5 Rules Before Choosing a Martial Art

You don’t have to be

Ronda Rousey

Ronda Rousey

to be a great martial artist.

In fact, you don’t have to study years and years to learn to defend yourself IF you find the right art.

You DO need to commit to practicing though.


Your body will automatically do what you practice most.

For example, years ago I attended a women’s self-defense seminar. I hadn’t practiced martial arts formally for a while, but I’d maintained the basics: kicking, punching, and blocking. I wasn’t as fast as I once was, but I wasn’t a snail, either.

The ladies all lined up against a wall to face an attacker. Some of the women, who had either zero training, or who had completely given up their practice, didn’t know what to do. This was AFTER we’d just spent about 45 minutes receiving instruction. Remember I said that.

When the attacker approached me, he threw a punch. I side-stepped it and countered with a round house kick to his mid-section. It was evident that no one in the room saw that coming, including me!

Kick attacker

Because I’d spent years practicing kicks, my automatic response was to kick.  Honestly, I was surprised (pleasantly) that I’d had the place of mind to move out-of-the-way, and then kick!

After that class, I knew I needed to study a style that was self-defense-oriented. Period.

A little background about me …

I started studying martial arts when I was 17 with something called American Freestyle. Essentially, it was a mixed martial art with Tae Kwon Do as its base. I learned everything up to brown belt before going away to college. During college, I started formally training in Tae Kwon Do and Shotokan Karate. I continued formally studying Tae Kwon Do for a few years after graduating from college. Then, life happened and I practiced solo when I’d go to the gym (YMCA or wherever I happened to be.)

But here’s the thing — I never felt like I could really defend myself.

Then, I got tested. Someone tried to attack me. Someone I knew. I came out of that encounter with a small scar on my lower back, but that was it. Because I’d consistently practiced kicks, punches, and blocks, that guy wasn’t able to land a punch.  He gave up trying. And, I kicked his sorry ass to the curb.

Rule #1: Train consistently.

Back to my new training —

I began studying Hapkido. It’s a Korean self-defense art and anyone, any size (nearly — clearly very young children shouldn’t practice it. At least, not all aspects right away) can learn it.

Check out Use this handshake to defend yourself. It’ll give you a glimpse into what I study as a hapkidoist. (That’s not me in the video!)

One thing I love about Hapkido is that it’s incredibly practical and relatively easy to learn.

Rule #2: Find an art you LOVE.

There are TONS of martial arts, but not all of them are self-defense styles. You’d have to train for YEARS in some of them before you’d feel like, “Hey, I could kick your ass, you should leave me alone.” (But not do it, of course. The point, as Mr. Miyagi said, is not to fight.)

I recommend Hapkido, Jiujitsu, and Krav Maga.

How do you know where to train? I’m glad you asked!

Sadly, I’ve had two instructors with whom I wouldn’t train again. They enjoyed proving their point a little too much. In the first instance, I observed while our Shotokan Master applied a lock, or something like it, to a student. When he didn’t get the reaction he was looking for, he continued until the student winced in pain. The student had no idea what to expect. We were all white belts.

My second experience happened after I’d attained brown belt status in Hapkido. During class, the head instructor, without warning, hit me in the femoral nerve (I believe this is the correct name. It’s along the outside of the thigh a bit above the knee – You should look this up. It’s actually a great place to hit someone in a self-defense situation.) It would have been fine, but then he laughed at my reaction, and clearly seemed quite pleased with himself.  I had a deep bruise, the size of his fist, on my leg for several weeks. (When I find the picture, I’ll post it.) I almost quit, but as my primary instructor said, “You’re so close to black belt.”

Rule #3: If an instructor enjoys beating you up, then you’re in the wrong place.

I stopped training Shotokan when one of the Master’s underlings tried to prove his point by kicking and tripping the lower ranking students while we were supposed to remain in a stance. We weren’t practicing balance or anything. We were simply awaiting further instruction, but he was bored.

Rule #4: If an instructor allows students to beat each other up, then you’re in the wrong place.

I should have walked away from my last dojang when I witnessed kids in the juniors’ class being taught gun/knife disarm techniques. But I didn’t.

What’s wrong with teaching gun/knife disarm techniques to children? Oh, let me count the ways this could go horribly wrong! But I’ll stick with something a police officer, and jiujitsu instructor, recently said to me, it gives a false sense of security. (In fact, he said this about teaching self-defense period.I tend to agree with him unless you actually regularly practice what you’re learning.)

Rule #5: If the instructor is teaching gun/knife disarm techniques to children, then you’re in the wrong place.

Something you need to understand:

You don’t have to train in a gym, but you DO need training partners. 

Hapkido and jiujitsu, two of the best (in my opinion) self-defense martial arts styles, require a training partner. You can only do so many solo activities before you need to practice with someone. I dabble in jiujitsu (because my son is learning it) and enjoy breaking down Krav Maga or Bartitsu techniques, but I study Hapkido. I run techniques in my head, and then I practice them with my children. Practice. That’s the key.

One final thought:

You want to live to train another day. Choose your gym/dojo/dojang carefully. Training with other people requires trust. Anyone who demands respect before they’ve earned your trust, isn’t worth your time or your money. You’re there to learn, not to get hurt, and this includes in a place that specialize in teaching women’s self-defense. Realistic training doesn’t need to be overtly violent for you, or me, to get the point. Practicing makes the difference.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What self-defense techniques have you learned? Do you practice them regularly? Let me know in the comments.


p.s. Anyone studying martial arts understands that sometimes we’re going to get hurt. This isn’t the same thing as it being done intentionally.

About KMiller

Kori Miller began studying self-defense when she was 17 years old. Over the years, her formal practice has seen its ups and downs, but her desire to continue learning never has. She's trained in Tae Kwon Do, Shotokan Karate, and Hapkido. It is this last style that won her heart. Her philosophy is, "don't be there, but if you must, then protect yourself." Your personal safety starts with a healthy respect for situational awareness and using powerfully, positive body language. Kori is an author, speaker, and trainer.
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