Finding a good martial arts school

From The Martial Arts Encyclopedia


Finding a good martial arts school


The most common question we get from martial arts novices here at is "What martial arts should I take?" The next most frequent question is "Which one of the following martial arts schools is the best for me." The unstated question is "How do I avoid a crummy school?" Most of us at have shared the experience of having a bad instructor, but good judgment is often the product of experience which in turn is the product of previous bad judgment. This is a guide to how to find a good martial arts school the first time around, and how to spot schools and instructors that have "issues". Since our detractors tend to accuse us of being "sports oriented" if you really, really desire a "traditional" martial arts school you might want to also consult the following essay by Rob Redmond. He's also much more polite then we are. Or this link

I especially like the form Rob has in this article that indicates how martial arts school costs are broken down. You just might want to print it out and bring it school shopping as he advises.


Here at we use the term "McDojo" describe a school in which the quality of martial arts instruction and training is watered down by the instructor in order to make money. Similarly a McDojo may be occasionally run by someone who is sincere but is the product of bad training and a martial arts franchise approach. "Bullshido" is bad behavior, typically involving deception which a martial arts instructor performs frequently at a martial arts school (which is very often a McDojo).

To provide obvious examples, if a school tests people for a black belt within a year after they start this art, they are obviously dropping their grading standards and are a McDojo. If your martial arts instructor is insisting he can trace his martial arts lineage back 4,000 years or that he teaches secret special forces hand to hand combat techniques you are probably witnessing Bullshido: A substantial deception or untruth in a martial arts context. Either is a compelling reason to avoid training at this school.


The most important thing for any martial arts student to know when they are out shopping for a martial arts school is what do they really want? Here at most of our members are interested in studying a martial art primarily as a method of fighting, rather then for health and internal cultivation (Tai Chi) a workout, (cardio kickboxing, Tae Bo, and many forms of Tae Kwon Do) or as a study of a foreign culture. (Aikido, Kendo).

Here at we believe in Alive training which is training which has "three key elements, movement, timing, and energy (resistance). If you are missing any one of these then it is not Alive." Resistance means working out with people who are non-compliant, they resist the application of your techniques and you have to learn how to make them work under pressure. If your training is not alive, it will not be useful in a real fight.

When asked, people at tend to favor arts which tend to train in an 'alive' manner. Usually these include: Brazilian Jujitsu, SAMBO, Judo, Western Boxing, Western Wrestling, Muay Thai Kick Boxing, any form of full contact kickboxing, etc. This is not a complete list, and any, and many, so called traditional martial arts can use "alive" training. We stress here that is the training methods used, rather than the name of the art that produces people who can actually fight.

The bottom line is if you do not know what you want when you go shopping, you won't find it.


Before you go to visit a particular dojo you should search on line for the websites of schools in your local area and see what sort of prices they are charging. This will give you some basis for comparison for the numbers that are thrown around when you visit a school in person. It will also help you spot if a school is charging above market value rates. There may be a good reason why an instructor is charging more then the norm for his area. The best estimate we've seen nationally for an average martial arts monthly tuition is $100 (Rob Colasanti of NAPMA). However because of regional differences in pricing, (New York City verses rural Alabama) this estimate may be totally inapplicable to your particular situation. Classes at the YMCA by someone who does not teach for a living will cost less. Classes in a school located in a strip mall with a high rent will cost more, often much more.

Many of us would also pay premium rates to study with say, Mario Sperry or someone who has world class grappling skills, but there should be a clear reason why you are paying more to attend this school. Additionally if a school lists its rates openly you are more likely to be dealing with an honest instructor and not be victimized by any one of a number of deceptive sales practices. Beware however, that a school may offer a low price on the phone and then try to upgrade your contract within 8 to 16 classes, if not sooner. So find out how many classes a week that price covers, and what it would cost if you chose to upgrade to receive additional classes for "the Black Belt Club" or "the demonstration team."

Look for other things, Is the instructor claiming to belong to any "Halls of Fame"? What does he call his Youth Class? Do the pictures on the site show techniques that look very complicated and ridiculous? How many martial arts are being offered? Do they list class times for each art offered? We will explain the importance of each of these questions below.

Look on the site to see what organization the training group is part of. Most major martial arts have professional associations that can act as a form of quality control. An instructor should generally be certified through this office. This is particularly true of Japanese arts. When you later visit the school the instructor should be able to produce his ranking certificate (or menkyo, in a koryu art) that certifies that he is able to teach, and he should have no problem allowing you to verify this directly with the home office. Tell him you are not questioning his credentials, but double-checking to make sure you've found a good place.


Lets make this simple. Stripped of romantic "Karate Kid" or Hollywood notions, a martial arts teacher is basically a physical education teacher* who is paid directly by you rather than by a school system. If you don't think this individual would be able to supervise a bunch of students playing football then they probably aren't a good choice as your sensei. (*One of our members pointed out that this is a simplification and that other roles besides instructor include, coach, trainer, manager, etc. but we're doing so because of space limitations.)

What physical education teachers are supposed to do is the following: Using a basic understanding of body structure, mechanics, learning theory, and sports psychology, they will train you to carry out certain techniques and establish a context or strategy for using such techniques.

a) Here is how to kick the soccer ball.

b) Here is how to pass upfield.

c) This is why you pass instead of trying to bring the ball upfield against three defenders.

d) Now let's practice drills focusing first on kicking accurately, then on passing.

e) Later we will have you practice passing against a defender trying to take the ball away from you."

There are various teaching methods which first seek to show the move done properly, practice it in isolation in order to build attributes such as the ability to kick the ball far enough, and then reintegrate the movie into the context of either resistant training, or the soccer game itself. If you ever want to see a model for this instruction borrow some Gracie Jujitsu tapes and watch Rorion and Royce go through some of the moves step by step. You are looking for someone who can provide that level of clarity and attention to detail.

Importance of Cross-Training

There are many different types of combat that need attention in order to become a well rounded martial artist. These are kicking, boxing, clinching, throws, takedowns, grappling and submissions. Some schools might rule out a particular range of combat, telling students not to go to that range. This should be a big red flag. Combat is unpredictable, and wishful thinking will do nothing to stop a fight from going to that level. Neglecting any range of combat is ignorance. A system that completely avoids any range of combat will teach its students very one-dimensional skills. An experienced adversary will be able to sense their opponent’s weakness, and take them out of their game to a range of combat where they are helpless.

Just because a school’s style typically focuses on one specific range, it shouldn’t stop them from incorporating other styles into their curriculum. For example: A Tae Kwon Do School could incorporate Judo, a Jiu Jitsu school could incorporate kickboxing, or a Boxing school could incorporate Wrestling. Incorporating additional styles so that all ranges are addressed will make an otherwise limited system more complete. When it comes to martial arts, variety is truly the spice of life. Look for open minded instructors that can help fill your bag of tricks, or risk being trained as a one-trick pony.

We would recommend a teacher who has extensive experience, and if possible, a competition record in a full contact martial art. If it's a boxing gym, see if the owner's are USA boxing certified. Look for Golden Glove contenders, Silver glove contenders, amateur and professional records, etc. Same goes for Muay Thai and BJJ, they should be competing in the area and have some success record to show for it. You may be able to check his records here.

Links to fighting records: (Fused with Great for finding out if schools or instructors are legitimate in BJJ. )

We also prefer head instructors who; actually teach classes instead of primarily serving as salesman in chief. Who rolls with his students while grappling. Who prefers to be called coach to grand master. Who is level headed and does not tell black belt fables. Who is grown up enough to have decent people skills, not just sales skills. Who explains his fee structure clearly. Who does not look like he's assembling a cult of personality. Who is not overtly paranoid, but who has experience with the way criminals actually function. (Law Enforcement Officers usually have such credentials)


a) There are more then one or two children under the age of sixteen running around with black belts on. This indicates they promote the students in their kiddy program often and early. The school will tend to water its training down to this classes level, for example no contact in their sparring.

b) They let these kids teach their lower ranking belts.

c) They have people under the rank of Brown belt teaching their beginners. (NOTE: Because it takes much longer to achieve rank in Brazilian Jujitsu, experienced blue belts can teach beginners though you are better off if the person has at least a purple belt in this art.)

d) They make extensive use of pre-black belt students to teach their full classes, typically for free.

e) Emphases is placed on teaching "life skills" to the children, and other students rather than combat skills. This is typically done under the guise of promoting a family atmosphere, or building the respect and focus needed to become a black belt. The bottom line is you can buy your motivational tapes directly from Tony Robbins and you shouldn't be paying your kid's martial arts instructor to tell him to clean his room.

f) Their sparring is no-contact, both for beginners and for advanced students.

g) Advanced Students only do "point sparring". A form of light contact sparring in which they simply have to touch their opponent, and the match is restarted. This encourages REALLY bad fighting habits.

h) The higher-ranking students who are not yet fifty or sixty are quite out of shape, this indicates that the art isn't physically taxing enough.

i) People need permission from the instructor to hit the punching bag in the school when class is not in session.

j) Students above the rank of yellow and orange belt, are flailing around and their strikes show no focus or power.

k) The instructor wastes more time in class talking about himself rather than instructing.

l) The school mixes children and adults into the same class, bad idea, they need to be taught using different methods.

m) The school says that it teaches multiple martial arts, Karate, Aikido, Bando, boxing, and does not have a separate class for each of these disciplines. "Well we teach the Aikido through our Karate class", yeh, right!

n) The school teaches Extreme Martial Arts, also called X-MA. This crowd pleaser involves the more gymnastic side of martial arts and while kids love the flashy kicks, it's worthless for self defense.

o) A good indication of a McDojo is the ridiculous amount of trophies. While not always true, if a place holds tons of trophies and medals everywhere, it generally tends to be McDojoish. Ridiculous uniforms are also not a good sign. It indicates the school likes to play dress up, which is the first step towards "Live Action Role Play".

p) Goofy stances equals goofy fighting. Real people generally don't fight like insects or dragons.

q) The school or its leader has an at home study program that gives rankings to those who study via DVD and or videotape from home.

r) The Instructor discourages or forbids you against going to open martial arts competitions where you will compete against members of other schools. Similarly he prohibits you from cross training in other martial arts, Gee I wonder why?

s) Schools, typically Kung Fu Schools, that train people using Chi or Qi for self defense. While such internal energy may exist, we are unaware of any documented example in which such internal power was successfully used in a real fight, sport or otherwise.

t) Many McDojo websites put up kanji symbols without understanding what they mean. Find someone who knows Japanese, (on forums like these), and see if the Japanese is actually legitimate. Its hard to have a legitimate Japanese Martial Arts lineage when the words on your certificates make no sense in Japanese.

u) The school teaches ATA Tae Kwon Do, or Ninjitsu, we've had more complaints about these two styles then anything else. For information on the ATA see:

v) The instructor will not let you view a regular martial arts class before you sign up. Most McDojos will not do this but if it happens this is an extremely bad sign. And no we're not talking about their advanced class, we're talking about viewing the one you'd be placed in as a beginner.

w) The instructor teaches grappling or mixed martial arts (MMA) mostly, or primarily based on his exposure to a video tape or video feed instructional system. Systems exist (see John Graden's Prostar) which will provide canned lessons to an instructor with no background in these arts. However for grappling arts like Judo or Brazilian Jujitsu it usually takes about two years of hands on instruction and training for most people to start to master the small but important technical details that make most techniques work on a resisting opponent. Many members at would suggest avoiding an instructor who would teach you grappling or MMA based on their own video based instruction.


a) The Instructor will not answer questions about his pricing structure in a clear or concise manner.

b) His rates are well above average for your area without a really good explanation.

c) He makes a point of saying that you will receive certain services and discounts which are not mentioned in the text of the contract. SUCKER!!!!!!!

d) There is a lot of add-on equipment that needs to be bought to test for various ranks. This technique has occasionally included a different colored uniform per rank.

e) Prices for rank testing generally, and over $35 specifically for lower belts, anything over $150 for a Black Belt test are ridiculous. You may also be charged a fee for tests to receive stripes which are ranks within the color belt rank. Say Green belt, one stripe. Some places will also charge you to "register your certificate with the home office" which is a pure profit add-on charge.

f) The instructor tries to sign you up for a contract that lasts more then a year telling you that you'll lock in a low price. He might also tell you can cancel but such language is not in the contract. SUCKER!!!!!!!!

g) He tells you that you can sign up for a program that will take you all the way to black belt. (We've known of people who have dropped $5,000 on such programs and wanted out of their contracts a couple months later.) SUCKER!!!!

h) His students are wearing various patches denoting their membership in various suborganizations, and competition teams. Yes they had to pay to play :(

i) They call their children's class "little ninjas" even though they don't teach Ninjutsu.

j) The school teaches ATA Tae Kwon do, they're the worst of the large TKD school chains in this regard.

k) The instructor is a member of a Martial Arts Hall of Fame that is not run by Black Belt Magazine. These are generally "pay to play" organizations and/or back slapping circle jerks with a few legitimate members for window dressing and a whole lot of want-to- bes. If the instructor belongs to more then one such Hall of Fame he is almost always a professional credential hunter and his whole resume is suspect. This becomes a certainty if he works this topic into the sales conversation.

l) This chain of martial arts schools is expanding very rapidly. This warning sign can also be considered a quality control and McDojo warning sign. Usually what happens is that when many new schools are added, the organization will allow assistant instructors to teach at the new locations that have much less experience then one of their regular black belts. Some organizations have even given these newbie instructors special instructor belts, so that visitors do not realize that the teacher is actually say, a green belt in the art, because he's wearing a combo black and red, or black and white belt around his waist. With new schools to fill with new students, the marketing and sales operation becomes increasingly important and drives decision making within the art. We do not know of any martial arts schools since the 1950s which have expanded rapidly and NOT experienced quality issues at some of their locations.

m) One such martial arts chain to avoid is called Go Kan Ryu which started out in Australia and has now expanded to England. This chain has also shown up in Houston Texas. Based on the discussion at their method appears to be the following. 1) Recruit a bunch of younger students as "self defense consultants" who then go door to door recruiting new students. 2) These SDCs report to a manager who supervises sales and when the SDC make enough sales they are able to teach themselves. 3) The SDCs are in an intensive three nights a week training program, but depending on their success they can be teaching their own class within a year or two and wearing a black belt with a white stripe which conceals their actual sub-black belt rank. 4) They will also charge you, the student up to $160 for a separate insurance fee which is ridiculous for a non-contact Karate school. Our suggestion is to avoid these people like the plague.

n) As of late 2006 members on also started hearing rumors that Fang Shen Do up in Quebec and Ontario is set to start a rapid expansion in the number of their schools. Please take a look at this article before you sign up with these people. A search of will turn up several mega lengthy threads on this art, and one of the points that is made by posters is that that at the Black Sash or Black Belt level, students tend to either leave FSD or buy their own school. If this is true, then FSD has already deployed almost all of their black sash caliber students to teach and will have to dip into its lower ranking students to staff such an expansion. If you must decide to take FSD we would not suggest doing so with either a new instructor, or at a new school.


A commercial martial arts school will keep itself afloat through the tuition of its students. So there is typically a basic rate. Let's say $120 a month. Sound simple? It no longer is, with the proliferation of Martial Arts Management groups the same school may offer as many as three or four different contract packages to a new student. A student will be offered a "basic membership", a "Black belt membership" or a "Masters Membership", similarly, these could be called silver, gold, and platinum memberships. One might also be sold space on a "Leadership Team". The point is, that the basic membership is a false economy since you will usually not be able to spar, and will have a limited number of class opportunities a week. However its existence allows the school to offer a low price over the phone, when the upgraded program with a Masters Club AND Leadership Team membership could cost, in extreme cases, close to $300 a month.

(See this thread for one example of this model

At we dislike any plan which implies that by paying your fees that you will become a Black Belt or Master. Similarly we dislike such programs because as soon as the student joins as a basic member there will be efforts to have the student upgrade to a longer, more expensive contract. Bait and switch anyone? We strongly suggest a school that has one basic rate for instruction.

The other way schools make money is by add-ons. You need to buy a uniform, sparring equipment through the school, weapons like sai or tonfa for your weapons tests, and attend paid seminars with the instructor's master. One week camps in the summer are expected in order for you to test for belts and finally the dreaded belt testing fees! Typically these will start at $25 to $50 for the low color belts and go as high as $500 to $1,000 to test for a black belt in many schools of Tae Kwon Do. You may then be charged an additional fee for "registering" the rank with their home office. :P This is a great money making venture but it gives the tester a strong incentive to pass people which has had horrible consequences for quality control in the martial arts.

It can be expected that a school will sell you uniforms and sparring equipment, but find out ahead of time what the going rate is for a simple karate and judo gi (the Judo gi is much thicker to prevent ripping while grappling) if they are charging well above the going rate for sparring equipment it will tell you something about their business practices. Similarly ask them what they charge for belt tests and watch to see if they do any backpedaling. Most of these add-ons are costs that are not specified in the contract you will sign, except for a provision that you have to use equipment in class that is permitted and required by the instructor. When you visit the school and the instructor/sales person has their attention diverted make sure to ask one of their students casually about these add-ons.


Professional schools often use selling scripts when dealing with potential students. One of the common approaches now being used is to offer the student one or two trial lessons and a uniform at a nominal price, and use this time to build the perceived value of the service they are offering. At we do not have a consensus on charging for trial lessons, though a free lesson is obviously better from the consumer's point of view. A good argument however, can be made that an instructor is entitled to payment for his time while teaching such trial lessons, and the fee separates those who would not be willing to pay for instruction from those who are willing to pay for such services. We however, would favor paying for a trial month, or a trial week rather than trial classes that are designed around a sales pitch.

Under a sales model pioneered by the National Association of Professional Martial Artists (NAPMA) the person teaching the two trial lessons will use this time not only to teach technique but to teach the importance of the Black Belt from the first class as a metaphor for personal excellence. "We are a Black Belt School". "This is how a black belt would punch", "We demonstrate focus and respect in everything we do here" (Shows how to bow) "Bozo the clown is an eighth degree black belt and soke, and what he teaches us is very important. He's strived very hard to achieve the knowledge he shares with us, so it's important we show all instructors here at Clown Karate that we respect them and that they have our full focused attention!", "It took courage to come to Clown Karate, and if you work very hard and continue to strive, in three or more years Bozo will be tying a belt around your waist."

This is a simplification of the sales pitch which concludes with your test for White belt, "Rank is not given away here". Any program that uses its trial lessons for such indoctrination however, is selling a myth concerning what a Black Belt means. There is no standardization in this, or any other country for awarding Black Belts, and there are plenty of inept Black Belts out there. Is the Black Belt a measure of excellence? Perhaps it is at some schools that use this sales approach, but such a sales approach does not guarantee quality of instruction. Sales pitches are simply tools that anyone can, and will, use.

It would be more reasonable if the instructor would tell you that studying at Clown Karate for three months will increase your cardio endurance and improve your flexibility. That you will learn how to defend yourself within several hundred hours of training. And for this to become second nature will take years of study and commitment. As Bruce Lee pointed out, a belt simply holds one's pants up.

Schools selling the Black Belt goal in this manner require from day one that you to buy into their world view (become indoctrinated) and shortly thereafter sign a multi-year contract. "Show your commitment Grasshopper! We only teach people who want to earn their Blackbelt."

This sales pitch and its variations, often use "respect" and "discipline" to make the potential student more pliable when it comes time to buy a very expensive long term contract. For examples of this please see Bunyip's write up of his encounter with the West Wind School. Notice that West Wind had Bunyip white belt "test" in front of a group of three of their high ranking instructors to manipulate him, right before they tried to charge him $1,900 for a four month contract. ($475 a month) see post 47, and Ashe's follow up analysis of what they were trying to do to Bunyip. (post #48).

If you know your own goals, other schools may help you address them faster then a school devoted to the belt testing cycle. Or put another way, if as an adult, you have problems that lead you to want to pay someone $200 or more a month to teach you the meaning of the word "respect" through the Martial Arts you have issues better addressed in therapy.

Therefore, we advise that you know what your martial arts goals are before you attend such trial lessons, and that if your goal is fighting skills rather than so-called "Life skills" that you consider a different school once they roll out the "we are a black belt school" pitch.


A contract is a legally enforceable promise between two parties in which in exchange for instruction the student promises to pay either month by month, or according to various lengths of time such as a year or more. In most states martial arts studios are regulated as health clubs or gyms and the provisions of their contracts are identical. Therefore before you sign anything it is in your interest to go on-line, or to your the law library at the local court house, yank the index volume to your state statutes off the shelf and look up the law regulating health clubs, gyms or martial arts studios. Many states also require health clubs/martial arts schools to list portions of the law on the contract itself so make sure to check the back of anything you are considering signing for relevant text which may include whether you can cancel the contract within the first day or so after you sign it.

Be aware that regardless of what the instructor/salesman says, if what he promises is not in the written contract it is probably unenforceable. "Attend this school and I promise Winged Monkeys will teach you Oz Fu". Watch out for one-time only offers, "sign up now and get this special one time deal", this is typically a pressure sales technique. If you feel uncertain say you want to go home and think about it. If they don't let you carry the contract out the door something is probably wrong. Ask if you can take a free class, or at the very least watch one. Some schools will also charge you a one class mat fee, this is far preferable to signing up for a year or more on the spur of the moment.

The biggest problems we've seen have come with long term contracts of over a year. Sometimes these are described as joining a "black belt club" a "masters program" implying great skills will be yours if you fork up several thousand dollars. Don't do it, at the worst you'll get locked into a lengthy agreement when you hardly know the school, at the best you will basically be buying rank from the instructor regardless of your effort.

Some tricks to watch out for include, contracts that automatically renew themselves, sales pitches that try to sign you up for longer contracts within a short time after you start at your new dojo, hidden add ons for required equipment purchases through the school store, belt testing fees, and required seminars with Grand Master Cold Cash. (Though not mentioned in your contract, your attendance is required for ranking.) Before you sign on the dotted line observe the equipment, uniforms, sparring gear that the students bring in and ask the instructor how much a typical equipment package will cost, and what is required to fully participate at this school. Always obtain a copy of everything you sign. You would not believe the percentage of people who come to Bullshido to complain about their contract and because they didn't obtain a copy are now dependent on the school to tell them what it says.

Many schools will want you to sign an agreement which will allow them to remove money out of your bank account directly. For obvious reasons we don't recommend this though it may be preferable to signing a long term contract, however before you do this you might want to take a copy of the agreement to your local bank and find out how you would actually cancel this agreement if necessary. They'll probably tell you something different then Joe Karate Instructor will.

Look especially at the provisions of the contract which covers what happens if you move more then a certain distance from the school, are injured, or what happens if your school closes and the instructor transfers the contract to another school at his pleasure. A fair contract will have provisions for dealing with what happens if the school, or the student moves, or if the school closes or the student gets injured. If the contract does not cover these areas you probably don't want to sign it. We should also warn you about contract transferability, we've seen one case in which a school closed, the instructor claimed he transferred to contract to someone else, and the billing company chose to believe the instructor over the students. You do not want to sign any contract that does not give you a choice in this matter.

After all sometimes the chief instructor moves to another school or sells his school. If the school closes, the contract often will contain provisions for this contract to be transferred to another school of the instructor's but not the student's choice. If we were signing a contract for more then six months we would seriously consider negotiating to add the following language to any martial arts contract we were asked to sign.

"The undersigned student or obligor is hereby released from the provisions of this contract, if 1) This martial art school is sold to another person or corporation. 2) This school closes at this particular location. 3) Ownership of this contract is sold, obtained, or otherwise transferred to another corporation or individual."

If we was signing a long term contract because of a particular instructor, we would also try to negotiate in writing that this contract was dependent up this instructor continuing to teach classes at this school on a weekly basis.

In most states if there is a provision in the contract you find unacceptable, you and the instructor can cross this provision out and both initial this change. This does not work in all states however so check with local counsel beforehand. Finally we do not recommend signing a contract for more then a year under any circumstances. It is much better to sign a contract for three months or go month to month when you start at a school in case you change your mind. Never sign a contract for more then three months with a child, they change their minds even more then adults do. "I don't want to do Karate Daddy! I want to do Ballet!" "Just tell that to their ruthless collections lawyer, honey!"

Finally, for a more detailed, better discussion of martial arts contracts read:

This is a guide to martial arts contracts written by a member who practices law in Florida. Hmmm, will you have the smarts to spend 20 minutes reading an article that could save you thousands of dollars down the road?

You also might want to read: which has a good discussion of billing agencies and hidden costs.


Bullshido is a substantial untruth told to promote a martial arts instructor or art, often, but not always, for financial reasons. Such lies come in many forms, most typically they include the background of the instructor or the art. At we advise you that if you discover such lies you should not train with that art or person. You can find someone better.

Unfortunately, instructors at many types of martial art schools will also make inaccurate claims such as the ease of learning techniques, the effectiveness of their style/system, and the necessity (or lack thereof) of certain techniques in learning a martial art. These claims may be made for several reasons:

- to cover up a deficiency in the style/system (note that most individual martial arts have gaps in their area of instruction, such as Muay Thai's lack of groundwork)

- to entice, scare, or encourage consumers into purchasing lessons

- personal biases on the part of the instructor against another type of style/system

As an example of the second reason, an instructor may try to convince a consumer that their style/system can teach an individual enough skills and techniques to fight off any assailant in a street or bar fight within months, compared to the "years that other styles/systems" take. In other words, a promise of better results faster than what anyone else can provide, very similar to how diet pill companies claim their pill will make you lose more weight with less effort. However, like losing weight, developing martial skill is a long-term investment of time, dedication, and effort. While a consumer can indeed learn a number of techniques within a short period of time, effectively utilizing those techniques is a much longer process. Be wary of any instructor who makes "too good to be true" claims of being a deadly fighter. This also goes for instructional videos and books.

Similarly some teachers of striking-centric styles (such as Karate) may place so much faith and emphasis on stand-up and striking skills that they'll claim these skills can fend off any assailant who tries to tackle them or take them down to the ground. Colloquially, this is called the "anti-grapple," referring to the alleged invulnerability of an expert striker from takedown attempts. This is alleged because in innumerable situations, grapplers and ground fighters have taken down these karateka or kickboxers and submitted them, since the strikers had zero knowledge of what to do.

A) The Black Belt is a deeply historical part of Martial Arts tradition and indicates the high skill level of the wearer.

The black belt was created for use in Judo no earlier then 1886, four years after Judo's founding. Later in 1926, Gichin Funakoshi, who had introduced Okinawan Karate to Japan in 1922, awarded this rank to some of his students. According to Isao Obata who received one of these first black belts, Funakoshi at first simply wished to recognize the "fine development" of some of his students. On a visit to his home for Tea, Funakoshi "drew some lengths of black belting from a cupboard and presented these belts to Obata and the others. Since then, the institution has evolved into an official system." ("Karate is Dying" by Richard L. Blair, Black Belt Magazine October 1972.)

In the English language there does not appear to be an explanation by Funakoshi, himself, for why he chose to put in place this designation of rank. However it is known that the Black Belt did not exist on Okinawa as recognition for rank before Funakoshi arrived to teach in Japan. Similarly, the Black Belt did not appear in Tae Kwon Do and most other Korean arts until after World War Two, because these arts were not officially created until then. Since 1960, various Chinese Martial arts have adopted the rank of Black Sash to designate a similar level of development, but this is an innovation, and not a traditional feature of Kung or Gung Fu.

In short, outside Judo, the Black Belt did not appear in Japanese Karate until the 1920s, and in other martial arts until at least the 1940s. So this rank is a recent innovation that was not present during the vast majority of martial arts history.

Lack of Standardization

Since Funskoshi did not really articulate a general definition for what a black belt means, various arts have assigned their own meanings to this rank. In some systems one can achieve a black belt in less then two years, in other systems one can take ten years to achieve this distinction. In some arts one will have to show fighting proficiency to become a blackbelt. In other arts there is no requirement that the black belt ever spar a resisting opponent with full contact. Similarly a black belt is only recognized within the system that rewarded it. Unlike a university degree from an accredited institution, a black belt in one form of Karate is usually not recognized in other forms of Karate.

There is no government regulations or private uniform standards that maintains any consistency in the skill demonstrated by two different people in two different schools who successfully test for their black belts on the same day, in any town in the United States. So if the martial arts instructor tells you that his "black belt" school turns out highly skilled practitioners, he may have high standards, or this may just be a sales pitch. There is nothing inherent in the rank of black belt that confers skill in fighting. We've seen black belts who were superb fighters, and others who couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper bag. Please go to to read an article on what rank does, and does not measure.

By achieving Black Belt you are not joining an international fellowship larger then yourself. You are simply one of a number of students that a particular martial arts instructor has decided to recognize for your development at a particular time. Please enjoy it, but recognize that there is nothing inherent in the Black Belt rank, as verses the training methods you used to get there, that will help you in a real fight.

B) Lies about Martial Arts History

A fighting art raises or falls on its own merits, regardless of its history. However as part of the marketing pitch, the martial arts new comer is likely to hear a number of historical untruths. The first is that a particular art is connected to the Shaolin Temple in China, the second is that the art is two thousand or so years old, and the third is that this particular art was formed for combat purposes on the oriental battlefield. If the instructor didn't bring up this swill, it would be irrelevant but since its being used as a marketing tool we'll discuss it. The greater the role these falsehoods play in the sales presentation, the more likely you want to avoid this place.

Many martial arts have claimed a pedigree to the Shaolin Temple because of the prestige associated with such an institution. Be aware that many Asian martial arts like to claim a heritage that can not be supported by historical methods and is frequently the product of what one master told his student orally many years ago. Such assertion therefore is better described as "folklore", unless your master himself flew over to the rebuilt, recreated Shaolin Temple in China, to train. The martial arts world is deluged by westerners who do not speak any foreign languages who claim that they were trained by a mysterious monk in childhood who left no forwarding address. Generally these claims are worthless, and if you care so much about this connection you can book a flight to the People's Republic of China yourself train at the new Shaolin temple and cut out the middleman.

Many of the Kempo arts through James Mitose, claim a heritage that stretches back to Japan in the 1200s and then to the Shaolin Temple in China. Please be aware that while Mitose did spend much of the 1920s and 1930s living in Japan, there is no independent evidence that his art dated back to antiquity and his later actions, (he was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder after he thought two victims of his financially fraudulent behavior were going to go to the authorities) indicate a complete lack of trustworthiness. Its more likely that Kempo was synthesized from Japanese Karate in Hawaii in the 1940s and 1950s.

Other arts, typically Tae Kwon Do, claim that they are the product of 2,000 years of history whereas the best scholarship indicates that TKD was synthesized in South Korea from Japanese Karate, in the late 1940s and 1950s. Similarly arts such as Aikido, Shotokan Karate, and Judo were all synthesized from older arts after 1870. The Black Belt that your to-be instructor wears, was not used by any art other then Judo before the 1920s.

There are also arts with no historical connection to what they claim, for example Koga Ninjutsu. The claims of ANYONE to teach authentic Ninjutsu are highly questionable at best and the schools which did not originate through Takamatsu Toshitsugu (who taught Masaaki Hatsumi and Ueno Takashi) generally have no basis in anything that can be traced to Japan's feudal period, the last time there were real Ninjas running around "keeping it Ninja".

In short, martial arts are fluid, not static, and arts change from generation to generation, and instructor to instructor. Therefore a person who usually tries to sell you on studying an "unchanged" art, directly from the hands of the Samurai, (unless its a few of the sword arts) is fooling himself and you.

In his book "Real Fighting", Payton Quinn properly identifies the following canard that has been circulating in the martial arts community. "Karate is the result of more then a thousand years of development, and its techniques are the ones that have survived and proven themselves on the battlefield" (p. 116) Quinn writes:

"Can you imagine the following scene? A few hundred guys on one side of the battlefield raise their naked fists and cut loose with martial arts cries, while the on the other side of the battlefield, a few hundred guys do the same. Next, the two forces clash and decide the outcome with fists, feet and throws. It has never happened, people, and it is not likely it ever will. Weapons have been the first choice in both war and individual combat since prehistoric times."

C) "I practice the Special Forces Deadly"

Since Jerry Peterson promoted SCARS in the 1990s with the claim that his system was used by the U.S. Navy SEALs, (see for an introduction to this controversy.) there has been an upsurge in people advertising that they teach military combatives. The pitch is that since a particular unit of fierce warriors practice their particular hand to hand system, it must be the best. This is a gross simplification because the military spends much less time training people in hand to hand fighting skills then it does training them in gun fu or artillery ryu which are much more effective way to kill your fellow man. The military also frequently switches hand to hand combat programs based on the whims of its commanding officers. For example SCARS was only the official hand to hand program for SEALS for several years before they pulled the plug on this method of instruction. Similarly, in the 1990s the Marines used to learn a system called LINE which has also been replaced.

Certain units have been instructed in various systems of martial arts by their NCOs whose influence did not extend beyond their platoon, company, regiment, or base. Finally, many martial arts instructors have volunteered to teach day long seminars for free, or have taught an occasional class on base to service men and women or their dependants. This has produced a whole slew of people who have claimed to be military hand to hand instructors even if they only spent an afternoon instructing their local national guard unit.

Military hand to hand training is almost always by design, abbreviated in nature. Some simple, usually effective techniques like the chin jab will be taught and its on to the next block of instruction! Those military men who do have a deeper interest in honing the martial arts usually have a more detailed background in a non-military art which they will use to increase their proficiency. So if some instructor claims that you should study hand to hand combat with him because he taught the Green Berets, take it with a grain of salt. He may know what he is doing or he could have been hired by the same bozo that paid $600 for a hammer, or several thousand for a toilet seat.

Finally to quote Richard Marcinko, formally of SEAL Team 6. "I never engaged in hand-to-hand combat unless their was absolutely no alternative. To me, the combat knife should be a tool, not a weapon. All the whiz-bang, knife fighting, and karate/judo/kung fu b.s. you see in the Rambo-Jambo shoot-'em-up movies is just that: bullshit. The real life rules of war are simple and effective: stay at arm's length whenever possible and shoot the shit out of the enemy before he sees you." Rogue Warrior, 1992, page 118.

D) Krav Maga, the Latest Flavor

In the military combatives field in 2006, you are most likely to be instructed in Krav Maga which was originally developed as the hand to hand system used by the Israeli Army. Bullshido has nothing against this system. Unfortunately this art has been over licensed by the largest Krav Maga organization in the United States, Krav Maga Association of America (KMAA) so you are going to have to be careful when choosing a Krav teacher.

There is a conflict in the United States between the Krav Maga instructors like Rhon Mizrachi and Eyal Yanilov who learned the system in the Israeli army, and Darren Levine who learned Krav as a civilian through the Wingate Institute in Israel. We'll skip the politics, but needless to say, Levine typically licenses American Martial Arts studio owners to teach Krav after an abbreviated if intense series of week long courses in Los Angeles before they return to their home school. That being the case, the KMAA instructor in your hometown could have a decade in the art, or have just spent a week or two in LA. You want to avoid the latter. There also seems to be high turnover in the KMAA ranks with a number of schools joining and then dropping the Krav program. For that reason you also want to avoid the brand new Krav Schools.

Under Levine, Krav ranks people according to Belts and Phases. Belts indicate the instructors rank in the system but the Phase indicates what the individual is allowed to teach. Levine's Krav has five belts, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown, and black. Phase A through C will allow an instructor to teach material through green belt, and he is allowed to award belt rank up to one step lower then himself. So if you have a Krav blue belt he can award a green belt as long as he's completed the courses that allow him to instruct green belt material. Its at Blue and Brown belt levels and their attendant phases that (KMAA) teaches its weapons disarms, and other material that most outsiders think of as Krav. These phases are typically called the 'Expert Series' with KMAA Krav black belts being quite rare. Now the KMAA is referring to ranks up to green belt as Level One, and Blue and Brown as Level Two. Labels aside, for actual information about the KMAA Krav Curriculum see this guide.

We would advise you to ask your potential instructor if 1) he is a certified instructor or an instructor trainee? 2) If they have completed Phase A through C, and whether they have completed any additional phases? 3) What belt they are? and 4) How many years have they studied Krav? 5) How long have they taught Krav at this location. (If they keep moving locations they may do so again shortly. They should be a certified instructor, have completed Phase C, and we recommend a Blue Belt with five or more years of experience in Krav. We would also suggest you write the KMAA to confirm what this potential instructor tells you before you sign any paperwork. We've seen at least one example of someone licensed by the KMAA exaggerate their ranking authority, probably to the complete ignorance of this parent organization.


Unfortunately there are many people in the Martial Arts world who are less then truthful about their background, and even tell lies to recruit students. Below are some quick warning signs.

a) Beware of Instructors who sell their Martial Art by mentioning they were in the CIA, SEALS, Special Forces, or did other clandestine work. People who really do that sort of work generally do not publicize their prior occupation in casual conversation.

b) Instructors who claim high military decorations, or POW status from Vietnam. Unfortunately there are a lot of people making such claims who are not telling the truth. Be careful and contact some of the following links to check such claims out. See:

c) Instructors who show any hesitation to provide the name of those who trained them, or claim such a topic is secret. As soon as you hear the words "Shaolin Monk" and "I don't know where they are now", run for the door.

d) Instructors who claim a full contact, no holds bar fight career, which can't be verified on line or through any sports governing organization. "I swear, I killed him in Hong Kong, but only the Triads were there!" (See Frank Dux for a claim of this sort). Similarly if they claim to have fought in the last five or so years and their name doesn't show up at all at the following links, they many be falsifying their record.

Links to fighting records: (Fused with Great for finding out if schools or instructors are legitimate in BJJ. )

e) Instructors who claim that their art can knock people out through the use of "no-touch" pressure point strikes. See George Dillman or Yellow Bamboo.

f) Young twenty-something guys with high dan ranks. If Joe is twenty five and is a fifth degree black belt something is very wrong. Unless he has been training twenty hours a week it should take him three to five years in a legitimate system to earn each black belt rank. (Or up to 2,000 hours per dan) So even if Joe trained as a child, he is much too young to have so much rank. So there are four possibilities. 1) he made up his rank. 2) He belonged to a system, (most usually a form of TKD but occasionally a variation of Kempo) which has absolutely no quality control. 3) He is the son of the system's grandmaster. or 4) He is incredibly talented and is a martial artist with potentially the skill of Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee, or Joe Lewis. The chance that 4) is true is well under 5%.

g) There are more wacky people teaching Ninjustu then any other martial art. As a result unless you really know what you are doing we would suggest avoiding this art.

h) Instructors who claim that they studied the martial arts in the Orient for years but who cannot speak next to any, Japanese or Chinese.

i) The instructor has a PhD. in martial arts. Unlike your local state university, the people and institutions offering this academic rank are not academically accredited. This is another way some people puff their martial arts resume in a rather disingenuous manner. Its definitely pay to play.

j) The instructor with more then one tenth degree black belt, or an instructor below the age of sixty who has such rank. In Japan such terminal rank was typically awarded after decades of leadership in the art, with most recipients being in their 70s and above. In the United States one will find people claiming such rank in two or more arts, one of course being the one they created for themselves. It's credential hunting pure and simple. Similarly the Bujinkan, which does hand out such high ranks, has serious quality control problems.


A) Most of the same rules for choosing an appropriate martial arts school for yourself apply to choosing one for your child. First and foremost you must ask, "What do I want my child to be learning?"

The vast majority of parents who enroll their children in a martial arts program do so because the want their child to develop "discipline." However, this is not something that martial arts can "give" a child. Naturally, a good martial arts program, combined with consistent parenting and a proper example, can absolutely help a child to develop self-discipline. But, despite what modern cinema has so artfully told us, martial arts training is not a magic bullet for the development of a child's character or work ethic. Sadly, if we insist on dwelling here in the real world, we must accept that martial training falls into the same category as any other sport when it comes to character development in children: It can be a very useful tool, but not an end unto itself.

If character development is your primary concern, then your focus should not be on what style your child studies, but the specific instructor who will be teaching the classes your child attends. Go and observe several classes any given instructor teaches. If the instructor maintains an orderly, efficient class, you can expect that the instructor is a no-nonsense guy. If you observe a class and the children are off-task, unruly, loud, and generally running amok, then do not expect your child to develop self-discipline in that environment.

If exercise is the goal for your child, then the same rules apply. The actual class is far more important than the style. If the class is not big on conditioning, then your child will not be getting much exercise. Traditionally conditioning is the domain of competitive arts like judo, wrestling, boxing, Brazilian jujitsu, kickboxing, etc. But highly competitive XMA programs, Capoeira, and wushu are extremely rigorous physically and can be more appealing to young children. Just don't let them become confused and think what they are learning is combat-effective.

The best bet for improving self-discipline, learning effective techniques (for when they are older or for dealing with their peers), and getting plenty of exercise are the sport styles. Wrestling, judo, and boxing are excellent fundamentals for any aspiring athlete or fighter. Training in these disciplines provides the best bang-for-your-buck in that they address perfectly most of the reasons parents want martial training for their children: Discipline, exercise, and self-defense.

B) Some Business Considerations

Many martial arts schools offer their art in an after school "daycare format" complete with transportation from grade school. Such a service should be evaluated as daycare rather than as a martial art when considering its price. We have rarely run into such a program that taught their students in any sort of manner that contributed to the development of real martial art skill. Many School owners or managers will also tell you that it is a proven fact that TKD or Karate will reduce, or provide a remedy, for your child's Attention Deficit Disorder. There are perhaps three to six studies using a handful of students which mildly support this contention. Grandmaster Coldcash's promises aside, the jury is still out on this issue, and not returning anytime soon.

Often children want to join martial arts schools to be with their friends, or because they simply think something looks "cool". Not surprisingly they can become disinterested in the martial arts equally quickly. For this reason we suggest that you first look for short term classes through your local Y, or for a non-profit club or school. You do not want to sign up your child for long term services a week before they change their minds. If your child joins a for profit school, you will probably have to spend a fair amount of time playing the bad guy when turning down multiple requests for new gear, programs, or promotions. Your child's contract will be signed by you, it is up to you to protect your financial interests including figuring out an exit strategy if your child does not want to continue with his particular art.

Additionally the School instructor may tell you that you should sign a long term contract to teach little Johnny the meaning of the word commitment, and dedication to a goal such as achieving his Black Belt. This may come along with a promise of teaching your child life skills like respect, focus, and discipline.

At many of us are rather skeptical of this approach. How would you feel after 8 or 16 practice sessions if your kid's soccer coach said that he only wanted to work with students who had the goal to play varsity soccer in college, and that you should sign a four year contract with him now to teach your son to focus on this commitment?

We would politely suggest that if Johnny had been doing Soccer one or two years and loved it, that he could reasonably decide to devote such time to this pursuit. However commercial studios are in the business of rushing this decision. We therefore recommend that you not sign him up at a school that structures itself around the pursuit of a children's black belt because that rationalizes their request for a long term contract at high prices. Secondly at many of these schools, their devotion to turning out children black belts and teaching "life skills" ironically results in an erosion of the quality of the fighting skills in the student they turn out.

C) We Suggest Grappling Instead of the Striking Arts for Young Children.

It must be understood that there is a significant psychological difference between striking and grappling for a young child. Striking implies far more violence and anger; and the immediate emotional response to being struck will vary greatly from child to child. Striking is something that a child learns to do out of anger long before they learn to walk or talk. Striking is a primal, animal reaction to a negative stimulus, and as such will require far more emotional maturity before it can be instructed properly. Getting hit pretty much always hurts, whereas grappling tends only to hurt when a mistake is made. Pain avoidance is the average American child’s primary subconscious drive. If something hurts, most children under 10 will avoid it at all costs.

Young children adjust to grappling long before they can adapt psychologically to striking. Children invariably begin wrestling without the guidance of adults as a recreational activity anyway, so providing technique and structure for it is a fairly natural progression. For very young children (under 10) grappling styles are learned most easily and create a solid base in the most prevalent ranges of combat. For a video of young children learning how to grapple please see:

Between 10 and 12 (depending on your child's emotional development) it is OK to introduce striking in a full-contact format. Be careful, many children have a hard time differentiating between getting hit competitively and real aggression. Make sure your child is ready for the intensity. A basis in competitive grappling will go a long way toward preparing your child for this. For striking curriculum there is no better or more accessible style than boxing. Many of the kickboxing styles are excellent as well, but their availability for children can be limited.

If you want effective, combat-proven, and high percentage technical instruction, bear this in mind: Children are smaller and weaker than adults. The only effective self-defense techniques for children against adults are awareness, escape, and evasion. Any school that claims that it can teach your 8-year-old to protect himself from an abductor with their techniques is LYING. This is a dangerous mindset and a shameless selling tactic. This does not mean that you can't begin to develop the kind of solid technical fundamentals that will make your child safer in the future, or give them the physical tools to handle bullies, assaults, and other threats from their peer group.