• How to find a good martial arts school (for yourself or your child!)

How to find a good martial arts school (for yourself or your child!)

Hi Dojo readers,

I wanted to switch gears a bit with today’s post and talk about something that I get asked about fairly regularly.

“I’m looking to get into (or I’m looking to get my child into) martial arts. How do I find a good martial arts school?”

This is a great question that many, many martial artists have addressed in much more detail; I’m not claiming to be the expert by any means. However, with 28 years of martial arts experience in a number of different styles and disciplines, I think I can give some helpful pointers to people who may be asking this question.

The bad news first–the martial arts are an incredibly diverse and unregulated umbrella of disciplines spanning a huge spectrum ranging from no-contact/no-impact “soft” styles (e.g. Qigong, Tai Chi, etc.) to full-contact/high-impact “hard” styles (e.g. Muay Thai, boxing, wrestling).

So you have to first decide what it is you are looking to learn or do…

Are you wanting a focus on practical self-defense with very few “rules” and an emphasis on effective techniques which would normally be considered “cheap”? If so, then you might want to consider a school that includes those things in its curriculum (Krav Maga, Kajukenbo, Catch/Submission grappling, Jujitsu, etc.).


The “reality” is that many schools that claim to focus on “practical” and “no rules” combat training often claim more than they can deliver for the simple reason that one can not effectively train such “deadly” techniques at full speed and full force against an UNWILLING and UNCOOPERATIVE opponent.  “Grab me THIS way…” does not translate well into real life confrontations and there are TONS of systems and teachers out there who can do many fancy and impressive looking techniques…when attacked in a totally unrealistic manner.

Allow a true master to demonstrate…


So what exactly do I mean by needing to train against ‘unwilling and uncooperative’ opponents? Let me explain with a very brief history lesson (bear with me!)…

In the 1800s in Japan, there were many styles of martial arts which all claimed to be the best or most effective, due to their repertoire of “deadly” and “vicious” techniques. But the problem with them all was that one can’t realistically practice such techniques on a sparring partner (unless they are willing to maim, injure or kill their partner or themselves in the process…which most sane people are not, of course!). So they developed pre-arranged sequences of attacks and counters in order to rep these techniques safely.

But a little physical education teacher named Dr. Jigoro Kano saw a major flaw in this approach. The students training in these styles never got to do their techniques at full force and full speed against someone who was intent on stopping them. So they never really knew how effective what they were learning actually was.

His solution was counter-intuitive…but brilliant.

Kano took out all the “deadly” techniques from the various styles and only allowed techniques that one could do full force and full speed but without permanently injuring one’s training partner. So things like eye gouging, small joint breaks, and all hard strikes (kicking, punching, knee strikes, headbutts, elbow strikes, etc.) were removed completely. What remained were throws, takedowns, chokes and submission holds which could be done safely and could be stopped as soon as the opponent surrendered or “tapped.” Kano called this style “Judo” (“The Gentle Way”) and proved its effectiveness against the other “deadly” styles in competition.

Later, one of Kano’s students, Mitsuyo Maeda, added and refined more ground-based techniques (expanding the number of options available to the practitioner once the fight goes to the ground) and taught this style to the sons of a family he met upon moving to Brazil. This family, the Gracies, further refined what Maeda taught them and ended up developing the style known as Brazilian Jiujitsu (BJJ) or Gracie Jiujitsu. And like Kano had done in Japan years before, they tested their concepts against all other styles in competitions which included very few (if any) rules.

[For a far better account than this admittedly-concise summary, I cannot recommend strongly enough the book “Mastering Jujitsu” by Renzo Gracie and John Danaher! It is fascinating and should be on the shelf of any serious martial artist!]

Eventually both Judo and BJJ developed away from purely self-defense aspects as they took on more of a sporting identity. Many, many rules were added and the emphasis became (in many…but certainly not all schools!) focused more on winning competitions and tournaments rather than defending against “realistic” attacks off the mats and outside the academy.

Despite this shift among many schools and instructors, Judo and BJJ continue to remain among the most effective martial arts for self-defense for one primary reason–they consist almost entirely of learning techniques and then having to perform them in “live training”; that is, against an opponent who is actively trying to thwart and defend against–as well as attack–them at full speed, full intensity and full force.

And since the vast majority of fights end up in a clinch situation or on the ground (think of nearly every schoolyard fight you ever saw as a kid!), styles of martial arts which heavily emphasis live training against unwilling opponents tend to prepare a person (of any age, size or shape) MUCH better for an actual encounter against someone actively trying to control, dominate or hurt them for real in an unpredictable manner.

This is ESPECIALLY true in Women’s self-defense!

If you are a woman looking for a place to learn practical self-defense for yourself (or your daughter, sister, mom, etc.), then you should find a place that does NOT begin by teaching you how to throw a punch or do a proper spinning kick! FAR TOO MANY martial arts schools advertise women’s self-defense, but don’t actually teach or prepare women for realistic and intense encounters with someone trying to dominate them physically.

If you’re a woman looking to learn self-defense, you should find a place where you can learn not only concepts involving personal safety & awareness, also a place that puts an emphasis on live training against unwilling and uncooperative opponents…particularly in clinching/grabbing/ground-based techniques.


But not everyone is looking for intense, reality-based combat I realize.

Many people want to train martial arts for the “art” aspect. They want to increase things like concentration, discipline, fitness and coordination. There is nothing wrong with this approach at all…especially for kids and teenagers!

There is a kinesthetic beauty to many traditional martial arts that is undeniable. Doing jump-spinning-crescent kicks, splits suspended between chairs, breaking boards and concrete blocks, and having the balance of a crane or monkey are all awesome! And learning how to wield exotic weapons in flawless fashion is CERTAINLY as worthwhile a goal as learning to do flips on a set of uneven bars or twirling a ribbon to music!

And the physical exercise that such training entails can be of the highest caliber, depending on the school.

Likewise, such traditional arts often emphasis the cultural roots from whence they came and therefore appeal to people looking to learn interesting skills and techniques despite likely never needing to use them. Learning how to use throwing stars (shuriken) or achieve a perfect cut with with a sword (katana) or use stealth/evasion tactics (ninjitsu) are all fun and interesting skills to develop and have coordination/concentration benefits that are applicable outside a combat setting.

However, once again, there is a lot of garbage out there that you may have to sift through! There is a phenomenon among North American martial arts schools known as the “McDojo”.  A McDojo is a martial arts school that looks impressive and does a great job marketing…but offers little of any actual substance once you’ve signed the (often expensive) contract.

McDojos usually are easy to spot if you know what to look for and they rely on the general population’s ignorance of martial arts and the charisma of the instructor or school owner. They offer lots of shiny belts, ribbons, medals, trophies, special programs or other trinkets (at extra cost, of course!) that excite kids’ and parents’ interest…but don’t emphasize discipline, self-sacrifice, sweat, or live training to nearly the degree that an authentic martial arts school should.

The danger in such schools is that they not only suck your money up like a black hole, but they also instill a false sense of confidence among their practitioners who have never actually had to face an opponent who is seriously intent on dominating them physically. Students have spent countless hours and dollars learning “secret” or “unstoppable” techniques (and have seen them work in various movies and TV shows!) which, when push comes to shove (literally!), are absolutely worthless. The results aren’t pretty when on VERY rare occasions such “masters”, believing their own nonsense, attempt to demonstrate on an opponent who is not similarly deluded:

(I believe what got injured most in the above clip is this “master’s” pride and reputation among his students!)

Bottom line…avoid McDojos. They are the equivalent of martial arts fast-food.


Lastly, some people decide to train martial arts because they want to compete and love the challenge such competition brings. This is true for both adults and children. Most parents know this of course, but it’s worth emphasizing: sports competition can be very healthy and beneficial to a child’s development–mentally, socially, emotionally and physically. Team sports are not for every kid and some who are terrible at football, basketball, baseball or soccer end up excelling at individual martial arts competition. For parents looking to find a place where their child can compete and develop as an athlete (while at the same time learning varying levels of self-discipline, self-defense and self-esteem), there are many options.

One of the best ones, which is freely available to most students, is actually wrestling. While most people don’t consider school wrestling programs “martial arts”, wrestling is actually the oldest form of martial art! The quality of the instruction and the ethos instilled in the student will vary depending on the mindset and character of the coach, of course. But wrestling is an EXCELLENT martial art for children to get involved in, especially from a young age and especially if they are smaller or weaker. But the intensity of wrestling and the required competitions are not for everyone. There are still other options.

Judo and BJJ are both fantastic sport-based martial arts, with competitions frequent enough for people who enjoy competing, but not mandatory for those who just want to train. Likewise, WTF (Olympic style) Taekwondo is also a great sport, especially for kids and teenagers.

There are other, less popular competitive martial arts as well; but they may require a bit more searching and a longer commute. However, boxing, Muay Thai, Sambo and Submission (No-Gi) grappling are all excellent combinations of sport and self-defense.  The quality of the program, of course, will vary based on the quality of the instructor. But this is true of every martial art.

So while  there is no universal checklist for finding the right martial arts school to train at (or for your child to train at), here are a few personal “red flags” that I would suggest keeping an eye out for:


“Nickel & Diming” – Does the school have a “registration fee”? Do they charge hidden fees for things like special programs, uniform patches, extra classes or belt promotions? If so, this could be a sign that they are trying to make a profit in a somewhat shady or less-than-straightforward manner.


“Pay before you play” – Does the school allow potential students to come take a free class or free trial period before signing up? If they are offering a quality program, then like drug dealers, the first hit should be free! (note: the “drug dealer” analogy is just that–an analogy! The point is that if a school has great classes, then such training will quickly become addictive and you will WANT to pay to train there!)


“Lock ’em in!” – There’s nothing wrong with a school that has a multiple-month, annual, or even multiple-year contract for students. However, any credible school should also offer an option for month-by-month payment (even if it is a bit higher; that’s quite fair in order to stay in business despite fickle students who drop out after a few classes). If they don’t, I’d personally be very skeptical of their business ethic in general.


“Herding cats” – If you’re looking to get your kids to train, does the school do a good job keeping childrens’ attention and keeping them active…without letting them simply run wild and goof off the entire time? Kids classes should definitely be geared more toward the “fun stuff” in martial arts and there are many great games that instill key concepts in children. But if the class is just a glorified playground, then look elsewhere!


“Drill sergeant/Mercenary instructors” – Martial arts should definitely instill discipline. But there should be balance in all things. Is the instructor (or whoever is teaching the class you will be taking) a jerk? Do they come across as a “tough guy” or someone always looking to prove how much respect they should be getting from people? In other words…are they anything like this:


“My style is all you need!” – Most instructors or schools have a particular style of martial art they emphasize (though with the rise in popularity of MMA, it is more and more common for schools to offer multiple disciplines or a blended curriculum). But ANY martial artist worth paying to learn from should recognize and acknowledge that no one style is the “best” or “most effective.”  If the owner or instructor is anything like this…

…then just walk away! (And if you think the last two examples are total caricatures, I can assure you that there are people running schools out there who bear a frightening resemblance to them both!)


“No contact!” – In high school I used to train at a school where before every sparring session, after we put all our safety gear on, the instructor would yell “Remember, NOOOO CONTACT!!” What’s the point of the safety gear then? And what’s the point of calling it a “martial” art?? This would be like a swimming coach telling his team before practice “Remember, NOOOO SWIMMING!!”  (Thankfully I didn’t train there very long!)


“To the death!” – On the other end of the spectrum are schools that pride themselves on being a “fighter’s gym” or a place where you learn “real combat”. If you’re looking to enter the UFC or the Special Forces, then perhaps this might be right up your alley. But if you’re simply looking for a place to train without feeling like you’re gonna wet your pants before every class out of fear for your safety, then find another school! A school doesn’t need to look like “Fight Club” in order to avoid being a McDojo!

Once again, I offer an example of BOTH of the previous mindsets in action…


“8 year old black belts” – Kids can, and should, progress through the ranks of whatever style they are studying based on how much time, effort, energy and study they put in to it. Some children start very young (3 or 4 years old in some schools’ childrens programs is normal). But just because a child has been training for 2 or 3 years it doesn’t mean they “deserve” a black belt (or whatever the equivalent is in whichever style one is looking at). Unfortunately, there is a lot of pressure on instructors from parents who are paying a lot of money to see “results”; that means that if their child isn’t promoted regularly or fails a belt testing, they assume the problem must be on the school’s end. This creates a culture of automatic belt promotion and guaranteed black belt programs. Pay your money each month and your child will earn their black belt in 2-3 years guaranteed!

Fortunately, many good schools, recognizing that no matter how much they know, a child will almost never be able to physically fight off an adult, have different ranking systems for children than for adults. Thus children who have been in the program for a few years and have demonstrated the required skills and knowledge base are recognized for their achievements and rewarded for their effort, but they are not given a false sense of entitlement or security that often comes with being a “black belt”. For instance, in most BJJ programs a student under 16 years old cannot be awarded a blue belt (the 2nd belt earned). Instead, they move through a series of belts culminating in green belt. At that point, when they turn 16 they can be awarded their blue belt (or on rare occasions if they are REALLY skilled, they can go straight to purple belt) and continue on their journey toward black belt. This doesn’t mean that any school which gives students under 16 a black belt is AUTOMATICALLY a bad school or a McDojo. But students under 16 (or somewhere around that age) who DO have black belts in that school should be true prodigies and possess an extremely high level of skill in their art.


“Boys’ club” – A martial arts school can be an intimidating place for most women or girls to walk into, no matter how well it’s run! So you can tell a lot about the character and atmosphere of a school by how female students–especially those who are new or just trying it out–are treated. Women should not be coddled or patronized in training…but they should also not be seen as a means for insecure men to ‘prove’ how ‘tough’ they are! If as a woman you (or your daughter) ever feels threatened or intimidated by an instructor or your fellow male students, that should be a huge red flag. If it happens on more than one or two isolated occasions (or EVER by the instructor/owner!), and nothing is done to address it, leave immediately and don’t look back.


“Every man for himself!” – Martial arts are an individual pursuit in many ways. But martial arts training is a community effort. Students in a healthy school should develop a bond of friendship, trust, respect and camaraderie that extends off of the mats as well. Are the students at the school you’re looking into generally nice, friendly, welcoming and respectful? Or are there a lot of stoic, hyper-intense, unfriendly or cold/distant students in the class? Is the instructor intentionally seeking to maintain a “family” feel to the school? Or do people come and go without talking, laughing, joking, or being interested in one another’s lives outside of training? Look for a place that has a true sense of community…because you will be spending many hours in VERY close proximity to the people you train with!


“&%#@ you!!!” – This one is somewhat subjective based on cultural norms…but the martial arts should instill integrity and respect. And this should be exemplified by the instructor/owner. If someone cusses like De Niro or Pesci in a Scorsese film, then you probably don’t want them being emulated or idolized by your child. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some AMAZING instructors out there who I’ve trained with who are great people and wonderful with kids, but who you’ll hear the occasional four-letter word from. However, I would argue, their skill and goodness at what they do exists IN SPITE OF such language, not because of it. Using profanity or crass language, especially around children, is often a mark of immaturity or carelessness. This doesn’t mean that someone who swears is automatically a bad martial arts instructor…but someone who swears in class or around children should definitely raise a red flag in terms of their overall character. But again, I recognize that what constitutes swearing or profanity can differ from place to place and depending upon the culture; so this one is a bit subjective.


So there’s my list of things to look out for when choosing a martial art school. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means.  Just be aware that martial arts instruction is an entirely unregulated industry in America. If you have money, you can buy a black belt and open a school with absolutely ZERO martial arts experience. If you can convince students to pay you for your instruction, you can teach whatever you want, no matter how poor it is in terms of quality. There is a LOT of nonsense out there which you may have to sift through. Hopefully this post gives you some ideas of what to look for.

[For BJJ in particular, I recommend this post by a VERY credible instructor and friend, Karel Pravec!]

At the end of the day though, just remember that finding a good martial arts school doesn’t depend on how many trophies or medals a school has on its wall or how many stripes the instructor has on his belt, or how clean, colorful and posh the school is. The main thing you’re looking for is reputable/quality instruction from a skilled instructor, a friendly and welcoming atmosphere, and personal integrity among both the students and the instructors/owners.

Blessings in your search and let me know if I can ever be of any help in finding the right place to train!




PS: Of course, if you’re in the Charlotte area, I recommend visiting HERE first!  But there are also many other excellent schools in this area whose instructors I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend anyone to to train under!

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  1. Great Articles. I was wondering if I can repost your article on my website. I will re-link it back to you



    jm Reply:

    Sure. Thanks for reading. 🙂


    Comment by fusionmma on March 19, 2013 at 1:52 pm

  2. michael mcgowan

    this was a helpful article, but your history of martial arts was really 20th century heavy, I mean to say, no one style is the best, but your really neglecting the art part. I (and probably others) would never go to any sort of mixed anything gym thing. Those styles of karate you mentioned so briskly, all the styles of kung fu, almost all of the pure martial arts have developed for thousands of year, and you people devote their lives to their pursuit. And for a reason. you dont ever see a bjj guy beating up 12 people in a bar, he’s get hold on the first one, and then the other 11 would step on his face


    jm Reply:

    Thanks for the comment!

    Actually, you never see ANYONE beating up 11 or 12 people in a bar, particularly not anyone who doesn’t cross train. Bruce Lee shined a light on the weakness of choosing only one “pure” style and sticking with it while neglecting others. Then, the early Vale Tudo and Gracie Challenge matches in Brazil and the U.S. demonstrated it convincingly. The best karateka or Kung-fu man in the world was helpless once the fight went to the clinch and ground phases. But then, as the early UFCs showed, when strikers learned the defend the clinch and survive on the ground by adopting and adapting grappling arts, the grapplers had to branch out and learn the striking aspects in order to remain competitive in combat.

    Also, while martial arts in general goes back thousands of years, almost everything taught as a system in the karate/TKD/Kung-fu dojo/dojang/academy today is less than 150-200 years old. Before then, the martial arts were an ecclectic and widely varying collection of traditions and practices culled from here and there and passed on to successive generations of students who then took and adapted them before passing them on to their students.

    So I would question the very concept of any “pure” form of martial art to begin with, personally.

    My 2 cents,


    Comment by michael mcgowan on September 7, 2015 at 9:24 pm

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