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A decade ago, someone would have laughed at you for even asking this question. Luckily for you, the world of online martial arts via e-learning has made significant improvements since then. In this day and age, people are mastering the piano via online lessons, completing world-class culinary courses, and even earning legitimate master’s degrees in their respective fields.
But, you still need to consider, is it better for you to learn online or in-person at a local school?
In this article, I will take you through some of the major areas to compare, and draw a stark contrast between the two options, to help you make an informed decision and begin your road to black belt.
An immediate consideration is your schedule. To actually learn a martial art (and master it), it takes a commitment of time and energy. Scanning a book once a month, or watching a video here and there will not do anything for you. You need to actually move and embed the techniques into your muscle memory, while making adjustments and working towards perfection of the movements.
With an online martial arts program, you can learn whenever, wherever. There is a big convenience in being able to train whenever you have time. But, you still need to commit to a schedule. If you don’t have a schedule in place such as (train Tuesday and Thursday evening for 1 hour), then you will most likely not follow through. You can also continue your progress while traveling, and are not stuck to a physical location.
You will need to be able to attend the local school’s scheduled classes. If you work off hours, have to fight traffic, have children’s activities, or otherwise too overschedule, this could be difficult. The benefit of having scheduled classes, is that you feel drawn to attend. You don’t want to disappoint your teacher or peers, so there is an added level of accountability. While traveling, you would not be able to go to class.
A consideration that many beginners consider, is how long will it take to reach black belt? This by itself, is a rather misguided question. The concern should not be how long it takes to achieve a specific rank, but rather what it will take to master the skills which are desired. Regardless, some students will prefer a self-paced option, compared to having to wait for their peers (even if their peers are not working as hard as they are).
Are you an intense autodidact, who obsesses over a subject until fully mastered? Do you have the self-discipline required for intense training sessions, even while no one is watching you or coaching you? If so, you could benefit from the self-paced nature of an online martial arts program. Schools will vary in their standards and time requirements, but you can generally move faster, if you train more often, rather than having to wait a specific period of months before you can test (which is common in a local school). Since you have the full course at your fingertips, you can move along faster, if you dedicate the time and energy required.
At a local school, you will be placed in a group class. Students can only progress/advance in rank as quickly as the school’s testing schedule allows. Most schools require that you attend a certain number of classes or that a certain period of time passes before you are eligible to test. One benefit of this system, is that it stops you from “trying to skip ahead”, when in reality, you might need more time perfecting the skills of the current belt level.
How difficult is it to learn from a video? Can a live teacher teach me at a higher level? These are some questions that prospective martial arts students might ponder when trying to choose between an online and in-person academy.
The instruction of an online program can vary greatly. This will depend on the instructor experience, comfort teaching in front of a camera, the production quality of the videos, and overall curriculum design. With an online program, you have the benefit of going from A to Z, and doing your lessons or classes in a sequential order. This way, you can learn things in an order that builds on one another, and create less confusion.
A great martial arts instructor will easily attract a large number of students to their local classes. This can be exciting, but also make the experience less personable, if the student count is too high. By learning in a live class, you have the benefit of a class structure. Rather than learning from 5 minute videos, you have a full class that integrates a warm up, stretching, lessons, drills, personal stories, social interaction, and partner work. The learning timeline might be more confusing, and less linear, depending on when you enroll. Some schools have a new rotation of material every quarter, some teach whatever they feel like, and some group students with those that have a similar experience level. This means that there is a greater level of variability in what you will learn, and it might not be in an easy to follow and progressive format, like you would find in an online program.
Another area to take into account, is the feedback and corrections that you will receive from your instructor. Some students would prefer a more hand-on approach, while others are more used to self-observation.
When you are watching and training with video lessons, there is clearly not an instructor there to give you real-time feedback. Unless you are doing a live video conference lesson, but that is not what we are referring to here in this article. Some online programs, such as the Global Martial Arts University, have built-in feedback loop opportunities, where you can submit a video and have it reviewed. In the GMAU, students complete progress checks about halfway through a belt leve. In these, you simply film yourself demonstrating a few techniques that are requested, and your instructor then replies with video feedback. You can also ask questions directly to the instructor or to your online peers to get assistance.
While in class, your instructor might correct an improper stance or technique. You can also watch higher ranking students to make adjustments on the fly. Depending on the size of your group class, feedback opportunities might be hard to come by. Your instructor can also praise you and motivate you while in a live class session, since you are there with their physical presence.
One of the reasons some students never even get started with their training, they are afraid or unsure about the testing process. Testing is a way of evaluating a student’s skills. An exam gives students a meaningful event to prepare for, and can help to motivate for more self-critical training and intrinsically motivate the student to perform.
In an online martial arts school such as the GMAU, you will have a private testing experience. You will film yourself demonstrating all rank requirements in one video (without breaks or editing). Your instructor will do a detailed grading, and then film a personal feedback video for you, showing you the mistakes and adjustments. Another benefit, is that the feedback situations are one-on-one. In a local school, you tend to be in a larger group class, and therefore receive less attention, and less-focused attention on specific corrections. Upon passing an exam, you will receive an official certificate of rank in the mail (or via email from some schools).
A belt test is one of the most memorable moments of a student’s martial arts journey. The test is an opportunity to display the skills learned and practiced in class, along with an indomitable spirit. A local school will usually host a group test, with all of the students in the school testing at the same event. There is usually less focus on one individual (unless they are testing for their black belt), and feedback or corrections are usually not given at an event like this. At the end of the exam, students are awarded their certificate of rank and belt if applicable.
Cost is a big decision point for an aspiring martial artist. While everyone does want the best training and personal improvement possible, it needs to be within budget. A student needs to take into consideration the cost of tuition, testing fees, equipment, and even transportation to the school.
An online martial arts program offers you a lower cost alternative. Some schools allow for you to pay monthly, or up-front for the entire course to black belt. You might also need to pay for a testing fee to have you exam graded and certified. Equipment may or may not be required, depending on the school and style. Most online program are going to only cost $20-$60 a month, or around $1,000 to reach black belt. The GMAU does not require contracts, you can cancel or pause anytime, or pay for your program up-front for a significant savings.
A local academy has significantly higher costs to operate, taking into account their lease, utilities, staff, and equipment. The typical cost for a month of training at martial arts school in the United States is $125 at time of writing this. Coupled with testing fees, enrollment/registration fees, and equipment, it usually costs approximately $5,000 to reach black belt. Most local schools require that you sign a term contract, such as 6 months, 12 months, or even 36 months. This further ties you to completing the training at their facility. The benefit of these higher fees can easily be founded with a high quality training experience, pristine facility, and enjoyable progress through the ranks.
It all comes back to your personal life situation and goals. Do you want to workout with a group of friends and have a place to connect with others? A local school would be great for you. Do you want to learn absorb everything you can about a new art, and learn it at your own pace? An online school would be great.
Whichever choice you make, realize that learning martial arts is hard work. An online martial arts program only works if the student works. You cannot tap a button on an app and have the understanding of an entire style instantly downloaded into your being, like Neo did in The Matrix. Well, not yet. Have fun training!