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How to Choose the Right Martial Arts School for your Child

kids3(1)Today we have a guest post from Alex Morningstar of First Light Academy in Hood River, Oregon. He originally posted this on the Brazilian jiujitsu forum at reddit – I’m reprinting it here with his permission.

When you’re young, you don’t know anything about martial arts, you just think it’s cool and you want to do it. I lucked out because Dr. Alex Feng happened to be teaching right around the corner from where I lived. As I got older and started to learn more about the martial arts world, I realized just how lucky I was to have an excellent teacher who was genuinely interested in shaping better people.

This post by Alex Morningstar put into words a lot of ideas I have had rattling around in my head for many years. I hope you enjoy it and find it useful, as I did.


Martial Arts can be a hugely influential aspect in the life of a child. It can teach them to love themselves, to feel confident, to be athletic and to relate to others in healthy ways. Sadly, it can also have the opposite effect if the instructor is unqualified or unethical. In some cases children can be bullied, shamed, and manipulated by the very person claiming to protect them. For these reasons, it is very important to pick a safe and professional environment for you child.

5 Reasons why you should carefully choose the instructor and gym for your child’s martial arts training:

  1. Our culture does not have the same general awareness of martial arts that we have for football, basketball or soccer. We all know what to expect from school sports, but we are less informed about the history, traditions, expectations, and quality of what these activities have to offer. Without having awareness of the martial arts, it is hard to know what you are looking for and you could accidently enroll your child in a less than ideal program.
  2. Unlike schooling or sports at the elementary or middle school levels, martial arts students do not change instructors every year. They have the same instructor for many years in a lot of cases. With such a long-term commitment, it is important that you pair your child with someone who you think will make a suitable role model.
  3. Different Martial Arts can yield different results. Examples of different focuses in martial arts are: self-defense, sport competition, fitness, personal cultivation, dance, wellness and/or fun. Inform yourself so that the training is in line with your goals.
  4. Sadly, there are some institutions which can be damaging for their students. I have seen it too many times: An instructor is a bully who hides behind the label of “master.” It breaks my heart to see children being lead into an environment of guilt, shame, verbal abuse and authoritarian rule. The belt system, which is a great tool, can end up being used to manipulate and control students. Once you have “bought in” to the school, many students don’t want to stop training until they earn the highly sought after BLACK BELT. The truth is, this is simply a piece of fabric but many unethical instructors will use this carrot to keep students hanging on even when the instructor is not offering a solid product. Not all instructors are the righteous, respectful, honorable monks they claim to be. It is important to avoid hypocrites and bullies or your children may suffer. This is not unique to martial arts training, it is prevalent in all sports instruction, but it is a serious issue that should be addressed.
  5. Finally, remember that you are a customer shopping in the marketplace! You have the right to shop around, ask questions and find the best experience available! Don’t settle on the first place you find, because you are shaping your child’s life and future.

6 Tools you can use to find a GREAT Martial Arts Gym

-Tool 1-

Research on the internet and inform yourself. Look up reviews on google, yelp, facebook, or any other resource which lists the gym. Also, use the internet to research the specific martial arts offered. Very brief research can tell you the following:

What credentials should an instructor have in that art?

What should you expect from that martial art?

What should classes and uniforms look like?

What are the “going rates” in your part of the country?

-Tool 2-

Ask a friend “in the know.” If you have a friend who trains or who has trained in martial arts, ask them for their perspective. Even if you know someone who isn’t a close friend, reach out and ask them. They will be happy to help! Ask them:

Can you check out this website?

What do you think of this martial art?

What do you think of this instructor’s credentials?

What do you think about the schedule, rates, activities ect?

-Tool 3-

Talk to parents who have had children training at the gym. Ask them how their experience was. Try to talk to people you know and people you have never met. Some parents will be upfront, others reserved, some will love it, some will hate it. Gym politics are complicated sometimes and it is important to get several perspectives.

-Tool 4-

Have a meeting with the head instructor, owner, or person conducting member enrollment. Remember this important fact: You are a SHOPPER on the market. You are a DESIRED client. The gym WANTS to enroll you. Therefore you do not need to “bow to your sensei” just because it is a martial arts gym. You are a potential customer and you have a right to a meeting, you have the right to ask questions, and you have the right to think things through. If an instructor is confident and qualified, they will be happy to talk to you about everything! A conversation like this is an opportunity for a good instructor to share about all the great things they do! If the instructor is insecure, unqualified, or hiding their hypocricy, they will look at questions as “probing,” too “personal,” “disrespectful” or they will insist they you should just come to class and see for yourself. THESE ARE RED FLAGS. If someone is trying to bully you or make you feel dumb or unworthy, THESE ARE RED FLAGS. Here are questions you can ask:

What credentials do you have as a coach, athlete, instructor, teacher, role model?

What qualifications do you require of your assistant instructors?

What is your insurance coverage like here?

What is your cleaning protocol like? (This is important for avoiding skin conditions)

What affiliations do you belong to or what lineage do you follow?

What is your methodology for working with kids? What kind of environment or rapport do you try to create? What tools do you use to create that environment. NOTE: THIS IS HUGE. Many instructors have not even actively thought about how they interact with their students and that IS WRONG. If they get upset about these questions, that is a RED FLAG.

-Tool 5-

Listen to your Gut. How does it feel when you walk in the gym? Ask yourself

Is it welcoming or hostile?

Dirty or clean?

Organized or not?

Do the students look happy and like they are having fun or sad and bored?

Does the instructor give you a “bad vibe” or a “good vibe?”

Would you want to hang out with anyone at the gym?

Would you personally want to work out at that gym?

Would you want these people in your life?

Would you want these people to be a MAJOR INFLUENCE on your child?

-Tool 6-

Finally, give yourself a “probationary period.” It is hard to get a feel without trying it out, but at the same time, you don’t want to get caught in the “Black Belt Trap” where you feel like you can’t pull out once you’ve begun. Do not set your child up for the Black Belt Trap. Tell your child from the start “We will try this out for 3-6 months without any expectations. At the end of that time, we’ll see if you actually like it. Don’t worry about the belts or anything else. Just enjoy yourself and try to have fun.”


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