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Friday, May 31, 2013

Choosing A Martial Arts School 3.1: The Interwebz, Part One -- Evaluating Potential Schools

Note: This was originally meant to be one post, but it turned out to be much longer than I anticipated, so I'm breaking it into two pieces.

When I was twelve, I decided that I wanted to get into Judo, like my father before me.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a Judo school in Syracuse. There was a Tae Kwon Do class at the local gym that my dad worked out at, and he knew there was an Aikido school around. He didn’t know much about Aikido, but it supposedly involved a lot of finger and wrist twisting. That sounded painful to my twelve-year old ears, so I took Tae Kwon Do instead.

Oh, and he had heard there was a guy at another gym who did ninjitsu, but I was pretty sure that was bunk, because everyone knew that most people who claimed to do ninjitsu were frauds. I don’t know who “everyone” was, but that was the idea I had in my head.

This was the world of martial arts before the rise of the internet. Whatever you know was based on stuff handed down from parents (if they knew anything at all), random things in magazines, and "common wisdom" that manifested from the ether around you.

Now, of course, we live in an era where you can find out about any martial art on the planet with a few keyboard strokes. Some dedicated digging will find video of whatever style you're curious about, along with a plethora of opinions about the efficacy (or lack thereof) of a particular training method. This has a lot of benefits, but a lot of downsides as well.

If you're reading this, you have Internet access, so I'm going to assume that you're also planning to use the Internet as part of your search process. Let's talk about how best to do that.

What's Available

The Internet provides a variety of tools for the aspiring martial artist. Some can be very useful. Some...not so much. Here's the short list.
  • Search Engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc.)
  • School Websites
  • Videos (Youtube, Vimeo, etc.)
  • Blogs
  • Forums/Discussion Groups 
  • Review Sites (Yelp, etc.)
Search Engines

Want to know what martial arts are available in your area? Search Google (or Bing, Yahoo, or whatever) for "martial arts schools" and your city/town. You will get a big list of hits. Google conveniently will provide a map as well.

Depending on where you live, you might get a big list, but it's a start. You can always modify the search parameters based on your goals (if you want Judo, for example, just type "Judo schools near XXX" (where XXX is your location).

If the school has a website, there will usually be a link to it. If the school sounds interesting, or if you just don't know what it is, click the link (more on this below).

Search engines can also be a good way to find more information about a particular school's style or training method. If a school advertises Daito-Ryu, for example, you might do a quick search just to learn what exactly that means. You might even find some video footage (more below).

Bottom line--if you are not using a search engine as part of your school finding process, I really don't know why not. It's just easier.

School Websites

Most martial arts schools have a website. There are exceptions, usually small clubs that don't care about drawing in new students. You can get a fair amount of information about a martial arts school from their website, but bear a few things in mind.

1. You are seeking martial arts instruction, not web design instruction. A fancy website doesn’t mean the school is good, it just means it had money for a good web designer. Conversely, a bad website just means the school didn’t have the money (or didn’t want to spend the money) to get a good website.

2. On the flip side, part of the point of a website is to sell you on training at the school. The website will tell you a lot, but pay attention to what is not said as much as what is.

Things To Look At One A Schools Website

Logistics: Where is the school located? What hours is it open? If a school is to far away, or is only open hours that you can’t attend, the value of it’s training is effectively zero. If the school posts its membership rates, what are they? Can you afford to train there?

Teaching: What style or styles does the school offer? Who does the teaching? It’s great to have a school run by the super Grandmaster Dai Sifu of whatever style, but if all of the classes are run by his underlings, that value drops. What credentials does the instructor have? Are all of the classes the same, or are there specialized classes for different subjects? How often do different subjects come up?

Audience: Pay attention to the imagery and word choice of the website. If a school has lots of pictures of smiling kids with big trophies, and advertisements for “black belt birthday bashes”, it may not offer the hardcore self-defense training you were hoping for (if that’s what you’re hoping for). On the flip side, a school with a slogan like “Blood Is Weakness Leaving The Body” may not be the sort of place for you to seek your harmony with the Tao.

Video: If there is video, look at it. (More on that in an upcoming post)

Blog: Again, if there is a blog, look at it. (more on that in an upcoming post).

Let’s look at this process in action.

If I do a search for martial arts schools near me, the following website pops up:

Calvin Chin's Martial Arts Academy (

(Disclaimer: while I know one or two people who have trained at Calvin Chin's school, I have never set foot in there. I am basing my analysis entirely off of what is written on their website. This is neither an endorsement nor a condemnation of the school.)
Let's see what we find.

Front Page

The slogan of the school  is "Where Fitness Starts With Martial Arts". If fitness is part of my goal set, that's a good sign. If I want hardcore competition or self-defense, it might not be, but let's keep looking.

I get the address right away, so that's helpful. I also see that they have some kind of scholarship, which probably doesn't apply to a thirty-something year old male, but maybe I'll look. They've also got a youtube channel, which could be helpful as well.

Their classes "are held in a spacious, climate controlled facility." This is not a sweaty fight dojo.

With a little more reading, I can see that they focus on traditional Chinese martial arts. They do include some self-defense training, but neither that nor competition seem to be a big focus here.

They also offer a free trial class. That's good to know.

Our Programs

They offer quite a bit, apparently. Along with the free trial, they have a required eight class intro program before you can get into the other stuff. That seems sensible enough.

Sparring is its own separate class, as are weapons and lion dance training. If I'm into the Chinese martial art thing, this might be a good fit. If I want fitness...well, so far, I haven't found much specific to fitness. They do say that Kung Fu and Tai Chi are good exercise, and even claim that there is some research to back the benefits of Tai Chi for older folks.

There's not much on sparring, competition, or self-defense. If those are my focus, this may not be the place for me.

Class Schedule

Obviously, this tells me when the classes are. If a school doesn't offer training when you want to train, that's pretty useless. This school seems to offer a fair amount, but it's mostly at night. There are a couple of daytime classes, but if I work a 9-5 job, I won't make those. There's Saturday sessions too.

The schedule also helps tell me more about the school's focus. There's only one sparring class and one push hands class a week, so if fighting competition is my goal, this definitely doesn't seem to be the place for it. Lot of Kung Fu and Tai Chi training, so I can get my workouts in pretty regularly. There's also a "conditioning" class that wasn't listed under programs, but it also apparently is "subject to instructor availability". I don't know what that means, but it sounds like it's not a reliable class.


We’ve got a bunch more information about the scholarship mentioned on the front page.

There’s some news about the success of the competition team. This is the first place the competition team has been mentioned, which suggests that while they’ve been successful, it’s not a big emphasis for the school. A little bit of digging into the videos shows that these are forms competitions, not full contact fighting. Which is fine, unless you’re looking for full contact work.

There’s a little side article on the benefits of martial arts training for girls. It’s a bit vague, but seems to emphasize the idea that they believe this style is effective for women as well as men.


This link leads to a rather confusing set up, but once you figure out where the information is, this seems to be very thorough (remember what I said about not judging based on web design). These folks are not shy about sharing info. They even offer some advice on choosing a martial arts school. Obviously, the answers to the questions are designed to promote their system and training, but the depth of the FAQ makes it clear that this is a place where they've put a lot of thought into what they are doing.

Again, the information is centered on traditional Chinese martial arts, health and spiritual benefits, and martial arts as an enhancement to one's lifestyle.


We get a bit more of a bio on Calvin Chin himself, as well as the other principle instructor at the academy. Chin's background focuses on his time with his master, inheriting the system that he now teaches. The other instructor's bio mentions some competition experience, but only vaguely. Again, the emphasis is on his time spent learning, and on his devotion to the art.

Contact Us

Contact info, plus directions and a link to a map.

So what have I got so far?  

This is a school that emphasizes traditional Chinese martial arts. If that's what I'm looking for, this place definitely might be worth checking out. If my goals are centered on personal development, this may be a good place as well. If I want hard core fighting or self-defense, this may not be exactly what I'm looking for.

Of course, judging a school entirely based on its web content is not entirely fair. I might go there and discover that they train hard core fighting every day. Maybe. But if I'm narrowing down my options, going through websites is a good way to start.


If this seems like a lot of detail, it is. But again, bear in mind that this is an activity that will influence your mind and body, possibly for a long time. It's worth taking the time to investigate rather carefully. And, as with many things, it takes longer to type or read than it does to do.

A good martial art can stay with you for life. Investing some time into making a good choice is worth it.

Next time, we'll talk about analyzing video, blog posts, and the value (or lack thereof of things like discussion forums in seeking a new martial arts school)

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