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5 Things to Look for in a Karate Class

April 26, 2010 made a list of the top 10 international martial arts, with karate at #1. What’s your favorite martial art?
Tae Kwon Do
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Kung Fu (Wushu)
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With the new Karate Kid film hitting theaters this June (and starring the next Will Smith – his son Jayden), it won’t come as a surprise to many dojos if they see an increase in enrollment this summer. But other than the teachings of Master Miyagi and the ever-popular karate chop, what do you really know about the world’s most popular martial art? For those who are interested in learning karate, here are five things you should know before stepping on the mat.

1. Masters matter.
You don’t have to look like Ralph Macchio (or Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris, etc) when you first step on the mat. In fact, you can be just about any height, weight, and shape when you begin and still benefit from the teachings and discipline of karate – it’s how your dojo’s master works with you that really matters. Black Belt Karate author Chris Thompson explains, “You can become proficient at karate as long as you start learning from an expert sensei (which means “teacher” — literally, “one who has gone before”). Having a good sensei to guide you not only means that he or she can make you proficient and capable of looking after yourself, but also carries a lot of other benefits. These include confidence building, improved self-discipline, physical fitness, and self protection.”

2. Black belts not guaranteed.
There is no single governing body for black belt certification in the US (or even in Asia), and the time it takes to get promoted to black belt varies from school to school. Author Keith D. Yates of The Complete Guide to American Karate & Tae Kwon Do advises students to look for schools that offer a course that is challenging enough to really feel that you have worked hard for each belt promotion. “If you go to an American tournament, you are sure to encounter a black belt under the age of ten,” Yates laments. “I don’t want to create more controversy than there already is about little kid black belts, but what does it say about the sophistication of your style if a child who can barely tie his own shoes can make a black belt? How hard are you willing to work for something that is attainable by a second grader?” In his own school, the minimum age for black belt is twelve, and believes “testing for first degree black belt should be the most physically demanding examination of one’s martial arts career.” Yates believes black belt examinations should include demonstration of all lower belt requirements in addition to the forms and techniques for the black belt itself.

3. Karate is for couples.
That is to say, karate is a contact art and sport, and the value of practicing with a partner is immeasurable when it comes to excelling in your study (and no, we’re not talking about the person you treat to dinner and a movie). Though teachers will often pair up students during their classes, finding a friend who is willing to practice with you outside of regular class sessions is a great way to solidify what you’ve learned and improve technique. “If nothing else, karate should teach respect for your partner and opponent alike because ultimately they are one and the same,” Kancho Joko Ninomiya and Ed Zorensky write in their book, Sabaki Method: Karate in the Inner Circle. “Although you can visualize attacks or practice punches and kicks on your own, you need a partner to perfect your timing, rhythm, and speed.”

4. Leaving “empty-handed” is a good thing.
Although there are plenty of martial arts that do practice with weaponry, karate is called the “empty hand way” because it requires no weapons other than your hands. In her book, The Kids’ Karate Workbook, Didi Goodman explains that the “empty hand way” requires more than a lack of weapons, however, but also an emptying of the mind. “It means you practice hard without thinking, so if something happens, you’ll be able to react with having to stop and think. This ability can help you act honestly and appropriately in all areas of your life.”

5. Can’t find a Karate school nearby? Try Tae Kwon Do.
There’s a reason that many books and schools for karate students also offer tae kwon do as well, and it’s not just because they’re the 2 most popular martial arts in the world; though tae kwon do originated in Korea while karate came about in Japan, many of the Korean nationals who came to the US in the 1950s and 1960s used the term “karate” in reference to their martial art. “As a result, karate has become a generic term indicating any type of striking martial art,” Keith Yates explains in his book, which offers a guide to practitioners of both American karate and tae kwon do. Yates writes that the greatest difference between styles in the US comes down to the question of modernity. “Traditional” usually means that the style of karate or tae kwon do focuses more on self-defense and character-building aspects like discipline and respect, while “modern” is generally associated with sport karate and tae kwon do, with an emphasis on tournaments and competition techniques (though modern schools of course also teach discipline and respect as well). When it comes to choosing a school, it’s more important to decide whether you want to take your training to the competitive level or focus more on self-defense and personal discipline over time.

For further reading, check out these books from Blue Snake Books on karate, for students at every level of training.

Have your own tips for new or soon-to-be karate students? Leave your advice in our comments section, and you could win copies of our books! (Make sure to leave your email address so we can contact you if you win! We promise not to share your info with anyone else.)

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