Albuquerque Kung Fu and Tai Chi - Fourteen Do's and Dont's for Finding the Right School

The martial arts stimulate physical, mental and spiritual growth. All three must be present simultaneously, or the endeavor is arrested at the physical level.


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Fourteen Do's and Dont's for Finding the Right School

I have written this article exclusively for this website and with the needs of the discerning adult and inquisitive child as my guide. The very fact that you have taken the time to research the topic of children’s martial arts beyond the telephone directory indicates that, as a parent or future student of the arts, you have begun to apply a critical eye to the creative selection process before you. A critical eye will serve you well in reading between the lines of both this writing and that of other martial artists.

Raising children in this modern, complicated world is a grand challenge. At the same time, we have the luxury of living in an extremely informed society, which eliminates the guesswork of prior generations. This greatly increases the likelihood of our success as parents, guardians of our children, and martial artists. There is a tremendous amount of information on the martial arts out there. Don’t stop with this article! I encourage you to read as many articles on this topic as you can, and the Internet is the ideal place to conduct such research.

My intention is to provide you with general guidelines that apply to any community worldwide. My hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico is unique, in that there are numerous martial arts schools and styles from which to choose. However, this variety is a double-edged sword, because too many choices can result in confusion in the mind of the shopper. This article will assist you in sifting through the confusion. As you will see, identifying your or your child’s reasons for wanting to learn the martial arts will immediately aid you in the search and in navigating through the many different styles of martial arts and marketing approaches that you will encounter.

Let’s find the school that best suits your needs. Admittedly, it is not easy for me to be objective, but I have made a sincere effort to eliminate personal ego from this endeavor and to allow these words to flow from a higher source. With this in mind, here is a little food for thought to act as a catalyst for this stage of your quest.

The psychological effects brought on by environmental influences on our youth are well-documented and fairly well-understood. Our success as parents is directly related to our awareness of the short and long-term effects of any situation to which we may expose ourselves or our children. Therefore, do plenty of research and take your time in looking for a school. The choices we make will have a profound impact on the present and future lives of our children.

To help you find the right fit, I have compiled a list of do’s and don’ts. I understand this may seem self-serving, and to the degree that I wish to steer people in the right direction, it is. If you have not read my bio, please know that my opinions are based on 34 years of martial arts training throughout the United States, and 19 years’ experience as a law enforcement officer and homicide/narcotics detective serving primarily in the Albuquerque area. Good luck in your search and I sincerely hope that this information assists you.

1. Accurately define your or your child’s reasons for wanting to study the martial arts.

This is probably the most important step. Here you must determine if the reasons appropriately reflect admirable long-term values that will enhance a current or developing character. This question will also motivate you and your child into a more discerning frame of mind, which will also assist you in finding a school. Knowing your reasons for wanting to learn, and knowing specifically what it is that you wish to learn, will help guide you to the right system of study and the right instructor.

A common quandary here is that many people have not really considered their reasons for wanting to learn the martial arts. Let us begin to explore this area by considering the process of our second point.

2. Study and scrutinize the different styles before picking a system of study.

Here again, remember your reasons for wanting to learn, or acknowledge the fact that you are in the process of determining your reason, and allow this mindset to guide you in your quest. Familiarize yourself with the various systems, their creators, philosophies, and cultures of origin. Each system has its own methods of generating power through movement. Observe the practitioners of a particular art and feel the way they move. The system must resonate with you or your child. Certain methods of movement will actually connect with you on a cellular level. This will be your first taste of an intuitive martial sense.

If your goal is strenuous, aerobic exercise, some of the more athletic systems, such as modern Wu Shu, incorporate a good deal of plyometric, gymnastic-type movement (ballistic jumping) in everyday training. This type of training, although exciting to watch and practice, can result in shin splits, collapsed arches, and knee and back problems in adults and children that are either overweight, not very athletic or have pre-existing physical challenges. If this is the avenue you wish to pursue, be aware of the surface on which these exercises are being performed. If the floor is not a flexible surface, the potential for injuries increases dramatically.

If your goal is to learn self-defense, be critical and determine whether the system truly fits this need. This may seem an oxymoron, but not all martial arts have appropriate practical application. Wu Shu is a relatively modern system created by the Chinese Government and was developed as a national sport from which all fighting and combat concepts were removed. I have personally spoken to international caliber Wu Shu competitors and instructors, both Chinese and American, who could not explain, much less demonstrate, the self-defense application of basic compulsory techniques.

Certain Japanese systems such as Shodokan and Go Ju Ryu have a certain “traditional ambiance” that is appealing to some. If your intent is to learn an art for the sake of immersing yourself in a particular culture, then by all means pursue that goal. If your goal is self-defense or exercise, however, traditional is not necessarily better. Many of the traditional methods of training can be extremely injurious to the body. Take, for example, a system in which the requirement for promotion is to allow a man with a sledgehammer to break a concrete block on top of your head. Also some of the historic methods of teaching do not take into account different learning styles. Remember that there are a variety of available options, many of which are not “traditional” and which do not tout themselves as being “authentic.” They are still viable options, and one of them may best suit your particular needs.

Your interests may reach beyond the purely physical aspects of training, into the realm of internal or spiritual development. Do not let the word “spiritual” turn you off. I am not referring to a religion by any definition, but rather to that which is beyond the physically present. Although a vast majority of the available systems may contend they are spiritual and promote spiritual development, they evolved from, and still stress, conflict resolution through force. This is not the direction in which evolving man is going. Spiritual development, by definition, includes the promotion of alternative forms of conflict resolution. This element of the martial arts training process is crucial in the overall development of the cognizant martial artist.

As martial artists, we must strive to perfect our physicality in order to help us pursue the Way. Many in the martial community assume that, in achieving certain levels of physical understanding, we automatically acquire spiritual enlightenment. This is only the reality of the martial arts of Hollywood.

3. Acknowledge the fact that embarking upon a martial arts training program requires an investment of time and money to ensure success, and make a decision regarding the extent of your commitment.

This may seem like an obvious point. However, many parents and would-be practitioners do not accurately account for the time, effort and financial investment that training requires. My strongest caution here is not necessarily in the area of logistics or finances, but in the area of what I refer to as a “stutter start.” If we cannot assist a child in following through with the commitment that learning a martial art requires, we can actually set him or her up for psychological failure. Repeated “stutter starts” in life can establish negative, life-long personality traits, including general lack of commitment, lack of perseverance, and inability to complete projects or reach goals. The axiom, “Jack-of-all-trades, master of none” certainly applies here.

4. Plan a visit to ensure that all aspects of the school are clean and orderly.

Admittedly, it is hard to keep a commercial space clean and clutter free all of the time. A martial arts training facility is like any other gym. Where you have physical activity, you have an exchange of bacteria, etc., resulting in potential transmission of disease. A school must look and smell clean. Additionally, the cleanliness and order of a school are a direct reflection of the mind-set and priorities of the management and leadership within, which also add or detract from the learning experience.

5. Insist on personally interviewing the owner and or head instructor of a facility.

Don’t be shy or intimidated! If this person is consistently unavailable or has been elevated to such a level as to be unapproachable, then question motives. It is one thing to hold the leader of a school in a position of admiration and another thing entirely to mystify him. If the founder’s ego is such that he is above meeting with perspective students, reconsider participating in the school.

The inspiration and intent of the founder of a school establish its direction, environment and student character. When you interview the instructor, be sensitive to your first impressions. Compare this first impression with subsequent encounters with the same instructor and look for consistency in attitude, philosophy and behavior. The most important point here is to look for true humility.

Instructor qualifications and certifications are important but they can be misleading. In 2001, I was contacted by a high-profile international organization founded by a high-profile personality. Based on my years of experience in the system represented by that organization, and my “long-term contributions” to that system, the organization offered to promote me to a rank just below master, for an initial fee and subsequent annual fees. Did I have to test for this rank? No! Were they even aware of my ability to truly represent the system? Possibly. Does the certificate hang on my wall? No.

6. Make note of the number of instructors in the school, the number of instructors in each class, and their teaching styles.

Ask and watch. How often does the founder or head instructor teach? Is he or she available for questions during classes? Who will teach if he/she is not available? What is the student-to-instructor ratio? How mature are the assistant instructors, and how much contact will you or your children have with them outside of the presence of the head instructor? A proper role model today will produce tomorrow’s leaders. Conversely, if a child receives mixed philosophical and technical advice from the school’s instructors, this can and often will sour that child’s attitude towards, not only the arts, but physical fitness and spiritual matters as a whole. Also, unless properly supervised and mentored, young instructors will more often than not pass on their own ego issues.

At this point, as a law enforcement officer I must caution you about the predator pedophile. Any activity that attracts children can attract pedophiles. Again, don’t be shy! This is a critical issue! Inquire as to whether all of the instructors are free of criminal backgrounds. Insist on being given their names and dates of birth so that you may check with your local law enforcement agency’s pedophile registration center. This information is public record – a valuable safeguard for our children. Please do not see this as an overreaction on my part. As a career cop and life-long martial artist, I have nearly seen it all.

7. There cannot be closed-door private training rooms associated with teaching children.

This is a recipe for disaster. My opinion is based on my thirteen years of experience as a homicide, violent crimes, and sex crimes detective. Do not in any way allow your child to partake in any unsupervised or unwitnessed training practices, particularly in a private residence. You must be allowed to observe a class at any time, unannounced, without having to participate and without the instructor appearing “put out.” Also, if you encounter a system that claims to contain “secretly transmitted” training practices or touts “death techniques,” walk out, and do not look back. Be extremely wary of the school that seems to be shrouded in secrecy. Such an approach is never safe for children, and as an adult you expose yourself to potential liability.

8. Insist on a trial week without any financial commitment.

This will always expose the heart of intent. This approach will show you whether the school is about “the dollar” or the student. Many schools are concerned about maintaining some type of secrecy and will not allow you to even view a class without committing to training. Why should this be the case? Remember Rule 7. Attending a free week will also allow you to observe the various classes that are offered during the week, senior and junior instructors and how they relate to students, the attitude of the students themselves, the atmosphere on any given day, and the overall school environment, without losing any of your hard earned capital.

9. Speak with the parents of existing students and students themselves.  Observe their behavior and discern their motives.

While visiting the school, take advantage of the presence of both current students and non-participating family members. Of course be respectful and discrete, but again, don’t be shy! Your or your child’s welfare is at stake here. Ask what attracted the parent or student to that school? What keeps them there? Parents’ values and attitude are often reflected in their children. Remember that your children will be affected by the personalities in their environment and the people with whom they associate. You cannot shelter your children from everything, but you can decide with whom they train.

Beware of the “Olympic parent syndrome.” This attitude is pervasive and it will foul an environment. If you find this attitude in more than one parent, then often you will also find that an elitist environment not only exists within the school, but in fact may be fostered by the school. Elitist attitudes in a martial environment are indicative of aggrandized egos and cliques. Cliques will isolate the socially awkward, less attractive, and less coordinated children and adults, and they can push an already shy or depressed individual down an even more difficult and potentially dangerous emotional road. An attentive instructor will discourage cliques by blending the children in drills during class; he will foster cooperation among students regardless of ability during classes and will encourage interaction among students between classes.

10. Consider whether the school emphasizes tournament competition.

Some schools and even systems exist nearly exclusively for the sake of competition. If you, or your child, are interested in competition, then a school with that particular focus is for you. A caution however: it is my observation and personal experience that children in a martial environment who are trained to value winning over all else often develop domineering personalities and become insufferable, narcissistic teenagers and adults.

If you should choose to focus on competition, please consider that winning and losing must be carefully guided. There is no long-term spiritual value in teaching a child to win by conquering or subjugating another human being; and regardless of how you couch it, that is what tournament competition is about. Tournament competition can be a positive, confidence-building element of the martial arts experience. However, a true martial artist values, first and foremost, long-term, meaningful triumph from within, and not short-term gratification from domination.

11. Take into account how the school markets its services.

Look for consistency in messages through marketing. Is the school living up to its claims in advertising? Are the principals and instructors doing what they say, and are they saying what they do in every medium? Is the school’s identity clearly defined, or is its mission ambiguous? The written word does not always represent the truth, especially in the world of modern martial arts where claims tend to be fantastical and promises unrealistic.

Many schools rely on a demonstration team to define and market who and what they are to the public. Demo teams can be of value, however, most are self-serving platforms – ornate curtains that obscure an underlying lack of true substance. Often, by showcasing their best, they devalue their less talented students. Only by visiting the school, and watching the instructors in action, can you truly determine whether all students in the school are given equal attention and equal opportunity to excel.

12. Beware of grandstanding and claims of fame.

“Black belt of the year.” “The only American to train with real Shaolin monks.” “The ultimate self-defense system.” Remember the organization that offered me status for cash. You will see and hear them all. Look beyond the ornate window dressings. There is an ancient proverb in Japanese Bushido (samurai warring art) regarding the grandstanding of diplomatic presentations:

Clatter of foreign minstrels
Songs from exotic women of myth
Disguise the poison within
This is both conquest and defeat
This a General must know.

13. Be guided by intuition.

Do not allow written marketing ploys or flamboyant verbal claims to influence your choice. Beyond the physical, there is the mental and spiritual. A true martial artist understands and embodies all three. If you allow intuition to be your guide, you will not be taken in only by the physical, and your or your child’s higher needs will also be met.

14. Examine whether the school truly fosters growth on the physical, mental and spiritual planes.

The martial arts stimulate physical, mental and spiritual growth. All three must be present simultaneously, or the endeavor is arrested at the physical level. If physical growth – developing muscular strength, speed and power – is the emphasis of your quest, then enroll in soccer or gymnastics. But please do not believe, or teach a child, that the martial arts are only about “moving pretty” or physically dominating another human being with a kick or a punch. There is enough posturing, anger and injury in the world without adding more.

Studying the martial arts is not merely engaging in a sport – it is developing a way of life and a philosophy toward approaching challenge. The best learning environment for your child is one that will enable him to tackle a variety of situations; not only teaching him how to respond to a physical confrontation, but when it is appropriate to respond with force, and what type of force is appropriate for a given situation. As such, the martial arts environment has a strong influence on a developing child.

Any form of training or exercise can develop the physical body. However, as martial artists, we strive to perfect our physicality in order to help us pursue the Way. Many in the martial community assume that, in achieving certain levels of physical understanding, we automatically acquire spiritual enlightenment. This is only the reality of the martial arts of Hollywood. Striving to perfect the physical should not be an end unto itself; it but an avenue to the development of the spirit beyond the body.

Those who are seeking higher consciousness must themselves cultivate spiritual matters within the physical movements of arts. It is up to the Sensei’s and Sifus of the world to exemplify these values. Those who train in the presence of the embodiment of higher values come to embody them also.

Thank you for making our website a part of your quest. I invite you to contact us with comments or questions – feedback is always welcome. May the blessings of your Higher Self guide you in your steps as you pursue a vibrant and fulfilling future in the martial arts.

Sifu David P. Brown