It's been a while since I've posted in these forums, but I'm at an interesting transitional period in my martial arts training and I thought it might be worthwhile to open a forum topic. A disclaimer: this post is somewhat self-indulgent, so consider yourself forewarned.
I have a fairly eclectic martial arts background that ranges across several different styles. I didn't plan for this to happen; instead, it grew out of changes in my living circumstances, especially moving to different cities. I'm sure that many of you can relate to this: you commit to a style of martial arts, you reach a certain level of proficiency, and then without warning your life takes you to a different part of the country.
The very first time this occurred, I had to switch from studying Kenpo (my first style) to JKA-style Shotokan. I was in high school, so it wasn't that big a deal, but it still involved a lot of work. I had to re-learn virtually everything in order to develop that distinctive Shotokan movement style. My Shotokan teacher (instructor #1) was adamant that I should not try to mix the two styles: in his words, "a warrior does not need too many swords."
Fast forward a year or so, and my Shotokan instructor is suddenly leaving town for a new job. There's only one other karate school nearby, and it's a different style, taught by an instructor (instructor #2) with a strong interest in Okinawan karate. I switch schools and start the process fresh: I un-learn each kata and then start re-learning how to move in the same way as this new instructor. I don't regret it, because this new style is dynamic and bunkai-focused, with an emphasis on limb control. My new teacher is an excellent fighter and he's open-minded, so I'm able to develop a diverse skill set. We cross-train frequently with BJJ practitioners and wrestlers. It's a great environment.
Unfortunately, it doesn't last. I'm accepted to a college that's five hours away, which makes it impractical to return home frequently. I decide to look for a new teacher in my college town. When I visit the local Shotokan school in my college town, the instructor (instructor #3) asks to see me perform a kata (he wants to assess my progress). I'm about halfway through Bassai Dai (if memory serves) when he interrupts me and explains that I'll need to be completely re-trained in every single skill and every single kata (beginning with Heian Shodan), because I'm moving "improperly." He teaches traditional Shotokan (with very deep stances) and he questions whether I'm even a karateka, because I move so differently than his students. I remember he was particularly critical of the timing and rhythm of my kata. We never discuss kata application, and I don't have an opportunity to spar with any of his students (other than a brief bout of slow, one-step sparring).
Looking back, I understand why this instructor wanted to re-train me. After all, how could he train and award me a rank in traditional Shotokan if I did not even move in the "correct" style? And I suppose he didn't see any point in discussing kata application, as he didn't think I was properly performing the kata in the first place.
I stayed to finish the class and thanked him for the lesson.
About a week later, I signed up with a local MMA / submission wrestling school, and trained there for several years. (I still did kata on my own, but otherwise this was the end of my formal karate training.) Although there was a long period of re-training in striking (their boxing coach was very particular), I actually felt like much of this training was a natural complement to my karate. In fact, in many ways this training unlocked certain parts of kata for me. Oftentimes I would develop a skill in class and then realize that the same skill was recorded slightly differently in a kata somewhere. Once I understood the underlying principle, I could make both work against a resisting opponent.
So fast forward to the present time. I've just started a new job and I'm finally in a place, financially and personally, where I can commit to a single school again. I'm fortunate enough to live in a city now where I can choose from a wide variety of different styles. What do you look for in a school?
I've created a list of criteria. Importantly, I don't mean to suggest that these are universal--these are simply the criteria I've been using in my present search (based on my present needs):
First and foremost, an emphasis on striking hard.
Secondly, very little to no point sparring. I feel like this creates bad habits (at least for me). By point sparring, I'm referring to those matches where people can "win" by tapping you with light backfists and quick snap kicks.
Thirdly, a willingness to train hard while minimizing injury. I'm okay with hard sparring, but it needs to be done intelligently. I don't want every single day of class to feel like an amateur MMA match.
Fourth, an emphasis on training against resistance.
Fifth, an encouraging environment. I'm coming back to training after a bit of a gap, so it will take hard work to get back up to speed.
Normally, I would also list "grappling, both standing and on the ground, with strikes." However, one of the bad habits I picked up from my MMA training is an instinct to take fights to the ground when they are not going well for me. I'm actually more comfortable on the ground than I am on my feet, and I don't think that's a good thing. So in my case, I think it would be okay to sign up with a "striking-centric" style for a while.
There are a few optional features that I consider ideal, but not necessary. For example, it would be great if I could find a school that met all of the above criteria and also included frequent training against multiple enemies. It would also be great to find a school that had a realistic perspective on weapons defense. I understand that there is a strong difference between training for self-protection and training for fighting/sport. I'm open to either pathway, and the school I choose will help to shape my approach to this distinction.
I thought I would post this topic and invite others to share their insights as they see fit. What drew you to your current school? Would you be willing to completely re-learn your entire kata repertoire in order to start a new style? If you were about to start at a new place, what would you look for in the coaches/instructors?
I'm primarily posting this out of curiosity to see how others have dealt with this situation. At this point, I'm planning to sign a contract with a local Muay Thai / Krav Maga / BJJ school. It seems like a perfect match for what I'm looking for, and I don't think it will involve intensive re-training. However, this struck me as a good time to visit other styles and schools in the city, and to get an idea of what's available in the martial arts today.
(edited to clarify a few details)