Consumer Guide

Consumer Guide to Martial Arts Training

or... Defending Yourself While You're Shopping for Self-defense.


Perhaps you’re new to all this. If so, I can assure you that the martial arts hold much more for its students than most people initially imagine. I know, because in 1974 I came to the study looking for something specific and have been discovering new facets and uses for this amazing practice ever since.

But if the “longest journey of a thousand miles” truly begins with the first step, it helps to be facing in the right general direction when you take it. Had I not chosen the teacher I did, I wouldn't be here writing this. Like many, I’d have quit long ago in disappointment and disillusion.

For me, the right choice was dumb luck. You can do better.

The story of martial arts training in America tells of the explosive rise of a full fledged retail industry from what was once little more than an obscure hobby. Like most emerging fields, this one is experiencing it’s share of growing pains, one of which is an entrepreneurial fervor that would do justice to the Deadwood gold rush!

This article is intended to aid those folks just starting out who have little or no experience with some people in this business who have lots of it, and are simply dying to meet you.

What follows may, at times, seem trivial or obvious; I assure you it’s neither. You may find other practices I mention outlandish. What I find outlandish is how many people casually accept them!

Finally, I’m truly not promoting any one school here -- not even our own. However, please make no mistake about three things:

· After devoting over half a lifetime to the Arts, this article is definitely — and passionately — biased.

· That said, the information presented here is none the less true.

· And, yes, the martial arts industry does have some growing up to do, but you don’t have to pay for its child support. Choose your teacher wisely, and the road you’re about set out upon could be... magnificent. Don't, and, well.. think lemmings.

Some shopping tips based on over 40 years in the field:

· Where you study DOES matter. (Accept that truth now or learn it later.)

· The best way to decide on a martial arts school is the same way you would approach any other major purchase of an unregulated service.

· There really IS a difference between cost vs. value. Finding a “Mr. Miyagi” isn't impossible - it just takes a little due diligence and patience.

· Retail schools are in business to make money. Amateur clubs are... amateur. That doesn't make them necessarly bad people, right? But, in the “biz”, we use terms like 'McDojo' and 'Cowboy' for a reason. Don’t find out why the hard way. Each is easy enough to spot with your eyes open. Then again, so are Professional teaching practices.

· Do not enroll at any school (even ours) without investigating at least one other. Do it if only to prove how lucky you were in finding the first one!

· Talk to students and parents, but remember two things: (1) Misery really does love company. (2) Some people seem not to have heard that Denial isn't a river in Egypt.

· Enrolling where all the neighbors go can be a convenient shortcut — unless all the neighbors are collectively marching off the same convenient cliff. (Think 'lemmings'!)

· Unless conducted responsibly, the FREE INTRODUCTORY CLASSES tactic often has a lot in common with timeshare sales. You know, ending with either your check book in hand or your very disappointed child in tow. (You’d be amazed at how many instructors are aware of, and counting on, that little dilemma.)

· People will travel 15 miles for a good doctor to treat their child’s ear ache, but won’t go past the absolutely-very-closest karate school for someone who’s supposed to change their life. They still consider themselves 'smart shoppers'. After all when it comes to an extra 5 minutes travel time, "karate's all the same, right"?

· Most parents will agree that committing a 4 year old to a three year contracts is... not wise. While that’s historically never been a martial arts practice, it's becoming a common one.

Navigating the misinformation potholes along the Martial Way:

All rank is valid ONLY within the organization that grants it. (Keep reading this. It's worth a lot of money.) Few instructors apparently mention this — which may account for the surprise of many parents in finding that their 7 year old’s $10,000 Black Belt is considered worthless by just about every martial artist on the planet except — you guessed it — those who read the same marketing guides.

There are two definitions of Black Belt: One is based on things you can do; the other based on the person you become. (Read this. It’s important.)

The second definition, based on character, is most people’s understanding of Black Belt — including the Japanese who invented it. The first definition, is quite another story. No offense intended to the Boy Scouts, but it's the same way they award badges for tying knots.

From an instructor’s standpoint, the performance standard offers a virtually free ride because nobody can tell if you’re doing your job! There’s about a ton of literature describing excellent character, but absolutely no one can agree on how many pushups, if any, a Black Belt should be able to do.

To date, there’s NO truly genuine regulation of martial arts instruction. Not by consumers, as they do for acknowledging restaurant quality. Not by industry organizations, as they do for policing professional standards. Not by the state — which is only waiting to drop the political hammer on one too many rogue karate instructors to really hit the evening news. 

Short of things that get people arrested, we martial artists, apparently,can do or claim pretty much anything we like, call it karate, and no one seems to notice. At least at first. 

It’s possible to open a karate school without ever having set foot in a karate class. All it takes is a nominal investment in a “Be The Next Martial Arts Millionaire” karate-school-in-a-box mail order kit. (Yes, that’s an actual ad headline. Can you say, “gold rush stampede”?)

Lax class discipline isn't’t quaint; it’s incompetence. We hear the word zoo applied to more martial arts classes than you’d think — and being used by more parents who continue attending them than you’d believe!

Some instructors have a talent for telling the technical, if not literal, truth — with a straight face. Here are some favorites:

1. Having once attended his public seminar, does not qualify an instructor as Bruce Lee’s student.

2. In some schools, Master Instructor, actually means He Who Holds the Lease. (Such places are also quite often fond of Latin phrases like Caveat Emptor.)

3. When a 32 year old instructor claims he’s trained for 28 years, do the math. Then ask yourself how much you remember from kindergarten?

4. Just because an activity involves violence does not make it a martial art.

5. Just because a program involves words of wisdom does not make it a martial way.

It gets better. Read on...

There are probably fewer than a hundred legitimate martial arts masters, as the term is generally understood, alive in the entire world. The odds that of one of them is running the school in your local strip mall are “you’re more likely to be struck by lightening in the next 5 seconds” infinitesimal.

Creation of a legitimate martial arts style is a major, often historic, event. Unless he’s one of the afore mentioned legitimate masters, anyone claiming to have invented his own style most likely had to for other than either legitimate, major or historic reasons to do it. None of which would probably please you.

“We offer a combination of martial arts such as Kung Fu, Karate, Taekwondo, Brazilian Jujitsu, Kickboxing…” This phrase is the martial arts version of, “Jack of all trades....” And we all know how the rest of it goes, don't we? 

Some instructors are national or world champions. The words National, World and Championship have appeared in the title of just about every single martial arts tournament ever held. Anywhere. By anyone.

Some instructors belong to multiple Hall’s of Fame. We would too except, at $50 a pop, accepting all those mail solicited “honors” can really add up.

Scary, huh? Don’t be discouraged! It’s not so bad. Just use the same consumer smarts that saved you from buying that $30 Rolex watch from the nice man in the parking lot.

Many instructors are competent; truly decent people; a credit to their art. And too many others are truly neither. The trouble lies not in telling them apart, but with those consumers who don’t know, or care, enough to even try.

Thank you for caring, and now knowing, enough. In helping yourself, you will help us all realize the promise of this amazing field of study… and recreation... and education… and road to self-defense, personal power, business success... and…

What are you doing for the next 30 years? I know where I’ll be - in the dojo!

Our staff and members hope this article serves you well and wish you the best in your search for a great teacher. (Did I mention that we’re a karate school, too? We’re a karate school, too.)

Good luck and good training!

S. Musco, Head Instructor

Have any questions? We'd enjoy hearing from you.


East Morris Karate Academy

568 Route 10 West Whippany, NJ 07981

Phone: 973.884.2224

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