I often get asked, "How do I choose a martial arts school", or "What do I look for in a school" types of questions, so here are my Ten Points of What To Look For in a Martial Art School.
First, martial arts schools are regulated at a state level in the United States, and that's pretty much it. Anyone can open a dojo (school) and hang a shingle and go into business, teaching pretty much anything. This puts the onus more on the consumer to choose wisely. So be sure to spend time with the head instructor to understand his or her background, teaching approach, philosophy, and affiliation with reputable martial art associations and certifying entities. In Tae Kwon Do, the two main governing bodies are the World Tae Kwon Do Federation (WTF) and the International Tae Kwon Do Federation (ITF). Other martial arts styles have their own associations.
Second, a school, like any organization, reflects its leadership. The teaching, discipline and other things you're looking for in a school will be reflected in the students. You can go into any school and judge the quality of teaching, the program, and the leadership by observing the students. Observe how they conduct themselves, show respect for one another, work together, respect their teachers, respect you as a visitor or newcomer, and how they train and perform as students of the particular art. Organizations reflect their leaders.
Third, a good school will let you observe some classes without obligation. Some may also let you participate in a beginner class or two without obligation. If a school doesn't let you sit and observe some classes, or even try a class or two, leave and find another school.
Fourth, be sure you understand the financial commitments. Watch out for any schools that ask you to sign long-term contracts. I would recommend month to month, especially if you're enrolling younger children, because children's interests change frequently and turnover in schools is highest among kids. So avoid long-term contracts. Ask also about costs for uniforms, training weapons, special class fees, and rank tests. Ask how rank testing is done and what each test costs. Ask about tournaments, as many schools participate in tournaments, and there are per-student entry fees and other fees for every one of them. Get the whole financial picture before you commit.
Fifth, understand your needs before visiting schools. Are you looking for exercise only? Self defense only? Something else? Are you looking for your kids, and if so, do you understand what you and they are hoping to gain from martial art training? Some schools and martial art styles are better suited for certain things. At our school, for example, we try to balance exercise and health and effective self defense in an overall mixed martial arts curriculum based on Tae Kwon Do, Aikijitsu, Aikido, Jiu Jitsu, and boxing.
Sixth, and this is for parents with kids asking to "take karate". Martial arts training is a wonderful thing for kids. I've seen it build confidence and character, discipline and physical skills in many of our own amazing students. As a parent, you should understand their (and your) motivations first. The head instructor should ask you and your child about their motivations, what they like, what attracted them to their school or style, and so forth. The best teachers care deeply about their students, and you'll know this by how they interact with your child and you. The best teachers will seek to understand what brought you and your child in, what interested them, how they like to learn, and in general engage them. Good teachers show lots of respect for every student. Good teachers watch out for the safety of every student as their first concern. Look for these things--after all, you are trusting the instructor with your child.
Seventh, and this is just my personal feeling--your mileage may vary--but I prefer to start children in martial arts no younger than 6 years of age. In our school, the age minimum is 8 years. And, be aware that some schools and styles engage in "breaking", whereby breaking boards and such are part of the curriculum. Good schools and instructors will not allow this for younger kids. Kids' bones and other structures are not developed enough at younger ages, and children could injure themselves by engaging in premature breaking training. I do not recommend breaking until at least age 15. Our school focuses more on a mixed martial arts curriculum that does not include any breaking.
Eighth, ask about rank testing. In our school, students are deemed ready for a rank test when the instructors feel that the student is ready and performing to his or her full potential. If a student is technically "ready" but their potential at that level has not been reached, we will encourage the student to achieve the higher potential first, then do the testing. Some schools may have regular test schedules, especially larger schools where the number of students makes this a more practical approach. Regardless of which approach is used, a student should never be encouraged to test for rank until they are ready and until they have reached their potential at the level they're at. This can be difficult for some students, in a society that preaches instant reward and gratification. However, it is a point of discipline and character building, in my opinion, that the student focus on the process of developing to his or her own potential and testing only when ready. This requires more time, perseverance, practice, discipline and commitment---but it builds character, and it builds a true martial artist, rather than someone with a colored belt. The only thing that gives color belts any meaning is the hard work that went into it and the true capability that it represents. If schools are giving out black belts but the student can't defend themselves, if the training doesn't include practice against resisting opponents in a live setting, then the belt color doesn't mean much.
Ninth, there's a lot of hubris in the martial arts about "which style is best", "my style is better than yours", and you may be asking which one is right for me or my child? The simple answer is that there is something to suit just about any need. If exercise is your primary goal, any style will generally give you plenty of that. If self defense is your primary goal, most styles will do that, too. Just understand that for practical self defense applications, you should strive for a curriculum which emphasizes all-aspect training, typically called "mixed martial arts". The simple reason is that most fights start with you and your opponent on your feet, but many fights may end with one or both of you on the ground. Therefore, learning only punches and kicks does you absolutely no good if you suddenly find yourself lying on your back with your opponent on top of you. You don't get to pick the bad guy, and the bad guy has a say in the fight. And they may be good at something you haven't trained for. So understand what your needs and preferences are. Traditional Tae Kwon Do has excellent foot technique. Boxing is excellent for hand technique, footwork, and much more. Jiu Jitsu is excellent for grappling and ground fighting. Aikijitsu is excellent for grappling, joint controls, throws, learning to fall properly. But there are many, many other arts. Consider that "Karate" is a generic term--there are literally about 200 "ryu" or styles of Karate. "Tae Kwon Do"--same thing, there are two hundred styles. "Kung Fu" has nearly 300 distinct styles or forms. There are many schools of JiuJitsu. Ask us for more information about any of the martial art styles--we love to talk about this stuff!
Tenth, HAVE FUN! Martial arts training is a ton of fun. We enjoy teaching it and training with our students and sharing the joy we have in it with each other. Find a school where that spirit exists. Instructors should be encouraging, know when to have fun, promote it in the school and instill it in the students. Have fun!
Hope these Ten Points help answer some of the more common questions. Again, please contact us if you have specific questions about this or any other topic.