How to get started in the martial arts

I am always excited to hear that someone is interested in training in the martial arts. I wish they would all train with me, but the simple fact is that they are not all interested in what I teach. Even so, I still get excited for them when they are about to begin that great journey that I am still on.

Once a person has decided that they want to train in the martial arts, they must make a few choices. The first and most obvious choice would be, in what style to train.

There are many and more martial arts styles. There are sportive styles, and classical styles. Brutal styles and absurd styles. Styles which you can learn enough to honestly protect yourself in a short period of time, and other styles where you will need to work for years or possibly even decades before you will even come close to learning anything that may save your life.

The most two important things to consider are what art is going to fit you (mentally and physically), and can you personally respect the instructor. If you are suffering from arthritis, taekwondo would probably be ill advised. I had been suffering from chondromalacia patella for about ten years when I signed on in a taekwondo school, and I probably should not have, as I suffered several more knee injuries while training in that sport. Similarly, if you are under the age of 40, you will quickly lose interest in some of the softer styles like Taiji (there are exceptions to every rule, but this is a general guide). Select a style that suits you. Similarly, you must find an instructor that you can get along with. You must be able to have real and not feigned respect. There are many different styles of teaching, and you must e able to learn under the style of teaching your instructor uses, as very few instructors alter their teaching style to benefit individual students.  

Once the decision has been made on the art to study, next you need to figure out where to train. Now, there is a common misconception in the minds of many beginners that if they train under a champion, they too will be a champion, but this is simply not true. There are many fantastic martial arts performers and competitors who cannot pass on their skills even if their life depends on it.  You must find a good teacher. If they are also a skilled performer, so much the better, but they must be skilled in teaching or you will never reach your fullest potential. They must be able to organize their lessons, plan their classes, and execute their plan. They must have the ability to motivate you. If they do not have the ability to point out what you do well as easily as they point out what you do wrong, you will not last in their school. You must find a teacher that you not only respect, but also are able to get along with. If you are a complete beginner, you will not have much to go on in determining if the school is right for you, or where to begin in your search for the right instructor.

There is no national regulation of martial arts instructors. I am not 100% sure, but I do not believe there is any state that regulates the teaching of martial arts either. Most instructors are not really licensed, unless they are so through their organization or possibly self licensed. It is a sad fact that anyone at all may buy a black belt, rent a storefront, and hang a sign that says “martial arts taught here”. In my state, you don’t even need a business license. The only governmental oversight is if you plan on selling merchandise – then will cause you to need a sales tax permit. Other than that, Texas doesn’t care what you do or what you know. So, be careful in your search.

Most beginners tend to look only at two things – price and convenience. The cheapest and the closest are the first considerations. This is criticized by some instructors, but usually only by the more remote or expensive. The truth is that you can find quality martial arts instruction in your local YMCA, and the prices are usually pretty low, and the instructor at the Y is usually teaching out of love of teaching and not out of needing the money or wanting to get rich through martial arts. While there should be other considerations, these two are justifiable.

There are those who will insist that you – as a complete beginner – have no basis for judging the skills and quality of an instructor. I tend to disagree. I think that if you just look for a few things, you should be able to get a fairly accurate judgment on the quality of the instructor. A few quick points to look for:

Does the skill performed by the students closely resemble the same skill when demonstrated by the instructor? If the Instructor is a high quality instructor, he or she will know already that the students are the product, to use business terms. It is very easy for any instructor to keep telling their students that they are doing great even when they are not. But, the high quality instructor will not let the student move on until each movement is perfect. 

Are the students respectful and attentive, or scared out of their wits? If the students are respectful and attentive, then they know that what the instructor is demonstrating or saying is of high value. If not, then the students may have reached a point where they understand that the instructor has a tendency to ramble on and on.

Does the instructor have a hands on approach, or does he sit in a chair or stand at the front barking orders? If they are not standing, they are not teaching.

How does the instructor correct students? Is it done with disgust, or handled in a positive manner? If the instructor becomes irritated easily, then your learning will be hindered, and you may even find yourself getting nervous as soon as he or she looks at you.

Are there many high ranking students? If not, and the school has been around a while, this could be a sign that students are either held back in rank or leaving before achieving high rank.

There are many things which could be added to a list like this, but you should be able to get the general idea from what I have just listed. Follow these pointers, and you can make an informed and probably correct choice.

Where do I start looking?

There are many ways to handle the question of where to train. For a good start, talk to people. You may have a friend or co-worker who trains in the martial arts and can give you a good idea of what their school is like. If your city has a martial arts supply store, they will have an area where local instructors are allowed to place business card or flyers. Check with community centers and YMCA/YWCA or your community college.

Make a list of the martial arts schools within your area that teach what you are looking for. Do not sign on anywhere until you have visited every one of the schools on your list. Call ahead to make sure that visitors are allowed during the time you plan on going and be sure to check if you are going to sit and watch or if you will be expected to participate. Many schools offer a free class, and hands on participation will tell you much more than sitting and observing.

What are the important points to think about?

One very important factor to consider is that there are many different types of martial arts training, even within the same style there can be several schools of thought as to what the proper focus of the training should be. For my school, our focus is on the actual ability to use the techniques we teach. But I teach in a manner where no one is going to lose an eye or a tooth in the training. There are schools with a much more brutal focus, and the students are fully prepared to lose a tooth if it means they got to do some rough and tumble martial arts. Other schools drill forms endlessly but never teach how to use them. And there are schools with a focus on fitness, competition, or simply “feel good martial arts experiences”. None of these varying focuses are wrong, but there will usually be only one focus to the training at a particular martial arts school, and you need to find a school that shares your outlook.

It is also important to consider the class schedule. You may love the style, instructor and focus of the training, but if the classes are inconvenient, you are not going to stick with it.

Just as important is the question of who teaches the classes. There are too many schools where the Instructor is an instructor in name only, and never teaches a class at all. The following is a list of questions that is passed around so much that I am unable to track down the original author, and so cannot give proper credit, but will tell you it is a good list, but the words that follow are not mine.  


Is the head instructor a full-time or part-time instructor/owner?

How long has the school been open?

Do you use no-contact, light-contact, or full contact sparring? No sparring at all?

Do you teach sport oriented martial arts?

Do you teach practical self-defense techniques?

Do you teach ground fighting/grappling? What type?

Is the school matted for use in throws or falls?

Is board breaking required in training? For testing?

Is free-sparring required? If yes:

What is total cost of all required sparring equipment? 

Must all equipment be bought through the studio?

Is contact allowed in sparring? 

Is kicking to the head allowed, if so, is it mandatory? 

Is kicking to the head in tournaments allowed, if so, is it mandatory? 

What training equipment is required to be purchased, other than for sparring, such as target pads, re-breakable boards, etc.


Do you charge belt testing fees? What are they?

Do you have written requirements for each belt/stripe test?

How often are tests conducted?

Is free-sparring required for tests? 

Is board breaking required tests? 

Is tournament attendance required?

Do you award black belts to youths? If yes:

Starting at what age?

What is the average time for a youth to get a black belt?


Must I sign a contract? (Beware of hidden costs, get full disclosure before you sign any contract)

May I have a copy to review before I sign it?

How long is the contract for?

How much is the contract for?

What do I get for the money?

Are payments made to a third party? 

What/who may cancel the contract?

What if I am sick or on vacation?

What if I am injured?


What are the class hours?

Are instructors nationally certified thru a recognized organization? What is the organization and its history?

Is the instruction by group or private?

Is private instruction available at an extra cost?

How many classes may I attend each week?

Do you use youth instructors?

Print a copy of the questions that seem important to you from this list, and ask them to each school you visit. The above list should not worry any legitimate martial arts school owner. And the questions will help you to determine if the school is really what you are looking for.