Sunday, July 29, 2018

How To Find The Best Martial Arts School

So you want to get started in the martial arts, and the question is where and how to start? In this article I hope to share with you some points in finding a good school, sticking with it, and taking your training through the first year. Are you ready, let’s get started!

The first step is to research the martial art you want to get started in. Maybe you already have an idea of what you want to study, maybe all you know is “martial arts”- either way the first step is to do some research on google and wiki reading about some of the more popular styles and traditions. Even if you have your mind set on one in particular, a bit of knowledge to compare and contrast is a big help. No need to become an expert, just read through and spend a few minutes becoming familiar. In case you need it here are a few arts to look into: Aikido, Jujutsu, Mixed Martial Arts, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Hapkido, Sambo, Systema, Brazilian Jujutsu.
Next step is to find a school in your area- location is KEY since you will be spending a considerable amount of time training in the years to come. Accessibility to the school, teacher, and students is key. I’d recommend a driving distance of no more than thirty minutes from your home to the school.
That’s not to say a longer driving (or travel) distance makes it impossible, if you are really interested in learning a particular art you might have to commute a considerable distance, but it does make things harder when life, work, and family come into the picture. So much of the martial arts of any style is about being physically present for training- you have to be there to get it, so naturally the more classes you can attend the better off you will be- that doesn’t mean you can neglect home training and on your own, but that is a bit out of the scope of this article for now.
Make a list of schools in your area for the style that you want to study as your starting point. Keep in mind that more might exist then just on the internet. Some school, especially the more traditional ones might not have a web site or even advertise (!). If there is no school in your immediate area, contact a few others as close as you can find them, or even email the head school of the style asking about instructors or classes in your area.
So now you have your list of school(s) and are ready for a visit to check it out- contacting the head teacher and setting up an appointment is your big first step. For a large commercial school you might just be able to show up and watch/try out a class- for smaller school or more traditional training environments setting up a time to visit is proper protocol.
Keep in mind that from the moment you email and on, the teacher of the school is sizing you up- will you be a good fit for the school, how will you interact in the group dynamic, what are you motivations for joining- good or bad?
Don’t just ask about the training times and if you can stop by- use it as an opportunity to break the ice and present yourself for that first visit. Examples…
My name is X and after having a chance to view your website regarding martial arts training I would like to inquire about finding out more about your school and visiting a class if you have any openings in the school.
I’m at a point in my life where I really feel like X training can benefit me, and I’d like to take that first step.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Start your letter off with a proper introduction, Mrs. Mr. etc. and not on a first name basis as it could be considered rude. You can also leave out any formal titles like shihan, sensei, etc. since you are not a member of the school and group- it would be considered odd to address somebody like that outside of the school.
Next list where and how you found about the training- be it a web site, personal introduction, friend, association, etc. followed by a reason why you would like to begin pursuing martial training. Be a bit humble and don’t presume anything.
From here, in a day or two an invite to watch a class will probably be extended and when it has follow up with another very brief email telling the teacher you will be stopping by, and thanking them, etc.
This is your first impression.
Don’t be late on your visit- and don’t be early either! Being late is just rude, and being early can disrupt things before class as many times things have to be set up, gear taken out, etc.
When you arrive at the school wait for somebody to approach you just inside the door or at the start of the mat. The teacher will be expecting you, and somebody will be over shortly. Again first impressions, be polite, quiet, and don’t presume anything.
Sometimes a teacher will send over a senior student to greet you as they (the teacher) might be busy at the moment. Don’t be insulted by this, it depends on the protocol of the school and what is going on at the moment.
Most likely you will then be seated to watch a bit of the class followed by talking to a senior student and or the teacher. What you notice and observe during this time is KEY in deciding if the school is right for you.
Of course you are watching techniques being demonstrated, training drills, etc.- all that martial arts stuff and you are judging with you own eyes if it is effective and what you want. But you also need to pay attention to the teacher, students, and the senior students.
Does the teacher treat the students in the class with respect? Do they have compassion and heart in the training? Are they calm and controlled, or an arrogant jerk? Do they serve the tradition or their ego? Would you enjoy studying under this teacher?
Art is important, but teacher is just as important if not more important. Studying the martial art you want under a bad teacher is worse than not studying the art at all.
BOTH need to be a good fit for you to learn.
Pay attention to the other students in the class. Class should be disciplined and serious to some extent, but the students there should look happy and engaged in the training and learning- not afraid or stressed out. They should all be on the same team learning and growing.
Finally look at the senior students- the ones with the black belts or who are asked to come up and demo techniques or explain things from time to time. These are the students who in most cases have been studying with the teacher the longest- sometimes many years. How do they move? Do they look and act capable? They are the product of the teacher and their training and can be a good indicator of where you will be heading.
Often after watching class or even a bit before you will have a chance to speak with the head instructor and ask them any questions. Be respectful, but be honest and frank with them- just as you are sizing the school up to see if it is a good fit, they are sizing you up. Same goes if you are speaking to one of the senior students.
From here if it is a good fit, and if you decide to study at the school you are all set- congratulations! On the other hand if it is not quite what you are looking for, or something just won’t work out- be polite and always follow up with a thank you email-  the martial arts community is smaller than you think, and even a teacher or school that isn’t a good fit might know of a similar school that would be a good fit. A polite reference can always help!

What Is A Black Belt In The Martial Arts

What is a black belt?

What does it represent in the martial arts?

In this training guide we are going to take a look at what it represents, the skills it puts in action, and the training tools needed to help you achieve it by passing your upcoming black belt test.

In the now twenty five years that I have been fortunate enough to study the martial arts I have participated in many black belt tests as a teacher and coach, and through all of them there was a main theme and transmission that it represents regardless of tradition, style, or school- and that is what we are going to examine in this training guide.

I want to get you ready with the tools and martial tech for your test…

…ready for success?

In the martial arts a black belt represents a level of maturity and skill in the martial arts, one is not a master, but not a starting student. A black belt is someone who is knowledgeable in their art, proficient in skill, and is a solid representative of their school, style, and tradition.

It is a blend of physical skills, mental understanding, and reasonability.

Many new students only see a black belt as a level of skill, and certainly there is skill involved, but there are other qualities which compliment and magnify this level of skill.

As you prepare for your black belt test keep these “other” skills in mind also.

What are the three parts of a black belt?

ONE: Physical Skills

TWO: Mental Skills

THREE: Dojo (tradition) Responsibilities

The exact physical skills of a black belt will be a bit different depending on the art and disciple that you are studying- is it a primarily striking martial arts, a mixed martial arts, are traditional training weapons involved?

Regardless of the exact list of black belt skills needed for your art, there will be the following common element found through all of them. An element on three levels that you will need to know and most likely demonstrate.

As an example, let’s say on your black belt waza (skills) list punching is the first training item.

At a basic level you will need to know how to execute a proper punch- in good form, balance, and striking through the target with sufficient force.

The second level of understanding is being able to take that perfect execution of a punch and do it under pressure- perhaps against a moving target, in sparing, or striking a heavy bag.

And the final element of black belt knowledge would be in understanding of the mechanics that power a punch- the how and why it works, and how one would communicate those principals to another student or training partner.

For a black belt there is not only a needed level of skill, but the ability to show and express that skill to others in class or training if needed.

For many students in preparing for their black belt test they will stop that the physical, and certainly some martial arts school only focus or care about the physical aspects, but with this guide I want to help coach you, or give you the ideas to not only PASS your test, but to BECOME a black belt, and with that there is always a spiritual component.

My choice in using the definition “spiritual” refers to the set of skills in the martial arts that is a blend of mental and emotional abilities, and not spiritual in terms of religion. A black belt should be able to demonstrate the following, and have the following martial arts tech powering their movements:

Awareness: As you are training, are you aware of what is around you? The other students, what is going on in class? When you train with your partner, is there a focus, a heightened awareness (zanshin) that you always have “on”.

A good way to develop this awareness and presence is each time you are training with a partner, and you have finished your technique, pause for a moment and be ready for the next attack or multiple other opponents. In this way you are always training to be ready for the “next” or whatever situation might happen in a moment’s notice.

Another spiritual skill of being a black belt is having an immovable spirit (fudoshin). The ability to continue training, pushing yourself, keep going in class no matter how tired, hot, cold, or sparing exhausted.

The ability to finish to the end no matter what.

Certainly a part of this is physical endurance, but it is also knowing how far you can push yourself, and how to push yourself even further.

Over time this is developed by constant repetition of techniques.

In the Japanese martial arts, there is a spiritual discipline for developing fudoshin by becoming what is known as a “hundred day person”.

What is one of the basics (kihon) of your martial art?

Perhaps a certain strike, block, or downward cut with the sword?




To become a hundred day person, every day you do one hundred repetitions of one of these simple kihon moves, and you do them for one hundred days.
As you are practicing them, if you make a mistake, or it is not movement perfect, you start over and reset the count.

If you miss a day, you start over and reset the count.

For one hundred unbroken days, you perform one hundred unbroken movements.

Complete this exercise alone, and you will have both fudoshin and a clarity of purity in the martial arts.

The third main skill of a black belt is having no mind- mushin.

No mind doesn’t mean not tactically assessing a situation, but rather executing a technique without having to think how to do it, or what the steps are in performing it or making it work.

You develop mushin by always finishing a martial arts technique no matter how badly you are performing it. Always condition your martial mind and thinking to finish your movement and never stop moving.

Think about the black belt’s in your dojo or gym.

Think about the black belts that you respect or look to for inspiration in the martial arts.

Look at the champions and the best in the arts.

100% without question they have skill, but in addition to that skill they have a certain spiritual focus to them- develop that focus as it is key to earning and becoming a black belt.

The final element of what goes into making a black belt is often discovered after the fact, and is very hard to see before becoming a black belt, yet at the same time, it is an important element.

Something that your teacher or coach will be looking for as they prepare you to take your test, and this element is the new-responsibility you will have as a black belt to your dojo, school, or training group.

To borrow a Japanese martial arts term, you will be a sempai- a senior to the other junior students in your group. They will be looking towards you and your action, just as you looked towards the black belts ahead of you in both skill and behavior.

A black belt is not about going your own way, but rather going deeper into the tradition, training, and your studies in the martial arts.

Before we move to part two in this guide and start preparing a success outline for the day of your test I’d like to share with you a part of my black belt test, and some mistakes NOT to make.

Now, in my role as a martial arts coach, my ultimate goal for my students and those I advice is to cut down their learning curve in the martial arts.

If it took me six months to learn a certain skill item, or to get to a belt level, now with my experience and hard won lessons, I should be able to get YOU to that level in half the time, or perhaps even less.

When I was awarded my 1st degree black belt in 1999 it took me a good two years or so to FEEL like a black belt.

The reason for this is that I had a number of self imposed notions of what a black belt should be- entirely of my own creation. Strong, a certain body image, how I thought I should behave, move and act.

There was a level of immaturity there, and it slowed down my momentum and learning in the martial arts.

I’ve certainly long ago corrected my mistakes, but it did cost me a hard amount of lessons and time…

…don’t make this mistake when you become a black belt.

When you receive your black belt, be proud, be confident, be bold, but don’t put a definition of what a black belt should be- remain empty.

Let the movement and teachings of your martial art define and mold you as to what you should be as a black belt.

Allow yourself to start over as nothing, and let the martial arts build you back up. This “new” foundation will serve you well as you move to 2nd, 3rd, and beyond black belt levels.

At the very least it will leave less to undo and unlearn as you progress beyond black belt.
A good teacher will not let you make the same mistakes they did in their own martial arts journey.

Questions, comments, and inquries about our training group may be directed to the email address here: Email Training Group.

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Located in Westchester, New York we are a martial arts training group dedicated to studying the Bujinkan dojo martial arts methods of Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi. As friends we come together to practice the martial arts. New members and visiting martial artists are always welcome, please contact us with any questions, feedback, or inquiries.