Looking for a Karate Dojo or School

A friend asked Sensei Keeling what to look for in a martial arts school for her young son. The opinions he shared with her (edited) are below. While some of it is specific to children’s classes, most of it is relevant for adult classes as well.

For parents to consider

What are your goals for your child? If it is to learn self-defense, it is probably better to work on concepts, rather than techniques, for those under about six years old. Concepts such as “don’t talk to strangers,” etc. are things you can (and should) teach them yourself. If it is to get your child some exercise, there are plenty of other options that might be just as good as martial arts. If you really want them to learn a traditional martial art, it’s really not going to happen for kids under about six years old. Most places that teach “kids martial arts” don’t teach real martial arts anyway — even to adults. Unfortunately, most of the good martial arts instructors don’t know enough about teaching kids to do it well.

For young children if the goal is to work on coordination and overall physical fitness I recommend gymnastics. After they turn six — and sometimes they still aren’t ready at that age — look to enroll them in a martial arts class. But be careful. The vast majority (80%?) of so-called martial arts classes are not really much more than expensive baby-sitting centers. And since it’s only for an hour or less, the benefit to you as day-care is minimal. The kids often have fun, but they tend to play games for half the class time and learn very little. Because it’s a fun activity, the kids are likely to continue without complaint. But since it isn’t really helping them much, is it really worth it?

Most of the remaining 20% are taught by people who do not differentiate between adults and children. The kids are bored as this old guy rambles on about self-defense strategies and expects the kids to remain perfectly still and attentive. And they may teach dangerous things in these classes. These places are often good for teens and adults (where the above-mentioned “day-care” places certainly are not).

TaeKwonDo is OK as a starter. Many TaeKwonDo schools are a bit of a blend between the two types of situations described above. I know of traditional martial artists who enroll their kids in TaeKwonDo when they are young and then switch them over to Japanese karate later. TaeKwonDo is based on karate from Japan. Some people might tell you it’s hundreds of years old but it was actually created after the Japanese occupation of Korea prior to World War II. TaeKwonDo tends to focus on flashy kicks and cardio workouts as opposed to effective self-defense. Not a bad thing, necessarily. But quite different from traditional karate. One thing many TaeKwonDo places do that is very good is to get the kids to focus; not only on their training but also on their schoolwork. And they also often emphasize manners and respect. More traditional martial arts often do these things as well.

What I would really like younger kids to do is Judo. Unfortunately, there just aren’t many places around anymore for that. Please do look for a Judo dojo in your area, though. Aikido could be good for kids as well but most places seem to cater only to adults.

Things to watch out for once you decide it’s time to start your child in a martial arts class:

  • Don’t sign up for more than a couple of months in advance and do not sign any contracts. What if your child doesn’t like it or you realize it’s not as good as it seemed it would be?
  • If the place calls itself a “studio,” it is probably… how can I put this politely…? “not a quality establishment.” I do not know of a single “studio” that provides high quality instruction, and most of them churn kids through as though they were on a conveyer belt, handing out new colored belts or sashes every month or two, provided their parents continue to pay their very inflated fees.
  • You should probably avoid locations in strip-malls. There are rare instances of strip-mall locations being good. But odds are that they are not (most of these are “studios” — see above). Strip-mall locations usually involve very high turnover of both students and “instructors” (often teenagers with very little experience themselves). As I said though, there are cases where there are good dojo in strip-malls.
  • Avoid places advertising as teaching four or five different things. Unless they have many instructors, one person simply cannot be all that skilled in teaching more than a couple different martial arts. “Kung-Fu/Karate/Tai-Chi/Jujutsu/Kick-Boxing” on the sign should be taken as a warning.
  • I suppose it goes without saying that if the instructor is yelling at kids like a Marine Corps drill sergeant, it’s probably not the best environment for your child.
  • If the instructor calls him/herself a “master,” he/she almost certainly is not. If others refer to the head instructor as a master, that might be OK. But since there are probably fewer than 25 people in the entire U.S. who can legitimately be called karate “masters,” chances are that this person is not really one of them. If you think you’ve found one of them, let me know and I can check them out for you. If you see that the instructor is a “grandmaster” or possibly even a “great grandmaster,” I suggest staying far away. I have not heard of a single “grandmaster” who is actually a qualified instructor of traditional martial arts.
  • Do not be easily impressed by claims of high ranks or tournament successes. There is no central governing body for martial arts, so a 12th degree black belt with one organization may be no better than a 2nd degree in another organization. And there are plenty of small tournaments where a win could allow one to claim to be “world champion.” Besides, does tournament victory necessarily mean someone is a good teacher? Would you expect Mike Tyson to be a great boxing teacher? Perhaps, but not necessarily…
  • Following up on the above, there are no legitimate traditional martial arts organizations that have higher than 10th degree and there are only a few valid 10th degree black belts on the entire planet. Treat as suspect anyone who has done their martial art for less than 30 years who claims to be above 5th degree.
  • How old are the instructors? Do you really want a teenager teaching your child?
  • If they say they can teach real martial arts to your child under six, they are most likely lying just to take your money. Classes for kids that young usually consist almost entirely of playing games (That’s not all bad, but please don’t kid yourself or them that they are learning a martial art. Sometimes these classes do more harm than good when it comes to learning long-term martial arts skills.).
  • If you see multi-colored uniforms, or multiple patches on their uniforms, this is not a good sign. The usual color for uniforms in traditional martial arts is white. Occasionally you may see a black uniform or mix-and-match black & white or blue and white. But no legitimate traditional martial artist would be caught wearing a red-white-and-blue uniform (except on Halloween). One patch on the uniform may be OK. But more patches than you would see on a boy scout is probably a sign that the place is more about fluff than substance. Generally, the closer to a pure white uniform, the better.
  • Personally, I wouldn’t want a child to fool around with any type of weapons until they are mature enough for it; probably teenagers. If you see people practicing with weapons in a place you are considering, I would suggest discussing with the instructor your desire to keep your child away from such things. “Karate” means, literally, “empty hand.” There are plenty of legitimate traditional karate places teaching weapons as well. But it is simply not a requirement for authentic traditional karate and should not be introduced to younger, impressionable children.
  • Don’t worry if the class is just 30 to 45 minutes for the younger kids. Their attention span at that age wouldn’t allow them to last through a full hour. Teens should be able to handle at least an hour. Adult classes are often 90 minutes or more. What is best for kids is multiple classes each week, each of them as long as their attention span will allow. Plan to have your child in as many classes each week as your schedule will allow. Children cannot retain information as easily as adults if exposed to it only periodically. However, children can pick up things faster than adults if immersed in it (think about learning a second language…same thing). Many short classes each week is often ideal for a child.
  • How much experience do the instructors have? Realize that a “black belt” does not guarantee any kind of actual skill and certainly not teaching skill. Quite often, even when there is a relatively advanced instructor present, the teaching of kids is done by someone with very little experience. Check their qualifications and don’t just take their word for it… Do some checking online. Has the instructor been doing karate for a long time? Who were their instructors? Unfortunately, as I mentioned, there is no official governing body for martial arts instruction. So you have to use your best judgement or rely on someone else to help.
  • Do not equate price with quality. Some of the worst places charge the most and some of the best places charge next to nothing. Look into classes at community centers or the YMCA. Often, for my adult classes I get calls from prospective students who ask right away “How much does it cost?” These people rarely show up even to try out a class. When they choose a place that charges 10% less they never get to experience instruction that far exceeds the small price difference… Here in Silicon Valley, a fair price is about $15-18/hr for classes with under 20 students, taught by a qualified instructor. Oops. That last part (“taught by a qualified instructor”) just knocked 95% of the classes into the “expensive” category. 😉
  • Talk to parents and students. Do not fall for any sales-pitch by instructors.

Good luck.