-Don't sign a contract unless you are willing to commit. This is one way dojos keep going and force people not to bail out; most places are barely running and don't have any real profit margin unless they are connected with national organizations. Most contracts run from one month to even three years; the latter is a long time considering that in even six months your schedule can change, and leave you paying the tab regardless because it's legally binding. If you find a pay as you go school or one that trains for free that's legit quality, don't look a gift horse in the mouth!
-Paying a significant sum for little result is a sign of a McDojo---unless your school is run by a well-known pro fighter with a ton of good coaches---and it's open several hours during the week. If you can pay as you go and nobody mentions it at first, ask---don't be afraid to appear as less devoted if you can only pay monthly or per session. If the instructors have that policy but frown upon its use, perhaps it's better to find another school that will be flexible with your needs.
-It's been declared that BJJ and MMA have revolutionized the martial arts world, but the same time, it doesn't mean you have to give up the "older" art you enjoy. I know that some will disagree with this because usually more sport styles heavily emphasize contact, and I admit I prefer those unarmed styles, but let's face it---not everyone likes boxing or grappling. Or maybe they have a taste of it and find that something else is more suitable for them. Yes, sports combat is very useful for one-on-one street defense no matter what detractors have said . . . however, I'm going not into style versus style here, but ultimately one can only find fulfillment in one they discover enrichment in.
-A MA that practices with drills, resisting opponents, and (at least) occasional sparring is generally better than one that does nothing but forms and theory. I'm not dead set against kata even though I prefer to train with styles that don't normally use it but still possess foot work/positioning that is vital (Muay Thai, BJJ, Judo). However, I've noticed my joints and base getting somewhat stronger with traditional stances, believe it or not, in "old school" Karate. There's no other way of putting it; you don't know how good you are progressing if you don't have a uke that's fighting back to some extent, and you won't know how to truly defend yourself to the fullest unless you don't practice some form of aliveness training.
From my last post I mentioned guys that had shown up to Thai boxing, even rough and strong young men that didn't realize how getting punched in the face, kneed, elbowed, and kicked---not to mention the clinch work, which was exhausting to some of them---was going to feel like even with some protection. They dropped out. It's true---no one likes getting hit even with moderate contact, but nothing will prepare you for a serious altercation like resistance training. Reality self-defense often protest that's not the "real thing" and it's "dueling," but what alternative (to prepare you) do you have if you can't diffuse the situation or run?
-Technique is the major cornerstone, but strength, speed, accuracy, cardio, and conditioning are not something to forsake. Far from it. Yes, proper technique in any style is crucial and there is no substitute---look at how powerful a full-body strike can be, or a textbook lock can work, but to ignore the factors is forging serious holes in your game. Let's face it; you will come across those who may not hit as hard but will exhaust you if your cardio is lacking, or a big bruiser that will thwart your armbars and chokes only to land you on your back and crush you. The best fighters out there aren't just doing crescent kicks or perfecting the jab---they are doing roadwork, lifting weights to be explosive, learning control and target recognition.
I used to train in a Japanese style of a rather controversial nature whose popularity has waned because a myriad of reasons, and I can imagine why---one of them even the instructor voiced with sincerity which I merely shrugged off, but he said it anyway when concerning one competitor of another style wanted to fight him. He was bigger guy that had a bodybuilder physique, the instructor bragged, "Good, so his pressure points will be easier to find." Does that sound bold, arrogant, or ignorant? Nevermind that his would-be challenger had high rank of his own. I realize brute strength isn't everything and a seasoned fighter can do serious damage to someone that is inexperienced, but completely writing off someone bigger and stronger may be a mistake.
-Shadowbox when you can't train in a style at the moment, or if you only train once or twice a week. It's pretty much a given if you are in styles that are form and/or competition oriented, or ring sports like boxing and Muay Thai. It's also a good idea if you can't always find that gym you used to religiously show up at---or if you don't want your ability to diminish. Yes, it's not substitute, but nearly all good fighters shadowbox in some way or another.
-Train to eventually go beyond your limitations, but know your limits and don't seriously hurt yourself. A moderate injury will probably put you out of commission for a while---do you want to risk no training for weeks, months, a year, even, if it's something you enjoy? If you are in pain, think you think something is going to give out, or so exhausted you can't perform, stop. Don't fear looking wimpy in front of vet fighters; they may have been in the same situation more than once and are understanding. It's better to save yourself for that day when you're better overall.
This, of course, means getting proper rest and not overtrain, which is also one of the leading causes of burnout and injury. For me, it's difficult because if I have to bail on a session for any reason, I feel guilty. Life happens. A dojo or gym that doesn't give some allowance for periods where you have to recoup or acknowledge your life priorities is questionable---while it's true that many reward those who are disciplined and respectful, your career field and personal life still come first no matter what.
-Gi versus no gi. I've benefited from both although I confess I prefer training without, but through Judo and gi-oriented BJJ I'm getting used to it again. I've also noticed an increase in grip strength even in the past two months, which is important in Judo especially.
-Be wary of a school that has a cult-like atmosphere. Granted, I know some men that actually seek out specific ones that are heavy on New Age philosophy blended with watered down Eastern mysticism and feel very comfortable there. It's not dysfunctional if it "works" for them, but in my opinion spirituality is best served elsewhere. In some cases, it's grounds ripe for exploitation and has little to do with MA; there are a wealth of instructors that love feeding their egos and even convince themselves of their guru greatness, all the while demanding lower rank students do the same. If you feel uneasy about it, leave without fanfare.
-The martial arts aren't the be all, end all of self defense. My advice, without going into a lengthy essay about home defense and weapons---for those who believe that MA will make them practically invulnerable, is that their illusions will be shattered. That's once they discover no matter what skill level they've obtained, they are all still too human. Hey, why not buy a gun, learn to use it, stay away from troublesome areas and situations, and be aware of your surroundings during nighttime hours? I certainly can't argue with that notion. A branch of fighting doesn't cover all aspects of self-defense and even survival---but this shouldn't dissuade one from development in MA. It is one piece of the puzzle, and for those who commit to life long study, they find brotherhood, self-improvement, physical challenge, and personal strength in that commitment.