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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Choosing A Martial Arts School, 3.1: The Interwebz, Part Two -- Sources of Knowledge

In Part One of this discussion, we looked at how to find and evaluate the websites of martial arts schools in your area. Here in part two, we'll look at some other common resources: videos, blogs, discussion forums, and online reviews. We'll also talk about how to check out credentials online.

Videos

YouTube and other Internet video sites are both a boon and a bane for the martial arts community. For the aspiring martial artist, they can be a fantastic resource, or a rabbit hole of ever-increasing insanity.

The good news is that you can find video of just about any martial arts style on the planet. What to know what Wing Chun looks like? Google it. Never heard of Uechi-Ryu Karate before? A couple of keystrokes will let you see some of the top practitioners of the style in action. Where as in bygone years, we had to make do with crummy black and white pictures or shoddy VHS recordings, now we can watch HD video of almost any style in the world whenever we feel like it.

The bad news is that, unless you know what you’re looking at, it’s very hard to tell the good from the bad. If you're new to the martial arts, the most implausible things can look perfectly realistic (and vis-versa).

If you can, look at videos from the school you're considering. That will give you a direct look at the people who will be coaching/training you, and the students that they produce. Failing that, check out videos of other practitioners of the same style. Just remember that the capabilities they demonstrate may not represent what goes on in the school you're looking at.

Analyzing a video is worth a post of it’s own, but here’s a few guidelines.
  • Think about the video's purpose. Is it a highlight reel, designed to show you the best moments of the teacher, school, or organization? Is meant to be a demonstration of a particular move, kata, or drill. Is it meant to be instructional?
  • Does the video grab you? If you find a two-minute instructional clip from the main instructor at the school to be boring, odds are pretty good you're not going to suffer through an hour long class. If your first reaction to the movement you see is "that looks stupid", this may not be the place for you (MAY is the operative word here). If the highlight reel doesn't excite you, chances are, the training won't either.
  • Don't bother with the comments: YouTube Comments represent the lowest orders of humanity. Seriously. Save yourself.
Blogs

You’d expect a blog writer to recommend looking at blogs, wouldn’t you?

Blogs are a funny thing. The plethora of free platforms for blogging makes it possible for just about anyone to start a blog. That's nice for a lot of people (myself included), but it also means that just about anyone can get online and start pontificating about the martial arts (or whatever, but I'm writing about martial arts here).

How do you decide if a blog is valuable?

Well, again, if the school has a blog, that's a good place to start. Does the writing click with you? Do the thoughts and observations that these people are making seem reasonable? Do they seem like people you’d like to know better?

If you're looking at other blogs, pay attention to who's writing them. Most bloggers keep a small profile on their blog, or a link to their website if they have one. Who are you reading? Are they a coach? A student? An observer? All of those viewpoints have potential value, but you want to know what you're looking at. The musings of a student with three years of training should sound and read differently than the writings of an instructor of twenty years. Either one may offer some insight, but the coach's perspective may be more relevant if you're seeking an instructor.

If you can't find a blog for the school specifically, you can look for blogs from other practitioners of the same style. That may provide you some insight into how people who train in this method think. Or it may not. The thing about blogs is that they're very individualized. One person's opinion may not represent the whole, and it certainly may not represent what you'd learn in a particular gym.


Discussion Forums

For the aspiring martial artist, most discussion forums are patently useless. They are filled with trolls, keyboard warriors, and other opinionated idiots who you will never meet in person (most likely), and who may not be whatever they claim to be. Don’t waste your time.

(Side note: if you're already a practicing martial artists, discussion forums can occasionally, if rarely, have value. But without a context to work from, they tend to be pretty dire.)

Online Reviews

Sites like Yelp sometimes have reviews of local martial arts schools. They can be helpful, but take them with a very large grain of salt. They’re very subjective, not always well-written, and really don’t tell you particularly much. They’re about as reliable as Amazon reviews, and usually are written about as well (which is to say, mostly, not very).

Which isn't to say that they are entirely useless. If a school has a lot of reviews, you may be able to get a sense of the kind of people who are training there, or who the school attracts. If there's a bunch of reviews from happy mothers, it's probably a very kid-friendly kind of place. If the reviews all emphasize the amazing, hard-core training...well, that may be what's there.

The fewer reviews there are, the less you can rely on them.

As an example: Sityodtong (where I coach) has six reviews on Yelp. Five of them are positive, one is negative. That's great, and I love it, but let's be real...that's only SIX people. Some of those reviews are three to five years old. I love this place like a home, but really, those reviews don't tell you a lot.

If a place has a large number of reviews, they may provide you a better perspective, or they may not. A pile of four and five star reviews may be indicative of high quality, or it may be indicative of an excellent PR campaign.

Verifying Credentials

Credentials in the martial arts are a tricky thing. Martial arts are essentially an unregulated industry--anyone can hang a shingle and call themselves a martial arts instructor. All it takes is the money to start up a business, and the willingness to say that you know what you're doing.

Some systems, like Judo and Tae Kwon Do, have larger national or international certifying bodies. If an instructor claims to be certified under one of those organizations, you may be able to verify it through a directory search, or by contacting the certifying body directly.

There are a lot of systems out there that have no such credentialing organization, however. They're just passed down, teacher to student, and while certifications may be handed out, there's not a lot you can do to verify them. Especially if the instructor who certified your instructor has passed away.

Sometimes there's a bit of a rabbit hole effect here as well; if you can verify your instructor's credentials, do you then verify HIS instructor's credentials? How far back do you want to trace this?

I'm not suggesting not checking up on credentials. If someone claims to be certified by an organizing body, make sure they really are. If tracing their credentials is going to be a task worthy of PhD in History, it may not be a feasible thing to check.

Haters Gonna Hate

One final thought about checking up on people through the Internet.

The Internet has a way of bringing about polarizing opinions, and the more well-known an instructor is, the more polarizing those opinions will be. As an example--if you do a web search for me, you won't find very much, because outside of a very small sphere, no one really knows who I am.

Do a search for one of my coaches, Tony Blauer, and you get a lot of hits. And some of those hits will lead you to discussions where it becomes clear that some people really, really, don't like Tony Blauer.

But here's the thing--if you hunt on the Internet long enough, you will find people who hate just about any prominent martial arts instructor you care to name. No one is liked by everyone. If you spend your time searching for the instructor or system about which no one ever has anything bad to say, you will be hunting a long time.

Find something that seems worth investigating, and don't worry too much about the haters.

Next time: let's get off the Internet, and into the gym.

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