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Finding the Right School and Sifu

Which school is the best for me???
Thereís no easy answer to this sometimes not asked enough question! Some of the things to consider would be the following: the Sifu or Teacher (what is his or her background or abilities); the existing Students (whatís their demeanor or attitude); the Environment (does it feel comfortable or adequate); the Paperwork (the dreaded contract or extra fees). Although we will try to help shine some light on each of these subjects in order to help you get started on your martial path, it is no way a complete list of things to consider. Please take the time to come up with questions of your own, that you feel are important as well (an example would be parent type questions for those putting their kids into a class). Remember, you are the one that is paying the money, spending time practicing, and giving your all to the school...so make sure itís the right one for you Ė not someone else!

THE SIFU (teacher)

The first thing to consider is whether or not you feel comfortable with the Sifu of the school. You will be spending many years with this person, with the idea that you will get something from the time with him or her. If you feel uneasy around this person, then thereís a good chance that the relationship that you will have with that Sifu will never fully blossom due to distrust. That lack of trust is what is making you feel uneasy. You are better off listening to your gut, and looking elsewhere to spend your time and money. Remember, this is the person who is going to mold you into the martial artist you dream of becoming, and if there ends up being some type of personality conflict between your Sifu and yourself, you will end up being angry over the lost time, effort, and money! Here are a few specific things you can look for! Remember one thing...if a Sifu hesitates or refuses to answer any basic questions you may have (like the ones on our list here), then turn around and run...you do not want to take lessons from him or her. They are usually the type to sucker you into signing a contract with a huge registration fee, and this is all before you can even see a class (and they are probably trying to hide their own inability to teach well). If you canít look at the merchandise before making a purchase Ė DONíT BUY IT!

1.  Title

This may seem silly, but bare with us. As far as Kung fu goes and the Chinese culture, very few Ė if any Ė true masters of the arts, call themselves "Masters". This title is usually given to them by their students or even their peers. They do not usually introduce themselves like this....hi, Iím "Master so-and-so". If you go into a school, the thing you should probably hear would be....hello, Iím so-and-so, and Iím the Sifu at this school. In this case, he or she is just referencing the fact that they are the teacher at that school. If you meet a Sifu/Master, and the first thing out of their mouth is my name is "Master so-and-so", you might want to look a little deeper into their qualifications. Often times this is an indication of a self promoted Sifu.

2.  What is the Sifuís background, credentials, or authority to teach a particular art?

This is the information age...there isnít anything we canít find out about someone if we really tried hard enough. With that said, what is the Sifuís training background (years, where, training methods, etc.), and what is his or her credentials or authority (who or what gives him the permission to teach a particular style of kung fu. Now donít get the wrong idea here...we arenít saying that everyoneís required to have a "golden lineage" in their background to have the skills to teach another person. What we want to make clear is, that if a Sifu is "claiming" to teach "a" particular style of martial arts, and claims a certain lineage or master, then please do not hesitate to verify such information. If a Sifu says he or she is teaching their own style of martial arts, combining many different arts they have learned over the years, then it is a different story. You can still verify that they learned from the teachers they claim. The most important thing to remember is...you can verify almost anything a Sifu tells you. If he or she says that they learned Chen style Taichi from a Master Chen_?_, then contact that master and ask them if they recognize that Sifu as one of their students. The reason why we put this on our list, is because there are many so-called Sifuís who just go around attending whatever seminar they can, held by the top masters from all around the world Ė spend one or two days with them Ė get their picture taken with them Ė and now all of a sudden they are a recognized Sifu in Chen style Taichi under that master! Oh and donít forget the massive amounts of videos out there that some of these Sifus have watched and now are as skilled as the teacher in the video! I DONíT THINK SO!!! Remember, this is all necessary only if you have any hesitations in your feelings of comfort with that school or Sifu. Put your worries aside by calling around...you can find the answers.

3.  Does the Sifu show the art to his students, or just stand there and describe what the student should do?

What this means is, is the Sifu skilled in the art? Does it look like he or she can do the art like you think they should be able to, or do they expect much more from the student than what they do themselves. An example would be a certain type of kick....does the Sifu describe in detail what he or she wants the student to do, and then continues to verbally correct the student until they finally get it right....or does the Sifu "show" the student how to do it, how it should look? If the Sifu cannot do the kung fu, how can they expect the students to become skilled????

4.  How much attention is each student getting?

This is one of the most important things to look for. You are going to be paying allot of your hard-earned money to this Sifu, and itís important to know youíll get your monies worth. The more attention the individual students get, the more service their getting for their dollar. Group classes have their place and time, but even then, the students should be getting some type of individual correction. Not everyone learns at the same pace!

5.  Do you get the impression that what is being taught is effective, or just for looks?
In other words, does the Sifu teach the art as an exercise, or maybe for show, or does he or she teach the art with the impression that the effectiveness of the art is what counts. Does it work in the street, or am I just going to lose a couple of pounds and look good! Of course, if youíre just looking for a good workout, then this may not apply for you.

6.  Is there a difference between the self-defense training and the competition training?
The art itself should not be taught differently for self-defense and for tournaments/competitions. What this means is, if the Sifu teaches a certain style in regular class, but then teaches kickboxing in competition class/training, then this might be a sign to go elsewhere. Donít get us wrong, if itís clear that a particular student is training for a "kickboxing" match, then that doesnít apply. What we are saying, is that there are many "so-called" Sifus that have not learned their art thoroughly enough themselves to teach a student how to fight with the art in class, so it turns out to look like kickboxing. Be clear about what youíre seeing and looking for.

7.  What kind of discipline do you see taking place, or is there any violence in the school?
We put these two together, because sometimes what some people see as discipline, can be viewed as unnecessary violence to others. Does the Sifu treat their students as sons and daughters Ė being strict and firm, but not verbally or physically violent, or does the Sifu hit and admonish their students in front of everyone else? Depending on your upbringing and personality, youíll have to judge what you see for yourself. There is no way for us to gauge something like this for everyone. We can tell you this...if you think that what you see is disciplining in the form of unnecessary violence, turn and run...you will never feel comfortable enough to succeed in your journey.

8.  Are adjustments made for students of differing body types and limitations?
Is everyone in the school taught exactly the same way? We arenít talking about the same techniques...of course theyíre the same techniques, but does the Sifu recognize that each student he or she has is an individual, that often times learn completely different, or are of different physical and mental abilities. Someone who is athletic and well-built physically would be able to do nice deep Horse Stances, high kicks, and have superior jumping abilities, but the student who might be older, have some type of physical limitation, maybe not as strong, etc...would not be able to do the stances as deeply, or kick and jump as high. Does the Sifu take the time to adjust his teaching to the individual? If the person is older, does the Sifu still command the student to get lower into a Horse Stance, even though itís obvious that the student doesnít have the flexibility or strength to do it at that time?


This is where you try to get a feel of how it would be if you were a student at a particular school. A Sifu can tell you anything you want to hear. They can play to your desires and aspirations, but the students will give you the truth, whether they want to or not! Visit the different schools that you are considering and watch. Pay attention to everything taking place, and to every student. Remember, we are all different, so donít just watch one person to get a complete idea of the school. The following are a few things to look for.

1.  How good are the students?
This doesnít mean how skilled the students are, because unless you know exactly how much time each student has put into their training, there is no way to determine what skill level they should be. However, if none of the students look like what you envisioned for yourself, then itís probably not the school for you. You are going to be training with these students, and if you donít feel that they are a reflection of what you want to become, then you probably shouldnít waste your time there. It is more important to pay attention to the level of respect that the students have for the Sifu and for each other. More importantly, the respect they show you as a visitor. If your fortunate enough to take part in a lesson or two, pay attention to the way they treat you now, compared to when you were just a sight-seer. We imply that "respect" is also apart of the attentiveness to the Sifu, and the overall discipline of the students as well.

2.  Does everyone train together, or are different level students taught separately?
This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if different level students can train and be taught at the same time, this is a big positive for that Sifu. It shows that he or she has the ability to adapt to the needs of different students in a split-second, and that the students will, for the most part, learn much quicker training with different skilled people (no two people are the same out there in the mean streets). This mixing also applies to different types of students, such as men and women, adults and children, and the handicapable. This again shows the Sifuís ability to teach a variety of students altogether. That is definitely "two thumbs up" in our book! The only exception to this rule, is sometimes there will be classes held for the most senior students only. This is for good reason, since much of the time things will be taught that shouldn't be taught to the general student population.

3.  How do the students interact with each other specifically?

Do the senior students seem eager and none-hesitant to help the junior students, and do the junior students genuinely have and show respect to the senior students. This interaction is very important for all the studentsí advancement in the art, including possibly yours. If there is any hint of animosity going on between students, then that might be a sign that the Sifu is not teaching "everything" they maybe should be (but not necessarily, because he may not be aware that its going on...if itís a new problem). Judge for yourself as always.

4.  Are the senior students in good physical shape and in good spirits?
Are the senior students of the school out of shape, unbalanced, unhappy, or even unknowledgeable...again, turn and run away as fast as you can! Unless you are looking for a school that will help you put on a few pounds and teach you nothing for lots of money, then donít stick around! Remember again, you are going to be those students in the future...look for the image that you see for yourself.

5.  Do the students deal with injuries more than would be deemed normal?
As most of you know, or if you didnít you will now, injuries do occur when training in the martial arts. The more intense and realistic the training is, the more likely there will be injuries. But, there is a point at which it becomes too many, too often. If you see more than one or two people (large school) at any one time with their arms or legs in a cast, or walking with crutches or a cain, or even limping badly...I would look into the schools record of injuries before agreeing to join it. Again, make sure you consider the type of training that is taking place before wrongly assuming that a Sifu is not capable of training students appropriately without multiple injuries on a constant basis.


1.  Where?

It is never about how big a school is, or how pretty a school is...itís about how comfortable you are when your there. Whether a school is the biggest in the city, or that it is air-conditioned, or has carpeted floors instead of tile Ė or better yet Ė plain concrete, it doesnít matter. It doesnít matter if itís in a shopping mall, downtown, China-town, or in an alley. It matters that when you enter that school to train each day, that you feel at ease, that you have a clear head to take in the dayís lessons. You want to feel just like you do when youíre in your own home! Keep in mind, that in many traditional schools in China, the training is held outside. So donít dismiss the Sifu that is teaching in his or her backyard, driveway, local park, or even the garage. It is what you are going to get out of each class that is important for you. You want to walk away each day feeling like you learned something...and "where" you train has nothing to do with that feeling! Of course the decision is always yours...go with your gut!

2.  Are you welcome?

First, let me say this again...if you cannot watch a class to see the type of training they do, or see how the students perform, then that school should not be considered Ė PERIOD! Most of the time there is a con-man posing as a Sifu ready to take every cent you have...and do it under the falsehood of "Chinese Tradition." Leave and do not return, and donít forget to tell a friend! Next, ask questions!!!! Ask whatever question you want (they are all important to you). That is a potential school for you, and you want to make sure that any doubts or concerns are met and taken care of before dedicating part of your life there. Also, if you feel pressured to sign on the dotted line before or after watching a class, or feel threatened in any way by anyone in the school (especially the Sifu), then go somewhere else. And again, tell a friend!

PAPERWORK (the contracts, the fees, and what you get for them)

1.  Fees
We canít tell you what the monthly fee should be at any school but our own! Because of the economy, the different cities their in, the size of the school, the type and condition of the equipment in the school, and the Sifuís own thought process, and even "who" the teacher is, will cause the fees to vary widely. The most reliable way to judge whether or not a school is charging a reasonable rate, is to call around to the other schools in the area and compare. Again, you should note that depending on who the teacher is (someone famous, or a great champion of the past or present, etc...), you may have to pay a little more than the average school in town. You are the ultimate judge since you are the one who will part with the cash each and every month

2.  Classes
How much training are you going to get for your buck? Some schools only have one day a week training, yet others have five or six per week. Some schools have private classes, yet others have none. The combination of the two differences above will set the tone of whether or not you are getting enough for your dollar. An example would be the following: two schools in town Ė both charge $100 per month; one school offers one class per week, but it is a private lesson....the other school has 3 group classes per week. Which is the best bang for your buck???? We canít tell you that! If you are after the class atmosphere, and you feel you need the group setting to help motivate you in your training...then the 3 group classes may be your best bet. But if itís important to you to have allot of the Sifuís attention and personal interaction with you each time youíre there, then the 1 private lesson is for you. We all learn differently, so we have to choose for ourselves.

3.  Ranking or gradings

Oh boy, is this a touchy one. Simply speaking...if your interested in wearing a colored belt or sash around your waist, and it gives you satisfaction, then look for a school that has them...but if you are simply looking for a school that you can learn an art form, and learn how to defend yourself, and become a better human being, then donít worry whether a school has them or not. One thing to consider though, is whether or not the school charges for every grading or tests. Itís up to you to decide if you like that, or whether itís a fair amount. There are many schools out there that have belt rankings that cover 10 to 20 levels before getting to what most people consider a "black belt/sash". If they charge you for every belt/sash and even the little stripe that sometimes goes on them, and require you to test at certain times, then you need to consider whether you are wealthy enough to afford them.

4.  Rules

Please make sure that before you sign on the bottom line, that you take the time to find out what the rules of the school are. It might sound silly, but each school may have their own rules of conduct within the school, but they may also have strict guidelines to the way you conduct yourself away from the school. This is neither good nor bad, but make sure you know what they are before you commit.

5.  Contracts

Last but not least Ė the dreaded contract! Well, first thing to keep in mind is, that just because a school has contracts, doesnít mean they are a bad school and only there to take your money. In this economy, it is very difficult to run a school and keep it from failing financially. Most good Sifus will tell you that they do not teach to get rich...it doesnít happen too often. If it does, more power to them Ė even Iíd like to know their secret! Anyways, what you want to look out for is all the hidden costs that the not-so-good Sifus will try to throw in the contract. Sign-up fees, registration fees, paperwork fees, signature fees, filing fees....well you get the idea. Just make sure that you are comfortable with what is written in the contract (the whole thing!). You donít want to go broke in the first month of training! If at any time you feel "pressured" in any way to sign a contract, get up and leave. There is something in that contract that the Sifu doesnít want you to see before you sign.

***One last thing to consider...finding a good Sifu is as hard as finding the right piano teacher for your ten year old, a good basketball coach for your fifteen year old, or even finding the right job! Take your time if you need to. A few extra days or weeks of thought and planning is much better time spent than finding out a year later that what you have been learning is either garbage, or that you canít go much farther in your training, because the Sifu and school you chose turned out to not be right for you, or worse yet, turned out to be a fraud or shame!



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