hitting with impact (e.g. on a pad or bag), you are likely deficient in striking skills. So you've got to be honest about what you're doing and you can't let yourself be tricked into believing that you're better than you are. This is a real challenge for many martial artists.
The Young Person
Who is this person? This might be a high school student or a college student. Perhaps "young" person isn't the best name for this category, because the idea could cover people of all different ages. At its core, this is a person whose future is uncertain. Maybe this person will be a Comfortable Professional one day. Maybe this person will be a soldier or police officer. Maybe this person will move away to a different part of the country where there is only a limited selection of martial arts schools.
The most important characteristic of the Young Person is that his or her future is uncertain. Even if his or her life is safe right now, circumstances could change in the near-future.
How should this person approach the martial arts?
You have to be a little more cautious than the Comfortable Professional. I would argue that your number one goal is to avoid developing bad habits. I'm using the term "bad habit" in a very specific fashion here. A bad habit is something that could put you at risk in a physical altercation in the future.
An obvious example of a bad habit is learning ineffective gun disarms (i.e. most gun disarms). You have your whole life ahead of you, and you do not want to spend hours learning a stupid technique that could get you killed one day. Even if you "know" that it's ineffective, it might still pop into your head in a moment of adrenaline-soaked panic ten years from now, when someone is holding a Glock to your head and demanding your wallet. You don't want to program your internal autopilot to get you killed.
Another bad habit is only throwing air punches and never using impact equipment. You do not want to hardwire your body to equate punching with a lack of impact. This is a very common shortcoming in a lot of traditional martial arts schools.
Another bad habit is always training with 16 oz boxing gloves. A lot of people don't realize just how much of a shield the gloves can give you. When you size down to smaller gloves, or to no gloves at all, you'll suddenly be out of your element and you'll feel exposed (or worse, you'll falsely feel confident).
Personally, I would also add "continuous point sparring" to this list. I know that's likely to be controversial, but that's my view, based on my own personal experience. Continuous point sparring has a lot of problems. It teaches you that you can score using only light taps. Fighters are broken up before they are ever allowed to clinch, which lulls you into a false sense of security about your ability to fight in-close. Takedowns aren't allowed, so you aren't prepared to sprawl if someone dives for your legs. I trained for years in this style of point sparring, and when I eventually switched over to an MMA school, I found it very difficult to unlearn these bad habits.
I know some of you are going to disagree vehemently with me about this. That's fine. Use your own judgment. I would just say that if you must do continuous point sparring, at least mix it up and try other sparring formats as well (especially something closer to MMA). Don't get too comfortable in any one set of rules.
There's a lot of skills that are not bad habits, even if they aren't practical. Do you want to spend a ton of time mastering the nunchaku? If so, go for it. You're unlikely to confuse your nunchaku skills with your unarmed fighting skills, so it's not going to get in the way of anything you do in the future. Do you want to learn beautiful spinning kicks from Tae Kwon Do? Excellent, do it. It's different enough from the world of self-protection that you should be able to keep it separate in your mind. Do you want to learn an acrobatic kung-fu routine? Perfect, do it. Just be cautious with the bunkai.
There's a few caveats here. Some things that seem like bad habits on paper aren't so bad in real life, because it's easy to keep them separate in your mind. For example, chambering a punch at the hip. So long as you know that a chambered hand should not be an empty/dead hand, you're unlikely to chamber a punch "accidentally." (Key exception: if you always chamber a punch when point sparring, you are more likely to develop this bad habit.) If you aren't sure whether something is a bad habit, err on the side of caution.
Finally, one of the most important bad habits to avoid is training in a way that will get you seriously injured. Maybe you're training hard at a serious school, but you're getting injured all the time. Your shoulder is clicking, your knee's been popped, you're starting to get tendonitis in your elbow . . .
This is bad. You can unlearn bad point sparring habits. You can't just "un-learn" a heavily damaged knee joint or a herniated disc. Tone the intensity down unless you're turning pro. Chill out. You'll have plenty of time to do stupid, crazy things in the future.
What is the challenge for this person?
The challenge for you will be finding a martial arts school that doesn't try to indoctrinate you into too many bad habits. The bad habits I mentioned above are rampant and you may find yourself sorely restricted in your choice of schools. Here's a few ideas for you.
It's OK to accept one or two shortcomings at a martial arts school, so long as they can be mitigated. For example, maybe your school does engage in continuous point sparring once or twice a month. Fine, you can make this work. Skip one of them and go to the other. When you engage in the point sparring, pretend like you're fighting in a real situation. I don't mean that you should try to knock your opponent out (exercise control), but I do want you to throw all of your strikes with proper hip mechanics and a proper guard. It's OK if you lose more often because you're observing good habits.
Whenever you do engage in continuous point sparring, spend three times as much time sparring in different formats (maybe one boxing match, one MMA match, one grappling match, etc.). Don't go to continuous point sparring tournaments. If you must go to tournaments, just do the grappling or the kata or the weapons demonstrations. If it slows down or stalls your progression in belt rank, that's fine, don't worry about it. If your training partners give you a hard time about this, find another school.
If you always air punch at your martial arts school, supplement your training with extensive bag work whenever you can. This will help you connect the dots in your mind.
(What if all of the schools in your area teach terrible habits? I've got an answer for you below.)
The At-Risk Individual
Who is this person? This is an individual facing a substantially higher risk of experiencing criminal violence. Maybe you live in a bad neighborhood. Maybe you have a stalker. Maybe you have a lot of dangerous family members. Maybe you're a divorce attorney that deals with a lot of angry family disputes. Maybe you're a nurse working in a mental health ward.
The most important characteristic of the at-risk individual is that he or she no longer has the luxury of de-prioritizing self-protection. Self-protection skills are now on your to-do list, like it or not.
How should this person approach the martial arts?
You don't have to become a hardcore martial artist. You don't have to perfect your physical skills. But you do need to 1) avoid bad habits, just like the Young Person, and 2) develop a reliable set of simple, effective self-protection tools that you'll actually remember and you'll actually practice. And yes, there are schools out there that will teach you these.
What do these skills look like? They're definitely going to include the "soft" skills like awareness, avoidance, and de-escalation. You're going to want to develop a hard-hitting preemptive strike. You're going to need to be able to run away (assuming you are able to run), so you're going to need some cardio. You need a very basic set of striking skills, including defensive skills. You can ignore kicks for now. You need to know the very basics of clinching up with someone, so that you know what it feels like to have someone grab you with ill intent. You need the basics of fighting on the ground, because you're going to be vulnerable to takedowns. You can probably ignore knife and other weapon "defenses" for now; these are low-percentage techniques even under the best of circumstances.
You need to lift weights.
Depending on where you live and on the nature of the risk you're facing, you're going to want to think carefully about obtaining some kind of legal self-protection weapon. For many people living in the United States, you will want to research and consider obtaining a concealed carry permit. If you decide to carry a gun, you must dedicate a substantial portion of time to effective and responsible firearms training. Unarmed combat will be much lower on your priority list.
In other countries, you may be much more limited in your choice of self-protection tools. Unarmed combat will therefore be more important to you.
Maybe you don't know where to start. That's OK, you're on a forum that contains a wealth of information already. You're in the right spot. Start reading this forum regularly. While you're at it, here's a few other options for your consideration: Crazy Monkey Boxing (as a good prepackaged set of striking skills), a reputable Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructor (purple belt or above), and Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength (for weight training). These are things that have worked for me. Also, keep in mind that there are schools that sell bad techniques under the label of "realistic' or "reality-based" self-defense. You'll have to judge each source on its own merits.
You don't have to do all of this immediately, but you also don't want to waste time. There's a happy medium. For example, if you go to a traditional martial arts school and the instructor wants you to practice straight punches from a deep horse stance for the next three months (without any other training), you need to walk out the door. If your karate instructor won't teach you takedown defenses until brown belt level, you need to go somewhere else. If you have been doing Heian Shodan for two months without any bunkai or applied training, you need to go somewhere else. There are schools that where you can defend takedowns, hit pads, and practice preemptive striking in your first week. Naturally, this depends on your needs, on what styles are available, and on your own comfort level and abilities. Look for a good fit.
What is the challenge for this person?
Your challenge is to develop and maintain a basic skill set that you can rely upon. Prioritize the things that I mentioned above (basic striking and striking defense, self-protection soft skills, takedown defense, etc.). Don't overcomplicate it. Once you get this skill set down, you can then go into "maintenance mode" while you explore things you enjoy. You'll simply need to be careful about training in things that mess up your existing skill set, rather than complement it.
Let me clarify this with an example. I sometimes visit a Krav Maga school in town to train with my friends there. On my first visit, the owner of the gym was adamant about how important it is not to cross-train until you have a firm base in a single martial art. For example, even though his school offers Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as well as Krav Maga, he encourages students to focus on one or the other for several months before branching out.
That advice about cross-training isn't really important for the Comfortable Professional or the Young Person categories. Yes, cross-training will slow down their development and may confuse them at first, but this is an acceptable drawback given their goals and needs. However, his advice about cross-training would be very important for the At-Risk Individual, who absolutely does need to stay focused and to avoid getting confused early on.
The Professional Fighter
The name of the category reveals everything. You are an athlete. Your sport is your life. In this case, it's OK to throw everything out the window and focus solely on that pursuit. If you're a competitive boxer, then you are going to intentionally limit your skill set to boxing, and that's OK. If you're a competitive no-gi grappler, you're going to intentionally focus your skill set and all of your training time on defeating other highly skilled grapplers, and that's OK. I'm only including this category for the sake of thoroughness. Professional fighters certainly don't need me to tell them what to do.
The Police Officer
Who is this person? This is the person who faces the possibility of violence every day as part of his or her occupation. This is for police officers, soldiers, bodyguards, and others like them.
I think there's an important difference in this category and the professional fighter category. If the professional fighter doesn't train hard enough, or spends too much time goofing off with nunchaku practice, he or she is the only one who will pay the price. But police officers and soldiers and bodyguards aren't just responsible for themselves. They have to take care of others too. If they don't train hard enough, other people might die. And that takes this category to an entirely new level.
How should this person approach the martial arts?
Everything, and I mean everything, must be approached with absolute seriousness. I am reminded of Iain's article on the precepts of Itosu:
"7. You must decide if karate is for your health or to aid your duty.
"8. When you train, do so as if on the battlefield. Your eyes should glare, shoulders drop, and body harden. You should always train with intensity and spirit as if actually facing the enemy, and in this way you will naturally be ready."
Every single decision you make in training could potentially save or end the life of another person. You have to develop an intensely critical mind and you have to evaluate, test, and re-test every thing you're doing. You don't have time to waste and you definitely don't have time for BS.
What is the challenge for this person?
You have to be very careful when choosing a school, and you have to find someone who takes their martial arts practice seriously. It's a fact of life that your department/organization may not provide adequate training for you. You have to adapt to that and be prepared to spend your own time and your own money on good training.
You need to base your training on your practical needs. If you're a soldier, your marksmanship skills are likely to be far more important than your unarmed combat skills. Prioritize accordingly. If you're a bodyguard, you're very unlikely to have the luxury of just running away from a conflict. You've got to protect your client, so most of your training has to reflect that. Whatever it is that you do, you need to make sure your training reflects that reality and prepares you to be better at it.
You need to strength train. You should probably be lifting weights at least three days a week. I know that can be tough on a tight schedule. Your weight lifting should be goal-oriented. You'll want to watch your nutrition as best you can. (Again, I have to emphasize that I am only including these sections for the sake of thoroughness. I'm not a martial arts teacher and I'm not a police officer/soldier/etc., so it's not really my business to be telling you how to live your life. But I want to include this section of the article so that others can compare the different training standards to what they're already doing.) Most importantly, you need to be able to think for yourself and evaluate your martial arts studies critically. Lives depend on it.
USING THE CATEGORIES
You can use this article to choose a martial arts school, as the title suggests. But you can also use this article to categorize and weigh the advice and guidance you're given by other martial artists. For example, maybe you're a Comfortable Professional who wants to learn a special kind of Kung Fu. Your friend is an MMA fighter and he tells you that you'll be wasting your time because Kung Fu isn't useful in MMA. But why would that matter at all to the Comfortable Professional? If you want to study Kung Fu, study Kung Fu, and don't worry about whether it's going to be useful in MMA.
WHAT IF I AM ALREADY IN THE WRONG MARTIAL ART?
OK, so maybe you're an At-Risk Individual, but you've spent the past ten years at a school that teaches bad habits. Don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Unless you're reading this from a hospital or from the Afterlife, it's probably not that big of a deal. What you need to do is adapt and supplement what you've already learned. If you're a karate practitioner, this will be pretty easy, because you're already on the right forum. There's going to be plenty of information here to help you out.
If you're in another martial art, it may be more or less complicated. Again, don't throw it all away just yet. Adapt what you know and start moving in the direction of a more practical skill set. I have never used it, but I know some people who have had success with Tony Blauer's SPEAR system (using the flinch reflex as a bridge to other fighting styles). You might take a look at that. (I'm not endorsing it, because I don't know it well enough, but it's worth a shot).
WHAT IF EVERY SCHOOL IN MY AREA TEACHES BAD HABITS?
Not everyone has the luxury of being a Comfortable Professional. I've been in this situation myself. I desperately wanted to learn American Kenpo, but I lived in a rural town and the only option was Tae Kwon Do (which I wasn't interested in).
If you're a Young Person, you can get away with learning some things from books and from videos and (I hate to say it) from Youtube. Let's be honest, we all know you're going to watch martial arts videos on Youtube anyway.
If you're going to learn something from video, it's especially important not to develop bad habits. Spend a lot of time focusing on the details and try to get feedback whenever you can. If you have the resources, you can sometimes get away with critiquing yourself (by recording yourself on video and then trying to correct mistakes). And crucially, be realistic in your expectations. You cannot learn fighting skills from video. You will only be able to apply those skills after practicing them with other people under the right conditions. But you can at least get started, and there's no harm in that. (Also, don't ever tell someone that you "learned" a martial art by watching it on Youtube or on video.)
Actual young people can benefit greatly by engaging in athletics. In my book, wrestling is the gold standard. It's extremely tough, but you'll develop mental toughness, incredible conditioning, and a set of valuable physical skills that you can take with you to every other martial art. But even an activity like golf can help you develop awareness of how to use your hips, which is essential for good striking. You won't go wrong with sports.
For the At-Risk Individual, live training is much more important. It might be too expensive for you, and that's OK. Focus instead on practicing awareness and avoidance. Do what you can. Read books on self-protection from reputable authors. Take small steps in the right direction.
WHAT IF I DISAGREE WITH YOUR CATEGORIES?
Perhaps you disagree with the idea that anyone could ever be a "Comfortable Professional." Maybe you have very different political views than I do and you think the world is headed for some kind of terrible apocalypse. If so, you can still use this article. Just scratch out the Comfortable Professional category and work from there.
You might also find that you don't fit neatly into any particular category. Naturally, just use the basic principles from the article and adapt them to your situation. For example, a firefighter won't encounter physical violence in the same way that a police officer does, but he or she still has to stay in shape and maintain his occupational skills. The firefighter would prioritize physical fitness and occupational readiness, and unarmed combat would take on less importance.
I hope this article is a useful way to clarify your views on the martial arts. If you're an experienced martial artist, I hope that I've given you some food for thought. For aspiring martial artists, let this be a guide for you as you explore the different options in your city or town.
(I may refine or revise this article over the next couple of days to fix any errors or gaps in my thinking.)