During a course I taught last month I used some video clips from an internet based TV show called Enter the Dojo. Funny stuff! The actors in this show are able to mimic the antics of the dubious ‘masters’ floating around out there in the martial arts industry and obviously have a lot of actual experience in dealing with McDojo’s and McMasters. My laughter is always tinged with a bit of sadness at their antics as in almost every episode I see someone I know, or something I’ve experienced in my 30 years in the arts; except the people I know and the things I’ve seen were real, not comedians in a TV show.
The main actor (as well as writer and director) is a guy by the name of Matt Page. A bit of web based research on Matt shows that he is a serious actor, having been in over a dozen TV shows, and an accomplished martial artist. He started training at age 16 and has a black belt in Okinawan Kenpo and American Kenpo, as well as experience in JiuJitsu, Kickboxing and Stick Fighting. He’s been around the proverbial block and is obviously dismayed at some of the things he’s seen as the show is aimed at raising public awareness about the harm McDojo’s can do to the arts in general, but particularly to the students who get sucked in by them!
So what is a McDojo? A McDojo is a school that teaches a watered-down and impractical form of martial arts in the name of making money. They place the importance of profit well ahead of teaching anything realistic or credible in terms of self-defence, and are dangerous in that they send unprepared and often over confident students into a world thinking they can fight when in actuality they have no real martial arts skills. Often McDojos teach a lot of bullshido, which is a term based on a parody of the philosophy of bushido (the ‘way of the warrior’ and is used to define deception, fraud, and lies in terms of martial arts.
McDojos take a real martial art like Karate and water it down so that anyone and everyone can get a black belt quickly, and without ever having to train hard or learn actual skills. When I say fake or fraudulent, I’m referring to the people who don’t have any martial arts or fighting experience yet claim to have such, or teach false and fraudulent techniques (see Master Ken’s ‘Hurticane’ in episode 9); usually the art is learned from some mystical master under questionable circumstances such as in a graveyard at night, or in some other unverifiable place. They make grandiose claims about techniques that can ‘never fail’ or their ‘accelerated learning techniques’ enabling faster promotion and black belt status. Advertising for McDojo’s often includes things like ‘beat any man’ or ‘become invincible’ and so on.
The name McDojo is a play on the McDonalds restaurant chain which is probably not fair to McDonalds. After all, they don’t claim to be anything other than a fast food restaurant……. McDojo was coined as a derogatory term which compares the similarities between the two organisations – they’re both fast, everywhere, unoriginal, all the same, and cheap. Well, maybe not $$ cheap but tacky, like eating your low cost, substitute meat product burger off fine china…..that sort of cheap.
McDojo’s are often referred to as ‘belt factories’. This is a term that refers to the practice of promoting people based on attendance, rather than skill acquisition. These ‘belt factories’ turn out unskilled black belts who have no depth to their art or actual self defence skills. They can ‘kiai’ well though and often excel in things like musical forms and showmanship demonstrations, although many don’t because even this requires practice, skills and (…shudder…) sweat!
The term McDojo is often thrown around by ‘traditional’ martial arts practitioners (what does that mean anyway?) and is aimed as an insult to anyone who charges fees or tuition. They base this on the fact that Master X said “you should never charge for lessons”; which was a nice sentiment in the 19th century where you only ever taught one or two students in your back yard, and they were probably relatives anyway. They also forget that the students of Master X fed him, arranged his transport, did his gardening and more. There’s more to being a McDojo than being a business despite the wishful thinking of the traditionalists.
Another McDojo practice that I’ve written about in the past is the use of long contracts. I know of Gold Coast schools that use 3 year contracts on the ‘black belt club’ and 5 years contracts for their ‘masters club’ and who regularly put the debt collectors on people who quit.
Then there’s gradings based on the ability to pay. One organisation that I briefly trained with charged US$1800 per dan grade, preferably paid in small unmarked US currency. That worked out at US$1800 for 1st dan, US$3600 for 2nd dan, US$5400 for 3rd dan etc. And this was a ‘traditional’ Okinawan system!
Many McDojo’s also have cult like training practices whereby the instructor is elevated to being more than a mere mortal and often goes by such titles as Grandmaster or even Supreme Grandmaster (no, really!). Again I’ve discussed this element before. Martial arts is supposed to teach humility and respect but unfortunately in some organisations this is only expected from the students.
Sadly any martial arts school or organisation can quickly become a McDojo if they are not careful. There is a fine line between sound business practices and ripping people off. As a business a school needs to make sufficient income to pay its overheads like rent, advertising, wages and so on. These were not traditionally considerations for martial arts schools, and indeed, still aren’t for community based clubs like PCYC’s etc. As a martial arts school, the trip down the slippery slope builds up momentum when it becomes about money, about quick bucks and ego gratification; it’s definitely not as simple and clear cut as many internet pundits would have it either.
Simply branding someone as a McDojo because they teach children, or have multiple ‘styles’, or different belts is far from accurate too. To put it simply, the days of the ‘one pony show’ or single ‘style’ martial arts school are largely gone. Today’s martial arts student, or potential student, has more choice and is far better educated than their predecessors (thank you Sensei Google…) and has more choices open to them. It’s a proven fact (read or re-read the report available on our kidzkarate.com website if you need clarification) that martial arts training is good for kids in so many ways, so to say any school that teaches them is dodgy is, well, dodgy.
Southern Cross Martial Arts Centre is unashamedly a business. We simply could not offer the levels of service or professionalism we do, nor have the highly trained staff we do, if we also had to hold down full time jobs to live. As a business we have to strive to make sure the bills are paid so we can continue to teach and keep our doors open for our students. In the modern era there are reduced Government resources for sport and recreation facilities which means there are less community centre places available; then there’s more competition, higher wages (and indeed, wages!! Unheard off when I started teaching). There’s also increased costs for advertising and banking and power and, well, everything. We work very hard to maintain the balance.
So, how do you work out if a school is a McDojo? Here’s a few warning signs:
- You attend a Chinese Kung Fu school that uses the Japanese belt ranking system, or vice versa.
- You attend a Tae Kwon Do school and the instructor is called Sensei, or Renshi, or Shihan etc (these are Japanese titles after all).
- You attend a ‘Judo’ school, but all the grappling elements have been curiously eliminated from the training.
- Your instructor names his style after himself (i.e. Joe Son Do, Dux Ryu, Rex Kwon Do).
- Your instructor claims to have secret techniques that he can only reveal to you once you’ve received your black belt.
- Your instructor claims to offer MMA training, but has never had a single ring/cage/mat fight.
- The students seem to be more interested in putting on a fashion show than learning martial arts.
- Your instructor claims to be some kind of champion (check out Jim Carey in this hilarious parody)
There are lots of trophies around the dojo for unverifiable tournaments.
The uniforms have lots of unnecessary patches.
- Poor or no discipline and lots of kids running around like they’re in a school playground and they’ve had too much red cordial.
- There is no structure to the classes.
- The history of the school and/or the style is long and complicated and is unverifiable because it is ‘secret’.
- Your instructor claims to be an MMA champion (or kickboxing or any other combat sport) but only ever ‘fights’ his own students (if anyone that is).
- Your instructor claims to be a very high ranking black belt yet they are quite young.
- Your instructor tries to flirt with your girlfriend when she attempts to visit you at the dojo.
- Your instructor is having an affair with one of his students.
- Your instructor gives a speech during class about how their art is superior to all other martial arts.
- Your instructor is overweight (oops, that could be me, “let’s change that to your instructor is overweight, but is not awaiting back surgery ;-)…..”)
- Your instructor insists that you refer to him/her as master/grandmaster or some other ego boosting term both in and out of the dojo.
- The instructor walks around like a king but doesn’t actually (physically) show any techniques.
- Your instructor insists that their style/form/technique is invincible and that everything else is wrong.
- Your instructor speaks with a fake Asian accent, wears a Kimono or Chinese clothing out of the jojo and insists on being called by their ‘Shaolin monk’ name.
- Your instructor insists that sparring and tournaments are too dangerous for their superior techniques and participation by his students could actually kill or maim people unnecessarily.
- While sparring your instructor complains that you’re not being aggressive enough; then, when you become more aggressive your instructor complains that you’re being too aggressive.
- No one sweats.
- There is no obvious curriculum.
- There is no physical workout (no one is tired after training).
- There is no sparring.
- There is no real self defence training.
- There is no discussion or talk or training regarding the law surrounding self defence or what is reasonable (see Master Ken in action).
- Your instructor talks in absolutes (i.e. this technique is ‘guaranteed’ to knock someone out etc).
- There is so much etiquette and bowing and secret handshakes that this takes up a large amount of class time that could or should be dedicated to actually training.
- Every technique is accompanied by a kiai.
- The only numbers associated with techniques are not repetitions, but the number of degrees you have to spin (i.e 360, 720 and so on).
The Black Belts
- The advertising says you’ll receive your Black Belt in a specific amount of time (i.e. 12 months, 18 months etc.).
- Students can receive a black belt in a short amount of time.
- There is no noticeable difference between the performance of a Black Belt, or that of any other rank.
- Most of the Black Belts haven’t reached puberty yet.
- Your instructor won’t allow you to compete in a tournament because his techniques are too deadly and you’d actually kill or seriously injure anyone you competed against.
- While at a tournament, your opponent finds out who your teacher is and high-fives his teacher.
- Every student grades every time.
- You can get a Black Belt in a fixed period of time (i.e. less than 2 years).
- You ‘earn’ your new belt based solely on attendance.
- When paying for your belt examinations, the instructor asks: “Do you want fries with that?”
- There are no objective testing criteria other than attendance.
- No one ever fails a belt test.
- Everyone does the same curriculum –there is no progression of skills, fitness or anything other than attendance.
- Children complete black belt using the same criteria as adults.
In all seriousness, McDojo’s are insidious and cult like and seize upon people’s fears and even feed them. They do not allow the attendance of non-sanctioned seminars/classes/events, and have strict rules about what you can do, what you can wear, and who you can associate with. The goal is essentially to make sure that you only socialise with people from your McDojo so that it becomes the centre of your universe and therefore you fear not being able to train there. You have no friends outside of the McDojo, all of your free time is spent at the McDojo, and any questions or queries are met with offers to ‘upgrade’ your program for the ‘secret’ knowledge, or with fortune cookie wisdom, or a beating – remember not all McDojo owners or instructors are bad martial artists (well, physically anyway). Over time people become ‘conditioned’. Then there’s the feeding of the ego – you’re an invincible black belt; you can defeat 10 men; you are a ‘master’; and so on.
Our advice? Do your homework, keep an open mind and think critically (refer back to the recent Karate By Jesse article), and keep your training in perspective. Remember, family first, work second and training a distant 3rd.