Choosing a Martial Arts Academy or School

aikido and hapkido cross trainingHere is what we think is essential information for choosing a martial arts school, academy, club or centre in Sydney (or anywhere else for that matter). If you are a first timer you may not necessarily know what to look for. Equally important is to understand yourself and what you are looking for such as self-defence, health and fitness, a traditional martial art,  internal energy development or just want to kick butt after seeing the latest action movie at the cinema.  Ultimately these aspects and many others form part of martial arts like Aikido and it is up to you the prospective student to decide if a particular art and the academy or school suits you or not.

Choosing a martial art
The human body is adaptive but can only move in so many ways, the evolution of the martial systems are designed to get to the top of this mountain, though there are many paths there.  Aikido practice encompasses many aspects for training the mind, body and spirit.  If you have particular interests in certain aspects you may find these other arts more suitable.  For example for grappling arts you might like Judo and Jujutsu, the striking arts Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Silat and Kung Fu.  If weapons are your interest then arts like Iaido (sword-drawing) and Jodo (staff) may be the way to go.  Finally internal arts like Bagua Zang and Taichi also share much in common with Aikido.

Selecting a place to learn
While we hope you will come and practice Aikido with us it may be that you end up somewhere else and / or doing another art.  If so here are some questions to ask yourself and members of any school you are interested in trying, to help you in your search.

  • The Teacher
    Does the teacher treat their students with respect.  Do you like the teaching style? Is the instructor well credentialed, or a little too well credentialled? Is the teacher involved in the class or just strutting around?  The best martial artist is not always the best teacher.  Also remember your instructor is only human once they step off the mat – try not to confuse the person with the art they teach and their personality off the mat.

  • The Students
    An instructor’s teaching is reflected in their students, both in skills and behaviour.  Can you picture yourself as a student here?  Can you see a clear progression between the junior and senior students.  Does the dojo have a mix of students abilities.  A dojo of all beginners or all balck belts can tell you a lot about the school.

  • Lineage
    Is the club drawing from a flowing stream of knowledge or a stagnant pool? Does the club have a direct connection to a master teacher from whom they can learn or belong to an organisation from which new knowledge can be brought to the club? Its very easy to find a dojo but hard to find a dojo where everybody in the dojo is still learning.
  • Budo and Budo Bull

The study of martial arts brings with it the cultural context of the origin of the country. Each dojo will select its place along the cultural continium from traditional uniforms, pieces of the language right through to adopting the traditional training methods and codes of behaviour. Whats best and whats best for you is not easy to Answer. Dave Lowrys essay Coconut Palm in Missouri is a splendid treatment of the issues.

  • To compete or not compete

Well here you are wanting to do a martial art and that means fighting, so the only way to know you are do the real thing is to fight right? Thus many martial arts engage in competitions and maybe have walls of trophys from this or that federation (it might only be a federation of 3 clubs or could be hundreds of clubs though). The thing is competition is a subset of combat, it has to be or people would die, other arts like the koryu and aikido eschew competition because they say it leads to developing an incorrect mindset or isn’t realistic.

  • Pooh Bear and the cargo cult

In a top down structure, where sensei makes the rules and students take the hits and falls in prescribed manner it can happen that the reality of martial arts practice can become quite removed from reality. IN Aikido circles its called “Pooh Bear Aikido” you know like a real bear but soft and cuddly instead. And where the cultural trappings rather than the underlying substance become the alternate and dominant reality.

  • Gradings and tests
    Synonymous with martial arts are gradings and tests. The testing process is an important part of many arts, but is a just a mile stone not a goal. Some schools offer black belts in a few years others only after 10yrs. Some schools run belt factories (see Mcdojo) with black belt programmes and other commercial products. Think carefully if its the art you want to learn of some trophy belts.
  • Feeling is believing
    Its often a difficult thing to evaluate an art just by watching – unless you are quite skilled in that art.  If possible try out a class, much of many arts are hidden in finer details that only are developed after years of training.  For example in Aikido the small space between an opponents grip and the aikido students wrist can make all the difference in the effectiveness.  Only by feeling the art can you really discover what it has to offer.

  • The Vibe
    How do you feel talking to the instructor, other students, when you walked into the club for the first time.  Did they listen to what you were saying.  Trust your feelings and instincts.  Are you / they having fun?

  • Commit to training
    Martial arts teach secret techniques that no-one else has and will make you special and invincible.  Sadly this is just not true, only commitment to regular training over a long period of time yields results.  Once you have decided to try out a particular school, think about the impact on your lifestyle of training a few times a week for at least a few months, only after a period of time such as this will you begin to see the benefits of your training and be able to evaluate an art to see if its for you.

  • Safety
    Is there an appropriate emphasis on safety?  The dojo is not a place for violence and aggression but controlled practice.  Sure, injuries do happen occassionally but appropriate measures should be in place.  Do they have an insurance policy, first aid certificates and kits, Blue Cards for working with children.  Martial arts is a hobby for many people and sometimes these things aren’t always up to scratch.

  • Money, money, money
    Ok so training is going to cost you money. (Probably more than you are going to lose if you are ever asked to hand over your wallet.)  Dojos, clubs and academies need to have money to operate.  However if you’re asked to sign up a huge 12 month contract, are not offered an introductory package or free class and if you have to pay big fees to do your belt gradings, BEWARE…
    Some arts tend to employ professional instructors whereas others don’t.  Both ways have their merit, many would say a professional instructor’s bottom line is getting food on the table and this can compromise the ‘purity’ of the art being taught, however a volunteer instructor can only devote so much time to their art as they usually have another job to do.

  • Ki, Chi and Internal Energy
    Some teachers can perform seemingly miraculous acts of ‘ki / chi’ power, in these demonstrations the ‘pinky’ finger is more powerful than their biggest students, arms are ‘unbendable’, bodies are unliftable even with two people trying to lift.  These ‘tricks’ demonstrate the relaxed power of arts like Aikido and are based on good training practice and well understood by biomechanists and easily learned.  Sometimes though they are part of the sales package to get you in – try to look for the substance beyond them though.  The study of internal energy and meditation is a legitimate part of many martial arts and goes deeper than these tricks.

  • Cults and Charismatic groups
    Most martial arts follow a traditional structure that is feudal and hierachal in nature.  In these power structures instructors and senior students can often have a lot of control within the group whilst training, and often beyond.  There is potential for abuse of this responsibility and power leading to some sad stories.  In the excitement of starting martial arts it is very easy for intelligent ordinary people to get sucked in.  Whilst uncommon, it is not unheard of for dojos to be operating as a cult.

    ” ..In such groups leaders can make demands on followers that are seen as abusive by outsiders,… the group operates as a close knit social system and its activities are generally only carried with other members of the group. …Boundary control is exercised by the group and compliance with group norms is assured by members….A clear difference between members and non-members is exercised”  (Cults, Faith Healing and Coercion, M. Galanter, Oxford university Press 1989).  
Congratulations if you have made it thus far. We hope you find these points useful to reflect on as you embark on your martial journey.