The style of martial arts you learn matters! But…it doesn’t matter as much as a lot of people think. The reason this question seems difficult at first is because, 1) there are thousands of different styles, schools and methods to choose from (and we know how having more options effects decision making), and 2) many martial artists advance the idea that their martial art is the best, or the most effective, or the true path, etc…
That’s all just egotistical nonsense. The truth is, this is a really easy decision once you consider a few key points.
Key #1: All martial arts styles operate from the same fundamental principles. Physics and body mechanics don’t really change, but these principles are expressed in different ways and to different degrees within various styles based on different priorities.
Key #2: With the above being said, if you are a good student, the style you learn isn’t as important as the instructor you learn from. You can “get at” the core principles of martial arts from a lot of different styles, but it’s the instructor who will bring you there – or not – as long as you put in the work.
Key #3: No martial art is complete. Each is limited by context, purpose, and the march of time, as well as various cultural, moral, legal, and practical concerns. For example, a martial art created around waging battle in armor with melee weapons is not going to translate to competition sparring very well.
Key #4: Every single martial art ever made was, at one time, brand new and untested, with zero lineage, tradition, history or prestige to its name. This obvious fact should be kept in mind when evaluating “ancient” martial arts against relatively recently developed styles.
Key #5: If martial arts is a lifelong practice for you, it is likely you’ll learn more than one! Many martial artists spend the time to become competent in several different styles throughout their lives, so the first one you choose should by no means be the last.
Let’s carry those key ideas with us while we examine this question.
In order to make decisions we need both criteria and options. So first, let’s examine our criteria for making this particular decision.
Why do I want to learn martial arts?
The first thing you need to know before you can even evaluate a style is why you want to learn a martial art in the first place. This is your main and core criterion; most of the rest will branch from this.
Everyone who begins this journey has a goal, a need, or some other motivation – a “Why” – whether they know it or not; their priorities. Understanding what is driving you down this path is key to choosing the right style for you. Consider some of the different reasons people are active in martial arts:
- Fulfilling hobby
- Competitive sport
- Personal development
- Mental/Physical Fitness
- Social Interaction
- Good fun
- Constant challenge
- Plenty more…
For most martial artists, several of these apply. Ask yourself this question, meditate on it, and understand it.
So what if you already train in a martial art and you’re trying to decide what to learn next? This mainly depends on your “Why,” of course. As an example, if you’re reason for training is self-defense, then you should think in terms of tactics. What set of tactics would be best to add at this point? If you know a striking art, would it be better to learn another striking art, or a grappling art?
Now let’s talk about options.
What martial arts are offered near me?
Realistically, what are my options? Based on geography, what schools of martial arts are offered within the distance I’m willing to travel? If the only martial arts organization in your small town is a TKD school, guess what – you’re doing TKD or you’re doing a fair bit of traveling.
And there’s nothing inherently wrong with either of those options, depending on your goals and commitment level. Now let’s say you live in a bigger city and can find nearly any martial art you want. The decision is more complex, but certainly not difficult.
Key #2 leads us into the next set of information.
Who are these martial artists?
Now it’s time to do the leg-work. Based on your criteria and options, you should DEFINITELY visit every school that meets your criteria.
Watch a class: this should be a high-level evaluation. What’s the overall “vibe” of the people and space? This will also get you a decent – though limited – view of what the style offers.
Meet the instructor(s): Have a few questions prepared to get a general sense of their purpose, goals and personality. This is one of the most valuable steps you can take, so if you can’t visit in person, at least have a telephone conversation.
Talk to students: try to have a quick chat with a student or two as they arrive or leave, just to get some extra “data.”
That’s it. Now make your decision.
Were you expecting more? Let’s not over-think it. You know what’s offered in your area, and you know your goals and expectations. From visiting schools, you have a sense of who they are, so it shouldn’t be hard to pick the one that fits you best.
Now go do the work.