Know what to look for

Some of the factors you'll be looking for in evaluating a martial arts school, or dojo, are the quality of the school (based on its reputation and longevity) and the location and quality of the physical premises. You'll also want to find out the ratio of students to teachers - if your sole means of training is through large classes taught by a single instructor, it may be more difficult to achieve your own personal goals; there's no substitute for individual attention. Also, try to get a sense of how long it takes in the school to learn the basic skills and to advance in the martial art you have chosen.

If competition is a concern for you - either positive or negative - find out how much emphasis the school puts on inter-student competition, such as tournaments. If sparring - trying out your offensive and defensive skills one-on-one with a fellow student - is or is not your thing, find out what the school's position is on this. In some schools sparring is a prominent element throughout your training; others restrict it to a small part of intermediate and advanced training, while some do no sparring at all (we'd call them sissies, except they might find out where we live and come break boards on our heads).

If you are a woman, you may want to know what the gender ratio is at the school. While a few schools may have a fifty-fifty split, many may not. Some schools offer additional all-female classes - such an environment may be a good place to develop your confidence. These should probably be balanced with co-ed classes to offer a more realistic setting - after all, an attacker is far more likely to be a male.

You also want to make sure that there are classes for people in your age range. If all the classes are for 5-year-olds, you'll want to get out of that class fast. Those kindergarteners are tough!

While some schools offer a great place to meet new friends, others may take a more stern view of fraternization, in the belief that the study of martial arts is a serious matter, and should be your sole reason for attending the school. (Party poopers - now how are we supposed to introduce ourselves to that hottie over there in the white gi-top?)

So how should you go about obtaining this information? First of all, don't be afraid to ask friends and acquaintances about their training experiences, although keep in mind that one person's experience may vary greatly from another's, and that there are far more master liars in the world than master black belts. The following sources may provide a more reliable gauge.

Check the Yellow Pages

That ancient and revered text known as the Yellow Pages is probably your best bet for tracking down the schools in your area. Many local schools probably do not yet have web sites, except for those that use the new but increasingly popular Matrix style of training - downloading martial arts skills directly into your brain. The size of the phonebook ads and the promises made within them may not reflect the actual differences among the schools; you'll have to visit or at least call the school to get some sense of whether it's a good fit for you. Don't be swayed by boasts of "masters" and "champions." While such claims will probably be legitimate, they may have no bearing on whether the celebrated master will be a regular instructor at the school, or whether such a title means that he or she will be a great teacher.

Visit the school

Drop by the school itself so you can check out the physical premises. Does the building provide adequate space and safety equipment? Does it have a padded floor? A roof? Make sure that the location is convenient for you. If you have to drive four hours to get there, take a plane, or cross state lines, then you'll be unlikely to get over there regularly. When you get there, talk to as many instructors and students as you can, and try to get a sense of how involved they are with the school. Find out if the classes offered are frequent or flexible enough to accommodate your own schedule. You may also get a sense of the general spirit of the school - whether students are happy there, etc. Note: when looking for someone to talk to, we advise you to choose someone who is not engaged in an activity that might easily segue into bonking an annoying person on the head.

Attend a lesson or class

Most schools will offer an introductory lesson or set of lessons for a price ranging from a nominal fee of $20 to a less nominal one of $100. If you're lucky, you might find a school that gives you a free first lesson. Take advantage of these offers to get a sense of the quality of teaching in the school and of the particular emphases of that dojo. Also, if possible, try to arrange a visit during a group class to get a sense of the content and pace of an average class at the school.