4 Things To Consider When Choosing a Dojo

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How to choose a good dojo.My husband and I have been taking Karate from the same instructor since 2008. We started training together before we had children and would attend Karate-related events as romantic dates. We learned a lot, including how to choose a dojo.

Now that we have three kids, it’s difficult for us to train together, but we take turns attending classes at our dojo, or Karate school. We both have black belts.

In addition to it being a wholeso me activity we can do together, it is an important aspect of our overall preparedness strategy. We feel confident that, in an emergency, we would have the training and the presence of mind to come out on top.

The key word here is training. Martial arts is not something you can learn from YouTube instructional videos or helpful internet tutorials. You need a flesh and blood teacher to watch you and correct poor technique. And then you need to practice good technique over, and over, and over again.

In the heat of the moment, when your life is genuinely on the line, the only way you can be assured that you will execute a self defense technique effectively is if you have done it so many times it has become ingrained in your muscle memory.

How to find a good dojo

There are oodles of Martial Arts schools out there, and not all of them are that great. How can you know which one to choose? What should you look for? Here are four points to consider while performing your your search.

1) First, you need to do a little introspection. What is your primary motivation for taking Martial Arts classes? 

Knowing what you want will affect what you should look for. If you just want to get into shape but aren’t terribly concerned about actual self defense, it probably doesn’t matter which style you study. Some Martial Arts styles are considered more of a sport, and others are wholly practical.

2) Even though this is listed second, the most important thing to look for in any Martial Arts school is the instructor.

Your ideal Martial Arts instructor is someone with whom you will be able to form a close student/teacher relationship. Is he (or she!) knowledgeable about The Art? Does he make you feel comfortable enough to ask questions? Above all, is this a person from whom you feel you can learn? Notice the use of the word “feel.” It’s kind of like choosing your college major, or who will become your best friend in high school. You’ll know “your” instructor when you meet him, or her.

3) Critically assess any school that requires a contract.

Some schools require that you lock yourself into a contract before you begin classes – often without having so much as a single trial lesson beforehand. At times (but to be fair, not all the time) it is an indicator that the school recognizes that it offers an inferior level of instruction, and that this is the only way they can retain students for more than a week. A school that allows you to pay month-to-month is more confident that their instruction can stand up to scrutiny. Avoid ten-week programs.

4) Finally, the Martial Arts is all about excellence in body, mind, and skill. Whether you are just there for the workout, or want to learn how to actually defend yourself against an attacker, your ideal Martial Arts school will demand excellence from you, and will help you to achieve it.

A school that claims to award you a black belt within two years, regardless of skill or effort required, is not a school that will help you gain excellence. If you consistently see higher ranks punch or kick incorrectly, then you know the rank doesn’t mean anything because it required no work to attain it.

A good Martial Arts school will occasionally fail people when they test for their next rank, and will have rigorous standards for earning a black belt. (I did not earn mine until I had been studying for six years.) A good school will also typically be more expensive; it’s a case of getting what you pay for.

I know these are rather stringent guidelines; it’s just because I am picky. I spent about twelve years trying to find my “dream dojo.” On one hand, I’m glad I didn’t waste my time and money with an inferior product. On the other hand, I did waste a lot of time not doing Karate. In retrospect, it’s probably better to attend a Tae Kwon Do school that’s “just ok,” than to hold out for Wing Chun Kung Fu that is not even offered in your town.

Often when I’ve spoken to friends and acquaintances about the martial arts, they assume it’s not for them, that they are not strong enough or fast enough to be effective against a physical attack. I say, all the more reason to study karate! Karate is for everyone. My instructor has said on multiple occasions that women make the best martial artists, because our smaller body size and slighter builds force us to use superior technique. Good technique will win over brute strength every time. I’m only 5’4″ and I have been known to throw guys twice my size. Children, too, can be effective martial artists.

This short list is by no means all-inclusive. Are any of you currently training? How did you choose where to study, and which style do you practice? What criteria did you use to choose your school?

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Beth Buck lives in Utah with her husband and three children. She has a degree in Middle Eastern Studies/ Arabic, a black belt in Karate, a spinning wheel, and a list of hobbies that is too long to list here.

4 thoughts on “4 Things To Consider When Choosing a Dojo”

  1. My family of 5 took Shorinryu Karate for 7 yrs together and 2 are Black belts, 3 are Brown belts. It was excellent discipline, fun, family event (seminars, tests, competitions and parties) and confidence building. As a woman, wife and mother, I do think it’s really important to be able to defend oneself, protect your children and prepare your family for “what if…” We had a lot of fun and are still friends with our Instructors years later. My sons are enrolling their oldest kids into a martial art which the kids really enjoy. There are great physical benefits into very old age from doing a martial art because we lose flexibility, strength and balance over the decades needlessly. Go for it, even with minor injuries occurring due to the newbie effect, you’ll never regret the training.

  2. I received my 1st degree black belt in traditional Tae Kwon Do when I was 18. I am 52 now and received my 2nd degree in a more street style but still Tae Kwon Do, about 6 years ago. The first school I went to was taught by a Korean instructor who had 9th and 10th degree black belts in both Tae Kwon Do and Judo. I haven’t really been able to go in the last 4 years or so due to having a degenerative disc in my lower back that keeps going out, but I would highly advise everyone to take classes.

  3. I train in Cuong Nhu, which is a relatively small style in the western US. (I hear it’s a bit larger in the east, especially Florida: there’s two dojos in my state but 20+ in a fifty-mile radius of Gainesville – guess where the style started in the States?) It pulls from seven older, more established styles, both hard style and soft, and there’s an emphasis on self defense from the start. Supposedly it’s easier to go from Cuong Nhu to other styles, because it’s such a mix, than the other way ’round.

    In spite of all that, I picked it entirely because it’s one of two martial arts clubs on campus and I don’t have to pay for anything except my celebratory post-testing dinner. I happened to luck out on the style and the teacher.

    I’d also say, if someone is worried about not being strong enough to do any good against an attacker… look into soft style martial arts. It’s all about using your attacker’s energy, not your own. More tae kwon do or aikido than the hard styles like karate. You don’t block punches, for example, you deflect them. Some styles have elements of both hard and soft, like Cuong Nhu does, and in that case you may have to stick it out and go up a few ranks before learning soft style; I’m two years in and just starting.

    But once you get there… yes, you can throw someone without using much force. It’s a combination of your own momentum and where you aim on your opponent – press hard enough on their throat and they’re going down. Pull their wrist down as you step back a bit, that will take their balance away and it’s much easier to toss them on their tush. That kind of thing. You have to get through the bare basics before you can start learning the interesting, useful, efficient, and more reliable techniques.

    One more thing: some schools don’t fail a lot of students – not because it’s easy to go up in rank, but because the teachers won’t nominate a student for testing until that student is ready and likely to pass. I’ve been held back a quarter because my skills weren’t up to par, even though plenty of others would have been ready in the same amount of time. Some schools have a third option, probation: I know someone who had the skills to go up a rank but went on probation instead because at his level, he was also required to submit an essay, and he didn’t turn his in on time. So look more at how long it takes to reach a certain rank, not the pass/fail ratio.

  4. Thank you for your tip to choose a dojo that allows you to pay month-to-month. My son and daughter want to learn how to do some martial arts and I wasn’t sure how to pick a dojo. After reading this blog post, I feel much more prepared.

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