How to Choose a Martial Arts School
The discussion of which martial art style to take is too extensive for this article. So what I will say here is that there are differences in the various styles of martial arts which may result in some being more suitable for certain individuals compared to others. Do some research on the different styles and do visit the classes of different studios that teach different martial arts if possible. But more important is each individual school's approach to teaching their martial arts. Many martial arts schools teach only techniques and forms (set routines) that are specific to a traditional style. These schools follow the ways that the original founders of each martial art style developed and they have continued with minimal variance over the years. Other studios like to borrow techniques from a variety of martial art disciplines and integrate a mix into their programs. Some schools are non-traditional and adopt a more open free style system which incorporates traditional martial art techniques with gymnastics and open choreography of forms. There are many clubs that do both traditional and open styles. Each school will claim that their martial art style and method of teaching is superior to others. Prospective students must not take these claims too seriously and choose an approach that would be best suited for them on an individual basis.
Many advertisements for martial arts schools push the backgrounds of their higher ranking instructors as a way to attract students. It is important to realize that the more degrees (or dans) a particular black belt has don't always mean that the individual is a better instructor. This is the same with instructors who have very successful competition records. There is no correlation to the number of world championship titles won with how good an instructor is. The term 'master' should also be taken with caution. A master doesn't always make an excellent instructor. The teaching style of different instructors can vary. Some use the old Asian masters' approach where discipline is strictly enforced much like in the military. While general discipline is actually a good attribute to learn from martial arts training, some of the old ways of teaching, particularly reprimanding students vocally or physically for incorrect techniques may be considered a bit harsh for today's society. This is why it is important to watch classes of prospective martial arts schools you are interested in. You want to see the teaching style of an instructor to determine if it's a style that would be compatible with you or not. Ask questions after instructors have finished teaching. If you have the gut feeling that certain instructors will not be right for you, move on to find another club. Most legitimate schools will allow prospective students to witness or even try out a class for free before joining.
Related to teaching styles, some instructors emphasize safety more than others. The use of protective equipment and certain rules while sparring are factors. In addition to asking instructors, also ask other students about injury rates and their general feedback about the classes (ideally when they are outside of their schools). Another point on the students is that some schools attract a certain type of student profile. Observe the other students and decide whether these are people you would like to train with.
Some schools are very much into competition with active encouragement of students to participate in tournaments. In fact, some schools even make this a requirement in order to advance through the different levels. Other schools have been known to restrict competition only within a particular circuit. For example, many tae know do clubs only participate in tournaments that are strictly Olympic style tae kwon do and never go to events that are open to all martial arts styles. There are schools in the complete opposite end where they do not believe in competition at all and pretty well keep to themselves without any interaction with other martial arts clubs. Many Chinese kung fu clubs do not compete and some styles of martial arts such as aikido do not offer any competitive outlet. Many martial arts schools choose to have a relaxed position towards competition where they leave it up to individual students to choose whether they want to participate in tournaments or not. Some schools have special competition teams where additional training is available for those students who wish to compete. So as a prospective student, you should consider what involvement you would like in competition if any. If you know that you never want to compete, you should not get locked into a school that requires tournament competition. If you have a desire for competition, don't join a studio that shuns competition.
Some martial arts schools teach in community centers, school gyms and even church basements. Some have bare bones studios with outdated equipment. Some schools have the latest martial arts and fitness equipment with sparkling clean change rooms and facilities. All of these will factor into the membership fee of each school. You have to determine what you are willing to pay for and what type of environment you will feel comfortable training in.
Many schools require annual contracts while some are on a month to month basis. There could be initiation fees. There could also be testing or grading fees for advancement. All of these extra costs will add up. Ask what happens if you have to freeze your membership due to extended illness or injury.
If one doesn't really know whether martial arts is an activity for them in the long run, the option of taking short term courses such as those offered by community centers may be a viable alternative to making a full commitment to a dedicated martial arts club with its own studio space. But do be aware that although martial arts can be very enjoyable from the first day you put on a karate uniform, it is a long term activity and one must have patience in order to benefit the most from martial arts. Fortunately, there are many options in the form of different martial art styles and schools to choose from in the market today. Just make sure that you do some preliminary research before committing to any particular club.