First Things First
Call or email the school before you visit. Some schools have specific procedures for prospective students, or times that they prefer to have visitors. Schools occasionally close for reasons that aren't obvious to an outsider (a competitive gym might shut down the day before a big tournament, for example). If nothing else, it's just polite.
If you need to make a specific appointment to come visit, do so. If not, just pick a good time and go on down. Try to get there at a time when the class you want to participate in is happening.
Once you're there, get as much information as you can. Remember that this is something that you are potentially devoting a lot of time and energy to. Take the time to do things right.
I would also add .... let them know you are coming, and ask when the best time might be .... but at least appear that you have read what's on the website and don't ask stupid questions like - where are you? And, what time are classes .... if the information is available to research.
Also don't promise to turn up and then don't.
(Both these things really irritate me, and lead me to the conclusion that the student is not capable of taking responsibility for themselves .... not a good way to start a relationship)
Things To Do
- Watch a full class. Looking in from the outside will allow you to see some things you might not see otherwise.
- Watch the students move. The instructor may be absolutely awe-inspiring (or not) but you aren't the instructor. Pay attention to how the students move, because that's the position you will be in. Of course, if you are watching a beginner class, some of the students may be quite awkward, but that's okay. You should still see signs of progress within some of the students there. More advanced classes should look, well, better.
- What kind of vibe does the gym have? Are the students happy? Serious? Do they seem to enjoy their training? Are they working hard, or hardly working? Is it a vibe that you feel comfortable with?
- What is the instructors teaching like? Is it inspiring? Abrasive? Gentle? Strict? How would you feel about learning under this kind of coaching? (Note: strict training does not equal bad training. Some people learn very well in under tough, strict, coaching. Just know if you are one of them or not.) Do you find yourself interested and engaged when the instructor is talking, or are you checking the clock to see when this class is over?
- How does the instructor handle students who are struggling? How does she handle questions from the class (if there are any)?
- If you can, take a free lesson. Just as there are things you cannot notice without watching, there are things you can't feel until you experience them. Yes, this may require two trips. It's worth it.
- Ask questions. Not just of the instructors, but of the students, and the staff. Now is the time to get down to brass tacks about whatever concerns you have. Be very clear and forthcoming about your goals, and making sure that the school can really address them.
- Sign up to soon. A good sales person will sell you on the first school you visit, but make sure you check out all of your options before you make a final decision. Buyer's remorse is awful when it's over something like a gym membership, and some schools use contracts that are rather difficult to get out of.
- Challenge anyone. Asking questions is fine, and appropriate. Telling the instructor about how you think you could beat him up, or how her technique isn't as good as that guy you saw on youtube is needlessly antagonistic. If you like what you see, great. If you don't, keep it to yourself, be gracious, and leave.
- Interrupt the class. Save your questions until either before or after the training session. If someone comes to speak with you during the training session, that's fine, but don't interfere with other people's training time.
- Stay longer than you have to. If you see something that you find so off putting that you don't want to stay any longer, then just go. But again, do so politely. Don't make a scene about it.
- If a school won't let you watch a class without signing up, be very wary. While free intro lessons aren't a universal practice, any gym worth it's salt should be okay with you watching their training. Someone who won't even let you see what you're doing until you sign on the dotted line is not necessarily to be trusted.
- Claims of mystical or supernatural powers. I'm not talking about an Aikido instructor who tells you to focus your ki, or a Tai Chi player who references Taoist beliefs in their instruction. I'm talking about claims of full on superhero abilities: telekinesis, no-touch knockouts, healing touches, and other such nonsense.
- Abusive behavior. There is a line between hard training and strict instruction, and outright abuse. Do not mistake one for the other.