How to Find
Here is a list of things to keep in mind and tips for finding a good program.
Apply a Basic Smell Test. In general, a black belt should take you at least two years to earn. Three or more years is more typical. If someone offers you a program that seems to have very fast progression, look somewhere else. The sad truth is that anyone can take your money and send you a fancy piece of paper that says “black belt”.
How Many Lessons? Following on to the previous point, look to see how many lessons are involved. As an example, Ed Parker’s Kenpo system has over 220 lessons from yellow to 1st degree black. Traditional Kung Fu San Soo has about 250 lessons from white to black, each of which are a series of 8-10 strikes, plus eight forms. There are another 200 optional post-black lessons. If your program has a small number of lessons and then you’re a black belt, that’s suspect.
How Many Belts? Often, each belt is a testing fee. More belts = more revenue. Unfortunately, this is not unique to distance study. Many local schools have taken a single belt level and split it up. To-Shin Do took every belt and made it into three levels! So instead of just a green belt, for example, there is a green-white, green, and green-black, and of course there is every color of the rainbow to start with. If you are paying a monthly fee locally, it may not matter if there are no additional testing fees. But most distance learning programs charge a fee for belt-testing, so beware of extremely fine-grained progression systems.
What is the Total Cost? Be aware of the all fees that are required. Often there is a fee for the program itself, plus belt-testing fees. Sometimes there is also a required personal lesson every so often (often at an hourly rate). You may also need a uniform, weapons, and/or membership in a national organization. It’s important to compare total cost, not initial cost. One program will sell you their entire system for $99, but charges $45 for each belt test through 15 belts. Also make sure you understand if any equipment is needed. If you’re studying Wing Chun, for example, you’re probably going to need a wooden dummy.
Do You Need a Partner? The true answer is yes. Unless you are studying MA strictly for the forms (in which case you’d studying a form of dance), you need a human partner to train with, at least sometime.
As for the program requirements themselves, it’s important to understand what they require. Do you need one to demonstrate at each belt grading? During private video lessons? Etc.
Send an Email. Send an email to the instructor with some questions. Even if you think you know the answers, it’s good to see how responsive he/she is. Does he respond reasonably promptly? Do the answers make sense? Is his English good? This is an important consideration when studying with someone who is not a native speaker. I was looking at one program and emailed the instructor and got a brief response a week later saying he’d respond shortly, and then never heard from him. Good thing I didn’t click “purchase now”.
Try Before You Buy. Regardless of any package discount, I would always want to see a few initial lessons before I purchased a course. The ideal situation is one where you can see some sample lessons, and then purchase initial belt level or set of lessons, with the option to purchase the complete package at the “full package” discount within a period of time. Definitely do not purchase a large program site unseen. Beware of limited, small clips samples. You want to get a healthy dose of what you’re buying because you’re committing to many hours with it.
Read Reviews. This isn’t always possible, but look here and on forums. If you can’t find reviews by searching, start a forum topic. Or ask the school/instructor for references.
General Advice Not Specific to Distance Learning
Beware Homebrew Systems. It’s better to study a system of martial arts that’s been used by thousands of people in hundreds of schools (and possibly over hundreds of years) than something a guy cooked up in his basement.
One Culture at a Time. If you want to study Tae Kwon Do, then you should have TKD belts and Korean terms. Someone teaching Kung Fu but talking about kata would be a big red flag to me. The only exception is the generalized use of belts. Traditionally, some systems did not have belts, or a very limited student/master system. Using a somewhat homogenized belt/sash system is OK because people expect and like it. However, teaching nunchaku in a Kung Fu studio is too much of a cultural jump. If the instructor offers it as a separate program, that’s fine, though significant cross-cultural jumps are fairly rare and you should proceed cautiously.
Do You Want to Move Like the Instructor? I have seen some black belts whose arms were wobbly and form was inconsistent. A paunchy instructor who’s 70 is one thing, but a fat twentysomething “master” is a warning. The instructor should move with authority and you should want to move like him.
Martial Arts Are Hard to Learn. If the instructor has advanced rank in multiple styles, be cautious. The majority of great martial artists pursued one style in depth rather than jumping all over. Most of the great martial artists I’ve personally known (first generation teachers from Jimmy Woo and Ed Parker) never studied another style. Some teachers may cross-train in something different – a striking-arts teacher who studies grappling, for example – but someone who claims to have multiple black belts in many different styles is a warning.
Note that some schools that teach Kung Fu, Tae Kwon Do, etc. will also offer “karate for kids”. Most martial arts schools run on narrow profit margins and catering to after-school kids is important, so a different program for kids (even one from a different culture) is not necessarily a bad sign.
Avoid Contracts. This is not always possible as some schools only offer contracts. Signing a yearly contract is one thing; longer than that is questionable unless you already know the school well. Much better are schools that let you pay by the month. Paying by the quarter is usually OK, too. What you’re trying to avoid is a case where you’re locked in for a year before you know if you really want to study at the school. Also, a year is a long time – what if the instructor you like leaves after six months? What if he’s hit by a bus? As long as the school is still offering lessons, your contract probably says you have to keep paying. At first, I would only sign a monthly contract. If the school offers a free week and then you have to sign for a year, I would probably look elsewhere.
Associations are a Profit Center. Other than associations that are competition-oriented (where membership may be required to compete), most associations are purely a profit center. You sign up and join the International Blah Blah Federation of Chinese Blah Blah and then in theory your belt is recognized at any IBBFCBB school. Big deal – the others are probably not in your area or your school may be the only one. And seriously, if you earn a brown belt and then move, is the next school that isn’t in the same association going to play gotcha games and say “you have to start over at white”? No – they want your business. (Besides, that would be an easy way for black belts to sandbag as white belts in tournaments!)
Expect to pay $35/year or whatever to some association and get a special patch, but unless they truly are a significant national force, consider it part of the school’s tuition.
Uniforms Shouldn’t Be a Profit Center. Requiring a gi is OK. True, no one wears them outside the gym, but they’re a standard martial arts uniform, most instructors are conditioned to teach with them, and students like them as a martial arts atmosphere generator. You put on the gi and you feel like you’re training. Fair enough. But schools that demand you buy a gi only from them is a red flag. If you have a perfectly good gi, you should be allowed to use it, provided it fits the school’s colors.
Pick an Art Suited to Your Body. In truth, all styles can be adapted, but you may be suited more to some styles than others. Someone who is tall and limber will fare better in Tae Kwon Do than someone who is short and stout. It’s not that the latter couldn’t learn and with enough diligence become proficient, but it’s a longer path. If you have physical limitations such as bad knees or back problems, something that involves hard throws may not be your cup of tea.
Pick an Art Suited to Your Goals. If you want to be the next MMA champion, you don’t want to study kung fu forms or traditional karate with long katas. On the other hand, if you want to focus on self-defense, Kung Fu San Soo may be just your cup of tea. Some people are into the martial arts more for the exercise than the forms and like schools that emphasize kickboxing and physical conditioning.
Check Out the Internet. When investigating a style, make sure to search for videos on YouTube. See what the style looks like when practiced by a master and see if that’s what you want. If you drop in on a class, you may see only the yellow belt technique of the day. Investing some time watching videos of the art may give you a full appreciation for its potential.
The Instructor is Key. I personally have had great instructors and awful instructors. I originally studied Kenpo because my preferred style of kung fu was not available in Portland, Oregon. I was lucky enough to study under Dave Hebler, one of Ed Parker’s 7th degree black belts, and his classes were fantastic. Years later, I dropped in on a Kenpo class at a strip mall and could barely believe it was the same art. While you should study a style you want, it’s better to find a great instructor in something close if the other choice is a mediocre instructor.