Finding the Right Martial Arts School

by Tenna Perry
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In 1966, a short-lived television series, The Green Hornet, gave birth to the fascination of martial arts by the American public. The show wasn't known for its wonderfully written scripts but for the character Kato who went on to become a martial arts icon. The actor's name was Bruce Lee.

Lee's life was tragically cut short on July 20, 1973 at the age of 32, but his influence in martial arts and on the lives of children is incredibly strong to this day. He is the yardstick that all other martial artists are measured against and almost any dojo (karate school) will have at least one poster of Lee.

Hollywood has continued to bring the martial arts to the public's attention in both movies and television. Producers of martial arts programs target both adults and children. Unfortunately these programs don't offer advice on searching for a child-friendly martial arts school.

Grand Master Sandy Tomaselli, 8th Dan (eighth degree black belt) of Dragon's Den Karate in Humble, Texas, has taught martial arts for 45 years. His philosophy is that if someone wants to learn the martial arts, regardless of age, sex or ethnic background, he is there to teach them.

"It isn't about the money," says Tomaselli. "If it were, I would have stopped teaching years ago. A Sensei (martial arts instructor of first degree black belt or higher) is interested in sharing his or her knowledge. A dedicated student shouldn't be held back because of money. The instructor can work with the parent/student on a sliding payment scale or even in trade. Lessons can be exchanged for the student cutting the grass, cleaning/sweeping the floors or something else."

Finding a School

According to Tomaselli, martial arts schools are easy to find. Simply pick up a phone book and look under "karate" or "martial arts." Finding a school, style and instructor that is right for the student is a different story.

"While the large dojo in a convenient shopping center seems the most promising place to start, don't judge schools by their outward appearances," says Tomaselli. "Basically there are two types of martial arts schools. The first is the one that is strictly a business. They look at newcomers not as students to be taught but as bank deposits walking on two legs. The other type of school is one that is there for the benefit of the students. Its primary goal is to teach the martial arts and all they encompass to the student."

You should also be concerned with your child's individuality. "No two students are the same and no single style is perfect for all students, so once local schools are found, the actual search can begin," says Tomaselli. "Parents should call the dojos and see if they offer a few classes that can be observed or even better, participated in. In this way, a parent can find out if they are entering a business-style school or a true dojo that is interested in each student who enters the door."

Other concerns parents should have are:

  • Any schools or instructors that won't allow observation of classes.
  • Instructors who don't allow parents to observe the teaching of their children.
  • Schools that insist on large amounts of money or a contract up front as well as insistence that uniforms and equipment be bought only through the school.
  • Schools that guarantee a black belt in a set period of time for a set amount of money.
  • Instructors who teach through the humiliation or pain of a student.
  • Schools in which students or instructors show any signs of disrespect for each other.

Choosing a Style

While there is an almost infinite number of different styles and sub styles of martial arts, there is actually a limit to the number of kicks and hand techniques (blocks and punches). The front kick in Tae Kwon Do may be called a snap kick in Shotokan, but the technique and application is basically the same.

An excellent starting point for your search is a karate tournament where all styles are welcome. It will allow you to observe the differences in style, sparring techniques and katas (forms). These will also give you a chance to see how the instructors and students of various schools act. Ask yourself if they fight fair. Are the black belts setting a respectful image for their students? How do they handle the stress of competition? Are these the types of people you want teaching your child?

In Tomaselli's opinion, it isn't so much the style but the instructor not fitting the student. Just as in any relationship, the student/Sensei rapport must click. If it doesn't, find another instructor for your child.

Take Caution With Contracts

Contracts with initiation and registration fees are a hotly-debated subject in the martial arts community. Some insist the contract is a way of making the student become dedicated to his or her learning. The problem with contracts (especially when children are involved) is what happens when the student loses interest, the responsible party becomes unemployed or disabled and a family's income is cut to the point where necessities such as home, vehicles and utilities are at risk? What happens when that $50 to $100 a month in martial arts tuition can no longer be paid? Simple. Collection agencies begin demanding calls that often border on harassment.

Uniforms and Other Expenses

A beginning student's gi (uniform) and sparring (fighting) equipment can vary in price but none of it is cheap.

Tomaselli recommends parents of his students hold off on buying gis and sparring gear until a student shows he or she will stick to the program. It is very easy to drop $30 to $60 for a gi and almost $100 in sparring gear only to have the child lose interest a week later. Occasionally the child and the instructor will have a personality conflict so the student will leave to find a new school. He is going to feel very out of place in a new school if his gi has the old school's patches and logos on it. Some schools won't even allow the other gi to be worn in class. That means the parent is out all the costs.

"A beginner student can learn just as well with a T-shirt and a pair of loose-fitting stretch pants," says Tomaselli. "Once past the beginning stages and when a student wants to begin going to tournaments, then buy the uniform, since tournaments require proper attire and equipment for competition."


Wayne Schultz of Kingwood, Texas, is a black belt and an ex-tournament competitor. These days, he is his 10-year-old son's tournament coach and cheering squad. Schultz sees martial arts and his son's tournaments as a positive influence.

"Tournaments are great moral boosters," he says. "They help to raise the self-confidence of the child, encourage the spirit of team sports, are non-sexist and definitely teach respect. Win or lose, the competitor learns to do it with dignity. These matches allow my son to interact with people who practice various styles of martial arts from all over the state. These are people he normally wouldn't meet. When students in a dojo spar regularly against each other, they will soon learn to anticipate the other's moves. Tournaments give him a chance to practice his skills in a controlled environment against a wide variety of people."

A True Black Belt

Black belts are issued a certificate for each degree they earn. Tomaselli recommends finding out who the Sensei of the school's main instructor is or was, then call for verification of the degree and teaching credentials. Find out what belt ranks the school's instructor is qualified to promote students to. A first-degree black belt sounds impressive until a student works his or her way up through the ranks and then finds out the goal, a black belt, is actually out of reach.

Shirley Epperson of Crosby, Texas, had her son in a martial arts program for several years. He reached brown belt (the rank right under black) but continued to be put off for his black belt test. Instead, she paid two years' tuition for her son to go into the school and teach the lower belts but received no further training of his own.

"Jesse finally got tired of being told it was his attitude and had enough and quit," says Epperson. "It wasn't until I was speaking to my brother (who knew the instructor and his rank) that I found out first-degree black belts can't advance a student to the same rank. The instructor has to be at least two degrees above the one being tested."

The qualifications of the instructor are just one aspect of investigating a possible martial arts school for your child. A parent's best bet is to shop around, observe several styles, schools and instructors and then find the one that best fits the child's needs. The best schools may not be the prettiest in an expensive shopping center. Instead, it may be the smallest, most unadvertised dojo where the students and instructors make the school, not money.

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