How to Choose a Dojo

Madison Martial Arts Academy
Madison Martial Arts Academy

A question came through my Twitter feed today that’s quite common:

With all due respect to LegalSmeagol, this is the wrong question. In perfect fairness to him, he’s not the only one asking it. The question shouldn’t be what style to train in. The question is what dojo to train at.

My sensei had a saying: “There are no better or worse martial arts. Only better or worse martial artists.” It’s not completely true, but it’s close enough that a beginner should adopt that mindset. Pick the dojo – and the instructor – not the style.

That’s great… but what should you look for? Well, to some degree that intends on what you want to get out of it. There are a lot of things that people want out of the martial arts: fitness, friends, camaraderie, competition, something to do, fun, performance art, combat skill, self defense… I could go on ad nauseum. Most of those reasons are valid. You need to know what you want.

For this post, let’s focus on LegalSmeagol’s question: he wants to prepare to handle something akin to a riot. Which means that he wants something that’s going to give him some serious, practical training skills. That gives us a lot to work with.

First, you want a dojo that covers all ranges of fighting: kicking, punching, knees and elbows, standing grappling, takedowns and throws, and ground grappling. For practical, self defense purposes, if your dojo doesn’t spend at least some time in all of these ranges, it’s incomplete. You will find the range that you’re best at. It’s ok to focus on that range (with a big caveat that I’ll get to in a minute). But you need to be good enough at the other ranges that you can get to, or get back to, your preferred range. You also need to be able to handle it when somebody gets you in their preferred range, which Murphy’s Law tells us will be the range that you’re worst at. So you need to hit them all.

Big caveat: in a real life street situation, you do not want to go to the ground. You need the training to handle that range if you end up there. But if your opponent has a buddy that you didn’t know about, being on the can literally mean death. The ground is great in the cage, and you need to train it. But you need an instructor that understands this fact.

Second, you need a dojo that includes serious dynamic training. Drilling technique is great, and you need to do it. A lot. But you also need dynamic training. Dynamic training is when you’re training against an actual live human being who is actively trying to defeat you. That means that he’s moving in unpredictable ways and using unpredictable techniques. This kind of training can include sparring, slow sparring, interactive drills, grappling, judo matches, and a whole lot more. None of them will fully mimic a real fight. Each method emulates some different aspect of that. The more different and varied forms of dynamic training that your dojo includes, the better.

The instructor should be able to tell you what kinds of training they do. More importantly, he should be able to tell you why he does each kind of training. You don’t necessarily need to know that. But if he doesn’t, then he’s not serving you well.

You don’t necessarily need to do full contact training – if you’re more likely to get hurt in the dojo than if you never train, you might not be getting what you want out of it. But you do need a dojo that does at least light contact training. If you don’t feel techniques hitting you, your brain will never make the association that you got hit and you will never train to correctly avoid those techniques. You must actually feel something tapping you.

Is the instructor going to notice you or are you going to be lost in the crowd? Even big dojos can give good personal attention – if the instructors are putting in the effort to do so.

Your instructor should be able to offer positive feedback when you’re doing techniques correctly and constructive criticism when you’re not. He should have a good eye for the subtleties of technique – small things can make a huge difference. He should have an attitude toward teaching, the martial arts, and his students that fits with your personality. If you don’t mesh, you won’t stick around – and you won’t learn.

The instructors and their teaching styles are your top priority. But other things matter, too. The training facility should be clean and adequate to your training needs. You don’t need a huge dojo. But you do need enough dojo. I have a great friend who teaches in a dojo that’s less than 500 square feet, and it’s all they need. He runs great – small – classes in it. But even he would be hard pressed to go to a smaller space. You don’t need a ton of equipment, but you do really want some basics: mats for groundwork (or soft grass if you’re really hardcore; I’ve trained on it before), hand targets for various drills, and some punching bags. You can get y with just those things pretty well if your instructor knows how to use them properly.

You also want to look at the students. Do they bring a good attitude to class? Ar they ready to train hard? Having fun is OK – in fact, it’s great. But they should also be ready to be serious when it’s time to be serious. Are they focused on helping each other? Or is each student out for himself? Bad attitudes among the students can kill a dojo, even if the instructor is great. Do you get along with them and enjoy spending time with them? You’ll train harder if you do.

There are good dojos everywhere. There are also a lot of terrible dojos out there. Be prepared to look for the good ones – they might be hiding in plain sight. I’ve known fantastic instructors who teach out of their carport, out of their basement, out of parks, or in their front yards. None of those guys advertised. You had to find them. But their classes were great. I’ve also known some folks to own big dojos, packed with students, doing lots of advertising and still manage to run incredible programs. So be prepared to do your homework.

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