7 things to look for when searching for a martial arts school for your child

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Your child has tried team sports but the interest is just not there. You have searched for other extracurricular activities but nothing has seemed to grab your child’s attention. Martial arts can be a great choice for children who doesn't connect with mainstream sports or could use a boost with important character traits like confidence or focus. Once you start looking, you may notice there are a lot of choices for martial arts classes. They may claim they all teach martial arts to kids but the methods and approaches can be drastically different. Look for these things to increase your chances of finding the right school for your child.

1. Passionate about helping children.

Just because a person loves martial arts and has great skills doesn’t mean they can effectively teach children. It takes a special type of person to be able to connect and inspire a child. Each individual child is unique in their special way and a good teacher will know how to adapt their approach to maximize success. Even though most martial arts culture teaches students to always show respect and humility, some adults can develop a large ego along the way. This is especially the case with adults who carry a high rank in their art. This large ego can create a challenge since an effective teacher will have to be goofy, make jokes, or act a little immature to help the student feel comfortable or just to keep their attention. I’ll say it once and I’ll say it again; just because you know martial arts doesn’t mean you can teach kids.

A motivating and engaging instructor is very important but the curriculum and system the martial arts school teaches from also plays a big role. Does the school have a well thought out, organized curriculum? Is the curriculum geared towards children? Does the curriculum fit the needs of your child? All these questions are important to ask yourself when choosing a martial arts school for your child. Our curriculums are based on a short term and long term goal system. Students will earn stripes every week or two and then a new belt when they have accomplished the objectives for the current belt. I think it is important to have a system that is objective based rather than subjective since every instructor can have different expectations.

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2. Clarity of type of martial arts.

It has become very common for martial arts schools to start incorporating multiple styles and arts into their curriculum. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this and it can be beneficial to the student if done in the right way. But if you are looking for a karate or Taekwondo school, be sure to do your research on what style, affiliation, or group they are associated with. For example, the Kukkiwon in Korea is considered the world headquarters for modern Taekwondo and they have strict guidelines on how their style is supposed to be practiced and taught. So if a school claims they are affiliated with the Kukkiwon, watch a couple of their classes and then compare that to the videos made with Kukkiwon masters found on Youtube or other popular video sites. Karate has their own affiliations as well.

When in doubt, trust your gut. Most people can usually tell the difference between someone who knows what they are doing or not. I personally feel stand up arts like Taekwondo and Karate are best for children since it really helps them with developing physical coordination and balance. Ground arts such as Judo and Jiujitsu can be good for students over the age of 12.  Again, my opinion and my opinion only. It really comes down to what martial arts your child will have interest in the most. If he or she doesn’t want to touch or wrestle with other students then a stand up art would be the better choice.

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3. Culture and philosophy

With every martial arts school comes a different culture and philosophy. Some schools are very strict on the traditions while others are not. Some schools put more emphasis on improving the character and behavior of the student while others focus mostly on technique. There are also schools that are very relaxed and just want the student to have fun and not push them out of their comfort zone.

Every parent will have a different outlook and opinion on this so I will just tell you what I would want for my children. I have been involved in martial arts since the age of four and can confidently say it was one of the best things my parents gave me. Not only did it help me stay disciplined to accomplish my goals, it gave me the confidence to take on life with full force. My father was my instructor and his teaching style was very “old school”. This involved many knuckle push ups to the students who weren't working hard or paying attention. His approach made excellent students and children back in those days could take it. If he were to teach today’s kids with the same approach, he would struggle to keep students from quitting. Although I appreciate the old school teaching style, I feel that there are better and more effective ways of teaching.

I think the perfect teaching style is a combination of being demanding, supportive, and positive at the same time. Demanding as in the instructor will help my child understand the importance of details in techniques and will not give up until these details are mastered. Supportive as in the instructor will help my child understand why his kick was not good enough to earn the stripe and then helps him practice to fix the mistakes. Positive as in the instructor approaching every obstacle and challenge my child faces in a positive way. I don’t believe in the “everybody gets a trophy” approach because it gives children a false sense of accomplishment. Life is tough and it is our job as parents and teachers to prepare our children for the challenges and failures they will eventually experience. The culture and philosophy I would want my children to be apart of would be, “No giving up allowed. We are in this together.”  See 5 Reasons Why Martial Arts Helps Children Learn Grit.

ko martial arts main training floor
ko martial arts main training floor

4. Clean and tidy facility

Since most martial arts are practiced without shoes, you can imagine how quickly a school can become dirty and stinky. When you visit the prospective school, be sure to walk around the entire facility and look for dust on surfaces and dirt in corners. The easiest and most obvious way to tell if the a school is clean is how it smells. Ask the staff member or owner how often they mop the classroom floor and if they use disinfectant on a daily basis. You’d be surprised how common it is for martial arts schools to only clean once per week.

The interior design of the school is going to be based solely on your preference. I personally am very picky about the esthetics of a business and my overall takeaway is heavily based on their presentation. If a business owner puts a lot of thought into their interior and exterior design, it tells me they are professional which usually means they take their profession seriously. A well organized and clutter free school is ideal for your child’s education. We make sure our training rooms are bright and free of anything that may distract a student during class. We don’t have any dragons, cartoon characters, or ninjas on any of the walls or windows.

taekwondo girl focused
taekwondo girl focused

5. Student to instructor ratio

The majority of martial arts schools will run their program on a group class structure. Depending on the size of the school, there could only be one instructor who is also the owner who is also the office manager who is also the custodian. There is nothing wrong with this but your child could be in a class of 20 or more with one instructor leading. This ratio can work for advanced students but is far from ideal for the beginner student. A new student needs at least 60 days to get acclimated to the school’s rules and expectations and a low student to instructor ratio class is the best way to accomplish this.

Don’t get me wrong, a classroom with a lot of students is not necessarily a bad thing as long as there are the correct amount of instructors to accommodate. We strive for a five to one student to instructor ratio at our martial arts school, Ko Martial Arts. So if we have a class with 20 students, we will try to have at least four instructors on the floor ready to teach their group. The instructor developing a connection with your child is one of the most important parts of the training experience and a low student instructor ratio is the best way to accomplish this.

6. Contracts and fees

Believe it or not, there are martial arts schools and businesses who still try to bind their customers into financial contracts. As a business owner, I can understand why a martial arts school would want their customers to sign a contract. It assures them that there will be a steady flow of revenue for a set period of time. I used to do contacts when I first opened my school 10 years ago but stopped using them shortly after.  This was due to one simple fact; I hate contracts. Not only did I feel guilty trying to enforce a contract with a parent whose child wants to quit the program but I also hate contracts as a consumer. In my opinion, a customer should want to continue using the services because of satisfaction, not a financial contract. All of our programs and services can be cancelled on a 30 day notice. I think this is fair for both, the customer and business. If you are comfortable with signing a contract when enrolling your child into a martial arts school, be sure to read the fine print beforehand.

With every school comes various extra fees. Stripe fees, testing fees, and belt fees are very common with all martial arts schools. I would just ask up front what other fees will be required during your child’s martial arts journey. I don’t think these fees are necessarily bad, I just personally would want to know up front. Some schools charge low monthly rates but then charge extremely high stripe, belt, and testing fees.

taekwondo boy in uniform
taekwondo boy in uniform

7. Ability to meet your expectations and needs

The last thing on the list is going to be the most important. Martial arts has become a very popular activity in America which has allowed many different schools to operate in many different types of facilities with a wide range of approaches. Before you start your search, ask yourself, “Why do I want my child to do martial arts?”.  If your answer is to keep your child busy during the off season and to try something new, then a martial arts program at the local community center may meet your needs.

If you are interested in giving your child the opportunity to become a black belt and beyond, then you will need to find a highly reputable school that offers age and level specific curriculums. It takes approximately three years of consistent training and class attendance at our school to become a black belt. Other schools might require more or less time than this. It all depends on the culture and philosophy of the school. I personally feel three years is the right amount of time for a student to master the fundamentals and to learn how to learn. I particularly enjoy teaching black belt students because they usually understand the importance of being still and making eye contact when a teacher is talking. Our school’s philosophy is heavily based on long term thinking so we would like to see our students continue training well beyond black belt. An easy way to see if a school has a culture and curriculum to support long term thinking, find out how many black belts are still actively training at the school. It is not easy to keep a student engaged and motivated to reach black belt but keeping them as a student past second and third degree black belt is even more difficult. Like I said before, your choice will come down to what you are trying to get out of martial arts.

Martial arts can be one of the best programs for your child’s development but choosing the right school is vital. Do your research first and visit more than one school. Trust your gut and fully understand the expectations before committing to a program. If you do these things, you will increase the chances of finding the right school and hopefully giving your child a brighter future. Now start your research and get ready to embrace the world of martial arts.