What to Look For
So what are some of the things you should look for or ask about when visiting a school? Firstly, ask about the class schedule. If classes only meet when you can't attend, it crosses the school off for you. Another thing to look for is who is teaching the classes. Often, the person teaching your class won't be the head instructor. Frequently the head instructor will have some of his advanced students teaching classes. This is particularly true if the school you choose has separate classes for lower ranked and higher ranked students or if they have a "new student" class. Don't let this dissuade you. Often instructors teaching "new students" are doing so because they have shown an aptitude for helping new students learn the basics of an art, perhaps even beyond that of the head instructor. The ability to teach a physical skill is often dissociated to some degree from the ability to actually perform that skill at high levels.
Most professional fighters could whip the tar out of their coaches even though their coaches know how to box. While on the topic, find out if there is an "introductory" or "getting started" class or course. This can be a good way to get up to speed quickly with the basics of an art or to "sample" that school. While visiting a school, spend some time talking to the students before or after class. Talk to both high and low ranking students, they’ll have different perspectives. Spend some time understanding the atmosphere of the school; it will take more then one brief visit. Some are strict disciplinarian and some are easy camaraderie. Again, don't assume that the instructor that runs his school like a drill sergeant produces kick-butt martial artists while a more easy going school is lax or lackadaisical. They are simply different teaching styles and one may be more appropriate to your needs then the other.
Another thing to take note of is injuries. Let's face it, martial arts are inherently dangerous. They are martial and no matter how safe you train or what safety equipment is used, there is a risk. There are bound to be some injuries. However, the nature and frequency of the injuries are what you should consider. A black eye is far different from an injured joint and if broken bones occur frequently, that may indicate a problem. You can't train while recovering from some injuries. Some injuries are permanent and will affect you the rest of your life. Finally, though uncommon, some schools have an "enrollment period." They operate like college classes in that you can only join at certain times of the month or year.
What Not To Look For …………………..
Some years ago a movie came out: They Call Me Bruce! In this comedy, an Asian man made his way through a number of people who thought he was a great martial arts Master simply because he was Asian, triumphing in the end. The moral is clear and directly applicable. Do not assume that because the instructor of a given school is Asian that he is, in some way, superior to the instructor of another school who is not. Skill in martial arts is not inherent to any given "race."
Likewise, do not make the same mistake concerning the sex of an instructor. There are many very talented female instructors.
Don't let yourself be distracted by a fancy school or unrelated goodies such as weight machines or saunas. A well kept, safe training area is one thing but extraneous features, though nice, ultimately only add to the expenses of the school. There are a good number of excellent instructors teaching out of their garages, basements, and back yards. Don’t get distracted by uniforms either. Many Asian martial arts wear the traditional "white pajamas" Gi (Uniform) while other martial arts have different uniforms and some, no uniform at all, preferring instead "street clothes" or comfortable, loose fitting training clothes.
Also, don't pay too much attention to numerous trophies and medals. Trophies are easy to come by in martial arts competitions. On top of that they are inexpensive and easily purchased by unscrupulous scam artists from the local trophy store. Though this practice is uncommon, it has been known to happen.
Don't judge a school or instructor by how much they charge. Its human nature to assume that a higher priced product is going to be somehow better yet this is not always true in the world of Martial Arts. Some instructors are simply teaching for the joy of teaching and not trying to make a living or any real money from it. Some arts and Organizations discourage their instructors from trying to make money from instruction and will therefore be inherently less expensive. Yet other arts are the flavor du jour and suffer from higher demand then there are available instructors, thus making them more expensive. As long as the price of instruction falls within the range that you are willing to pay, don't worry too much about it.
Further, don't pay too much attention to lots of certificates in Asian script decorating the wall, particularly if you don't read the language they're written in. Most instructors will display only the rank certificate of their top rank (or the top rank they hold in each art they're ranked in if they are ranked in more then one). In general, this should mean that there aren't many certificates displayed. With the state of current computer technology, it is easy to produce impressive looking certificates that say anything you wish them to say, even that the bearer is a high ranking martial artist.
Finally, don't be overly concerned with the rank of the instructor. While in the early stages of training in your new art (say the first 10 years) you probably won't be able to tell the difference between a 3rd Degree Black Belt and a 9th Degree Black Belt.
One of the most misunderstood things about martial arts is rank. Different people in the martial arts world have different feelings about the use of ranking in the martial arts. Some feel it is all important, some that it is of no important whatsoever and others that it is a valuable tool not to be given too much weight outside of its limited context. What you should know is that most martial arts have a ranking system but many do not and that rank within one system does not equate to skill within another system even though the systems may be similar. Just because you know how to drive a car doesn't mean you know how to operate a back hoe.
The most common ranking systems are the Japanese and the Korean systems. The Japanese systems start with sub-"Black Belt" or Kyu ranks and work from highest to lowest as skill increases, typically from 10th Kyu up to 1st Kyu and then "Black Belt" or Dan rankings, from 1st Dan and going up to 9th Dan. 9th Dan is typical y reserved for the (one) highest ranking instructor of the art, usual y in Japan.
The Korean system works much the same way, simply substitute "Gup" for "Kyu." You should also know that some Occidental systems have a rank system, but, when they do, they usually do not follow the 10th-1st sub-black belt then 1st Dan-9th Dan ranking that Asian systems do. Frequently Occidental systems will rank a practitioner by number of wins in competition or a combination of skill level rankings and competition wins. Several schools will typically operate in this manner. Other Occidental arts use an archaic ranking system that includes 4 or 5 ranks starting with "Scolaire" (Scholar) and culminating with "Maestro" (Master).
Be aware that the color of a belt as a rank in one system does not translate to the same rank in another system. A "Green Belt" in one system is usual y not the same rank as a "Green Belt" in another system. The same goes for Kyu/Gup ranks. As stated earlier, a Kyu/Gup rank in one system does not equate to the same skill as an equally numbered Kyu/Gup rank in another system. Simply put, you can not compare a 5th Kyu in "Karate" with a 5th Gup in "Taekwondo" and they probably wear different colored belts. At this point, it should go without saying that a "Black Belt" in one system isn't real y comparable with a "Black Belt" in any other system. It only represents a certain level of skill obtained within that system; exactly what skill level that represents is entirely up to the instructors that define that system.
Again, don't be overly concerned with the rank of the instructor. You likely will be unable to differentiate between a 3rd Degree Black Belt and a 9th Degree Black Belt for many years. Further, there is a theory in the martial arts world that you can learn a lesson from anyone, even the lowliest practitioner. Learn the lessons that the instructor has to offer.
A final word of warning on the rank of the instructor
Beware claims of inflated or high rank. It is not unheard of for a martial artist to break away from his parent organization or instructor and award himself "9th Dan" and "create" his own art. More then one instructor has made the leap for 3rd Dan to 9th Dan in this way with no real increase in his skill or teaching ability.