In my ~2 years in combat sports / martial arts (a variety of grappling and striking arts), I've come to realise that there are a number of things that make the really good gyms and coaches stand out from others.
Some of these are personal preferences, but I've also seen other people with much more experience value these things in a gym and coach.
I've tried out gyms and classes in boxing, Muay Thai, general "MMA striking", judo, wrestling, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu (both traditional and no-gi). These are relatively modern martial arts (compared with "Traditional Martial Arts" like Karate and Wing Chun Kung Fu), and they're my area of focus. A better name for them, in my opinion, is "combat sports", which is how i refer to them.
As a preface, I write these with the assumption that you have the right attitude.
When you go to a new combat sports gym to check it out, it's good practise to check your ego at the door, go in there with an attitude of learning, and be gentle when rolling with anyone the first time. You do not have to prove yourself. If you feel like anyone else is being aggressive, then figure out a way to chill things out.
But with that said, and presuming you're going in with the right attitude, here are some signs of a good combat sports gym, to help you pick one.
Humility (Coaches, Students)
The number one sign of a good combat sports / martial arts gym for me is a gym that's humble.
Humility starts with the owners and coaches, and trickles down to the students. In fact, humility informs many of the other values.
Combat sports are humbling to begin with. The day I started, I was instantly plastered by people with just a few days more experience than I did. This tends to continue. After two years, people with ~10 years still make a mockery of me.
Any good coach is humble, because while they're probably pretty good themselves, they're vastly aware of just how much better others can be. Good coaches know that they can learn from students.
Humility trickles down to so many things. It helps us stay open minded about new styles emerging. It helps us realise there's something to learn from every person, class, and sparring session or roll, no matter our level or the level of others.
A lack of humility manifests in multiple ways. But what I've seen mostly is an attitude that they're the best and that nobody else can show them anything. Sometimes it just manifests in classes and sparring that is more focused around "winning" than "learning".
Fundamentally, a gym that has humility is one where you can expect to learn, without having to always try to win.
Playfulness / a "Fun" atmosphere
"Keep it playful" is one of my favourite phrases in combat sports. I first heard it in jiu jitsu, but it's not unique to that sport.
There are so many ways of keeping it playful.
- Smile before a sparring session.
- Laugh when you get owned by someone.
- Chuckle when your opponent uses the exact technique on you that you used on them a moment ago.
A playful atmosphere lightens the mood and helps everyone focus on learning and improving, rather than winning all the time. It relates heavily to ego.
I've been to gyms where people focus on winning rather than being playful. I found that the students always went hard, with lack of skill, and didn't work on ever improving their skill. And the coaches just beat us up. What's the point of that?
Drilling/Sparring *Every Session*
No combat sport is good for anything if it doesn't involve drilling and sparring.
You might be in it just for the physical movement, like yoga. In that case, any combat sport will do. But they're not the same as combat sports.
When you get started in boxing or other striking arts, it's OK to not drill for a while. It depends on the coach, the quality of programming, and how hard you train, but it would be reasonable to only spart from your 10th to 30th session.
But in grappling arts, like wrestling, Judo or Jiu Jitsu, you can spar from day one, and you should spar every time.
If a gym doesn't have sparring, or if it has sparring just once a week, I'd walk away.
Note: There are variations on this of course. Some schools have sparring in grappling, but limited sparring in striking (for example, limiting it to "experienced" members). Some schools separate out sparring from drilling. But in general, sparring has to be available.
A good gym should have experienced coaches. Coaches should be experienced in combat sports (preferably multiple) as well as in physical development generally.
Some say that the coaches should have experience in winning (or at least participating in) competitions. I don't think this is necessarily true of everyone, as at junior levels you can learn from a lot of people, but it helps. There's stuff that coaches learn in competition that they would never learn in friendly sparring, especially in striking arts.
But if a school is trying to raise competitors, then the coaches should also have been competitors.
Experience, of course, isn't the only qualification a coach needs. A coach that has won many competitions but who is terrible at teaching and doesn't pay attention to classes is still a terrible coach. In fact, it takes a very special coach to combine a history of winning competitions and producing winners themselves.
Programming / A Curriculum
A gym with good programming has an established curriculum of things they move through.
It's totally reasonable to ask a school how they do their programming. One thing I find annoying about some gyms is they seem to just do whatever the coach feels like doing on a given day.
A good gym will have a program of moving through certain cycles of movements and drills according to a schedule they've worked out.
The best gyms I've ever been to have created programs and curriculums customised to me and my needs. For example, the coach does drills with me on things that I'm weak at. Amazing!
Hygiene / Organisation
Hygiene is super important, from the smell, to the rituals.
You can often tell how good a gym is from the moment you walk into it. If it's odour free and if everything's in decent quality, lined up and organised, then it's a very good starting point.
Hygiene extends to rules about not wearing shoes (or wearing indoor-only shoes) in certain areas, and having to wear slippers in bathrooms.
I've been to gyms in the heat of the tropics that smelled completely clean and were 100% neat and tidy.
If you walk into a gym and things are messy and it smells bad — you can leave. No excuses. If you stay, that smell will get into your clothes. And there's a good risk you'll get tinea, which also has the much more gross name of "ringworm" in English, or staph. You've been warned. These are very common in combat sports, but they're always unpleasant.
(Learn to recognise the signs of ringworm — see here on the CDC.)
No (or Few) Rituals
I don't understand some people's obsessions with rituals. They're OK to a degree, but they quickly spiral out of control.
The rituals that mark a low-grade gym are:
- Gyms that invent their own belt schemes. I've been to MMA gyms where people wore belts. No thank you.
- Having to pay for graduations to belts. Belts are questionable and serve little purpose anyway; having to pay to be awarded them is stupid.
- Bowing to some photo of a master. Now, there are high-end gyms that mandate this. But if I wanted to join a religion, I would.
Now, personally, I personally prefer gyms with no rituals. No titles for the teacher (just call them by their name), no bowing, no "oss". But those are fine, and I tolerate them if the rest of the things are good. I also may do them for fun, or if I feel like it.
Respect and Punctuality
Finally, a gym must be respectful of its members, and try to be punctual.
Respect takes many forms. Of course, it should be mutual — give respect, and get it.
A class should always start very close to the scheduled time. I've been to schools where you go to a class and the teacher doesn't show up (which of course may happen occasionally), or shows up very late with no warning, or just doesn't start the class for a long time.
I find it disrespectful and weird when these happen.
Of course, I'm usually only a short-term visitor, so I adapt to local culture. But if it happens to the point where the majority of students feel disrespected — it's a problem. Try to figure that out early. E.g. if in your trial class the teacher is late, ask other students "Does this happen often?" and gauge the reaction.
Things that don't matter
There are a few factors that have zero bearing on the quality of a gym.
- How good they are with emails, a website, or social media. As long as they communicate the right things (e.g. closures), they're fine.
- Whether a coach or school speaks your language. You can learn a lot from a coach just from watching. Just think of how much you can learn by watching fight replays on YouTube.
- Whether a coach has a black belt or decades of experience. I've had great coaches with just a few years experience — the quality of a class depends on mostly other factors.