Its a difficult thing trying to find the right Martial Art school. Open up your local yellow pages, and you'll see it jammed packed with hundreds of different schools, with many different styles to choose from. Thus, whether you've logged in several years in a particular art or are brand new, choosing what's right for you can be tougher than getting a black belt. Anyway, I've made a simple list of things to think about, as well as what to ask in order for you to find what your looking for. Hopefully, this information can help you out.
1) It begins with you, "Decide"
Well, first things first, you have to decide why your taking Martial arts. And there's a ton of different reasons for you to do so. Maybe you just want to get in shape, maybe you want to feel more confident in the street and learn some actual self defense, maybe you want to relieve some stress, maybe you want to get a black belt. Whatever the case maybe, it begins with you. Figure out the reasons why you want to invest your time and money into a Martial Arts, and your half way there. As long as you know whaty you want, then whatever path is good.
2) Black belts aren't cheap
Next thing on the list, is understanding the cost of things. Now, I'm basing my information from the Chicago land area. It could vary slightly from state to state, but my rough estimates should be fairly even with what's going on around the country.
First of all, the best way to find out the cost, is to simply call and compare. On average your looking at anywhere from $60 - $130 a month. For the most part, that's usually twice a week for an hour classes. Obviously, this could vary from school to school, but ask the details of what your paying for, such as the following:
For example, if I pay $60 a month, what do I get with that. How long are classes? How often can I go? Are there additional cost, like uniforms, pads and equipments, etc? Regarding belts, are test mandatory and does it cost extra?
Bottom line, be up front and ask them directly what are all the cost involved with going to their school.
3) Contracts
Some schools are on a contract basis.  Now personally the longest I've ever scene is 1 year.  But the reality is, even if you like everything about the school, even if you've seen how the school is run, you just won't know in the end how good it is till your finally in there and doing it. Thus, if you sign a one year contract and you end up with an martial arts instructor that's bad ass like Ralph Machio, you'll end up being stuck with it. Now I'm not saying schools that are run on contracts only are bad, but definitely be more cautious in your decision, since you'll be locked into it.
4) The head instructor
Okay, I've seen this personally, time and time again. You look in the phone book you see this ad of the head instructor, whose had 100 years of experience. You walk to the gym, and you see his picture everywhere. Anyway, you finally sign up, and guess what, you never see this guy at all. Instead, your being taught by a teenage pimply black belt whose probably part of the power rangers.
Frankly, if the head instructor isn't willing to work with you, even if your a beginner, than that's pretty much a red flag, to avoid that kind of school.  Allot of times, these places try to make the head guy look all mystical...ooooo, the master is here, it should be an honor for you to bow before him.
Real masters are humble.  And can work with any level of student regardless if they are beginner or advance.
5) Black belts, certifications, grandmasters oh my
Look at it this way, you wouldn't want to go to a doctor who doesn't have an M.D., would you? Coz doctors have a universal standard set for obtaining an M.D. here in the states. However, in the world of martial arts, it doesn't work that way. The reality is, I can go to an everyday gym right now, and probably earn a black belt within 1 1/2 to 2 years. The term grandmaster, master, IMHO is self proclaimed. What I'm basically saying, is that Black belts, certifications, and grandmasters are no guarantee that what your learning is actually something useful.
Think of it this way, let's assume you don't know how to cook at all, however your friend, invites you over for dinner, fries an egg, cuts up slices of spam and serves it for dinner. To you, since you don't know anything about cooking, this is good eating. But the reality is the littlest thing is impressive to someone who doesn't know what to look for.
Thus, you can walk into a gym, see a green belt do a punch, and break boards, and that'll be impressive to you.
6) Over 15/20/30/40 years of martial arts experience
Pretty impressive don't you think. 15 years in the art or more, and people naturally think that man, this guys got the wisdom and knowledge of Yoda. But, keep in mind, its not the number years, but the actual number of hours someone has invested. For example, I've been a member of Bally's health club for 8 years, but I haven't gone in the last 6 months.   Does that really mean I've had 8 years of working out there. Of course not, same thing with Martial arts.  Numbers can lie, and people do a better job selling that lie.
7) Skill and bullying
Real skill is done effortlessly.  And keep in mind its Martial arts, not muscle arts.  but to the untrained eye this can be difficult to even tell.  what one person sees, another cannot.
thus, to me if your lookng for a good wing chun school, watch for the control.  I personally don’t care what you see from sparring, but the control when they chi sao.   If the teacher pounds on the student or if student vs student actually hits each other, too me thats bad wing chun.  Wing chun is to develop skill.  Why o why do people think learning to take a hit is a good thing, is beyond me.  If i go full power and stop on a dime, that’s control.  But, if you can’t even control your hits in class, what makes you think you can control it in a real fight.
8) Test drive it
Sometimes the best way to find out, is to take it for a spin.  Thus, your going to have to risk a little in order to find out whether or not something is worth it. Thus, if you try out a place for a month, you'll more than likely risk the cost for that month and maybe a uniform ($15 to $25 bucks). Don't get stuck buying pads and other extra equipment if your not sure if its for you. Some places maybe willing to let you have a few classes for free, but that all depends on the place.
9) 1,000 belts to nothing
Like I stated earlier, find out if there is testing, and if they are optional or mandatory. Another cash cow for schools is to charge for test every so often. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but if they have test every 3 months and your required to take it, even if your not ready, then that's sorta a warning flag. If you also notice that the place where your at, has stuff like, 100 belts to black, and they've added every color in the rainbow from pink, maroon, camouflage, and pokee dots, than that's also something to make you go...hmmmmmmmm.
In the end, if you've got a good school, you'll notice the instructor more than likely isn't to concerned about belts or certificates, but more so on the knowledge the student has earned.
10) Martial arts isn't about yelling or breaking boards or crazed Qi gong demo’s
In this day and age, its not whether or not you can actually put your martial arts skill to use, but on how high you can kick and how loud you can yell. Yeah, its pretty to see people jump 50 feet in the air, and do a 360 kick. That definitely takes some skill to do, but if you believe that your going to be doing this in the street for self defense, then that's another story.
Also, don't be so impressed with board breaking. Seriously, I can take any guy/gal from the street, show him the proper motion, and he can break a board in less than 5 minutes. And, in this day and age of board breaking, those boards they use for demos are paper thin. I'm pretty sure if I have a couple of burritos, I could break those boards, with wind.  Thus, watching people break boards and scream out of the top of their lungs, doesn't impress me, nor should it impress you.

Also while Qi gong demonstrations are cool to watch, with people balancing off several spears or breaking metal slabs on their head.  Once  someone can actually demonstrate to me taking a full force punch to the face with their Qi gong ability, then guess what maybe then I’ll be impressed.
11) Health or defense
In the beginning most individuals take Martial arts to defend themselves. However, if the martial art is legit, the ability to fight is only a small part of what you can truly benefit from a good art. And like I stated earlier, its your decision as to why you want to take a Martial Art.
Thus, one of the crazes these days is to take some kind of mixture of aerobics and martial arts. Let's say for the sake of example, you have stuff like cardio karate, cardio kick boxing, Qaundo, Tae Bo. Now, in my opinion these are great for getting in shape, being healthy, losing weight. But, in my opinion if you believe these to be an alternative to learning self defense, I think you'll be making a big mistake.
Remember, if you think you just want the benefits of just exercise, then join the programs at your local Bally's or other health clubs. Its definitely cheaper, then signing up for a straight Martial Arts school.
12) An hour of what
Most classes today are usually for an hour. So, you have to wonder what you actually get out of the hour. From my experience, the first 15 to 20 minutes are usually spent stretching out and doing some kind of aerobic exercise. Then the next 30 minutes involves some actual kind of instruction. Finally, the last 10 minutes are cool down periods. So, the reality is, that hour of instruction isn't really an hour at all.
At Windy City, we run a 2 hour class. The student can come in early and stretch on his/her own, so that the entire period that he or she is here, can be used to actually learn something.
13) Rule of thumb
My rule of thumb regarding finding a Martial Art for self defense. Is regardless of what style it is, try using some common sense and ask yourself the following question.
Are the moves and ideas behind the art actually practical?
Finally, the most important question. Can a girl whose smaller be able to use this art effectively against someone whose much larger? Take for example Brazilian Jui Jitsu, its grown pretty popular due to some of its success in the UFC fights. Now, I'm not trying to pick on BJJ (its a legit art), however do you honestly believe a girl whose 110lbs can beat a guy whose 250lbs with BJJ.
Bottom line, it may seem I'm very negative about what's out there. But, what I'm telling you is what I've experienced in my 20 years of being involved with the art. Hopefully, I've giving you some information that can be used to finding the right school for you.
Written by Sifu Ed Cruz
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