It’s easy to spot a bad martial arts school if you know what to look for.

A karate school (or any martial arts school) is a business, and there is bad business in all fields, and martial arts is no exception.

Whether you’re a parent seeking martial arts lessons for your kids or an adult seeking martial arts lessons for yourself, there are ways to spot signs of a bad martial arts school.

I’ve had years of training in the martial arts, going to schools in four states total, and my experience includes karate, tae kwon do, tang soo do, kenpo, kung fu, judo and jiu-jitsu.

These martial arts schools were strikingly different in the way they were run, though some of these disciplines are very similar to each other.

I’ve also taken introductory classes at a few other schools to get a feel for the school.

Thus, I’ve been active in plenty of martial arts schools: eight or nine total.

Martial arts school bad sign No. 1 – Observe the black belt adults in action.

Can you picture them taking on several people on the street at once, or dismantling people one by one in a movie fight scene? If you can’t, this is a red flag.

Even at brown belt level, kicks should shine with pinpoint precision.

Your overall impression should be that of being very impressed. If you’re not thinking, “Wowww!” be very cautious about wanting to join their school.

Martial arts school bad sign No. 2 – Observe the kids.

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  • Are the kids out of control?
  • Kids talking during instruction?
  • Kids whispering?
  • Is there lack of order and discipline with the kids?
  • Are the kids allowed to goof off or get away with interrupting instruction? Don’t even think of joining this school.

Don’t underestimate the power of an effective martial arts instructor when it comes to teaching orderliness in kids as young as 5 years of age.

One tae kwon do school I attended had the grade school kids mixed with the adults.

As far as behavior and ability to pay attention, the kids, some as young as 8, were indistinguishable from the adults.

The children stood still and paid attention; maintained seated positions; and didn’t dare even whisper while the instructor was talking. The instructor never raised his voice, but he exuded command.

At another school I attended, the instructor was constantly raising his voice to the kids to stand still, get in line, stay in line, stop chattering, stop doing this and that, etc., and they didn’t obey.

Martial arts school bad sign No. 3 – If the time between belt promotions seems too short, keep shopping around.

One martial arts school I attended gave a yellow belt to a teen boy who had just started there two weeks previous.

Nobody can get that good that quickly. The reason he was encouraged to test was because he joined the school two weeks before one of its belt testing events—which required a fee.

If schools promise you can earn a black belt in 90 days, get out of there.

This is a black belt factory that rushes students through the belt ranking system to get them to black belt as fast as possible (testing for black belts costs more than testing for lower belts), and the more black belts such a school has, the more impressive it looks to prospective students.

Nobody is good enough to truly master the martial arts at black belt level in 90 days or even one year.

Martial arts school bad sign No. 4 – If students are made to work out despite injury, leave.

Martial arts school bad sign No. 5 – If instructors seem to have a big ego, bolt in the opposite direction. An instructor should be humble.

Martial arts school bad sign No. 6 – Do kids with high ranking belts seem to have real skills?

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My niece, when she was around 9, had a black belt in tae kwon do.

I asked her to show me some moves. I was appalled; I’d seen green belts do better. Green belt is low end of intermediate level for most martial arts schools.

Though she was only 9, this was no excuse for delivering flaccid kicks with no control over balance, no snap, no fire.

I had witnessed plenty of other kids of similar age, with lower ranking belts, deliver much quicker, more precise and more skilled techniques.

Though it’s true that children learn at different rates, this was a bright, healthy girl. Her father told me how much the school cost.

After I heard the outrageous figure, which involved a long contract, I immediately knew this had to be a money hungry black belt factory.

Don’t underestimate young kids, because with proper instruction, young children can become amazingly skillful in the martial arts. My niece had a few years of lessons and still couldn’t throw a decent kick.

Martial arts school bad sign No. 7 – Avoid martial arts schools that demand a lengthy contract.

Some martial arts schools offer contracts as an option with varying lengths; and the longer the contract, the lower the per-month fee.

The month-to-month fee may be a lot higher, but this is common in the business world; health clubs are known to offer similar deals.

But beware of the school that has only one option: a year-long contract, especially with a hefty up front “introduction fee.”

Martial arts school bad sign No. 8 – Don’t join a school that requires students to compete in more than a few tournaments here and there. I can understand a requirement of an occasional tournament.

Tournaments will teach students to face the unexpected; will teach students to face a panel of judges with confidence, which can carry over to real-life tricky social situations; and will provide students an opportunity to compete in a sport in which nobody sits out on the bench, boos or hisses at you.

However, to be required to attend a tournament every week or even a few times a month, is something you’ll want to think about.

Instructors who insist upon this may want to stud their studio with as many trophies as possible, or be able to boast that they have produced 20 junior national black belt champions.

The funny thing here is that “junior national champion” doesn’t necessarily mean best in the nation!

All it means is that, at a tournament that had the word “National” in the title, a particular student beat out 14 other kids in the weapons division, for example.

Or, in the sparring division, she had to “fight” just eight other kids to get the first place trophy.

These tournaments are open, so anyone can participate. So if Billy took first place in the forms division, this doesn’t mean he’s the best in the country.

It just means he’s better than 14 other black belts who signed up for that tournament.

Some schools attend tournaments that are only within their national organization, which means that participants compete against the same competitors over and over again.

Meanwhile, tons of other tournaments take place at the same time, and these particular participants never see all those other competitors, let alone compete against them.

So a 15-year-old girl with a blue belt in a particular tae kwon do organization may end up sparring the same 12 girls in the 14-15-year category throughout her blue belt stint, but never sparring with more than four at any given tournament, because sparring draws are like tennis draws; you never compete against every participant.

She never meets the hundreds of other tae kwon do 15-year-old girl blue belts outside her organization.

If one particular tournament has “National” in the title, and she wins…her title will be very deceiving.

She’s not the best 15-year-old blue belt in the nation; only better than four other girls on that particular day.

Be very leery of martial arts schools that place heavy emphasis on tournament attendance.

You now know the signs of a bad martial arts school.

Lorra Garrick is a former personal trainer certified through the American Council on Exercise. At Bally Total Fitness she trained women and men of all ages for fat loss, muscle building, fitness and improved health. 



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