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I know there are a lot of questions about this posted, and I've read through four of them here.

I understand that more important than any style is that the instructor is "good." I don't have a rigorous definition for what "good" is, unfortunately, and would like some insight.

I'll preface with my background and goals. I'm 20 now, and live in NYC. I did TKD since I was 5 for 10 years. I got up to second degree black belt and then stopped. After entering college, I did Krav Maga for a year, up to 4x/week. I had to stop because my knee took too much damage: from a young age I've had knee issues, and TKD combined with fencing, track, and dance only hurt the issue. I then took a break and switched to Muay Thai for a very short stint of time (6 months). I have mild wearing down of the cartilage (osteoarthritis) and patellar tracking disorder which has been largely fixed through a year of physical therapy. I can't say my knee is completely better, but so long as I continue my exercises and take care of it doctors say I should be just fine. Just no crazy Krav drills. :P

I want to get back into martial arts and especially want to study a Chinese martial art. I am of Chinese heritage and love kung fu films, so part of it is how cool I think kung fu is, and part of it is wanting to explore my heritage. I'm also Buddhist, so Shaolin is pretty awesome in that way.

Here are my specific goals, in order of importance (especially top 3):

  1. Find an art that isn't going to massively destroy my knee.
  2. Improve competitive mindset/avoid anger and mental blocks in competition.
  3. Improve balance and awareness.
  4. Eventually do cool stuff.
  5. Improve self-defense ability in real-life scenarios.

Regarding (2.), I compete at a professional level in a fighting game. My largest problem is my mindset during tournament play, and even anger during practice if I can't beat opponents I feel I should beat, am playing poorly at a given time, play nervous during tournament matches, etc. I'm hoping learning a martial art will help. I've begun Tai Chi classes (and am starting to meditate again as I used to do), but there's always something more.

So in sum, what should I look for when I go to the class? What do I ask the instructor, or the other students (I'm really shy with strangers and don't think I'd be able to approach other students, actually)?

  • What kind of fighting game do you compete in? – Dave Liepmann Jun 18 '15 at 20:13
  • Super Smash Bros. Melee. – kzs Jun 20 '15 at 2:32
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You've got a pretty big list of goals there, and you can probably find a teacher or school that will hit 60% of them. Getting them all at once might be tough. That said, NYC has a pretty large martial arts community, so once you get into a decent school, you might find other schools or teachers who better fit your needs.

Your Knee

Your knee, actually becomes a pretty good litmus to start with. When you describe your situation, does the instructor say, "Don't worry, just ignore the pain" or "You'll get strong enough to be good as new!" or do they say, "We'll have to modify some of the movements for what you can do"?

The former responses indicate either someone who doesn't care about your health or doesn't understand how the body works, while the latter shows some understanding that things need to be tailored. Look for other students who aren't necessarily the top-fit types - and ask about any long term injuries they're dealing with as well.

If you can, see if any ex-students can be contacted to see what they think about the school as well - some places create injuries and people drop out. Hearing from them is a key point.

Self Defense

Does the training deal with (current, modern) weapons? Multiple attackers? Scenario training ("Ok, we're going to practice in this very confined space since you can't always fight out in the open...") etc.?

Cool Stuff

You can't necessarily assume you'll get to do what's in the movies, but if you can see high level teachers or students move, and you want to be able to do that, that's a big thing.

I like to look for people in the 50s, 60s or older and see how they move. If they move nice, then that tells me I could have some longevity in the art.

McDojos and Cult Teachers

Here's something a McDojo has: a clean, broad, payment structure. Uniforms, fees, how fast you get to the next level of training, etc. Real training is more messy and doesn't have guaranteed timelines.

Maybe you put in hard work and you're on part with some intermediate students really quickly, maybe you get caught on some core technique that is hard for you and it takes a long time to meet the requirement. Maybe the instructor is disorganized and the testing or awards are irregular. Maybe there's no real categories outside of student, elder student, instructor, master?

The flipside is the cult teacher. The unfortunate reality is a lot of the Chinese traditions around martial arts leads to cult teachers. You start with a basic level of protocol and respect, and then the teacher is asking you to clean their house, take care of their grandkids, and give up hours you need to spend doing college work... Cult teachers are abusive and manipulative. Look for ex-students to talk to as well, and often these instructors have nothing but nasty things to say about other styles or teachers.

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  • Thank you for your helpful advice. I guess I'll narrow it down to three items. I called a wushu school, and spoke to the head instructor about my trial class. He's some old-school Chinese fellow, and when I told him about the knee he asked for my age. I said 20, and he told me "you're 20, what are you worrying about?" Red flag? I'm still thinking of doing the trial class, though. – kzs Jun 18 '15 at 12:22
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    Well, I mean there ARE people out there who can cover it all, but those folks are amazing and hard to find. It can take years to find someone who really can cover everything. In the meantime, you should find a GOOD school/teacher, and along the way you will develop some connections and insight that will help when you do run across those folks. That said... yeah, "what are you worried about?" not a great sign there. – Bankuei Jun 18 '15 at 16:17
  • That what are you worrying about line is definitely a red flag. As Bankuei said, go for the people that will work with you, not against you. A good teacher would rather see you in every class modified but succeeding than in every other class or only once or twice a month because you're in that much pain. Don't get me wrong, going in to a martial art you will be stiff and sore at first but it shouldn't be excruciating pain. Like my parents told me as a child, if it hurts then don't do it! – Matt Lerner Jun 19 '15 at 20:12
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Because you have asked specifically about Chinese martial arts and have mentioned wushu, I think it's important to understand how what you want matches up to what is offered in the modern landscape of Chinese martial arts in the US. I would first distinguish between two categories: modern wushu and traditional martial arts.

The two questions I would use to categorize whether a teacher's school is modern wushu or traditional are:

  1. Is this school primarily performance art?

  2. Do the practitioners fight the way they train, if they fight at all?

The answers for wushu are yes to performance art, and no to fighting the way they train, and not really to fighting.

Wushu is martial-arts-inspired gymnastics; athletes go to competitions where they perform solo routines on a floor of fixed size where they are judged by a panel, where the judging criteria are decided by committee. High level wushu training strongly emphasizes more complicated jumps with more spins. Anecdotally, this results in many serious knee injuries. Martial applications are not a priority in wushu.

Traditional martial arts are more varied because schools are organized on teacher-student relationships, where each teacher (rather than a committee) is responsible for the content passed to the student. You may find flowery "traditional" schools that are very similar to wushu, or you may find schools that discourage any forms training. Because of this variation, it may be easier to think of the two categories as wushu and not-wushu.

On to how these relate to your stated goals and what to look for:

  • At an entry level, all Chinese martial arts I have seen have a strong emphasis on stance training and developing strength and flexibility. Assuming you don't find a charlatan, this should satisfy your goals 1 and 3. I would, however, never recommend advanced wushu to someone with knee problems.
  • Goal 2: What is the mental state of the instructor? Are they mentally balanced and comfortable with themselves? Keep in mind that the desired mental state may intentionally vary based on the school; some schools advocate animal ferocity, others advocate calm stillness. Do you get along with the instructor, or do you find them frustrating? Is there specifically mental training?
  • Goal 4: Observe the advanced students to see whether you think the stuff the school teaches is cool. What you think is cool may change over time, but so can where you train. Most people think wushu is cool to watch. Most people also think martial arts movies are cool, but what is cool to watch is often in direct conflict with martial effectiveness.
  • Goal 5: Is the instructor capable of demonstrating martial applications, and against resisting opponents? Do students ever train against resisting opponents? There is a world of difference between being able to break boards or perform flying kicks and actually fighting someone.

Based on your priorities, I think you might be happy with a wushu school. But understand what you are getting into.

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  • agree with mattm, especially goal 2. As largely confirmed by anecdotal evidence from forums over the years and not personal experience, I've heard many stories of conditioning and discipline practice verging on abuse (instructors punching muscles in stretched positions, jumping on backs to achieve splits and just irrational conditioning exercise that serves little purpose than to become good at those irrational conditioning exercises!). So maybe watch a few classes and see whether you think it makes sense. – Matt Jul 8 '15 at 1:10
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I'm also Buddhist, so Shaolin is pretty awesome in that way.

Your goals are questionable for someone who wants to learn traditional Shaolin. Learning, control, not fighting, and internal/self discipline are far more important that beating whoever. Actually, if all you really want is to "beat" someone, no ethical traditional teacher will teach you.

Modern Wushu is something you should likely avoid given your existing knee problems.

... some old-school Chinese fellow

Did you make clear to this person that you had genuine medical problems? He wouldn't have been the right teacher for you anyway, but he might have had some insights or maybe even some jow (liniment). Sometimes, it is just a matter of working through the pain. Sometimes, the pain is telling you to stop. What kind of pain? Where (precisely)?

So in sum, what should I look for when I go to the class? What do I ask the instructor, or the other students.

Does the most senior instructor / teacher care about a) what they are teaching and b) what the students are learning?

Is the focus on "do this" or on "how to do this"? (performance v. principles)

What sort of "qi" fills the room? Aggressive and angry or Supportive and disciplined? Do you know how to listen (ting jin) or only how to react (fa jin)?

Spend 6 months in ballet class (seriously) with a good instructor (if you can find one who will teach you) to correct whatever you are doing to your knee and learn how to not do whatever you were doing. Be sure to explain your knee problem and ask for help to correct it. Control isn't about limiting your movement -- it's about using the joint correctly with correct alignment.

Study the anatomy and physiology of the knee. Are you relying on your knee when you should be using the large muscles in the back of the thigh? or supporting your weight from your back (not your legs)? Or landing on your knees instead of using your feet and legs?

Eventually do cool stuff.

"Cool stuff" is the product, the outcome of training, practice, and self-discipline. It's not something you will ever be able to do merely because you want to. It's something that will come naturally as the result of what you have done.

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