What to look for in a martial arts school (Part 3)


Zhou Tong (周同) teaches archery to Yue Fei (岳飛)

What to look for in a martial arts school (Part 3)

In Part 1, of this series, we covered You, Part 2 was the Teacher and now, in Part 3 we will cover the Learning Environment.

"Mencius's mother, moved three times"

Popular Chinese idiom

This saying refers to the legend that Mencius's mother moved the family around before finding a location that she felt was suitable for his upbringing. The legend goes that after her husband’s death, as Mencius was a child, the family lived close to a cemetery, Mencius would play by imitating the rituals and practices of the mourners, this worried his mother so they moved to a busy city, where there were street hawkers and merchants, once again Mencius would imitate the actions of the sellers in his play, this also worried his mother (merchants were considered a lower class and despised in ancient times) so once again they moved, this last time was next to a school, where Mencius took an interest in learning and began his lifelong studies. As an expression, it refers to the importance of finding the proper environment for raising and educating someone. The environment is not just a physical aspect to be considered, it is also a psychological and emotional one as well. 

Let’s talk first about the Physical Environment – Where does the teacher conduct their classes? Places like a garage or basement provide an intimate setting but are constricted by space and sometimes height (this is an issue only if long weapon work is taught).  Local parks have plenty of space, height and fresh air but are open to the public and with that can be interrupted frequently as well as being subject to weather conditions. Classes at gyms or dance studios can have really good space, be convenient and have proper shelter but will usually have an atmosphere that not only can be disrupted by music and other “workout” related sounds but also by people getting ready for the next, completely unrelated, class such as dance or step aerobics. The advantages of a full time martial arts school, regardless of size, is that there’s a space and setting conducive to the study, specific equipment and people with a similar interest as ours. However the costs of keeping a full time dedicated school is much higher than renting space at a gym or teaching in the home/park (which has no cost to the teacher). Each has its advantages and disadvantages and reflects the commitment of the teacher to what they teach. Once again, the best choice is going to be made based on our objectives and commitment level, and each choice must also fit our expectations, of course.

At this point pricing should be mentioned. Places with low to no overhead costs (garages, parks, renting by the hour, etc…) should have lower pricing than full time dedicated spaces, which will have higher costs due to maintenance. Once again, this is a matter of commitment, it’s easier for a teacher to walk away from teaching (move, life change, getting “bored”, etc…) when they have little to lose, it is much harder when they are totally invested in their teaching because that is their career, not just a hobby. Keep in mind that when there’s no investment, there’s no commitment (this applies to both student and the teacher).

Next will be the Community – What type of community has been developed by the teacher and their students, is it a group or several individuals studying under one teacher? This is a factor to consider especially if we are looking at long term commitment to study, because if the community is healthy and supportive we will stay much longer and enjoy our study much more than if we’re in an “every one for themselves” type of group. Some groups are very socially active doing get-togethers, movie nights and celebratory dinners, not to mention involvement with society at large promoting volunteerism and community work. Others may be small focused groups that do little to interact with others outside of their training settings. This, once again, will depend on our preferences for what we are looking for. If we are comfortable in the company of our fellow students we are much more likely to stay longer in our training and reach our ultimate goals.

Another point to consider here is the average age of the community. Some schools specialize in youth programs with, sometimes, over 80% of the student population being under the age of 16. Others do the inverse, focusing almost exclusively on adults, most of these types of schools are dedicated to combat and weapon training. There are also the types of schools that try to strike a balance to serve a larger part of their community, offering separate youth and adult classes and curriculums, as well as family classes where parents and their children can learn together. So we should look for the community type we are most comfortable with, and that fits our goals and expectations. Remember too that one is not better than the other; they are just serving different communities.

Last here would be Learning Culture – What type of culture has the school created?  There are schools that work on “learning” an enormous amount material but you have little practical experience with it. Other schools focus on getting a “Black Belt”, or equivalent, in which the objective is to pass several rank tests so you can reach that goal, unfortunately, many times, there is little to learn in some of these places after reaching that goal. Some schools focus almost exclusively on obtaining titles and trophies at tournaments for sparring, fighting or forms competitions and have little to no interest in cultivating other aspects of study and/or the casual student. There are, of course, schools that do a little of everything and focus on long term well-rounded students (forms, fighting, tournaments, weapons, culture, history, personal development, etc…), keep in mind that this type of place (and teacher) takes many years to develop a student into its full potential, so if this is what you want make sure you are willing to commit. We must think and focus on our objectives and commitment levels to find a place that will have what we want and will be able to help us reach our goals.

Another aspect to consider here is how students and teachers interact. Sometimes certain teachers impose respect on their students instead of or earning their respect. Something to watch out for in this area is the teacher’s ego; it will come through pretty quickly as you observe a class and interactions within the study setting. Teachers should be respected for the work they do and the results they produce and not simply for the title(s) that they hold.

The next part in this series (Part 4) we will talk about Does It Matter or Not?

Last modified on Monday, 27 January 2014 20:12

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