Updated: Jan 11
🙌 High five to you if your new year plans include taking up a martial art or learning self-defense!
I have been a martial artist for over 30 years, a self-defense instructor for over 20, and ran a successful martial arts school for about 7 years. In that time I've heard countless people say they "should take a self-defense class" but then somehow never get around to it. One of the most common places people get stuck with this goal is before they even begin. They worry about picking the perfect school and the perfect teacher so they can learn the perfect techniques.
This article will take the mystery out of picking the right place for you so you can get started.
Before we jump into what you should look for, let's first set expectations about you. Learning anything new can be uncomfortable and overwhelming. This is especially true in martial arts where you will be learning to move your body in new ways. If your goal is self-defense, there is the added internal pressure getting a technique "right" every single time while training for fear you will "fail" if you have to use it in real life. Those concerns and fears are common and normal. But even the most graceful black belt likely started out tripping over their own feet. If you are nervous about your own abilities, be sure to check out my love letter to discouraged self-defense students here.
This article is divided into two parts. Below is part one that will help you look for and select an in-person school. Part two is coming soon and will help you wade through the overwhelming self-defense content that is online.
Selecting an In-Person Self-Defense Program
You cannot learn a physical skill that involves the participation of another person from a phone or computer screen. Online can be a helpful resource in seeing what people are about, but for actual learning and practice, you need to be in an in-person classroom with your instructor and at least one other student so you can get a sense of how bodies move, react and navigate in time and space.
The first question folks ask when looking for self-defense is, "What style should I learn?". That, however, is the wrong question. There is no perfect, one-size-fits-all system, teacher or technique that will solve all of your worries and make you untouchable.
What style or system you learn depends on what your goals are, how much time you want to practice and what your own physical abilities are. This article is about self-defense, rather than becoming a competitive martial artist, so we will stick with self-defense as the goal here.
Myth Busting: "_____________ is the best style for self defense!"
We most often hear this about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) and Krav Maga. This is believed to be true because of repetition and marketing. Both can be absolutely fantastic for self-defense, but there are more variables at play than the name over the door.
Let's break it down:
BJJ is complex and can take a long time to learn. If you want to spend that time on this beautiful sport, go for it! But if your goal is self-defense (rather than sport) spending hours, weeks and years training for being attacked on your back is not an efficient return on your investment of time and money. If self-defense is your goal, then you should spend less time on your back and more time learning how not to end up on the ground. The myth (born of marketing) that "90% of fights go to the ground" has been repeatedly debunked so I'll refer you here for more.
Krav Maga is hyped as self-defense for the street. Yet it is modeled on the goals and responsibilities of soldiers. I've worked with some fantastic Krav Maga instructors who are highly skilled at translating the Krav Maga principles into useful drills for the rest of us who just want to take public transit in peace. Consistent quality is a problem in Krav Maga, however. It grew rapidly and churned out a lot of instructors, some great, others, not so much. Some instructors are just following a template to being tough guys but don't teach practical application so you just end up role playing scenarios that look more like movie choreography.
So if style isn't important, what is?
Location and the teacher.
Let's start with location.
Seriously, I get it... location is such a boring answer and not nearly as sexy to talk about as styles and techniques.
However, based on my experiences of running a martial arts school, as well as talking to a range of instructors from all kinds of fields:
If the location is across town and difficult to get to, it will become increasingly harder and harder to maintain your training.
So when looking for a school, especially if you are brand new, look for something close and convenient. The most important thing is consistency in your practice. You will not improve if you don't come to class.
Strictly looking at location however can lead to a potential hazard, of course. What if the closest option is terrible? You then risk learning and practicing bad habits. So let's take a look at the other essential factor, the teacher themselves.
Regardless of style, qualities of a good instructor include:
A solid understanding of body mechanics and knowing that all bodies move differently. To get you started on what you should be learning, check out Fight Like a Physicist by Jason Thalken Ph.D.
Putting your safety first over ego and or dogma. They listen to what your needs are and adjust accordingly.
Being a good communicator and being flexible in their approach to teaching.
Credibility and lineage. This can be a tricky conversation and means different things to different people. But be sure to research their background to at least make sure they didn't just pop up out of no where.
Knowing the difference between martial arts and self-defense. An instructor may have a lot of competition wins and trophies, but this doesn’t always mean they'll be an effective teacher. Being a champ in the ring takes a lot of hard work and determination, but does not translate to knowing how to outsmart that creepy guy on the train. Make sure what you are learning can be applied to your day-to-day needs for managing your safety. It is important to note that an acting improv class, where you cultivate adaptability and thinking on your feet, can be just as useful.
Knowing the difference between military and law enforcement use-of-force and self-defense for civilians. This often gets mixed up a lot in self-defense classes. Role playing being a badass in class with these guys is a lot of fun. But to actually increase your safety, practice skills that you need for your life not what a cop or soldier needs. 💥Special note because for some reason it needs to be said💥: being related or married to someone in law enforcement or the military is not itself a qualification to teach self-defense. If someone trots this one out and they list no other real qualifications, run.
A basic understanding of trauma and the affects of the stress cycle on the body. A quality instructor will take the time to learn about trauma, whereas someone just looking to role play tough guy fantasies will not. If you are recovering from trauma, self-defense training is a fantastic tool for your recovery. A self-defense teacher who is well versed in trauma however, is not a substitute for a licensed clinician. In the U.S., therapists are required to be licensed and are regulated and held accountable by their state boards. There is no regulation of the self-defense industry. Just because your teacher read a book or took a class about trauma, they are not a replacement for a licensed clinician.
Things to look out for:
Dogma: if they can only justify what they are teaching you with "that's what so-and-so says" then they don't really know anything, but are rather echoing what they’ve learned without really understanding it themselves. We see this with certificate mills. Like the yoga industry, self-defense has learned that there can be more money to be made in certification programs than in teaching students so there is a glut of instructors rushed through certifications with no real understanding of what they are doing who end up saying stupid things.
Guys who want to save women: This can be the instructor or fellow students. Some guys have their ego wrapped up in how many people (women in particular) they can "save" or "make stronger" - at least in their own view of it. I've seen instructors cool on students who became stronger, spoke their minds and asked uncomfortable questions. I've seen fellow students cultivate small groups of women that they want to mentor (regardless of if they are qualified or not). In both cases, they rely on the student to be compliant with their view and when the student outgrows them, they have no use for them. Remember, this is YOUR journey, not theirs.
They tell you, "these are perishable skills". I've heard this quite a bit in various circles but it has never been made clear what exactly is "perishable". Making a fist or knowing how to throw an elbow is not perishable. Sure, cardio endurance is perishable, so is reaction time. But you can cultivate those through any number of activities. This whole perishable skills line sounds like a marketing phrase to keep you around and paying.
Cliques: I’ve met some of my best friends and the most important people in my life through training – its filled with great people! But watch out for how the organization handles cliques and in-groups as this can make it ripe for abuse and dogma.
Abuse: like any organization, there is the opportunity for the abuse of power. Abuse of power can take many forms. Does an instructor insist that you don’t train elsewhere or constantly put down other instructors/systems/styles? Do they bristle when you ask questions? I have known instructors who are physically and emotionally abusive insisting “That’s how you learn!”. These end up being more like cults that train you to be weak rather than powerful.
Okay, this might feel like a lot to remember, so I will bottom line it with three key points:
The best style is one that you will enjoy, gets your body moving and you will CONSISTENTLY practice. Everything else is just marketing.
The most important thing to REMEMBER is that if you don't like it you can leave. In fact, I recommend to anyone who has only trained in one place or style that they branch out after a year or so to expand their learning. To be honost, the odds of you finding the best fit on your first try are slim anyway, so let go of trying to find the perfect place and just start!
The most important thing for you to DO is to just start. Training is a lot of fun and you can pick up pretty quickly - in a month or so - if the place you are training in is the right place for you.
Psst: Amazon wants me to let you know this article contains an affiliate link for Fight Like a Physicist. That means if you make a purchase from a link you click on, I might receive a small commission. This does not increase the price you'll pay for that item nor does it inspire me to recommend it - its just a damn good book.