I've trained in several other gyms, and I did not start off here, at Onyx. To be honest, in Singapore, the amount of Muay Thai/Boxing/MMA gyms are fairly numerous, and it is not unfair to say that you'd be spoilt for choice.
But of course, we all have different motivation and reasons before deciding to embark on this journey of martial arts. Most I meet want to lose weight, gain fitness. Others wants to learn the art, improve their skills. Whatever your considerations are, the truth is that if you're leaning towards picking up a discipline, there are signs that you should look out for, especially before and during your try out class.
Are you someone who cares a lot about the outlook and posh-ness of the gym? If yes, these information can be simply grabbed off the internet, or just by googling. My opinion, that where it comes to the "atas-ness" of the gym, it's a trade-off. If the gym is well furnished, it most probably means that the price point is likely to be well furnished as well. Expectations must be managed.
For me, I looked sharply at the cleaniness of the gym. It shows the level of conviction that the gym has into maintain its outlook. I want to know that the gym is being cleaned, sanitised and kept clean daily. My pet peeve, that I've experienced before, is gym mats that are sandy and unswept for ages.
The gym must also have a good vibe, and good "feel" to it. There are some gyms that just doesn't give off the right vibe. Regardless the lighting, or the smell, or the customer service; it is all a combination of the wrong things and when it comes to the line, it made the whole experience very sian right from the moment I stepped through the front doors.
The right balance to me, therefore, is definitely not a gym that has world class facilities, and is furnished like a LV flagship store. I've been to the down right kampong Muay Thai camps that are run-down as hell, but is well kept with pride. If you see the video below, of Manny Pacquiao's earlier training days, you'd get what I mean.
The Coaches/Trainers, and especially the non-training staff.
Have a deep look at the coaching staff, and the non-training staff at the gym of your choice, what is your first impression?
I'd avoid the more offensive remarks, but were you comfortable (the people and interaction aspect) whilst communicating with the folks from the gym? If you were pissed right off from the person at the reception, chances are, you're not going to enjoy the experience very much from that point on. As a typical paying consumer, I'd look out, and form my first impressions from the first guy/girl that I speak to. I remembered the days where I was a noob at this, and at that level, most gyms looked rather intimidating from the outside. From that point, 2 paths split:
One, there happens to be a friendly and professional staff that ushers my fears and doubts into a slight excitment to start learning.
Two, there happens to be a staff that speaks in a manner that basically tells you that the gym is "fighters only, you're a weakling."
And then the coaches. If the above point two was what you felt, it is also very likely that the coaches will allude to the same tonality. Were you thrown to a corner and left on your own to figure your way out? Were you able to start off with the right basics? Not withstanding the individual capability of the coaches; different coaches/trainers will have different styles, and different levels of experience. But there are common denominators amongst them.
I've met some great coaches in my years of training, and some terrible ones. The best ones, are those that are attentive, able to disect knowledge and techniques into bite sizes, and translate them into feasible workplans.
A coach/trainer should be a respectable figure. He/she is afterall, a sort of role-model to many. He need not be a encylopedia of techniques or knowledge, but should constantly seek to improve by researching or by experimenting. More importantly, a trainer/coach should uphold his morals and values in a manner in which casts no doubts in the many that he influences. That said, sharply, it means little if the coach was some sort of a champion, but say for example, is a pick pocket. How would that translate?
That said, the worst trainers that I've met are those with doubtful and shady characters. I've also met trainers in Thailand, that would place huge bets against their own fighters. I've met coaches who are junkies as well. But these are the clear cut signals of trouble, and there are also many who are not that apparent. In general, I'd lookout for signs of positivity; are the coaches happy when they are coaching? Or do they pull a long face as though it's the 2nd day of their break-up. If your coach has little to no passion in what they are doing, it is very unlikely you'd enjoy what you're doing.
But I digress. To the newbies, or if you're looking at starting out in this, and if you're going through the thousands of pages of coaches/trainers' CVs online to decide, keep in mind that the best fighters do not necessarily make the best coaches, and vice versa. Keep in mind too, that CVs are made, and do not necessarily translate into quality. The cruciality in this is still to experience for yourself.
Much can be said about this: the class structure, the programme, the division of levels, the people, the trainers, etc. But as a whole, the process is largely about the alignment of your goals/needs to what is being delivered as a product.
Most of us join a MMA gym to learn a discipline or two, and at the same time, lose weight, keep the fitness level high. It is fair to say that most of us would probably fantasize about competing but will actually not devote ourselves to it. That said, it still puts the weight of the class on the experiential learning factor, at the same time, seeking balance between theory based (technical work) and a proper workout.
Most of us, when we embark on this journey as a newbie, get pretty nervous about our first class. The nervousness and excitment makes a potent recipe for us to absorb and take almost everything that the trainer says as holy gospel. But is it really? The first few steps of your martial arts journey are crucial, it forms the basis in which you operate on, whether be it punches, kicks, submissions, or throws. There should be eyes on you, like an eagle, on every single detail. There should be good demonstration, showing you the way it's done. There should be clarity in explanation, preferbly in a language that you can understand easily.
I think that, outrightly, if a gym has members holding pads for each other, that should be a sign of danger. To emphasize, I'm not saying that there should be no partner drills, in fact, there should be plenty of them, but pad-holding is a pretty sacred task, and should be left to the trainers. To be clear, there's a big distinction between holding a big kick shield with 2 hands (which is relatively much easier, and I consider to be a partner drill no different from holding a punching bag), versus holding a left and right kickpad or focus mitt and utilising it as a training tool.
Pretty sure if you poll the trainers on the perils of pad holding, many will have almost war-like stories to tell you how they have gotten hurt from pad holding, and the minor adjustments they have to make to prevent injuries. If trainers who are doing this on a daily basis have such depths to learn and adapt, how can the typical trainee be able to hold pads safely?
Apart from learning something new, and getting a great workout from either of the disciplines within MMA, the lesson should ultimately be fun and engaging. If you're a bit more skeptical, you should also take a look at whether the others who've been around longer, are also enjoying the class even though they might have been in the club a lot longer. It shows longevity in the programme, in the social aspect of the gym, and in the gym's ability to define and shape progression. If you're a bit more outgoing, speak to some of the fellow trainees, and ask them on their experiences.
The Track Record.
If you're looking to do martial arts, you need to at least confirm that there's some legitimacy in the gym. A simple way will be to look out for the belts, trophies and medals that should be displayed somewhere in the gym. It is a clear sign of the victorious history and a proven fact that the gym does their disciplines at the competitive level.
One interesting comment I've heard from a long time trainee that's has trained at several gyms, is that, when choosing a gym, it is important to take a look at the gym's amatuer fighters, and not the professional ones. His point to me was simple; professional fighters can be bought, or transferred, but it is the ability to groom trainees, from an average joe into a competitor that counts. It shows the proper process in which a normal trainee is able to progress and transit to a fighter. It places confidence in the others that the training and programme is well thought out to put every level through its pace.
The thought is interesting because there is a certain amount of challenge to train the average working class citizen and/or student to compete in a sport that is potentially consequential... physically. As John Wayne Parr puts in elegantly, this is a "business of hurting people". It is, to its purest form, that we get into the ring/cage/mats, and we hurt people to win. And to transform a typical trainee, into a fight ready warrior is akin to transforming the average citizen into a war fighting soldier. Of course, the latter being mandated by need or policies, while the former is a choice.
Many will advertise that they are a legit fight gym, and that they have competitors at the varying levels. But even such marketing tonalities needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Because if both parties are willing, there's no stopping a "fight gym" and its "fighter" from signing up for a fight, overseas even! There's money to be made. Being a fighter is beyond just being a cardio machine. A fighter is first a cardio machine, then a fighter. There must be some amount of finesse and skill set to it.
In the grappling arts like BJJ where the technical aspects are deeper and more ingrained, it is easier to siphon out the good and the bad. But where the striking arts are concerned, it is still possible to see kopitiam style fighters with insane fitness. The fighter who dominates through brute strength and fitness is the winner, but he may not necessarily be the better martial artist; he is the better athlete. But if the better artist loses by fitness, he is definitely the lousier fighter. A play in the terms and definitions of the balance between art form and the sports/fitness requirements. It is an intricate balance.
But if the gym consistently puts out fighters that are cardio bunnies that shows little to no finesse, it probably is a clear sign that the orientation and balance of the "fight gym" is tilted away from martial arts.
Without having to succintly write out all of the above like a primary school summary piece, we head back to the initial stages of choosing a gym. I think that if I have any clever parting words, it is that a legit fight gym, or gym that has the necessary knowledge would definitely be a little bit intimidating prior to entering. It should be.
If it isn't even remotely intimidating or has got no aura, then you probably know what to expect.