Today we’ll look at one way to compare schools and styles in the form of a curriculum checklist. This entry isn’t a way to evaluate which schools are “good” or “bad,” and it especially isn’t a way to tell what style is “better.” This is a way of comparing what material is covered in one school versus another, and how well.
I’m a firm believer that curriculum isn’t the #1 priority of a school, nor is it even #2. First, a school needs to be safe, or no one will come back. Second, a school needs to be enjoyable, or no one will come back. Third, it needs to teach a curriculum.
Curriculum can have both breadth and depth, and can both excel and fail. A school can lack breadth, but still excel in the areas it does cover.
For example, one of the schools I train at doesn’t cover grab escapes, take-downs, or any of the more “self-defense” based skills – but it is safe, fun, and excels at sparring. Some of the best light contact sparring fighters I’ve gotten to work with come from this school.
Meanwhile, another school I previously trained at did cover all of those missing subjects, but in such a low-intensity way that I never felt like I was being challenged.
If you only look at a school just based on what boxes it checks (quantity of curriculum), then the “breadth” school would appear “better”, and the “depth” school would appear “worse.” However, I believe it’s better to learn a few things really well than it is to learn a lot of things poorly!
So for the rest of this entry, we’ll look at a checklist of the different parts of martial arts curriculum. I’d invite you to see where your school has strengths, and where it has gaps. Since breadth isn’t everything, I recommend evaluating based on a Four Star system to account for quality as well:
Zero Stars – This material is not covered at all
★ One Star – This material is covered, but rarely/poorly
★★ Two Stars – This material is covered an average amount
★★★ Three Stars – My school/style/self excels at this material
So keep scrolling, rate your schools, and maybe even find out where your gaps in training are! That’s what this mental exercise is all about.
Hand Techniques – This includes blocks, punches, chops, etc. The list goes on! Does your school practice these in the air? On a bag or pad? A partner? How much of class is spent not just doing these techniques, but refining and making them better?
Foot Techniques – All the kicks – standing, stepping, sliding, spinning, and jumping. Are they covered both for sport and self-defense? For power, accuracy, and speed?
Board Breaking – Does your school require being able to break boards with both hands and feet?
Throws – Do you practice sweeps, hip throws, and other take-downs? Is it just rehearsed or is it trained with a resisting partner as well?
Ground Fighting – This can include escaping holds on the ground, striking from the ground, and the strategies of going to the ground and getting back to your feet.
Small Joint Manipulation – This includes wrist locks, standing arm bars, and finger locks. These can all be taught as control, or as a way to break a bone or dislocate a joint.
Performance – Does your school practice forms at a high energy level, with focus and intent? Do the moves look clean and crisp, but also powerful enough to be effective? Schools that are involved in tournaments often excel at this.
Application/Bunkai – Do you know what the moves in your forms are for? This means a knowledge beyond a basic level of blocking a punch and countering.
Point – Does your school cover tournament style sparring where judges stop the match after every point to vote? Do you compete in tournaments using these rules?
Continuous – Do you train where sparring matches go to time, and the most points scored wins? How intense is this? What level of contact?
Scripted – This includes preset escapes and counters to grabs, strikes, and other self-defense scenarios.
With Resistance – Do you have partners who grab and don’t let go until you force them to? How much resistance does your school encourage you to use?
Falling/Rolling – Do you practice safely falling from throws? This skill will also train you to fall correctly if you slip or trip on your own!
Soft Skills – These include teaching awareness, safety precautions, and personal protection with an emphasis on threat avoidance as opposed to martial prowess.
Forms – Do you practice to perform? Do you cover a wide variety of forms for different weapons and different skill levels?
Techniques/Form Applications – Do you drill blocking, striking, and using a weapon to defend yourself against a partner? This means going beyond doing the motions in the air.
Sparring – Does your school allow free combat with weapons? Either foam safety weapons or dulled or wooden versions? What level of intensity is this performed?
Mat Chat – Is discussion of character development a part of each class? Is there an active discussion of how martial arts improves who you are both inside and outside of the school?
Philosophy – Does your school have a creed, a set of tenets, or a governing philosophy? Is this discussed or simply recited without emphasis?
Lineage – Does your school have a family tree? Do you know in what country (or countries) your style originated? Could you explain what styles are ancestors of your current style?
Founders of the Style – Who created your style in its current form? Who taught them? And who taught the people who taught them? And so on… are the people who came before emphasized?
That’s a Lot to Cover!
How did your school do? Find any gaps you weren’t aware of?
Most schools won’t cover all of this, and time constraints mean it’s almost impossible to cover it all in-depth. I’ve written before about being a proponent of training in multiple schools and this checklist shows why. Schools can be great at one thing, but lacking in others. This is not a failing, this is just expertise. Remember, the greatest pastry chef might not cook the most delicious seafood. Yes they are both in the field of culinary arts, but they are such different specialties. Expertise means focus on one area, and that focus means there isn’t enough time to work on everything.