The First Questions
So, you've read parts I through III, and you've decided that Ari is the best spokesperson for martial arts, and you're fired up, and it's time to start doing a martial art. But... like most of us, you now realize have no clue where to go from here.
Don't worry: we all started out this way, and it's by no means insurmountable! Here's a nifty, simple list of questions to ask yourself first, all of which have to do with goal setting:
1. What do I want to get out of my classes? What is my long-term goal?
2. Do I want to strike people or subdue them?
3. What in particular appeals to me about martial arts?
4. How and how often do I want to train?
5. Do I want to compete?
Personally, I think these five questions are the five most important questions you can ask yourself first. And be completely honest. If you don't want to become a machine of pain and death, then maybe Muay Thai isn't for you. If you want a really structured organization and growth model, then maybe karate or TKD is for you. If you want something with a slightly alternative and less violent approach, then maybe aikido is for you. They all have something to offer different people, and only you can figure out what that is.
That's not to say that you can't branch out and learn multiple arts. In fact, I recommend that mostly everyone learn at least two arts at some point if they decide to make a serious hobby out of martial arts. But if you are just starting out, then it's best to stick with one and get comfortable.
What do You Want to Achieve?
This is an important question, and one that you really need to ask yourself before you begin. Are you looking for fitness? To be a strong and experienced fighter? To compete in a tournament setting? All of these goals and many others are very good reasons to train, but they all will affect how you go about choosing a school.
For instance, if you're looking primarily for fitness, but you don't care about being a top fighter, you may not want to join a school that has a heavy sparring focus, as the punishment may not be of any particular benefit to you. However, if you do want to fight, then you need to find a school that has a lot of other people who fight as well, because the only way to get better at fighting is through tons of sparring.
Also, look at the class schedule and be realistic: will you be able to make classes considering your other obligations? You will need to go at least twice a week (if not more) to progress at a reasonable pace. I go, on average, four times a week, and I still could stand to train more.
Furthermore, part of the reason why I listed both striking and grappling arts was to highlight that not all martial arts means punching things. If you don't find the idea of punching and kicking people to be appealing, then go check out a judo or BJJ school! There's all sorts of options out there, and they're not limited to "karate."
How to Choose a School and Not a McDojo
So you've figured out that you want to start training in a specific style, and now you have to find a school. Great! But you keep hearing about avoiding "McDojos," and now you're worried. This is a legitimate concern, because there are, unfortunately, many shitty schools. So how do you get around this?
First off, visit and ask to watch a class. If the school pushes you to join without watching or going to an open house/free class, then run away and never come back. Any decent teacher will LOVE to show you how classes are run. Not all schools allow non-members to do classes at all times, but all of them will at least have open house for people to partake in every month or so.
Look at their website. Do they show any organizational affiliations? If so, Google that organization and see what people have to say. Is the organization large and well-organized? That's often a good sign. It will often mean that the organization will have some degree of consistency.
If all else fails, ask anyone you know who is knowledgable about martial arts to go with you and observe! For instance, I will go with people to first classes and observe with them and give them opinions on the class. Plus, I get to have fun and learn new things. Any passionate martial artist friends should be glad to tag along!
Finally, talk to the instructors. Preferably more than one. Try to gauge their character. Are they pushing a hard sell on you? Are they trying to tell you about their super special awesome samurai ninja magicks that only they know from a long-dead Japanese super grandmaster who was the only teacher of this style? Then run away. There is no magic here. Good martial artists all got there through one thing alone: hard work. Blood, sweat, and tears. Hopefully mostly sweat.
There's a saying in kyokushin karate: "cry at the dojo, laugh at the tournament." Great instructors should be able to demonstrate that they have experience in their style. They don't have to be the number one world champion of a tournament (though it's awesome to learn from those folks), but they should have at least pitted their skills against others regardless of whether not you plan on doing the same. Teachers should have worked harder than the students, and fighting experience is a good measure of that. Not every instructor needs to be a tournament fighter, but it's a good starting point.
Speaking of McDojos, there is the subject of belts. I admit that while I'm against the black belt mills, I think that ranking systems have a place in codified organizations. They can help a person to better understand their skills relative to others, and provide a goal-setting tool.
That said, if a school has more belt colors than you knew existed, there's a chance you may need to do some further research. Too many belts can be a money grab, as testing is usually a paid exercise. Again, belts are fine, but if you see camouflage belts on the walls, it's a good bet that it's time to run!
Also, if you see a young child with a black belt? Not a good sign. I love the kids, but generally speaking they lack the discipline and required coordination to be talented black belts. There are exceptions, but they usually are the guys on the left in this video (who took his black belt as a teenager):
But I'm Out of Shape!
So was I! So was everyone I know who started training! Don't worry, I promise! After my first two classes, I went home and soaked in baths filled with lava water. And then I took ibuprofen and winced my way to sleep. Then I kept going for two weeks, two months, two years, and now years. Now, I can do what I did that first class and go home and be ready the next day. The human body is simultaneously fragile and resilient, and I guarantee that if you are willing to put up some temporary pain, you will get over the initial shock in a few weeks. And I guarantee that you will see noticeable improvement in your abilities and performance in mere months.
My wife started training with me about a year ago, and when she attended her first two weeks of classes, she came home and basically said, "I hate you," and said that she was going to quit. A year later we just put down a couple hundred bucks to get her a nicer gi (the outfit you wear to train) and she gets excited to watch tournament videos with me. Anyone can start at any age and benefit! One of my sempai in NYC started in his late 30s, and is now one of the black belt instructors. It's never too late. Ever. If anyone tells you that it is, you ignore them.
As my friend the aikido black belt once put it: you will look back on yourself years ago and think, "who was that person?" I don't even remember myself years ago, because the person I am today in the dojo is so radically different. That can be you, I promise. I know it, because I have never been gifted athletically or physically. I still am not. But I work hard, I train a ton, and I don't ever give up or get (too) discouraged. This is your journey, and nobody else's, and your journey is AWESOME.
I know it's hard, and believe me I had a hard time at first with it too, but do your best to stick with it for the first few months. I promise to any new student that after the first few months it will get better. It will never get "easy," or even "easier" (because you will challenge yourself more all the time!), but your body will learn to handle the stress you are putting it through, and you will get stronger. If you are concerned, bring it up with the instructors, and they can help you to set programs and goals for yourself. If they are not willing to help you, then they are probably not that great of teachers in the first place: everyone starts somewhere, and good instructors understand that.
OK, fine, but how much?
(I could go bankrupt at a martial arts equipment store!)
This is where it gets ugly. Good schools often cost a lot of money. I pay around $150 a month for my wife and me. My friend who trains in Muay Thai spends closer to $200 just for himself (in DC). This is not a cheap hobby, and if you test and compete, you will spend a small fortune. Pads, outfits, training gear, and all the other fixed costs add up pretty quickly. A decent gi alone can run $200. Good gloves? $100.
That said, the benefits both physically and mentally are so great for me personally that I'd pay even more if need be. But you need to weigh how much you're willing to spend, as that should be considered.
Is the school friendly to women?
This really matters, obviously, and it's probably one of the hardest things to gauge at the outset. Here are a few things I've noticed that help in determining if a school is friendly and supportive toward women:
1. Do they have female instructors?
2. Do they support women through tournament or other competitive training?
3. Do they have a decent population of female students?
If you can't say yes to all three, then there's a chance that there's going to be a brolk belt culture. And that's just no fun. Don't be afraid to ask questions! And if there are other women in the school when you visit, ask them how they feel! If there's one thing I've learned about martial artists over the years, it's that they are generally pretty honest. If someone demurs, then there's a chance that they don't even think about it. My dojo's sensei LOVES to brag about how well the female fighters have done under his leadership. I find that to be a good sign that he cares about what the women get out of his classes.
Your first day in any new organization is going to be stressful! I even had a hard time switching from a dojo in NY to one in LA! It took me maybe 6 months to finally feel comfortable out here, because there were little differences in how I was taught in NY that made it hard for me to learn in LA. This is okay! Being uncomfortable can be good, because it means that you are self-aware. That's a great trait in martial arts!
Don't be afraid to ask senior students for advice or help, either! That's what they're there for! A good school's senior students should be excited to help you, the new person, grow and hopefully one day surpass them!
That said, there's nothing more scary to a senior student than a new student on test day. They all come in ready to prove themselves, and guess who they get to do it on? So, try to be considerate to your seniors, eh? ;-)
Most of all: HAVE FUN. If you aren't having fun, you're in the wrong program. This should be a hobby, not a form of self-torture.
5. Styles not covered here, including kendo, krav maga, and Chinese martial arts