So you are thinking about getting involved in martial arts. Great! But where do you start? By what method do you judge a potential martial arts academy, aside from its reviews on Google or Yelp? Well, lucky for you I am a big ol’ fight nerd with years of experience. In my life I have had to move a few times, which means vetting the fight gyms in the area to determine where I am going to train. I see joining a dojo as a long-term commitment, so I have a tendency to evaluate specific things when deciding which dojo is worth my time and money. I will gladly break down my thought process for you in the article below.
In my humblest of opinions this is the primary factor to consider. All other aspects of the gym start with leadership. Each gym has its own internal culture and vibe. How the coach conducts themselves and how they interact with the students sets the tone. Ever hear the phrase “shit rolls downhill?” A coach with a shitty attitude imprints that negativity onto his students. Even if his technique is superb, his attitude will ultimately affect the vibe. Conversely, a coach with a great attitude but poor technique is also to be avoided. If you’re paying money to learn martial arts, then you want to learn good, proper technique and not a bunch of ineffective garbage. It should go without saying that you want to find a teacher (or teachers) who has impeccable technique and a positive personality.
The internet is a great resource for vetting gyms and coaches. There are several online communities devoted to martial arts and combat sports. A lot of these communities, especially ones centered around MMA and BJJ, are merciless when it comes to outing fraudulent teachers. Reputation matters a lot in martial arts. So, any time I’ve been faced with finding a new fight gym, I look up the coaches of that gym online and see what the online communities are saying about them. Is the coach respected? What do people say about his attitude, his techniques, his training methods? How well do his students generally perform in competitions?
A coach who teaches good technique and encourages a positive environment in their gym is a good start. Sadly, every community has some bad apples, and I have heard of coaches who turn out to be sexual predators. The only good thing I can say in regards to this is that thankfully these kinds of people are more likely to be outed today than in previous decades. As much as I dislike Reddit, I think there are some great communities on there that really help people out. In my experience r/bjj has been really great about outing these kinds of abuses in the Jiu Jitsu community and being supportive to those who step forward. If you’re more interested in Muay Thai or Karate or something not BJJ, there are online forums and communities around those arts as well that you can peruse. Vet your coaches as well as you can.
I would consider this the second most important aspect of finding a good place to train martial arts. The term “vibe” is a broad term, in this case it encompasses the other students at the gym, other gym staff members if applicable, and the general attitude of the place as well as other intangibles. Basically, this is a determination more easily made with the gut than the mind. If you are going to commit to a place, you need to be able to like the people you train with. It is important to feel like you are welcome at the gym, and that you are safe there.
So, 99% of gyms offer at least one free class. I’ve never come across one that doesn’t. Take as many trial classes as they offer. During your trial classes, take a mental inventory of the following: how do the people there interact with each other? Do you feel like these people will help you improve? Do they seem like they actually want to be there? If someone does have a problem, how does the coach or gym staff handle it? Another question you might want to ask yourself is do you feel safe here? If you are male, would you feel comfortable with your wife, mom, daughter or sister training at this place?
Going back to my first point, the vibe starts with the coaches. That vibe is then amplified by the students and any gym staff members. When you try out a free class, you will definitely get a feel for that vibe. Not gonna lie, some fight schools are total meathead gyms that could maybe be described by the ubiquitous term “toxic masculinity.” But this isn’t all fight schools. The vast majority, you will find people who are tough and train hard, but are also generally laid back and easy to talk to. It’s been my experience that the best fight gyms are defined by hard training but easy-going personalities.
While the quality of the facilities of your fight school is definitely important, to me it’s not a make it or break it thing. The coach and the vibe are more important, and here’s why: Let’s say there is a great coach who teaches superb technique and has an infectiously positive attitude. He’s legit and has a great method of teaching. But maybe he is just now starting his own school, and it starts with a small facility maybe the size of my living room. Don’t discount this coach simply because his facilities are limited. I would prefer training with this guy as opposed to going to a bigger gym with more bells and whistles but weaker instruction or a coach who is kind of a douchebag. The fact is most fight schools started out small with a passionate instructor behind it. This coach will either become successful over time and grow his facilities, or he will make poor business decisions and be forced to close shop and maybe go teach under someone else’s umbrella for a while.
Regardless of the size of the facilities, one thing you should absolutely evaluate is cleanliness. Do the mats get cleaned every day after class? All gyms smell of sweat, but does this smell of a fresh workout, or does this smell like a laundry hamper of month old dirty laundry covered in mildew and farts? Another tell-tale sign to look for when judging cleanliness is a very simple policy that all martial art schools should have: no shoes on the mat, but you must wear footwear in the bathroom. This should be pretty obvious. The mats are the single most important piece of equipment a fight school should have, no one should be walking on them with shoes (some grappling schools may make exemptions for wrestling shoes).
I once visited a gym where this policy was not enforced. I noticed people running into the bathroom barefoot, doing their thing, then coming back out onto the mat barefoot. No staff members said or did anything about it. Fucking disgusting. The reason why this is so important to me is because I hate ringworm. I hate getting any kind of skin infection when it is perfectly avoidable. A school that doesn’t care about this is a breeding ground for gross bacteria. You’d think this would be common sense but the last time I was vetting gyms (about 5 years ago) I was shocked and appalled at how few gyms didn’t care about this. My current gym, that I’ve been at for the past 5 years, is really excellent about enforcing this.
So to recap, the quality of your coach is important. Vet them to the best of your ability. Also take advantage of free trial classes so that you can get the feel for the gym and its culture. If you aren’t able to find much information on your would-be coach, then ask them questions when you take the trial class. How does the coach respond? Does he gladly and openly answer your questions to the best of his ability? Or does he get irritated, prideful or defensive? That’s a tell right there. In vetting your coach and gym, you are also vetting your would be classmates. How do they interact with each other? Are these people trying to help each other get better? Or is it more about ego? Ask questions of the other students, see how they respond. This will tell you a lot. Lastly, the quality of the facilities are important, but chief among these are a) cleanliness and b) a good mat. Everything else, such as fancy equipment, is welcome and awesome, but also not a total deal breaker.
As always, I hope you found something of value in this article. And if you haven’t already, I hope you find the right martial arts school for you. Happy training and remember to breathe.