Martial arts are a beautiful thing, with deep roots in tradition and positive values.
But, just like most other things in today’s world, martial arts are strongly influenced by fads, buzzwords, and fashion. This has both pros and cons.
The two biggest buzzwords over the past few years can be broken down into two areas:
1. Competitive martial arts: Does anyone NOT know what MMA is? This is a trick question. Mixed Martial Arts very simply means exactly that – mixing different martial arts. It has existed in many forms and variations for a long time – long before the UFC coined the term and turned it into a financial juggernaut and a household name. That being said MMA has now become its own distinct style. Unfortunately, this has also led to a huge number of systems trying to capitalise on this trend. Some take a couple of classes in other systems and decide to then start teaching MMA, without having a thorough understanding of all of the different elements that make up the style, and particularly in how to integrate them into one distinct fighting style.
2. Self Defence: the terms ‘combatives’, ‘reality-based self defence’ (RBSD) and Krav Maga have gained popularity for their effectiveness, but also a degree of notoriety for having many bogus practitioners who allow unsuspecting students to essentially purchase instructor qualifications after only a few days of training.
This puts our industry in a tough position. On the one hand, martial arts are gaining more publicity and interest then ever before, which is good for those devoted, honest martial artists who are trying to make a living in an industry which is notorious for being incredibly difficult to achieve financial success in. On the other hand, in the stampede to capitalise on the financial opportunities, quality, honesty and integrity often take a back seat to short term gains.
The other issue that adds fuel to the fire is the trend in the current market for immediate satisfaction. A trend that has appeared in the past few years is that many people who start training expect to acquire skills in a very short period of time. Many self-defence organisations award instructor qualifications for people who attend a 5-day seminar, putting the emphasis on the qualification, rather than on the skills the qualification relates to. Unless you spent the 5 days learning how to defeat an opponent using a framed certificate as a deadly weapon, 5 days of training will not get you an intructor level in any sport, martial art or other endeavor you may undertake. The emphasis on intructorships or the black belt as the end of training or a point where skills are complete, so to speak, goes against what most traditional martial arts believe. It is also important to remember that different schools have a different idea of what they consider a ‘black belt standard’, and that schools who pride themselves on students achieving black belt status very quickly may sacrifice quality.
Unfortunately, all of this also puts new students in a difficult position. How can you tell what is good and what isn’t when so many people throw these buzzwords around?
Here are some tips based on my experience:
1. What is it that you are trying to achieve?
Are you looking for self-defence classes? Are you looking for fitness? Are you looking for a social experience? Are you looking at competing? Defining your goals is imperative to finding the right place for you. If you are looking to learn how to defend yourself, then cardio boxing is probably not the right class. If you are looking for a light social workout, then going to train for competition with serious people is probably not for you, etc.
2. What kind of club culture are you looking for?
Your school is likely to become a social network that could play a big part in your social life. Make sure you select one which will reflect what you think is right. Some schools are ego-driven and some are not. Some are very competitive and some are not. Some emphasise technique and control, while other emphasise aggression. Any of these is fine, as long as it suits you.
3. Do not be impressed by a laundry list of credentials or a fancy gym.
Many instructors will list themselves as proficient in many styles and systems, even though in reality they may have only trained in some of them for as little as a few hours. Many instructors and schools will do this so they can use the buzzwords previously mentioned to get people into classes. Go to a class and see what is being done.
The same applies for the gym itself. It’s better to hit an old punching bag well than it is to hit a new one badly!
4. Find a school with a teaching style that suits you.
Each teacher and school will have their own way of running classes, sharing knowledge and explaining concepts. Go watch some classes and look not only for what is being taught, but how.
5. Don’t be impressed by seeing many black belts around.
As stated previously, the ‘black belt standard’ changes from school to school. A school that has very many black belts may have low standards. It may also not – but better to see for yourself.
6. What is the best class size for you?
Some schools operate on the principal that the bigger the class, the better. Some prefer smaller classes. There are pros and cons to both. Big classes mean you get to try your skills against many people, but also mean you won’t get much individual attention from the instructor.
7. Watch the students as much as the instructor.
Some teachers may not be extraordinary practitioners themselves, but have a talent for explaining and sharing knowledge. When you go into a school where the teacher is highly skilled but most of the students, even those who have been there a while, are not, then it’s a sign of poor teaching. It’s also important to see if senior students help those who are less experienced then themselves. Renowned MMA coach Greg Jackson is a perfect example of someone who is not famous for his fighting skills, but for his coaching skills. His school has produced many MMA champions and he is a phenomenal coach. This is not to say the teacher should have no skill – just that you must watch both.
8. Loyalty sometimes comes at a price.
Each system and school does things differently. Some schools strictly forbid students to train in other schools, while some encourage it. Some schools put down other systems, while others try to learn everything they can. Again, this is an individual choice. While it is important to be loyal to your school and instructor, make sure that you don’t do it at the cost of your personal development as a martial artist.
Much like individuals, each school is different and attracts a different crowd. Part of the beauty of the journey is to try and experience different things. I wish you much success on your journey!
Stay tuned, stay safe.