Grandmaster Kim Soo demonstrates gun defense with Master Rick Fine

Choosing a Quality Martial Art School
by Master Rick Fine
Chief Instructor, Kim Soo Martial Arts - Austin

Martial art practice is relatively new in the United States, yet its popularity has generated a rapid proliferation of schools in recent decades. Without a cultural background or previous experience to rely on, how can a new student make an informed decision in selecting the right school? In a modern society of fast food, commercial hype, and instant gratification, distinctions based on true quality and lasting value require basic consumer research and common sense.

First and foremost, look beyond the school that happens to be closest to home or work. Would anyone select a doctor or lawyer as casually as pulling into a gas station or stopping for groceries? After all, martial arts are not canned goods, mass-produced to identical standards. Teaching is a personal service. Proximity is the least important criteria.

So who is worth their salt , and who is a charlatan? Here are four vital considerations:

1. Lineage. Ask the instructor about his teacher, his teacher's teacher, and the direct history of their art. A legitimate instructor would know such essential information off the top of his head, just as you can name your own parents and grandparents. If he can't articulate his family tree, he probably doesn't have one. If he can, he will be encouraged that you asked - and you should be, too.

Then jot down the names of his predecessors and do a web search. See if you can verify his claims, either online or by contacting his existing references directly. Make sure that neither he nor his organization just fabricated an impressive-sounding history. If he's truly descended from a well-recognized line, his affiliation and accreditation should be easy to substantiate in this day and age. In the process, you will become better acquainted with martial art history and philosophy, which will greatly enhance your understanding wherever you choose to train.

2. Experience. How long has the instructor been practicing and teaching a particular art? Never mind his belt: Tenure is different from rank. Schools have different ranking standards that may be difficult to compare, but experience can be counted in years for everyone, irrespective of rank. Of course, tenure must then be correlated with lineage to assess the depth of someone's experience. Would you rather take piano lessons from someone who's been playing "Chopsticks" for 20 years, or from a recent graduate of the Julliard School of Music?

At the opposite extreme, be wary of anyone purporting to hold high rank in more arts than you can count. Ask him how long he studied each of those arts to achieve such rank. Unless his name is Methuselah, chances are he's merely collecting belts and certificates from phony organizations. Besides, how far down the road could he travel by constantly zig-zagging between paths?

3. Curriculum. You can easily assess the depth of a teacher's knowledge base without any martial art background yourself. Ask how long his average student takes to obtain a 1st degree black belt, for instance. If the instructor brags that he could make you a black belt in "only" a year or two, then look elsewhere because he's just admitted he has very little to teach. A better answer would be more like four to six years, indicative of a real education. How much stock would you put in a bachelor's degree from a college that awarded them after only a year of study?

Again, at the opposite extreme, don't be wowed by preposterous claims that defy the imagination - much less human memory capacity - such as teaching "10,000 techniques" or "500 forms". Such schools are the laughing stock of true martial artists. If it's too good to be true, well….

4. Your personal impressions. Go watch a class or take a trial lesson. Then do the same at every other school on your list. In each instance, what impressions did you walk away with? Did you learn something fundamental or superficial? Was the instructor humble or egotistical? Was the training safe or potentially injurious? Were the students serious or lackadaisical? Was the facility conducive or makeshift?.

Most importantly, trust your own judgment. In the end, that is the goal of a martial art education: to empower the individual to become self-confident and self-reliant, and make his own decisions in life.