Choosing a School

There are no secret techniques or special powers involved in the Martial Arts. Anyone can do Martial Arts.

The superstars in the movies are extraordinary Martial Artists and athletes and they often make the incredible appear effortless. However, you do not need to be the likes of Jackie Chan or Jet Li to participate in the practice of Martial Arts.

Learning effective Martial Arts is not like studying Rocket Science. To learn it only takes two things: aspiration & perspiration. If you have the desire and the will, anything is possible. (And willpower is something you can increase with a dedication to training.)

Jump to Section:

Beginning the search
Determining the style you wish to learn
Visiting a school
Talk to the teacher
Talk to the students
Teacher’s experience and abilities
Examine the program & schedule
Safety issues
Business aspects

Beginning the Search

Spend some time researching what is available in your area and compile enough information to make the decision that is right for you. There are many schools in Whatcom County to choose from and each has something unique to offer. Some schools are more traditional while others are more contemporary; some are smaller in class size and some are quite large; some are independent programs and rent space, for example at the YMCA; and some are commercial business franchises and own buildings with state-of-the-art amenities. Every characteristic has its benefits and drawbacks and it’s up to you to find what appeals to you and suits your needs.

Helpful places to begin your search are places such as this –the Internet. You can check the phone book yellow pages. Asking around is another method of finding out what is available in the community. Invariably, someone always knows somebody who does Martial Arts. Word of mouth does wonders and reputations are what they are.

Make a checklist to help you screen prospective schools.

To weed out any unsatisfactory schools from the get-go, for a nominal fee you can perform business background checks on the Internet. Check with the Better Business Bureau of Washington to see if a business is safe and well run. Make sure it doesn’t have any “black eyes” such as lawsuits or court judgment filings. Check with the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce too.

Start making phone calls. Often when you call, class may be in session and the instructor is occupied. A student or school manager may field your call. Ask to have the instructor call you back at a designated time. Once you speak with the instructor ask how he would characterize the school. (You may wish to ask this question early on. Reason being, the instructor may want to know what YOUR reason is to learn Martial Arts first so he can then mold the answer into a description of how his school will fit your goal.)

Note that some schools can be classified as a “family school,” which are very socially oriented and an activity the entire family can enjoy in the same class. Some schools are “sport” oriented and emphasize competition. Some schools are traditional and focus much time and attention on historical forms and classical techniques. Some schools are attentive to the combative side of training and engage in sparring and scenario-based self-defense.

Some schools defy an easy, overall categorization because they divide and compartmentalize their program. This is so they can address a particular area of training at a routinely scheduled time (for example, sport fighting & sparring, street defensive tactics, classical art, cardio-kickboxing, weapons training, women’s self-defense, etc).

Some schools may try to sell you, and the information they provide will direct you only to their school regardless of whatever question you ask. If the instructor tries to convince you the school is the right choice for everyone no matter what their goals are, this isn’t a good sign.

When investigating a potential school always ask if you can watch a class. Teachers have various attitudes about outsiders viewing their school. Some are open and comfortable with it. Some feel the school is a private facility meant only for enrolled students and do not wish to subject them to outside scrutiny. Some feel you will not understand what is being taught because you have no working knowledge and hands-on experience with what you may see. These notions are unjust because even if you do not comprehend technical information, a layman can still discover the structure and quality of a class at hand through simple observation.

Often a school’s protocol is to have a prospective student set an appointment and sample the teachings via a private lesson at no obligation. Absolutely partake in a trial session as long as it‘s understood there is no hard sell afterward. Next ask if you can watch a session at a time of your choice. If the teacher forbids you to observe the group after a trial class, you will only have a less clear impression of what group sessions at the school are like.

Determining the Style You Wish to Learn

“A punch is a punch.”

Early on in your search do not get too hung up on having to study a particular “style”. The reason why is you might have it set in your mind you want “Pentjak Silat Tongkat Serak “ because a friend of yours in another city swears by it. And then you come to find out that no one in your town teaches this art form.

Before you settle on a style, it is more sensible to watch different classes at various schools, then based on what you’ve witnessed you will be more apt to select a style available to you that fits your personal needs.

Visiting a School

Visit as many schools as you need to, and visit promising schools more than once if need be in order to find the one you desire.

A few qualities all good schools should have is an adequate-sized training area, a clean and well-lit and well-ventilated environment, changing rooms and washrooms, appropriate equipment in good working order, a diverse student body, and an instructor that maintains a sense of order and efficiency to the school all the while fostering a positive learning and working environment among students.

Make sure when you visit you are seeing a fair representation of a typical class.
When you make an appointment to observe a class, often an instructor will prepare his best students to be in attendance. Because the instructor is expecting you, you may not be given a fair representation of what a typical class structure consists of at that given class-time. Take, for example, you attend an introductory session and there are lots of experienced students there to assist and train you. You may consider this a strong selling point and enroll based on that single experience because there were so many other experienced students setting an example. The very next day you arrive at that same class-time and none of the veteran students are there; in which case, you later discover that all of them happen to train at different times. This circumstance is something you may like to have known to expect ahead of time.

When watching, observe the way students and the instructor conduct themselves. Does the instructor explain and physically demonstrate techniques skillfully? When you watch a class in progress look to see if the teacher is “guiding” the class and not just “drilling” the class. For example, does the teacher demonstrate, explain, and then move about the room monitoring and ensuring proper technique among the students? Or does the teacher stand at the front of the class and simply shout out commands?

Talk to the Teacher

You might like to find out how many students are actively training and the size of an average class. From that information you can determine the teacher-to-student ratio.

From seeing and talking with the instructor and some students, do they have the enthusiasm and attitude that you want to acquire? Find out what the teacher is like. By having a general conversation you should be able to see personality traits in the teacher. Is the teacher patient or impatient, gracious or arrogant, focused or distracted, friendly or aloof?

Of course you want a school with a professional demeanor. Something to consider -being professional does not demand seriousness at all times. I would recommend a school where the teacher takes his teaching seriously but doesn’t take himself too seriously. If you visit a school where the students are joking and goofing around a lot it would be a clear sign they probably aren’t working very hard and the teacher may be too jovial to offer proper guidance. If you visit a school and the teacher is stern and stoic there probably isn’t much room for levity or reciprocal communication, and although the teacher may have incredible knowledge you may later experience it is the teacher’s grim way or the highway.


Is there a series of assistant instructors at the school? Is there a school manager? Acquaint yourself with these members and find out how much direct contact you will have with each one in relation to how much time and attention you will receive from the instructor.

Do the assistants distinguish themselves from one another in the way they educate students? Do assistants appear free to provide their own interpretation on the material they study, or do they simply appear to “parrot” the instructor’s words and teaching style verbatim? Uniformity from those in the position of teaching is favorable; on the other hand, since not everyone learns the same way it can be a considerable advantage when the same material is conveyed from different personalities and perspectives.

Talk to the Students

Interview the student body. See if any of the students can take a minute to share with you some discoveries they have made about themselves while engaged in their studies. Most students will be happy to share their experience because they, too, were once new and searching for answers just like you. Listening to an individual’s story can give you a personalized account of what it is like to train at the school.

When class is not in session, do the students have their own expression and individuality? Some systems of Martial Arts are heavily steeped in conformity. Just as it is favorable to see all the students adhere to the instruction, it would be disconcerting to see students behave like automatrons when class is not in session. When talking to students you should perceive some ideas independent from the teacher’s. If many of the students are speechless or there is absolutely nothing different between the instructor’s viewpoints and that of the student’s, you could be witnessing a case of blind allegiance, whereas the school does little to foster self-discovery or independent thought on the Martial Arts.

Teacher’s Experience & Abilities

Ask how many years the teacher has been training and how many years teaching. Ask the same of any assistant instructors. Ask if the instructor has references before signing up. Do not rest your faith in the qualifications of the teacher just because he has the “Grand Master 10th Degree Blackbelt” diploma hanging in his office.

Fancy titles don’t necessarily mean competent instruction. Don’t get too hung up on “belt status.” Certification requirements for being a Martial Arts instructor vary from style to style and organization to organization. There is no objective way to measure an instructor’s certifications. Realize the requirements for black belt vary widely, and this is true all over the world, not just in the United States. In some schools, a person can earn a first-degree black belt in just a year or two. Other schools require four to six years of intense training.

How do you know if an instructor’s credentials are legitimate? Any legitimate instructor will be glad to tell you whom they trained under and how to contact them or the organization they’re affiliated with. If the instructor is evasive about certain information, it is safe to assume that the credentials might be questionable.

I recommend looking more at the instructor’s innate qualities. Does he encourage and motivate his students? Is the teacher clear and concise with his instruction and does he display excellent verbal skills? Is he exuberant when he teaches? Can you tell if he is generous with his time and attention?

Examine the Program & Schedule

Some schools segregate their class schedule according to a student’s experience level. As a beginner, you will want to know which classes you can participate in and the average amount of training time required before you can join exclusionary classes.

If the school offers several classes a day, is there a limit to how many classes you can take per day or per week?

Is the training schedule well-defined or is it convoluted?

If it takes long to decipher, will it be tricky to remember which class you are allowed to participate in and at what time? Ask how often, if at all, the schedule changes.

Safety Issues

Martial Arts training is not dangerous when compared to many other contact activities. That doesn’t mean you aren’t going to get sore or occasionally bruised. Most schools that teach striking arts (karate, tae kwon do, kung-fu) teach students to stop their techniques short of contact or they only allow light to moderate contact. Most grappling systems (judo, aikido, jiu jitsu) conduct their training on matted floors, making their training no more dangerous than high school wrestling. Grappling arts implement a system of “tapping out” to signal to a training partner when a technique has been properly applied and subsequently when to release it.

Inquire about what lengths the school goes to ensure the safety of its classes and participants? Ask the instructor what the most serious injury has been in class. What preventative measures are taken to keep injuries to a minimum? Find out what procedures are followed when dealing with an injury. If you are overly concerned about the possibility of injury, you should make sure to observe all areas of instruction in a school before you enroll. Make sure safety equipment is employed when sparring.

Business Aspects

Check to see how long the establishment has been in business. Obviously all of the well-established Martial Arts businesses in Whatcom County had to be fledgling schools at one point in time. Based on the amount of long-term students and the tenure of the school at a single location you should be able to discern how well-rooted the school is in the community. You may wish to ask if the instructor is permanently settled in the area or if he might have plans to move, and if so, what would then become of the school. Does the instructor have plans on retiring anytime in the near future?

Tuition & Additional Expenses

Money isn’t everything, and this motto can go both ways. You should expect to be paying something. As with any shopping endeavor you have to weigh how much you can spend compared to how much you are expected to pay. When you are pricing a school see that everything you get for your money is clearly defined, and double check unexpected costs.

Figure out how many classes you hope to attend each week and the length of each class. Then determine the approximate cost per lesson to obtain a reasonable comparison between schools.

Especially check to make sure there are not any hidden fees or additional cost such as promotions, tournaments, and seminars. Systems that employ rank require students to promote. Often schools charge for compulsory promotion tests. Some schools obligate their students to attend tournaments, which always require hefty competitor fees and mandatory membership costs with the sporting organization responsible for promoting the event. Besides regular classes the school may provide seminars from guest instructors. Ask if you will be expected to pay extra for these lessons, and if you wish to pass on them, do the seminars take away from regularly scheduled classes you expected to attend.

Lastly, ask about equipment costs. What are you expected to buy? Factor in such things as the uniform, patches, sparring and protective equipment, and training weapons. If you are required to wear a uniform and if you train frequently expect to do a lot of laundry. That experience can be pricey in itself. The only way of getting around this often results in buying 2 or 3 additional uniforms. Do you have to purchase from the school or are you allowed to find better deals on your own?




I was with UMA for about a year while I lived in the area. I’d had about 1 year or so of experience prior to joining. I loved that the classes involved people of all fighting skills and that you’re training with all different sizes and ages. It makes for a very well-rounded training experience. Rob takes extra time with newer individuals to help you get on track with the current students. I felt at home from day 1! I wish that more gyms would utilize this setting. You have a structured class plan, a friendly and professional environment that is set up by a very knowledgeable and passionate instructor. Rob even took time during class when learning new moves to show me how it would be relevant from a police officer perspective. I have and continue to recommend this class to just about anyone in that area that has mentioned having an interest in martial arts. If you’re into fitness, want to learn self-defense, or have a higher risk job where continuing to hone your defensive tactics is absolutely necessary, UMA is a perfect choice.

~ Sanda M., law enforcement

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