Selecting a Martial Arts School

In Chinese tradition, outstanding young aspirants would either dedicate themselves to becoming a literati or a martial artist, or even both. They would spend years equipping themselves in all kind of knowledge in order to serve the Emperor and or dedicate their outstanding skill to their country. There was no greater ambition for a man than to become famous and renowned throughout history and bring honor their family.  In those times, many Martial Art schools existed, however, to learn something totally outstanding; you had to search for a highly qualified SiFu, a person of vast knowledge. These SiFus were very secretive and hid themselves away in mountains, monasteries, swamps, forests, or small rural communities. Aspiring students would quest to find these SiFus in order to be accepted as the only disciple, so they can inherit all the knowledge from this outstanding SiFu. Consequently, selecting a style, school, or SiFu required the strictest and most serious evaluation. There was no room for mistake when making a lifetime commitment.

Nowadays, people are interested in martial arts because of the influence of their idol, reading a magazine/book, seeing a movie, or from some conversation with a friend. Some explore the Martial Arts because it is popular and they may take it up as a hobby or for leisure. Whatever their reason, prospective students should spend more time to research, evaluate and understand the many choices available to them before they make a commitment. Looking for a SiFu in today’s world is a lot easier because we have a better educational environment and more opportunities. For example, institutes and colleges are readily available at your convenience, with your choice of when and what subject to study. In addition, modes of travel and communication make the world’s knowledge more accessible. However, you should still keep all these considerations in mind as guidelines when trying to select a martial art school.

What is Martial Arts

The study of Martial Arts is a dedicated and diligent endeavor of serious research into physical combat and military strategies. It is a time-consuming endeavor that requires total commitment, years of continuous daily physical, mental, psychological and academic training. From the dawn of civilization, talented individuals researched, experimented and evolved the knowledge and application of Martial Arts and passed that treasure to their students. As a result, there are many styles of Martial Arts, each with their own merit. Since I am a Wing Chun practitioner, I can speak specifically on how to choose a Wing Chun School and SiFu, and generally on what to consider in selecting a martial art school and teacher. I sincerely hope the aspiring Martial Art student will find this guide useful, whether they choose to learn Wing Chun or another Style.

Motivations and premise

When my SiFu, the Late Wing Chun Grandmaster Yip Man, accepted me as his student, he told me not to believe what he says. He said that whom he learned from or whom I learn from is not important. He insisted the most important thing is that a teacher can show me something that is practical for everyone: techniques and theories that can work for short, tall, skinny and large individuals and against equally varied opponents. Just because a famous SiFu can do it doesn’t mean you can do it. A SiFu might show a prospective student something that only he can do, just to convince the visitor to join his school; such an instructor is likely to be motivated mainly by money rather than higher ideals, such as ensuring the right decision will be made by both parties. So be smart.

You are about to invest a few years to develop a skill you may need to protect yourself or even save your life. How would you feel if, after 5 years of training, your skills were useless when you tried to apply it? You might be seriously injured, crippled or, worse come to worst, lose your life! You suddenly realize you trained years of bad habits and ineffective techniques. You’ve trained yourself in how to get hurt! Should you decide to learn another martial art, or change to a different school, it will be difficult to adapt to the new method because of your ill-trained reflexes and habits from before.  Therefore, your attitude in finding the right school is very important. You must be open-minded to experiment, analyze and evaluate what you’re shown.  Use your common sense, raise questions, and be critical as you try to find the school that is practical and most suited for you. Remember, you are investing not only money but also the most precious commodity you have: TIME.  Wealth can be regained, but time is gone forever.

Caveat emptor (Let the buyer beware)

ALL Martial Arts are good. Otherwise, people would not have propagated the legacy of knowledge from generation to generation.  Choosing the right school to learn from, requires a basic understanding of the principles of the styles you’re evaluating. When you’re conducting your interviews ask about the theories of the style. Ask for a demonstration to see how the theories are used in a practical situation. Consider deeply what you’re shown. If you’re satisfied with your basic understanding of the style, go even deeper.  In fighting, an attacker will try to unexpectedly punch, kick or grab you.  Therefore, it is not inappropriate for you to ask a prospective instructor to demonstrate how to defend against these scenarios. An instructor who can handle these situations is the kind of instructor who can teach you something practical.

Now, I am NOT suggesting you challenge your host.  Instead, POLITELY ask him to explain how to stop and counter a single strike. Show him the strike and then ask if you could try it on him SLOWLY for your understanding. If it’s permissible, ask how the defense would change if you added more force and speed to the attack, or changed some other variable. Make sure you question punching, kicking and grabbing. If the instructor cannot demonstrate, or refuses your polite request, then there’s nothing more to evaluate at that school. Thank him and say goodbye.

Each Martial Art style has forms that distill the essence of their theory and technique. For example, in Wing Chun, there is the Siu Lim Tau form. You should inquire about the style’s forms.  What do the movements of the form mean? Do the movements have to be performed a certain way and in a certain sequence. Can the movements or sequence be altered? Can the movements be used for combat? Can the instructor demonstrate? An instructor who demonstrates and answers these types of questions to your satisfaction has something to teach you. Beware of people who try to mystify their explanation or tell you ‘it is beyond your grasp now’ and entice you to invest in their school for a few years.

Every system of Martial Arts have different methods of training to develop your confidence, increase your power and refine your fighting technique, as well as methods to develop other fighting attributes. These include speed, timing, reflex, agility, endurance, coordination, flexibility, etc. So, when you interview an instructor ask how their curriculum addresses these attributes and consider if it’s practical. Beware of a school that gives you impractical, mystical or other indecipherable answers.

Martial Art schools should have some strict regulations that help teach students to respect, obey, and keep good manners and discipline. However, some schools adopt an atmosphere of learning that forbids students from questioning how techniques work. Some students and instructors might feel that this is impolite and even insulting to the SiFu’s knowledge. Personally, I don’t agree with this when it comes to understanding Martial Arts. If a student has a question, then it is the SiFu’s responsibility to answer it.  Students should be encouraged to raise questions. They have to see, try, and apply everything themselves in order to earn their knowledge and skill; in other words, they must be able to employ an empirical approach to their learning to succeed. Students shouldn’t blindly follow the SiFu’s explanation. Indeed, accept your SiFu’s ideas, try them, experiment, analyze them and form your opinion.  This is how understanding and confidence comes. Consider this when you visit a school and witness the interaction between the instructors and the students.

Some people can get fooled by fancy surroundings. If you’re looking to learn how to fight, don’t be distracted by school amenities. It is not important for a school to have a shower, air conditioning, central heat, changing rooms, or individualized lockers. These are luxurious artifacts.  They make the time at the school comfortable, but do not directly contribute to the teaching of martial arts; in fact, they tend to make learning more costly. The quality of an instructor’s teaching is infinitely more important than a fancy environment; look beyond the superficial to penetrate the substance. You are going to the school to learn fighting, not to be comfortable, to socialize, or for pleasure. Once you have found the school where the SiFu can guide you down the right path, you have to learn the regulations and requirements of the school. It is just like going to college: everyone knows that they must apply themselves to the curriculum to be successful. Some students can fulfill their degree requirement in 3 years, others in 4, and still some in 5, 6 or 7 or more years. The secret is in how you apply yourself. Similarly, you have to arrange your schedule, squeeze and optimize your time and affairs so they do not interfere with your martial art training. You must do this before you join the school. The conditions are now right for you to succeed, however you still need to prepare yourself to adopt the correct work ethic. The amount of time you dedicate to training in the right manner will dictate the quality of your skill. Michael Jordan, the basketball great, did not develop his legendary prowess by practicing a few days here and there. He dedicated himself to hours of daily training from the moment he started to the day he retired as a professional athlete. Diligent, consistent practice; that is the secret that will allow you to eventually get it.

When visiting a martial art school, watch closely to determine the instructor’s teaching character. The SiFu guides his students through interaction and by providing feedback to make sure every student is on the right path. Look for the SiFu who is uncompromising in his teaching; one who keeps correcting mistakes. Take note when he is correcting a student, and ask him to explain the student’s mistake when you have the opportunity. Does his explanation make sense to you? A SiFu who can mimic the mistakes and provide feedback for improvement and show you the correct way is the kind of SiFu to teach you something worthwhile.

Once you’ve chosen your school and committed yourself to training. Do not be dissuaded or discouraged by failures; instead, learn from each mistake and stand right up again to keep trying. This is the main idea of why you learn Martial Arts; never give up, always aim high, spend all your efforts. Try your best. Your SiFu has shown you that it can be done; you witnessed it, you accepted it and now it is only your dedication and hard work that will eventually earn you the Art. Indeed this is the attitude to have in all endeavors of your life.

Good luck in your quest. If you have any questions about this article, or about Wing Chun, feel free to contact me.

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