How to Choose the Right Karate School (A Step-by-Step Guide)

karate ethics

When you have decided that you want to try karate, the most important decision you will make will be to find the right karate school for you.

We can’t decide for you, but we have put together some practical advice and ideas in this post that we think should be very helpful.

Below is a step-by-step guide on how to choose the right karate school for you.

Finding the Right Karate School

More Than Just Kicks and Punches

When you start learning karate, you will be learning a lot more than just kicks and punches.

Remember, we said that karate can be a lifetime art, and its Code of Ethics and conduct is designed to polish the character of the people who practice it.

The first thing you want to look for is a Karate school advertising that teaches more than just kicks and punches.

Specifically, you should look for schools that advertise confidence, stress management, improved concentration, discipline, or a combination of these and similar qualities.

Other keywords to look for might include respect, self-discipline, or traditional.

Looking for these words won’t guarantee that you are joining a good school, but at least you will be looking at schools that advertise some of the more positive aspects of karate training.

Talk to Someone You Know

The very first thing you should do to find a school is to talk to somebody you know who currently is training in karate.

Ask them all the questions suggested in this post, and then discuss with them any concerns or questions you still have.

A friend who is already training can be a great asset to you, too, when you join the school because you will have somebody you know to show you around and guide you through the enrollment process.

But if you don’t know anybody like that, your best bet is to let your fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages.

In some areas, karate schools are listed under “Karate” in the Yellow Pages, but in most areas, they are listed under “Martial Arts Instruction,” which lumps them together with all types of martial arts and makes it even harder to find a good school.

And it is simply amazing how many martial art schools there are in all the major metropolitan areas of the United States.

The first thing you have to do is whittle the list down to a manageable number of schools.

It’s All in the Name

The first thing to look for is the word “karate” or “karate-do” in a school’s name.

The second thing to look for is some form of the words “Japan” or “Okinawa.”

If you can find a place that advertises Japanese or Okinawan karate, you are really on the right track.

The second thing to look for is any schools that advertise anything else and eliminate those schools.

Any school that has “Martial Arts” as the primary part of its name probably doesn’t teach karate, and unless its ad says something to the contrary, you can eliminate such a school.

Eliminate from your search any ad that says “aikido,” “judo,” “jujutsu,” “Tae Kwon Do,” “Tang Soo Do,” “kickboxing,” “combat karate,” “grappling,” “Chinese,” “Indonesian,” “Filipino,” “ninja,” “ninjutsu,” “Muay Thai,” “Tai Chi,” “yoga,” “kung fu,” “wushu,” “Moo-do Kwan,” “Kuk Sool Won,” “submission,” or any variation of the phrase “fear no man.”

These places might teach wonderful martial arts, but they definitely do not teach karate-.

After these first two steps, you will find that you have a relatively small number of schools left, and it’s time to start calling.

The first schools to call are the ones closest to your location.

If you decide to continue karate training for the long haul, the location of the school might be a big consideration.

Also, some of the very best karate training can be found in small, part-time schools with very dedicated instructors.

A large ad might indicate a more commercially successful school, but it does not indicate better karate training.

Size Doesn’t Matter

As you investigate, you need to be aware of a very simple fact: The size of the dojo is not necessarily related to the quality of the school.

You may very well find that the largest schools in the area are not necessarily the best.

As a matter of fact, you may find a hidden gem in a small school where the instructor has been teaching steadily for 20, 30, or even 40 years.

But it’s not all that simple—it could just be that the largest school might be the largest precisely because it has an instructor who has been teaching in the same location for 20, 30, or 40 years.

The bottom line is that you have to call and visit the schools to decide which one is right for you.

Ask Questions First, Act Later

We recommend that you call before visiting because that phone call might tell you all you need to know to decide that you don’t want to visit that particular school.

When you call, you should say that you have never taken karate and that you are looking for a school.

Once you have established that, there is a very simple list of questions that you should ask.

  • What style does the school teach?

The first thing to ask is whether the school teaches karate and what style it is.

If you don’t recognize the karate style, ask if it is a Japanese or Okinawan style.

If it’s not, thank the person, hang up, and call another place.

Remember: All karate has Okinawan or Japanese roots, and the person answering the phone should know this, too.

  • When are classes held?

Ask for the beginners’ class schedule.

If it seems that the class schedule would work for you, then it’s time for the next, and possibly most important question.

  • Can I observe a class?

Any legitimate school will allow you to do this, although some might require an appointment so that they can give you their sales pitch when you come in.

Ask if They Teach Karate as an Art or a Sport.

This is also an important question to ask before you join a school because the answer to it will help you determine what the emphasis is in that particular school.

The correct answer, of course, is that karate is both an art and a sport.

If the instructor hedges on the answer, you’d better question further and ask what is emphasized in that school.

If you’re interested in sports, and sport is what the school emphasizes, great!

But if you have little or no interest in competition, you need to know up front whether members are required or “strongly encouraged” to participate in sports competitions.

On the other hand, the instructor might say that the school doesn’t participate in sport karate at all and bans members from competing.

If that’s the case, and if you think that you might want to explore karate’s sport aspect, you probably need to look for another school.

The bottom line is to be sure that you feel comfortable with what the school says it emphasizes.

Don’t join thinking that you will be able to change the rules or avoid the requirements later.

Trust us on this: It won’t happen!

Getting to the Heart of the School

Some schools may offer a free introductory lesson, but we suggest that you watch a regular class before trying a free lesson because introductory lessons can be conducted in a manner that is completely different from the regular classes.

Let’s face it: A free lesson is a sales pitch, and the school is not going to put you through something in a free lesson that might discourage you.

If any of the schools you call say that you cannot watch a regular class, don’t walk away—run away!

There is no legitimate reason for a school to hide what is done in classes from prospective students.

Trust us on this point: If they won’t let you observe a class, it’s because they have something to hide, so get out of there as soon as possible.

One thing to remember, though, is that a school might insist that you observe a beginner class first rather than a more advanced class.

This is okay because observing advanced training first really might give you the wrong impression of what your training might be like.

Advanced karate people can look fearsome to a person with no experience, and because the classes are loud and vigorous, you might forget that those people have been training for years and have built themselves up gradually over a very long period.

It’s much better to observe beginners in action because the beginners’ class is where you will be if you decide to join.

Money Matters

If the style, class times, and visitation policy seem okay, then it is time to inquire about the price.

You don’t need to get exact figures at this point, but you do need to have a ballpark idea so that if a school’s price range is way beyond your budget, you won’t waste your time going further.

Some schools won’t give you an exact price over the phone—partly to conceal their prices from their competition and partly because price negotiation is often part of their in-person sales pitch—but they usually will give you a price range of some sort.

Even if they won’t, don’t let that be the reason for dropping them from your list.

Go in and listen to the sales pitch—it might be okay.

Watch and Decide

When you’ve made an appointment to visit the dojo, try to arrive about 10 minutes early.

This will give you a chance to observe the comings and goings of the students and might give you a chance to meet a couple of them.

The instructor may or may not be the one who talks to you about the school; frequently a staff member will be the one to give the sales pitch.

You might get the sales pitch before or after the class, or even 15 minutes into the class.

No matter what, though, be sure to watch the class closely and observe the interaction between the students and the instructor.

Ask yourself whether the students seem to be somewhat like you or the people you associate with.

For example, if they all have long hair, headbands, and tattoos up and down their arms, and you don’t, you might just want to politely excuse yourself and go somewhere else.

Another thing to watch for is whether children and adults are in the same class.

School owners are pretty much divided down the middle on this issue, so there may or may not be a mix of adults and kids.

Still, this might be a consideration for you.

If there is a mix of adults and kids, it probably won’t affect your training much.

But if there are 20 little kids and no adults, that might not be the best situation for you.

Note: If you are thinking about enrolling your child in the school, though, this situation might be ideal.)

The main thing is to watch and decide whether you think you would be reasonably comfortable in the class.

One of the main things to watch for is whether the people in the class seem to be enjoying themselves.

Remember that this isn’t eighteenth-century Okinawa, and samurai aren’t hacking peasants to death in the streets, so the training atmosphere doesn’t have to be grim and dark.

It might be (and should be) highly disciplined, but the people should be enjoying their experience there, and they should display motivation and interest.

If they don’t, run for the hills!

Is He or She a Good Instructor?

Because karate has such a history as a macho activity for men, it might not have occurred to you that the instructor might be a woman, but today that is a very distinct possibility.

Not only have some women been training in karate for 30 years or more, but some of them have become renowned competitors, and some have become outstanding teachers.

Our view is that it doesn’t matter one bit whether the instructor is male or female.

The only thing that matters is whether the instructor is a good instructor.

The two biggest criteria for you to use to decide whether the instructor is any good are these:

1. How does the instructor relate to and interact with the students in the class?

2. How does the instructor relate to you, directly, as a prospective student?

After all, karate is a very serious subject, and instructors usually take their role very seriously.

Sometimes, even good instructors will carry an air of samurai dignity and even aloofness around the room with them while they are teaching.

Sometimes this is necessary for the reinforcement of a particular lesson.

This attitude might be okay if the instructors also seem to interact humanely and compassionately with their students.

It is okay if they switch off those airs when they leave the floor and come over to shake your hand.

Once they are off the training floor, there is no real reason why they should continue to be aloof.

Indeed, one of the goals of karate training is to eliminate phony behavior and to achieve heijo shin, which means “everyday mind.”

Off the training floor, they should be just like you— friendly, approachable, interested, and able to smile.

If they act any other way, you can be sure that it will be reflected in their students, because students always try to imitate their instructors.

So watch the instructor closely, both on and off the training floor, if possible.

Study the Students

The other thing to watch for when you are trying to decide about the school is what the students are doing, how much trouble are they having doing it, and how much help are they getting from the instructor in trying to get it right.

These things are really important to you because, if you join the school, you will be doing those same things within a couple of weeks.

When you watch what the students are doing, ask yourself whether that is the sort of thing you would like to be able to do.

Don’t ask yourself whether you would be able to do it.

Of course, you’re not able to do it—you’ve never taken karate before!

Under a good instructor, however, you can learn to do things that you never would have thought possible.

If you would like to be able to do what they are doing, that goes in the plus column.

If the students seem to be struggling mightily with the techniques and are not receiving much help from anybody, that goes in the minus column.

On the other hand, if they are struggling but are being helped or at least encouraged by the instructor or the assistants, that goes in the plus column.

Remember that in the dojo, karate is an individual activity performed and perfected in a community atmosphere.

That means that everybody in the dojo should be trying to help everybody else.

Even if you don’t see people physically helping, the atmosphere should be one of community effort.

How Long Are the Classes?

The length of classes should be geared to the attention span of the people in the class.

Schools that offer classes for children under the age of six or seven usually have about 30-minute classes—it’s almost impossible to hold the students’ attention for much longer than that.

Beginning classes for adults usually run about 45 minutes to an hour; sometimes they run as much as an hour and a half, but that’s unusual.

Intermediate and advanced classes might run as much as an hour and a half because the people in them have attained a physical condition that supports that length of time on the floor.

You should decide before you join whether the classes seem too long for you.

Again, watch the whole class and see how the people do. That’s more important than the length of the class.

How Much Should It Cost?

Prices vary widely across the country, so much so that it is impossible to nail down even a ballpark figure.

What we do know is that commercial schools, by and large, charge somewhere between $40 and $100 a month for full memberships.

You might find something a little bit lower if you live in a small, Midwestern town, and you might find something a little higher if you live in a major city on the East Coast.

But again, these are broad generalizations because we know of at least one school on the East Coast where training is free, but membership is selective, and we know of a chain of schools in the Midwest that charges $180 a month!

We suggest that you investigate the prices at several schools in your area and then decide whether you are happy with the value you are getting for your money.

Ask yourself if it is worth it to you to pay $80 a month for something that gives you good health, confidence, and self-defense skills.

On the other hand, if all the other schools in the area seem to be providing the same benefits for $40 a month, is it still worth it to you to pay $80?

It very well might be, if you consider the location, convenience, instructor, and friendship with the other students.

While we don’t have a solid answer on the cost issue, we do offer two cautions:

1. Be wary of schools that charge much less than $40 a month or much more than $100 a month, unless that is within the average price range of similar schools in your area.

As in most areas of commerce, there’s likely to be something wrong with a product sold too cheaply or too expensively.

2. Watch out for hidden costs.

Some schools might offer you very attractive special packages with extremely low monthly rates, but before you sign, directly ask for a list of all additional costs throughout your membership.

That low monthly rate might not be so low if there are required rank examinations that go up in price as the rank goes up.

If special seminars are required, be sure to ask exactly how much they will cost.

Also be sure to ask about the cost of required equipment, uniforms, patches, books, videotapes, and anything and everything else that you will be expected to buy.

These can all be hidden costs that you don’t know about when you join.

Should I Sign a Contract?

In today’s world, it’s getting harder to find a karate school that doesn’t require some sort of commitment like a contract.

There are many different payment systems ranging from paying by the lesson to paying for a fixed number of months in advance, to signing multiyear contracts.

Each of these methods has good points and bad points for both the school owner and the student.

A method of paying by the class might appeal to you if you can attend only a limited number of times or have a constantly changing schedule, but the downside is that such an arrangement usually requires a large down payment or a substantial annual maintenance fee.

Paying month to month with no contract sounds good on the surface, but being late with payment often carries a whopping penalty fee.

Almost all schools require some sort of enrollment fee, and some that operate on a month-to-month basis will require you to pay that fee again every time you are late with a payment.

Schools that require payment in advance for a fixed period—usually three months at a time—make out pretty well if you decide to quit because they have your money upfront, and you don’t get it back.

Contracts range in length from about three months to about five years.

The good points of a contract are that you can usually pay less per month by enrolling for a longer time, and a contract commitment can be a good incentive to keep you going when you reach a plateau and feel like you don’t want to go on.

If you know that you have to keep paying, you’ll probably keep going.

The bad side of a contract is that you have to pay, whether you keep going or not.

Almost all contracts are iron-clad and difficult—usually impossible—to break, and you should consider this before signing one.

Here are a couple of important questions to ask before you sign on the dotted line:

  • “What happens to my contract if I move away from the area?”
  • “What happens if the school goes out of business or moves to another area?”
  • “What happens if I have an auto accident and can’t train for weeks or months?”

A reputable school will have ready answers to all these questions, but you owe it to yourself to check with your state attorney’s office to see how the law applies to contracts in your area.

Be sure to do this before you sign. Once you sign, it may be too late!

Will I Get Hurt?

Believe it or not, karate has a lower injury rate even during championships.

A study has shown that the time-loss injury incidence rate for top-level karate competitions is relatively low.

The emphasis in karate classes is on control, and the atmosphere is very serious, so serious injuries are rare.

Will you get bumps and bruises? Yes, of course, you will, but you will get fewer bumps and bruises than if you play basketball, baseball, or soccer.

Is there also a chance that you could get seriously injured or even killed?

Yes, there is, but no more chance of it, frankly, than having it happen while you are out walking your dog.

The biggest risk of serious injury in karate occurs while you are traveling to and from the dojo in your car or on your bike, and that’s a risk you already take every day.

Don’t be surprised, though, when the instructor demands that you sign a release and waiver of liability before beginning your training.

He or she knows that any physical activity carries some risk of injury, and she is just wisely protecting herself.

And if you think that karate’s release and waiver are detailed, you should see what they want you to sign when you join a boxing club or take skydiving lessons!

Who Certifies Whom?

We’re sorry to say that no single governing body for karate oversees rankings and certifications.

There are numerous governing bodies, both technical and sport oriented, in the United States and abroad, but no single umbrella organization oversees everybody.

You should ask the instructor whether the school is certified by a larger governing organization, but don’t be surprised if the school is completely independent.

There’s a lot of that in karate, and it’s not all bad.

Some very good training can be found in some independent schools.

On the other hand, there is comfort in knowing that the school’s standards are shared by other schools and that there is some consistency of rankings and certifications among schools.

Such certifications can help keep standards high, and they almost always provide opportunities for personal growth through special training seminars with high-level instructors in the organization.

If you travel around the country a lot, it might be beneficial to you to be part of a larger organization so that you can get consistent training when you are in another city.

The main thing to remember, though, is that you are seeking to learn Okinawan/Japanese karate, so if the school doesn’t seem to be tied to any larger group, concentrate your questions on its roots.

If the school is legitimate, instructors will be able to tell you its karate lineage, and you will be able to see where it came from.

Final Thought

Good karate schools teach more than just punching and kicking.

Good karate schools will always let you watch a class before you join, and even as tuition fees vary widely, $40 to $100 a month is about average.

Yes, it is a safe activity with very low injury rates, so the fear of great bodily harm should be avoided.

And as you begin your search, remember that finding a good karate teacher is more important than finding one who belongs to a big organization.

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