The title should signpost where this one is going fairly clearly. No, I didn't go back to the jujitsu class that wound me up last time. Instead, having Monday free, I travelled most of the way to York, to Pocklington, to go to a class in a form of Eskrima. Where we spent an hour and a half working our way through basic angles of attack first solo and then with a partner in a kind of prearranged drill.
There's the word that always worries me. Prearranged. As in you know exactly what is coming next and can be in position to respond. Now, I'm willing to accept that it may have simply been an introductory class for me, but a student who had been there since the start of the class several months ago got what was apparently his first taste of his teacher feeding him these angles in a random order. After more than six months. I get kids choosing which parry they'll need with a sword on their first night of fencing. On which they will spar, because that is the foundation of practice. (As I'm sure it is with much other Eskrima. As with my blog on the jujitsu class, this is about training practices at a specific gym, not about an art as a whole).
Feeding someone random techniques is still a big step down from sparring. Trust me. I feed people techniques as a fencing coach, making them do what I want and choose an appropriate response. It still doesn't mean they'll do it when they have to take it into a bout. That requires the building of additional attributes. So if you find yourself in Pocklington looking for weapons work, get down to their rather wonderful sabre club instead. Sport fencing might not be terribly realistic, but you'll learn a lot more.
Which brings me to a brief public service bit, on signs to watch out for if you walk into a martial arts club for the first time. And when to walk away. None of these is necessarily a red flag on its own, and you might find that you like what a particular school offers despite some of them, since only you know what you're trying to get out of your training (it might just be getting moving and making friends, for example). Yet in my opinion, based on twenty-seven years to date of assorted training, each of these should have you asking questions:
Teaching purely by way of forms, whether those are solo forms, two person drills, or set piece techniques where the attacker and defender's roles are pre-determined. These do have a place in martial arts practise, to get repetitions in of techniques, but if they are all you do, then you will never develop the additional elements that make the moves work in an alive context. For me at the moment, this is the single most important thing.
Claiming to be too dangerous to spar with. This connects to the point above, but also comes up in a couple of modern 'self defence' classes I've observed which are ostensibly against forms. So they have you hit pads instead. Or practise thin air strikes against an opponent who throws an attack and stops. Commonly, the suggestion is that this lethal technique they have not practised in any meaningful way will come out under pressure and defeat anything else. We would never think that someone who goes to a fitness kickboxing class could beat up a pro Thai boxer just because they've done the same moves on the pads, so why would we think this is any better?
Doing three techniques to an attacker's one. This is common, and not entirely invalid. After all, boxers throw combinations, don't they? But if someone is standing still while someone else throws a couple of punches, does a throw, and then sets up a lock, please ask yourself why they have suddenly lost interest in beating you up.
Lots of talk about ancient grandmasters who did incredible things. Alternatively, lots of talk about all the military who may or may not have used this system. Or going on excessively about Bruce Lee/their founder. This is something of a judgement call, because it's fine to be proud of an art's history, and the achievements of those who have gone before. Judo players all learn a bit about Kano founding the art, and that's fine. But things happening in the past should never be a replacement for the ability to do things now.
Not breaking a sweat. If it's your first class, you presumably aren't so far in advance of your partners' skills that you can defeat them all without breaking a sweat in anything where they are resisting intelligently.
Mystical powers. I was taken in by this for years as a kid, by well meaning people who weren't trying to con me, because they genuinely believed that they could do impossible things too. Things like non-contact knockdowns. The trouble is, they couldn't do it to anyone but their own students. As far as I know, no one can. If someone starts talking about chi doing all the work in self defence, it is perfectly reasonable to ask them what it is and if they can demonstrate that it exists. At the other end of the scale, the same thing applies to any scientific claim made with big, complicated language. Sometimes, people make claims about skill acquisition, biomechanics, gross motor skills and the human startle response that they've acquired second or third hand, without taking the time to read any of the research. Modern pseudo-science can be just as annoying as the old fashioned sort.
These are just a few starting points. The main thing is to take a questioning mind set with you. Most genuine, straightforward teachers won't mind you asking why you do stuff, or where the proof is for the claims they make. If they call what they do the most effective system ever, or even a tested system, as how it has been tested and by whom. If a move or a training method seems to have an obvious problem, ask and see why they do things that way. It may be that they do things a particular way as a form of historical recreation, or for sporting reasons. Both are fine if you understand what you're getting. Remember, you're potentially entrusting your safety to this, so take the time to check it out properly.