Blog Archive

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Choosing A Martial Arts School, Part II: Core Principles

I'm a big believer in understanding principles, both in the martial arts and in life. If you really get the principles, you can extrapolate specific solutions.

A lot of my method of helping people find a good martial arts school revolves around five questions or principles. I'm going to expand on each of these, but here's the executive summary.

  • What Do You Want Out of This?
  • Coaches, Not Styles
  • What Is Your Timeline-in-Training?
  • What Will You Sacrifice? (TANSTAAFL)
  • Resonance

What Do You Want Out of This?

"The goal is to keep the goal the goal" -- Dan John

People do martial arts for a lot of reasons: self-defense, fitness, competition, spiritual development, focus, discipline...the list keeps going.

It's possible to pursue many of these things, or even all of them, but it's helpful to know what it is you're trying to attain. If you want to be the next UFC champion in your weight class, training at a school that believes that competition is an anathema to true martial arts is probably not going to help you. If you are concerned about improving your personal safety, the gym with stacks of trophies from recent form competitions may not be up your alley.

Ask yourself, really, why are you doing this?

[Sidebar: There's a corollary to this, which I'll get into more later, which is...does what you want actually require martial arts training?]

Coaches, Not Styles

"What style should I do?" is probably the most common martial arts question I see (or some variation on it).

The problem is that it's the wrong question. Styles are just labels we put on methods of practice. Not everyone teaches those styles the same, and while knowing what style someone teaches can help give you some educated guesses (Muay Thai coaches usually teach punches and kicks, among other things), the exact content of the curriculum will vary from gym to gym.

Coach Tony Blauer says "Don't Mistake the Trademark for the Truth." That sums it up pretty well.

What is Your Timeline-in-Training?

Do you have a timeline attached to your training? Is it a week? A month? A year? A lifetime?

None of these are wrong answers, but the way you train will be based on your goals?

I've written about this idea before, and honestly, I don't know how much I'm likely to modify it. Here's the post.

What Will You Sacrifice?

This is in here because people sometimes seem to think that they can become the next Bruce Lee while only training for two hours a week.

Look, learning anything, including a martial art, requires a commitment of time, energy, and likely money. Knowing in advance what you're willing to give up will make deciding when to back off or not a lot easier.

Will you give up your favorite TV show? All TV shows? Friendships? Relationships? Marriages? If that sounds dramatic, know I have seen relationships destroyed because of people's passion for the martial arts. This is not fantasy or theory. This stuff happens.


I stole the term resonance  from Dan John’s excellent book Never Let Go. Dan is talking about Strength and Conditioning training, not martial arts, but the idea carries.

I'd strongly suggest that you take some time to look at a bunch of different training programs to see which ones "resonate" with you. When I read the workout of the Iranian Superheavy, something in my core says, "Yes, that sounds right." When I read about the 1000 crunches a fitness model does before her one hour of cardio, my brain looks for potato chips. - Philosophy of Physical Capital

 Resonance is that ephemeral thing that makes you want to go back for more training in one school, and keeps you from going back to a different one. It’s that little voice in the back of your head that says “yes…that feels right.”

An example: I have studied both Judo and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu at various points in my life (Neither as much as I would have liked). They are two very similar grappling systems, but Judo places more emphasis on throws, and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu more on groundwork.

As I said, very similar. I like them both, but Judo RESONATES more. If I do BJJ, I say, “ That was kinda fun.” But I don’t feel the need to do it more. Not on an emotional level. Judo, on the other hand, always leaves me with a feeling that I want to go back and do it again. A bad day in Judo is better than a good day in BJJ for me.

The important point here is that there’s no rational reason why this is true. It’s not that Judo is objectively better, or that Judo meets my needs better…I just like it. It just resonates. People will offer you many justifications about why their training method is the best. It doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t resonate, don’t do it. Find the thing you love.

Get those five concepts dialed in, and you'll probably find a school pretty easily. Of course, if it were that easy, I wouldn't be doing this series.

Next time: Goals


Maija said...

Resonance is, and was, the only reason that I chose to do anything :-)
All the rest were unknowns. :-)

Jake said...


That works too. :-)

The process I'm outlining isn't a requirement. It's just some guidelines.