Most people thinking about starting martial arts or self-defense are "naive consumers" which means that they have no way to tell good instruction from utter crap. What little information they have comes from TV or other entertainment sources, and the potential instructor who can talk closest to that fantasy baseline sounds the most credible.
One of the odd side effects of this, is that many of the things that impress beginners are the exact same things that are red flags to people who have been around for a while.
Certificates and Diplomas. If someone has ten "Grandmaster" diplomas in ten different arts, to a beginner that sounds like a good thing. That's like a PhD, right? And someone with ten PhDs must know more than someone with just one, right? Depending on what "Grandmaster" even means within the system.
Does it mean that the person has trained "masters" defined as people who have trained other instructors? Because that would require three times the minimal time to get instructor rank in each of those styles. Assuming extreme belt inflation and a person could get to instructor rank in 3 years, it would take a minimum of nine years to get each of the grandmaster certs. Ninety years for ten of them. Thirty, if the person in question had no life and could study and compartmentalize three arts at once.
If Grandmaster means headmaster, he'd have to be the sole survivor of his generation of instructors and all the previous generations of instructors-- sole survivor ten different times. If the Grandmaster is the hereditary lineage holder, the poor guy would have to have ten fathers and/or mothers, which would make the holidays really hard.
One of my friends ordered a box of DVDs that included instructor certificates for all of the things covered in the DVDs (I don't remember Jeff, was it forty of them? A hundred?) Just fill in your name, you already sent your money.
Ranks. To a beginner, dan rank is dan rank and a fifth degree blackbelt must be better than a first degree blackbelt. But there was a huge change in the early and mid-eighties. An article I read in the late seventies said on average a black belt in karate took eight years to achieve. Some styles now offer them much more quickly-- eighteen months to black belt, anyone? I consider Jim Onchi (judo) to be one of the only two legitimate ninth-dans I have ever met, and he trained from 1929 until his death in 2013. 75 years. When I see a pimply-faced kid advertising tenth dan, I want to puke in my mouth just a little. To someone who has been around, extraordinarily high ranks that don't match the person's age (and ability to move, modified, of course by age) are red flags. And if super-high ranks are norms for the system, it calls the legitimacy of the whole system into question. It's like everyone at a fast-food restaurant being either a manager, assistant manager or manager trainee. Pretty good sign you're not at a 5-star restaurant.
Halls of Fame and Headmaster Associations. Again, the beginner sees these as marks of legitimacy. In the normal world, other sports' halls of fame are managed by governing bodies with a big stake in maintaining the legitimacy of the sport. You can't, as far as I know, buy your way into the Baseball or Rock Hall of Fame. But at least one of the martial arts halls of fame contacted everyone on their mailing list to induct them. My wife, with her (at the time) green belt in Shito-ryu could have been inducted into this hall of fame and all she had to do was pay $600 dollars to attend a dinner. Like almost every other senior practitioner, I've turned down multiple offers. (Full disclosure, I was inducted into one without my knowledge. My wife said it would be rude to refuse). To the experienced, Halls of Fame and Headmaster associations look like cynical, mutual ego-stroking societies existing sole to market to the naive. O maybe I'm the one being cynical.
Medals and Trophies. Yes and no. If you're into sport, you want to train under winners. But this is one that seniors get skeptical about. If they've never heard of the tournament, they wonder. If it says "World Championship" on the trophy but it was held in a one-horse town, you have to wonder. And there are some big tournaments that have a huge number of divisions so that almost everyone can go home with gold medals because there are usually only one or two competitors in each division.
But if you're learning a sport and some of the coaches or practitioners were on the Olympic team, you've struck gold.
Uniformity. Maybe this is just me, but TV always shows lines of people doing things in perfect unison, and that strikes me as dangerous. Tall people and short people should move different. If everyone's head is level throughout the kata, they aren't being taught how to drop step or use weight for power. An over-emphasis on visual measures of effectiveness is one of my red flags. But to the naive, consistency and conformity are almost always interpreted as signs quality.
There are exceptions, always. A red flag don't always indicate a smoking gun. But it strikes me as very odd, maybe funny, that what looks good to a beginner often looks just the opposite after a few years.
Or maybe it's just me.
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