It can be difficult for a parent to know just how to choose a martial arts studio for their child. There are dozens of choices out there, each claiming to be the best. Here is some sound advice for parents getting ready to enroll their child in the martial arts for the first time.
The Meet and Greet
You may have met your local martial arts instructor at a booth in a local touch-a-truck, street fair, or parade. Chances are your child will do something fun, like take a free mini-class, or interact with a mascot, or play some sort of short game. The instructor will chat with you and tell you about the program. As your child participates, take note of their reactions. Are they having fun? Are they being encouraged? Are they laughing? Are they engaged? That will tell you something about the teacher.
Before you leave, the studio will most likely ask for your contact information. That’s a fair request, and it is OK to give them that information. If your child had fun, you may have just discovered an experience that will change your child’s life.
The second most common interaction comes from a web search. Review their web site. Do they have programs for your child? Do those programs grow and change over time? Do they have a strong Life Skills program? If you like what you see, let the studio have your contact information. You can learn something about a program from a web site, but you’ll make your decision in the studio. Shortly after giving the company your phone number or e-mail, someone should reach out to you and set up that “first impression” experience for your child.
Most studios will allow you to sample a class or a lesson for free. If they don’t, walk away. If they do, look carefully at what they offer. Is it a group class? Is it a private lesson? First impressions matter. Think of it as a “first date” experience. If you want to make a nice impression on someone, you’re going to present the best version of yourself you possibly can. What they show you on that first visit will tell you what they value as a school.
During the introduction, watch your child in the lesson. Most children are a bit reserved at first, particularly if they are new to the martial arts. A good instructor will recognize that and draw out the best in your child. Look for encouragement, not pushing. Look for expectations, not demands. Look for smiles, or focus, or laughter, or effort. What do you want the martial arts to draw out of your child? You should see at least some of that in the first lesson.
After the lesson, ask your child for feedback. Young children are usually quite transparent. The typical five-year-old can’t hide their joy if they’re having fun. If your child is older, you might need to pull them aside and have a one-on-one conversation. (A reputable instructor will respect this.) You know your child, so you’re the best judge. It is a long journey to black belt, and you want your child to enjoy the ride.
Be sure your child’s martial arts experience is grounded in a solid Life Skills program. The martial arts journey is about self-discipline, respect, honesty, self-control, and patience. The martial arts shape who we are, not just our bodies. Grandmaster DeMasco puts it this way:
-The Shaolin Way, p. xxv
That’s profound stuff to a five-year-old or a nine-year-old, but it is a universal truth. For young children, it is about respecting their parents and learning to control themselves. As children grow older, it also is about making good choices and accepting responsibility. This is the lasting value of martial arts instruction. Expect life skills to be the core of your child’s instruction from the very beginning.
During the lesson, take a quick look around the studio. Each dojo has its own look and feel. Is it clean? Is the waiting room comfortable? Is it family-friendly? Does it promote the martial arts, or the instructor? Is the teaching and learning process transparent, and can you see what happens in the dojo? Martial arts instructors should be experts at martial arts instruction. A stray dust bunny shouldn’t mean you walk out the door, but you should feel comfortable sitting on the furniture, talking with the people, and walking in and out of the space.
Check out the lavatory. A truly clean dojo will have a clean bathroom. This reflects the character of the instructors and staff. Your child will use that bathroom in the coming weeks and months. Do you want your child using a filthy lavatory? The condition of the bathroom speaks volumes about the instructor’s self-discipline and attention to detail.
Price vs. Value
Each martial arts studio is unique, and in the martial arts, you will get what you pay for. Expect value, and don’t settle for cheap. Your child’s martial journey will significantly impact the adult they become, so don’t compromise.
You should expect the following out of your studio:
- Expect that your child will have a strong working relationship with all the instructors at that studio, and a connection with at least one instructor personally.
- Expect that your child will earn advancement through personal growth and genuine accomplishment.
- Expect that your child’s instructor will always be committed to your child’s growth.
- Demand that your child has regular small-group or individualized experiences.
- Expect that your child’s instruction is customized to his or her unique needs and personality.
Unfortunately, the market is saturated with cheap dojos that come and go, and for a very good reason. Cheap, group-class-only businesses count on student volume to survive. Their model is based on cramming your child into the back of a large, cold room, overloaded with kids of different ages and abilities, while you hope your kid doesn’t get hurt. The space is usually some hole-in-the-wall. The owner paid attention to safety just long enough to get the permit allowing them to open. They lock you into long contracts with no escape, using fast talk and hard sell. Half the time belt advancement is based on attendance, so your child earns meaningless black belt while the instructor cashes in. If not, then your child is subject to social Darwinism where only the instructor’s favorites make the grade. These outfits usually produce a counter loaded with shiny trophies, but there is no soul in the dojo. These places are not legitimate, they give the martial arts a bad name, and they are not good for children.
Your local martial arts studio serves your community. That means your neighbors’ kids go there. Ask other parents. Check them out on social media. Look for feedback on line. Check their rating with the Better Business Bureau. Get multiple opinions. Find out how long they’ve been in business. A reputable business will have a solid overall reputation. Remember, every martial arts studio is a local entity. Judge your studio based on who they are and how well they are respected in your area. You’ll know, very quickly, why a good local studio has been around for a few years.
Commitment – It Goes Both Ways
Most dojos will allow some sort of trial period, but just about all martial arts studios require a commitment from their clients at some point. Most of the time, the commitment is for one year or more, and tuition is usually non-negotiable. Success in the martial arts requires a commitment, so this is a fair and necessary expectation. A reputable studio will show you all terms and conditions, and will be happy to answer all your questions. If you find yourself in a “hard sell” situation where the terms are not clear or you are uncomfortable, walk away. The best studios have nothing to hide.
Long Term Relationships
The black belt journey takes years, as well it should. Therefore, your child’s instructor will be a very important person in your child’s life. Do you trust this person? Is he or she committed to working with you, and helping your child become the young adult you hope for? Is he or she a solid role model for your child? That’s what matters most. Your child’s martial arts teacher is as much a part of your parenting team as school teachers and daycare providers. Choose carefully and well, and your child will benefit for the rest of their life.