An estimated two-million martial art schools are in operation in the United States alone. Some are small and operated out of the instructor's garage while others may be franchise chains. Some of these are honest operations taught by highly skilled martial artists while others are outright scams.
How is a person who has no knowledge of the martial arts industry supposed to sift through and find a great school without getting ripped off? The answer is quite simple if you are willing to go on a little journey.
The best place to start is to take a look at the industry as it is today. Then look at some of the most popular types of schools that are in operation. Through focusing on what to avoid rather than what to seek out you will stand a much greater chance of finding you are looking for.
The industry is supposedly self-regulated. This is almost laughable with over four hundred associations and federations in existence and each having it's own regulations. Major associations did not even exist until the 1920's when Japan's government started to standardize martial arts to curb the amount of people who attained a black belt.
Any major organization will have some type of politics within the rank and file of the association. This leads to a spit, and one association becomes two with different requirements and regulations. To add to the confusion look at all the martial art styles that exist. Each one has it's own associations or federations to "govern" the style. To make matters worse the associations may or may not recognize another association even though they both "govern" the same martial art style.
Fully investigate any association or federation to insure they are serving you before paying any money to them. You can spend years and thousands of dollars to attain a "registered" rank. If you move to another city and find another school, which teaches the same style your rank may not be recognized by that schools association.
Moving beyond the mess of associations, we find a bigger mess in martial arts schools.
The Big Picture
A popular theme being widely promoted are contracts, belt testing fee's, rank registration fee's, special programs or classes, and lots of belts. Over the past decade, the cost for martial art lessons has gone up while the quality of instruction has gone down. There is hope as there are some schools that outright refuse to penalize their students for moving up in rank.
Understand that any person may purchase a black belt and open a school. If they want to look legitimate, they can join an open "professional association" watch a few video's and purchase some pre-made curriculum.
The "professional" association will provide almost everything the school needs to sell the school to a prospective student. They will get press releases, advertisements, posters, phone sales scripts, pre-made seminars, and even a professional looking web-site. In short, they are purchasing a ready made martial art school in a box.
These types of schools usually do not last long. Unfortunately, it comes at a cost to students being injured. Improperly trained instructors do not know how to instruct and how to watch for potential injury techniques. Failure to be able to explain how to prevent injury or what can cause an injury is a telltale sign of a non-trained instructor.
The Money Grabbers
These schools follow closely to the scam school. The difference is that they can have an educated martial artist as an instructor. The pit-fall is that they lack quality instruction, which turns into a high turnover of students. To remain open, they devise a way to get as much money as possible from the students.
It starts rather innocently and with a contract. This guarantees the school a monthly income for a year or two even if the student drops the classes. Next comes the belt promotion and the testing and registration fee along with it. These schools can have anywhere from eight to fifteen colored belts or more. Some schools have gone as far to add camouflage belts.
It is a matter of numbers for these schools. Add a single belt and charge $40 for a testing fee and $10 to register the rank over 150 students. The school can make an extra $7,500 per year for adding one extra belt color to their line up. If you see a rainbow of belts and there is a testing fee, make sure you can afford to be promoted.
Once you have achieved the rank you need a "special" class because you are a "serious student." this is again a numbers game for the school. Take a small amount of students and charge them an extra $50 per month for six months to learn something "exclusive" to them. This class will help them attain the next rank much faster and without it, you may not get the black belt for years. It's an easy $300 per student plus the testing fee at the end of the "special" class.
These schools can stay in business for a long time. A large amount of money is put into advertising and student recruitment drives. They measure success by the annual profit rather than success of the student. Heavy pressure is placed on students and parents to sign up, and pay, for the next big "exclusive" or be left behind.
Many of these schools belong to "professional business associations" that cater to the martial arts industry. The cost to belong to such an association can run from a few hundred to over a thousand dollars per month. A personal touch can be added for $1,250 per hour for a phone conference if the school owner has problems figuring out why they are not making that $100,000 yearly profit that the association talked about.
You can spot these schools rather easily with a few questions. If you hear the words contract, upgrade, or anything, which comes with an increase in monthly cost, then you likely have a money grabbing school on your hands.
This is always fun to look at as they have all kinds of claims, which seem to come from an action movie. Walking into these schools you see pictures of war zones, military medals of all sorts, military award certificates, and martial art trophies galore. Looking over a school's web site and you may read about "combat tested and proven techniques". The lead instructor was special forces and sent behind enemy lines where he used his martial art. He was part of some foreign military elite brigade where he was in command of some super duper top secret mission that he can't really talk about. This is absolutely laughable as few people purposely go into a war zone to test a martial art.
A second point that should be noted is that most military members who belonged to special forces usually do not advertise that fact. It may come up in conversation, but very few actually place it on the internet to legitimize themselves. To do so would open them up to a lot of trouble from the agency in which they worked with. This is why you see these "warrior instrutors" say they worked with a foreign military which is harder for an Amercan citizen/potiential student to varify.
Take a real close look at this type of school because many are scams. There are some who are legitimate and have contracts with law enforcement or government agencies. However, the legitimate schools are very selective as to whom they will accept or what they will teach to the general public.
Be aware of those schools which will teach anything to anyone. These are easy to spot because they proclaim self-defense as their primary course work. They are short on curriculum, and as a result they hold short term seminars, workshops, or retreats at a steep cost. It is not unusual to find these small classes starting at $600 to over $5,000. The school's site may have e-books and DVD's for sale that range from $35 to over $150 with content that may be ineffective and escalate a situation. Legitimate schools will restrict such sales or require the delivery address be a verified government office.
Some scam companies may advertise government contracts in order to legitimize themselves. A legitimate company may provide proof of a contract with a government or law enforcement agency in general. Depending on the contract a government agency might not give out what the contract service is for but will verify if a contract number is valid or not.
Keep in mind that every state is different when it comes to self-defense. Use of self-defense of any type could get you into a law suit or land you in jail. Negligence of the law is not a defense, so become familiar with your state laws. If in doubt call your state capital for information on current laws, which may not have been updated to the state web site. A reputable school will advise you of where to locate laws that concern you, at a minimum.
The Bandwagon or Jack-of-all-Trades
The schools that fall into this category follow the current hot trend that making the news and hitting the magazine stands. In recent years, we saw the big surge of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu by Mixed Martial Arts to a trend of Muay Thai.
These schools do not have a solid grounding, and instruction tends to be sporadic. This is followed by a high turnover of students and ever-changing curriculum. In some cases there may not be a curriculum to speak of.
In the legitimate schools that fall into this category the change comes to boost student head count. However, when the trend falls so does the student population which causes a change to bring in more students. The legitimate school tries not to change as it is expensive and time-consuming to do.
Spotting the good schools in this category is much tougher. Some schools may teach more than one style of martial art. Three to four different styles is about average if they have a mixed system. You also want to find out if they have written curriculum and belt advancement. Many schools in this category which fail cannot say for certain what is going to be taught next week, let alone a month from now.
The Half-An-Art School.
The majority of these schools tend to lean more towards the competition side of martial arts. Not every sport school falls into this category, and some sport schools are very good. Traditional and self-defense schools also fall into this category as well. However, it's the sport school that tends to lead the group as a whole.
When a school concentrates on the physical only and has little or no curriculum for the life skills then the student misses half of what a martial art is about. A person may never use the physical side in the real world; they will use the mental side every single day.
Almost every school advertises that students learn confidence, discipline, and esteem. Ask the head instructor how they teach those aspects of martial arts. In the majority of cases, they will have a canned answer which will sound much like "as the student progresses, they will gain more "-blank-." that does not answer the question, of how they teach what they advertise. That tells us that the confidence, discipline, esteem, etc. has become a by-product of the physical training.
If the attributes are a by-product, then some students may develop them, and others will not. It is not easy to develop curriculum, which touches a persons personality but a good school will have something solid and tied to promotions.
If you simply want self-defense, competition, or to get into shape, then a school which concentrates solely on the physical is what you are looking for. However, if you want martial arts as a way of life, then you want the mental as well as physical.
The Great School.
No school is absolutely perfect. A school will have to balance quality instruction and a fair price. The great school will thoroughly answer questions. You will understand all costs before you enroll in classes. You do not feel like you are dealing with a salesman.
The instructors will have a full written training biography ready for review. The instructor may allow a preview of their current curriculum and have written requirements for promotion. Instructors can answer challenging questions without stumbling over words. They understand and fully explain risks, which pertain to certain techniques.
A good school meets your requirements. If there are short-falls you know about and can accept them.
There are lots of good-quality schools to choose from. To make sure you get what you want at the price you can afford you need to take a journey, ask questions, and discover your martial art.