Monday, June 23, 2008

A Theory of Shopping

Getting a good martial arts instructor is like getting a good auto mechanic, plumber, or
physician. If you don't know anything about the field, you're in a poor position to tell the wheat from the chaff, and you're likely to get had. If you walk into the shop and ask whether the professional you need is the one standing in front of you, you know already the answer you'll get:

Why, certainly.

What you need, my friend, is a guide. Hopefully, a little common sense will set you on a less treacherous path.

The first thing you need to know when you are shopping -- for anything -- is What You Are Looking For. If you don't know What You Are Looking For you will either go home empty handed (if you are extremely cautious) or will go home having bought whatever was available when you stumbled into the first salesman who caught you. If you don't know what you want,
if you don't know what need to satisfy, you will likely fall to some sales pitch designed to move whatever is in stock (or, to push whatever expertise is available, if you're buying services).

This is why, if you want to avoid disaster, you (a) make a grocery list and (b) don't go grocery shopping hungry. Ever gone shopping hungry someplace that takes credit cards? Then you know exactly what can happen.

Supposing you are interested in shopping for a martial arts instructor, you might be looking for:
  • Exercise
  • Outlet for Competitive Instincts
  • Self-defense
  • Dating Material That Is Fit
  • Company of People Who Afford Leisure Activities
  • Someplace Harmless To Kill Time 'Till The Addiction Meeting
  • An Alibi
Other things may come to mind. If you want to be able to fight you may want to find an instructor that is either built like you are (understands how one with your body fights), or has satisfied students built like you are. Talk to them. How long have they been there? How has the class changed the way they do anything they do in their lives?

(If you're looking for a mechanic, you might be asking: what kind of car do you want maintained? How far are you willing to drive? Do you need a loaner when you drop it off? Some of these questions will be very similar regardless whose skills you hope to employ.)

Let me give you a little hypothetical. A man of obvious physical fitness and great demonstrable strength runs a martial arts business some distance from the campus of a well-known university. Through a personal connection with a member of the coaching staff, he is able to offer a class through the university for credit. The school allows students to get one credit for P.E., which is two semesters of some P.E. activity like kayaking or Karate. When you meet the instructor, he's wearing a red-and-white belt that (he says) indicates that he's a 6th Dan, or sixth-degree black belt. As you ask him questions, he tells you he's about to start an Aikido class, and why don't you stay to watch? You see folks of all sizes rolling on mats, practicing falling on their butts, and moving on command in repetition of various strikes and blocks using short staves about shoulder height or shorter.

Here's what you don't see: The instructor's 6th Dan is in Karate, and he's only first studied Aikido last summer. The reason the students in all his classes use a weapon is that the cost of the weapon isn't part of the student's tuition, and enables a direct-sale opportunity directly from his school. He tried to upsell them into a high-end uniform, too, of course. The instructor's enormous physical strength makes him utterly oblivious to the problems facing small women asking advice about wrist throws' effectiveness against thick-jointed men with an eighty-pound advantage, and when questioned about specific techniques that do depend on either surprise or superior force, he acts like the students just aren't doing it right. After all, it always works when he does it. When he demonstrates projecting chi (spiritual energy) -- a subject on which he is happy to open discussion, mostly because (you can tell by his smirk) there's nothing anyone can say to prove wrong anything he might claim -- there's nothing he ever seems to do that isn't fully explained by the fact he's a wall of muscle who weighs two hundred thirty pounds if he weighs an ounce (and probably more). Students are invited to attend master classes given by guests, that serve as advertisements for his classes because they are all held at his studio. (In fact, the entire university course is an advert intended to allow himself to distinguish his business as the only one endorsed by the blue-chip university whose coach is his personal buddy.) A master class instructed by a little 5'5" guy from Atlanta turns out to be a killer deal: the guy really knows his stuff and can teach in one day what the studio owner can't convey in a year, because he knows the answers to questions, and the studio owner is basically a giant brute who's carefully learned all the buzzwords needed to redirect pesky questioners trying to ascertain whether he has deep understanding to convey, or is just personally a highly-fit badass who's memorized a specialized vocabulary of Japanese.

And as you stand in the studio after the master class, you learn there's a dicount: if you sign today, you can join the Black Belt Program for 10% off the normal price, which is itself a 25% discount off the price you'd pay month-by-month, and you get the belts thrown in for free, plus a special patch indicating you're in the Black Belt Program. Asking about what the Black Belt Program means you'd discover it is a prepaid program for about a year and a half of classes, or until you pass the black belt test, whichever comes first. Folks who stop making payments on their Black Belt Program contracts discover that a contract for services is enforceable where the studio does its business, and that deciding you're done with the school because it's not teaching you the things you need to learn (or because incompetent instructors have allowed you to become injured by insufficiently supervised students) isn't going to prevent a court from enforcing your obligation to pay a few grand in tuition fees. This last bit, you can learn spotting the studio owner walking into the county courthouse, where he is not shy about telling you he's there to sue nonpaying quitters because he's got a business to run.

Oh, yeah. Did I mention I actually met this guy? I see on his web site that he's got a long-limbed woman working as an instructor. I'm thinking already that her ability to smack female competitors for points while they're still too far away to hit back (the body is points under most strike-oriented martial arts tournament rules, not the limbs) was probably a major plus when she was recruited.

This isn't to say giant, brutal badasses can't be good martial arts instructors. There's a specimen like this in Austin who can probably outgrapple a bear, and studying with him will make sure you (a) know where your technique is faulty, and (b) know when you are trying to win with strength (which doesn't work against him) and when you are actually succeeding in some defense due to quality technique. And that's the problem: you can't tell by from their advertisement or their portrait which ones are the worthless chumps and which ones have What You Need. You need to meet them. You need to see if their philosophy about their craft is deeper than a pile of buzzwords. You need to see if the school is all about selling belt tests, or is really about the craft.

If you don't want to compete, do not go to a studio that requires competition or whose instructor uses competition results as a credential. I'm here to tell you it's possible to win in tournaments by being longer-limbed, quicker, more heartless ... there are lots of things that can aid the race to a winning score in a tournament than being able to impart knowledge about martial arts technique. In fact, being a worthwhile teacher is probably not much of an asset in a tournament. On the other hand, if you want competitive athletics, find studios that organize attendance at several events a year -- or run their own tournaments that attract out-of-towners. Don't look at what the instructor has won, look at his students and ask them how they've done.

Watch a class. Bored students, questions that don't get answered effectively, instructors who don't seem attentive and don't stay with students they're correcting until they've got it right ... walk. Most of all: before you sign a big contract to get that quantity discount, get a sample to make sure it's a cake you really want to eat.

I've seen instructors give students explanations cribbed from ninja movies, stuff about launching bone splinters into the human brain for immediate death, and so on -- there are folks who will try anything on the gullible, and some of them have actually fallen for it themselves. Like the big oaf who talked about chi, he didn't know any better. At his size, he'd never if noticechi took a vacation. And, looking at him at work, I'm thinking it's been on sabbatical for years. It's his business plan that's gotten the good exercise. And the word of caution is that good salesmen stay in business longer (skills or no skills) than teachers who haven't worked out how to make a profit. Survival bias favors businessmen, not martial arts instructors.

It's a jungle out there.

The sad thing is that the story is exactly the same when you need an attorney, a pediatrician, a mechanic ... you really benefit from having a native guide to help you understand who you're dealing with. A surgeon knows what surgeon to visit if personal need arose. These kinds of references are invaluable. Shopping by the yellow pages is a lottery.

You can google for commodities and not get burned: the reason they're commodities is that they're interchangeable. Skilled services is harder to shop for. Later, I'll post on services that allow folks to rate businesses with which they've had experience. This looks like a trend that may really be worthwhile, though the possibility exists that fear of liability may prevent some bad reviews.

More later.

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