As a martial arts enthusiast, there are many aspects of the discipline that never fail to amaze and impress. Unfortunately there are also aspects that are quite shocking, and I’m not referring to those practitioners who let their egos loose at gradings and competitions and forget about the respect they should show to other participants. I’m referring to what obviously is a thriving industry around the UK; I’ll call it conveyor-belt accomplishment.

There’s a national brand that have opened up a gym in my local town. They were offering the chance of a winning a free year’s lessons so, being in between clubs, I gave them my details but wasn’t surprised when I got a call saying I’d been unlucky, but was entitled to a ‘free taster session’ which I arranged.

I wasn’t expecting much, after all most clubs will give you a grace period of a lesson or two to decide if this is the style, discipline or club that you want to be at. But I was in for quite a shock when I went to fulfil the appointment.

In essence, the ‘taster session’ was twenty minutes from start to finish, and comprised largely of a hard sell from the club representative with whom I spoke on the phone. At first everything seemed fine, we went over basic formalities and politeness (how to bow and saying ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ as required). The last part seemed a bit contrived, but I had previously practiced at traditional Japanese and Chinese clubs. Failing to remember the correct deference to members, the founder’s portrait or the training room in general was met at one club with a sharp smack from a bamboo shinai – regardless if you were in armour or not! If this is how they instilled discipline I thought, all power to them.

Then we had a little chat about my general fitness, what I’d done and my aspirations which I thought was OK. They ran over the training schedule at the club and what was expected . . . a tough-but-fair approach which didn’t strike me as unreasonable. They took me out onto the training mat to meet the senior instructor who I bowed to, “I hope you decide to train with us,” he said. This struck me as odd, if he was everything my induction representative was saying, why would I not want to train here? My spider senses started to tingle. Next I was asked to sign an injury disclaimer in case I hurt myself during the taster session . . . again, not an unreasonable precaution. I made a point though, of reading the small print at the bottom which also said my signature invalidated any option I had to change my mind about signing over any money.

What? If for some reason I decided to hand over a large sum of money, my signature bound me to an agreement that I couldn’t change my mind and ask for it back. It was a good job I read the small print as that part wasn’t mentioned in our ‘talk’. My back was well and truly up, and after a rather pointless (and patently injury risk-free) run through of how to punch and kick, which was clearly unnecessary given my previous history of clubs, we were on to the real purpose of the pantomime.

The training costs. They were huge. We were looking at £600 for the year, and that was an on-the-spot deal that would be withdrawn if I didn’t sign up there and then. No cool off, no thinking about it, accept now or have to pay over a thousand for a year’s training which would ‘guarantee’ a black belt if I attended all the scheduled training sessions.

This was obviously why that little caveat was there in the small print, I realised. I wondered how many people had been bullied into signing and then rang up in indignation later, to be told their money was forfeit. Having been put through the performance of a traditional club with traditional values, they had exposed themselves as nothing better than a clip joint.

We went around the negotiation for a bit, my potential salesman flipping back through the laminated pages of a file to extoll the benefits of the system and how this matched my expressed needs and aspirations at the start of the meeting. All to no avail, despite making a big show of withdrawing the ‘discounted’ offer, I refused to accept their sales pitch and after it was clear I would not be signing over a thousand pounds to them they asked me to leave.

I was polite, but furious. Maybe I had been spoiled by my experience of other, better clubs, but I couldn’t believe an outfit like this was operating from professional premises in the middle of town, acting as a respectable brand.

As for the validity of their system, there are two arguments. One says that provided you do the prescribed work on a syllabus designed by experts, once you get to the end you will be black-belt calibre. Another says that you can do all that and still not be up to scratch, I leave the assessment of which is correct up to you.

As for the company itself, it went through a rebranding a year or so ago, although the core business seems to be the same operation. I don’t know whether this was a result of a genuine brand dispute with a third party, or they simply rebranded to shed some legal or pejorative attachment to the old name. One of the ‘benefits’ they mentioned in their marketing pitch was the chance for qualified instructors to open their own franchises, so it’s possible there was some internal conflict which affects clubs that expand even when they don’t have an aggressive business model.

So would-be martial artists beware! Although a good practitioner should prize honesty and diligence, there are a few organisations out there where those values got skipped over for a quick buck, and this for me is a sad day for the profession in general.

If you are looking to join a club, I recommend the following:

• Look for personal recommendations (it’s also fun to train with people you know)

• Observe a training session as a spectator (or participant if they allow it, you should be able to get one lesson free)

• Get a listing of the costs – these should be clear on the website or club literature and usually involves a fee for the lesson which covers the room hire and the training fees for the instructor, plus an annual club membership fee that covers the club’s growth plus insurance coverage. Neither should be excessive and some clubs offer discounts on the ‘per session’ price if you pay for blocks of training

• Clothing, equipment and training aids are usually extra, but normally there is a pool of club equipment (paid for by membership fees) which you can borrow until you have your own

• Formal gradings and competition events are also normally extra, but costs should be explained before the event and be visible on the organiser’s site. If your attendance is mandatory or you happen to be the club’s champion then you can often get assistance for entry if you are having problems meeting the cost

• See if the club or its instructors publish in the industry press. Although there is a high level of disagreement over styles and effectiveness, outright charlatans tend not to draw the attention of experienced martial artists and try to stay under the radar

• Ask other students what they think. Away from the scrutiny of the instructor, what are the students like and what do they say about the club? You will be training with these people and learning from them, so if they are enthusiastic, knowledgeable and keen then you have a good environment in which to learn

Author's Bio: 

Trevor is a martial arts ethusiast and works part time as a bad credit counsellor in his local community, and champions consumer issues.