How to spot (or run) a good dojo - by Chris Kirby
"Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort."
This article will provide some insight into how a good school is run. You probably won't actually find one that does all of these but the concepts I present here should be present in some form or another in any serious dojo.
There are no regulations
It might be a little unsettling for the new comer to the martial arts scene to discover that there are no real overarching organizations responsible for setting standards for martial arts schools. The truth is, each dojo you visit can differ greatly from the one before it. The reason for this is there are no larger regulations that provide consistency or even a standard of quality in martial arts. It is a highly unregulated field.
Every school (and business) needs to have an adopted set of values it lives by
In order to get anywhere in life, you have to have goals. The only way to develop goals is to have something you care about. The things we care about are called our values. They should be very clearly defined. For instance, my dojo has adopted the values of
These are the things I want to see people doing before I am willing to train them. An experienced martial arts instructor will have certain expectations of their students character to be met before they are trained. This is because the instructor knows that to teach someone who is disrespectful, arrogant, and without integrity is a devaluation of the martial arts in general and a devaluation to the people who would teach such a person. It wasn't until after we made a few wrong guesses about people who we later decided we regretted training that we began to develop filters to screen students as they enter our school. These filters manifested in the form of school values that we can measure conduct of students against. It makes it easier for a school to say, yes this person is good to add to our social climate, or no, this person will cause the people we do want to leave. It doesn't mean we expect people to be perfect, but the dedication needs to be present or we know we're wasting our time with a prospective student.
Every school operates according to its own standards
By standards, I mean operating procedures. These procedures are best written down, and at my school they are (for the most part), but even if they are not written down they need to be present and adhered to consistently. The standards determine how the school is run. For example, what does every student have to do to test for a certain rank, when do they get to test, at what point do we start turning students into instructors? How do we handle disputes? How do we process our payments? These standards need to apply to everyone. It is where favoritism creeps in is when the quality of the school starts to decline. I noticed myself favoring some and doing less for others. I decided it was having a negative effect on my school and I developed standards to operate my school by. There is a standard to be completed before testing for rank, there is a standard to be completed before being certified as an instructor, there is a standard point at which we begin training everyone to be a teacher, whether we feel like it or not. Some people are more work than others, which is why its good to set standards and adhere to them because it makes sure everyone gets equal treatment and opportunity in your school. In the end, we make instructors of everyone who commits to our program, and all our students feel that the opportunities presented to them are the same as the opportunities presented to anyone else at the school. I still have my favorites, but it is harder to tell who they are now. In the end, the reward I received for implementing a standards based approach is that I have more students ready to step up into leadership positions as they are needed, I have better retention rates, the average performance of my students is increasing every class. I feel better about my school than I used to as well.
These standards attract some kinds of people and repel others
The important things about standards, or lack thereof, is that they contribute to the atmosphere of the school. This atmosphere is what is responsible for attracting some types of people and repelling others. To me, the atmosphere is the make it or break it switch for me. The atmosphere is built upon the standards, the standards are built upon the values. If the values are shit, guess what kind of people you will end up training with at that school?
It's on you as a prospective student to successfully get a feel for the social climate in the school. Keep in mind, dojo owners are well aware you are sizing them up and will be on their best behavior, but what matters is how they normally act. To really get a feel for this, you need to observe how other students interact with the instructor. He or she may be able to flip on the charm with strangers, but they aren't going to be able to up and change the dynamic of their relationship with people who already know them well. Are the other students tense or fearful of the instructor? Or are they relaxed and comfortable? Observing this dynamic will tell you everything you care to know about what learning from that instructor is really like.
Furthermore, if there really are developed standards of conduct in place at a school, you will notice a consistency in the interactions of all the students with that instructor. If you feel like it can change wildly from student to student, perhaps you are in a school where the instructor plays politics. It is almost never useful to remain in environments like this.
I always like to say we attract what we are and repel what we are not. So if you observe students bullying other students, you can get a sense of what the instructor is like, if you see fair treatment of all students, then that is a good thing.
The above paragraph speaks mainly about standards of conduct, but there are other standards as well. How do they prepare students for their tests? Do they hold all students to the same standards or lower them for favored students and raise them for the rest? You will be able to determine this if you see a large disparity in skill between people of the same rank. If they were truly held to the same standards before being granted that rank, they would be fairly closely matched in skill.
Generally, any good business provides consistent quality by having a standard way of conducting each of its operations and if too much freedom is left to the individual running a task at any given time, results can vary wildly and this will diminish your experience at that school. It can also leave the door open to safety hazards as some instructors may not be savvy about the dangers of performing some drills while others are.
The stuff taught there is entirely up to the guy who opened the school
We developed our own curriculum. We got together, mapped everything out, and decided what sort of things we needed to prepare our students against to guard them against 90% of what might happen in a self defense situation, and we simulated attacks as best we could with out killing ourselves and dreamt up ways of dealing with those attacks based on our training and personal life experience. That is at the root of any martial arts system you see. There is no magic to it what so ever. At some point in the school's lineage, there was a dude (or dudette) that had to sit down and dream some stuff up to present as curriculum to their students. It is false to believe that newer styles are inferior for self defense. I actually find the opposite is true. They get to draw on the lessons and experience from predecessors and as a result they are able to complete more of the final picture than their instructors, because they got to learn from the people before them.
Point being, the instructor you are considering had to make decisions when he branched out on his own about what to keep, what to create, and what to discard. What I just told you is actually a sort of transparency you won't usually see. I've seen a fair amount of instructors try to lead their students to believe they are some street rat with many deadly confrontations under their belt and the fact they're still standing there proves they know how to survive the streets. It's unfortunate this mindset is common place, but it is.
The truth most of the time is that the person running any karate school is just some guy that had some life changing experience through karate and he decided he wanted to share that experience with others. He went to the same public schools, he eats at the same restaurants, he has issues of his own.
Through training and experience, you can get a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn't even without having to do it, this is true only if you are experienced enough and objective enough with your karate. Hopefully your instructor is. He may have been in a few altercations at points in his life, and hopefully they were not something he helped escalate. There is no way to prove the effectiveness of any system. The best you can do is simulate self defense scenarios as best you can and make a projection based on your knowledge and experience of life and research as to whether what you are doing is reasonable or just plain fantasy.
I have had a few students tell me that they have needed to use it for defense, some situations got physical, most of them didn't. So far, knock on wood, all have turned out okay. What this means to me is that we've done a good job and that the parts of their training that were tested were effective for the situation they were in, and for the person who had to use it. What it does not mean to me is that we can feel we've done everything possible and that there is no room for improvement. We will continue re-iterating through our curriculum, simplifying techniques and improving our curriculum.
Professionals rely on other professionals
What I would really like to stress here is that if you find an instructor that refuses to give credit to others in his field for his own success, find a different instructor. There is a very large network of people who are expanding the self-defense knowledge of the human race every day. These people are psychologists, police, soldiers, bouncers, citizens, and even criminals. You learn best by learning from other people's experiences. For this reason, if you come across a person who says he is self made and doesn't rely on the teachings of others, without a doubt he is full of it. A person simply does not live long enough to figure all this stuff out on their own, especially in this field where mistakes can cost lives.
I'll give you an example. Police officers today now know that compliance of a suspect to the orders of the officer is paramount to officer safety. How do you think they found this out? There were enough situations where a suspect was ordered to show his hands or do something similar and the suspect managed to stall long enough to get to a weapon and kill the officer. Self defense knowledge has been paid for with human life!. Now if you don't comply immediately you're going to get tazed immediately for reasons I just mentioned. Maybe you were gonna do something, maybe you weren't. No cop who wants to go home that night is going to wait to find out.
The point I'm trying to make is that if you are truly looking for self-defense, there should be a larger network of professionals being tapped into by the instructor in order to provide you quality knowledge. Any instructor who truly cares to do a good job for his or her students will be aware of this and will be utilizing it. Training videos, perhaps talks from police officers, required readings, these are all good things to see present in a school that is serious about what it does.
Different schools focus on different longterm goals for their students
If you want to get a sense of what your experience will be like after having invested years in a karate school, observe the advanced students. They are the finished product of the instructors years of time with them. Are they competent? Do you feel like they are a good example to follow? Keep in mind, the people walking around the school wearing black belts are the finished product. If you like what you see, excellent. If you don't, don't waste your time there. You will not get those years back to reinvest with another school.
There are different long term goals set by instructors at each school. Some schools are happy producing excellent tournament fighters. Some schools love creating grappling experts. Some schools focus strictly on self defense and don't give a damn about tournament trophies. At my school, I want people who can survive encounters with violent criminals and be legally aware enough to not get themselves thrown in prison for defending themselves.
This requires that we provide students with a fair amount of knowledge about human psychology delivered in the form of books, training videos (created by professionals in the field), hand to hand training with simulated weapons, ground fighting, stress training, sparring, and a belt curriculum that serves to give students ideas about what their options are. My students are good fighters, but I don't think we would win many tournaments (maybe a few) because we don't spend all of our time doing that. We aren't completely privy to the subtle nuances and tendencies that wins a person a tournament trophy. My students do however have a far better chance at surviving a situation where a criminal is trying to set them up because I've incorporated training about the tactics of criminals into my curriculum, whereas a tournament fighter may be very able to hand a criminals ass to him in a point fight, but they won't be fighting that criminal in a tournament and would likely be hurt because there are fewer constraints about what their attacker can do that the point fighter will not have prepared for. Which brings me to my next point...
It's important to understand that karate does not comprise self defense by itself. Different aspects of martial arts will come into play for self defense, but to think that karate training is self defense training is like saying that holy communion is Christianity. There's a lot more to it than that.
Prices vary greatly between dojos
Most dojos here in the southwest part of the US seem to charge around $100 per month, and it's not uncommon to find a 6 month contract associated with it. It seems a person can go to about 2 classes per week for that rate. At my dojo, we only hold 1 class per week and charge by the class, which is a little different. Still, if we held 2 classes per week, students would be paying close to $100 per month.
Some of the quirks of martial arts culture most people find uncomfortable
Off the top of my head, I'd say the groin contact, bowing, and address people as sir and ma'am seem to be the things some people have the hardest time with. It is in fact quite common in the martial arts for groin contact to occur while practicing techniques, the thinking behind it is if you train yourself on a technique that targets the groin 1000 times over, but instead of actually making contact with the groin, you stop short or miss deliberately, that is what you will actually do in a self defense situation. At my school, we work with a lot of kids, and my student base is so small at this point I want to be extra careful to not scare people off, we've decided to avoid groin contact with our techniques. Maybe this means someone will not strike the groin successfully in a real situation perhaps, but it does make for a more comfortable atmosphere among new comers. That doesn't mean that accidental contact won't occur however.
The bowing extends from the asian cultures, as the martial arts originally does come from the orient. There's a misconception among the general public, (and among some instructors even), that bowing means the person being bowed to is the superior. It is supposed to be done as a sign of mutual respect, and should be returned by the person receiving it. If you feel like your instructor doesn't understand the true meaning of bowing, I recommend you find a different instructor. You don't want to spend years letting someone tell you they are inherently better than you. This can be damaging to your psychology.
At my school, I don't ask students to call me sir. I have other ways to enforce respect and discipline, but this is a good practice to see in place at any school.
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