Interested in Martial Arts and don’t know where to start? Hopefully this arEA will give you a few pointers to help you out. Whilst we always welcome beginners to our clubs, we recognise that the style we teach may not suit everyone, but we hope it does!
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Start by knowing why you want to learn
The first thing you need to determine is why you are interested in Martial Arts. Whenever a new beginner starts at a club we always ask what they are looking at getting out of it. The most common responses are along the lines of “I want to learn to defend myself”, or “I want to learn to fight”, or “I want to become a black belt”. Parents bringing their children along normally say something about wanting them to ‘learn to defend themselves’ or to ‘give them some form of discipline or focus’. Others come along and say, “I saw this in a movie….”
Whatever your reason it is worth understanding what martial arts there are. All Martial Arts (whether it is ‘Kyushindo’, karate, judo, tai-chi, MMA, boxing, archery, fencing etc.) develop at least one of three ‘elements’:
- ‘Budo’(martial ways) – character development, history, traditional skills (kata, style) etc.
- Self protection skills – threat awareness, self defence, threat avoidance etc.
- Fighting skills – competition, winning a fight.
There are overlaps between these activities such as improving fitness, learning to escape from a fight, learning to control ego (i.e. not having to fight, de-escalation of situations), grappling techniques, self defence releases etc. Depending on what style you opt for will influence what you learn.
Kyushindo, being a non-combative style does not focus heavily on ‘fighting skills’. We don’t partake in ‘kumite’ (competitive fights as you may have seen during the Olympics), but generally focus on using Martial Arts to improve one’s health and well-being, learn self protection/self defence techniques and understand the wider benefit that Martial Arts can give society.
As in most clubs we do use a grading system to demonstrate achievement in rank and this could be seen as an internal competition, however we don’t promote improved grading for the sake of it, we use this to reward progress when a student has learned some new skills and demonstrated their proficiency and commitment.
Our interests in ‘budo’ evolve and change over time. For younger children Martial Arts is simply a fun activity; however it builds strength, balance and coordination and most importantly it can really enhance self esteem. Many of my student’s parents have remarked that their child pays better attention in school as a result of his or her karate training.
As young adult’s physical conditioning can become more important, this often leads people to look at competitive styles. As we reach our late 30’s or early 40’s, however, many practitioners begin looking for something deeper, such as internal (ki) training, character development, and general fitness. At whatever stage in life Martial Arts not only promotes individual training and development, but also group interaction.
Finding the best instructor is more important than choosing the right martial art
As I stated above all martial arts are developed around the 3 main elements, which basically means there will be many similarities between different clubs and styles. The biggest difference will be how they are taught and the applications of techniques; but the basic techniques (e.g. punching, kicking, grappling, and throwing) will be similar.
Unlike being at school where a teacher is assigned to a class, new students starting Martial Arts have the option of choosing the person who will be teaching them. It is important to remember that if you don’t get on with the instructor, or you don’t feel they have the experience or competence to teach you, you won’t want to put all your effort into learning! Finding the right teacher is far more important to effective learning than discovering the perfect Martial Art to study.
Identify potential instructors
Once you know what you are generally looking for, you will need to find an instructor who can fulfill those needs. The best source is obviously a referral by someone who knows you well, understands how you learn, and also knows someone appropriate who teaches martial arts. If you do not have friends or relatives who can refer you to an excellent instructor, visit the clubs in your local area.
As in other aspects of life, first impressions last! The gut feeling you have as you walk into a venue is probably a good indication of how you would fit in. Most clubs I have trained with don’t have a permanent dojo, making use of village halls and sports centres. These clubs generally won’t have flashy trophy cabinets showing how good they have been in competitions, so you will have to watch how the class runs before making any judgement. Those clubs fortunate to have fixed dojos will be easier to ascertain what their emphasis is. Large numbers of displayed trophies most likely means they have an emphasis on tournament fighting and competition. Floor mats may indicate an inclination for throwing techniques. Racks of weapons offer an obvious clue to the availability of such training. The presence of ‘kigu‘ equipment, traditional tools used for conditioning exercises such as ‘nigiri game’ (gripping jars) and ‘makiwara’ (striking posts), suggests a traditional approach. Even in clubs that do not have permanent dojos, clues can be gained by the clothing and equipment being brought in by those attending; gloves, head guards, protective padding may suggest there is an emphasis on contact practice; weapon bags are obvious; Martial Arts clothing or ‘street’ clothing may hint at the focus of the style and finally the language being spoken as some traditional styles only use oriental terminology. Depending upon your age and interest these may or may not be attractive.
As well as the techniques a certain amount of exercises and fitness training will be undertaken. Whilst fitness training is not the main emphasis of any Martial Arts club, it should be present. All class should have some warm up programme to start. A good indication of the instructors commitment is how they carry themselves. No one should feel forced to learn from an instructor who does not come across as reasonably fit themselves; ask yourself if they can’t keep themselves fit and healthy, how and why are they going to help me?
Watch a class in progress
You can tell a lot about how a school is run by watching a lesson. Any reputable club should allow you to observe a class; if not why? Are they trying to hide something? Whilst observing look to see if students are standing around looking confused or does everyone appear to be actively engaged in the learning process? Are they talking or working? Do students and teachers interact in a respectful manner? Are students corrected in a positive way when they make a mistake? Is there an appropriate level of supervision? Is the place neat, orderly, and in good repair? Is there a viewing area where parents can observe their children without getting in the way? Is there adequate room to train? Does there appear to be an appropriate emphasis on safety? Is attendance strong? All these should indicate whether the instructor knows what they are doing.
Talk to the instructor(s) and students
Any teacher should be happy to discuss their style, teaching methods and answer specific questions you have. If they are evasive, rude or aggressive in answering, or just not willing to talk then maybe they are not suitable instructors. Obviously if you catch them at the wrong time (e.g. just as the class is about to start) they may not be able to have a lengthy discussion. It is frustrating when someone comes along and says they are interested in starting but wants to know ‘everything’ about the style straight away. I think it is a good idea to have a few prepared questions ahead of time asking the really pertinent questions, i.e. the things that are really important to know before starting. Just as you are forming an initial impression of a potential instructor, your future sensei (teacher) is forming their impression of you!
If you are a parent looking for a place where your child can train, you need to know that they are being left in a safe environment. One of the first things to check is whether the instructor has appropriate qualifications, they have been vetted by suitable recognized institutions, and they carry an insurance policy and have some form of first aid training. Within all the Kyushindo clubs the senior instructors have all been CRB checked, hold first aid certificates and insurance policies; copies of which should be available on request. Additionally we all appreciate that teaching younger children needs to be approached differently to adults; ensure that the club appreciates this and that there is balance between fun games and the basic Martial Arts techniques.
Whether they are dealing with children or adults, instructors need to be informative when explaining new skills, and firm yet polite when disciplining students. They must be approachable for answering questions, no matter how silly the inquiries might be.
After interviewing an instructor, it may be possible to talk with students and/or parents of students to gather more information. Exemplary instructors have nothing to hide and should not mind such additional scrutiny so long as it is not disruptive to their students.
Characteristics of an exemplary instructor
The characteristics of an exemplary instructor should include:
- Enthusiasm for practicing his or her chosen martial art form
- A passion for teaching
- A good knowledge of budo, preferably beyond a single art form
- Interest in the students to understand their needs and interests
- A good understanding of personality differences among students and the ability to work with these differences
- An intuitive ability to select the most effective teaching style for any situation and a willingness to change course midstream if things are not working as anticipated
- An open mind, common sense and an appreciation that their style may not ‘fit all’
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Try before you buy!
Once you have made a preliminary decision, the next step is to give it a go. Whilst it really takes a few months to know for sure (especially if you have not done this sort of thing before) if the class is right for you, much can be gained with a single class. I would not personally join any school that did not give me a minimum of one free trial class. Within all our clubs we understand that this is the case and offer a free initial lesson. Many clubs will require you to sign a liability waiver for insurance purposes though, but being a beginner the instructor should not be asking you to do anything that may cause injury.
A word of caution
Having found a good instructor that has the knowledge, skills, and abilities that you are looking for and you may feel that it is worth paying that bit more for; you should also strive to avoid getting ripped off! Unfortunately even with a good teacher it can easily take a year or more to learn enough about a style to ascertain whether or not it really is a good fit for you. On top of that, some instructors have been known to use unscrupulous or manipulative tactics to bring revenue through the door.
The saying that ‘you get what you pay for’ can to a certain degree be true but a higher price does not always indicate higher quality of instruction. All the Kyushindo clubs try to keep their prices as low as possible; none of the instructors do this for a living they all have other jobs, so the lesson fees are generally to cover the hall hire and buy equipment for the club.
Understand the payment scheme
It is probably a good idea to ask how much training will cost. Within Kyushindo we try to keep this to the absolute minimum. As we are not looking to make a large profit, only to cover costs, we try to keep things simple. Each lesson is around £3-4, with an annual membership fee of £20 to cover insurance, and then a grading fee of around £20. Some clubs will charge significantly more per lesson or a monthly charge to cover as many as you want to attend. These are only worthwhile if you attend them (I’m sure many people have taken out a gym membership for £50-60 per month and then only gone once a week!). In my experience it is worth keeping away from any club that tries to charge several £100 per year membership, at least initially, until you know for certain that you have found the right club for yourself. In addition may clubs require certain equipment to be used, check with the instructor whether you have to purchase through them or from other retailers. Within our clubs we have preferential rates with certain suppliers, so can pass on savings compared to high street stores.
Starting your journey
Once you have decided to join a club, don’t expect to pick it up straight away. Many techniques look simple, but are in fact quiet complicated to master. Expect the process to take a while. No matter how gifted an athlete you are, you cannot possibly learn everything right away. It takes a lot of repetition and hard work to truly learn these skills. Within the Kyushindo style we have developed a syllabus that will help develop skills over a period of time. On average it takes around 30 lessons before first grading and 4-5 years to reach black belt.
Give the process time. Sensei literally means “one who has come before.” The teacher you have selected is a person who has advanced further along the martial path than you have. He or she will be your guide as you learn new concepts and progress along your Martial Arts path. You’ll be surprised that as you learn from your instructor they will undoubtedly learn from you as well, maybe not a new technique but probably a new way to teach it or how to answer a question they have not been asked before. I’ve found that often the newest student asks what they think is a silly question, but it is often one I have not been asked previously and takes me a few moments to think of the answer.