For the past two centuries or so, many instructors of the martial arts have made a go of teaching their art as a career. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, so long as you do it properly. Realistically, as soon as you start teaching something that you’ve spent a lifetime mastering, you’ve established yourself as a professional in that field. And any professional who teaches their trade should be compensated. Makes sense, right?
The unfortunate reality is that some of these “professionals” are anything but, and they continue to teach something that can only be described as a watered down version of the pure styles that the founders intended. This has prompted the trend known as the “McDojo”.
For those who may not be familiar, a “McDojo” is a school of martial arts that teaches a watered down version of their style and provides no genuine skills training. They often focus more on profit and student retention than the proper education of their students. McDojos can be dangerous because they instil a sense of confidence based on skills that may or may not exist within the school.
With my own karate classes starting back up after the holidays, my thoughts have been dwelling on some of the dojos I’ve visited over the decades and how they’ve presented themselves. And believe me, I’ve visited a LOT of them. Some people will tell you that style isn’t important. It is and it isn’t, as some styles will work for some but not for others. When choosing a dojo to train with, it can be difficult to identify a McDojo if you’ve never dealt with them My goal is to provide some “tips” on what to look for. Here we go:
- They have children as instructors: This is a problem, because it is IMPOSSIBLE to achieve a black belt in less than ten years. The amount of knowledge, skill and training required in order to reach black belt level in ANY traditional style takes years to accumulate. That means that even if you started karate at the age of 4, you would be into your teen years before the color black even comes close to adorning your uniform. I think someone described it best when they said to think about a medical doctor. Would you want to be treated by a doctor who graduated after two years as opposed to 7 to 9 years? Obviously not. The same goes for black belts;
- They don’t fight: Look, you can be as peaceful and serene as you want to be but the truth is that the martial arts are “fighting” arts and you can’t learn properly if you don’t fight. And there can’t be any rules. When I grew up, our sparring involved an “anything goes” mentality. We obviously avoided striking each other’s groin for the obvious reasons, but strikes to the head, throws, pressure points and any strikes you could think of were incorporated. It’s comparable to becoming a great painter; how can you become an artist if you never intend to use a brush? The only true way to measure your skill is by exercising it in actual fighting;
- They cost a fortune: Tuition fees, uniform and equipment purchases (which HAVE to be through the dojo) various “suspicious” costs, such as registration fees, club fees and such can all be indicators that you may be in the wrong place. When instructors focus on ensuring that you’re paying your monthly dues and each belt test has a cost for the test, the belt, the certificate and “registering” your rank with the style, there’s definitely a problem. I started karate in 1988. I started paying a fixed monthly tuition and in 30 years, it has never increased. I never paid for a belt test and in fact, my instructor always gifted each colored belt to me. Although this is the extreme, it is also a standard that other schools should follow:
- They don’t adhere to a structured system: This means that either they teach a Chinese style but use a Japanese belt system, or have weird patches and crests all over their uniforms or have belts that don’t exist in the martial arts (such as pink or camouflage belts);
- They have “masters” or “grandmasters” in their school below the age of 50: This is a difficult one, because it isn’t so much that it’s IMPOSSIBLE as it is unlikely. Attaining these ranks takes decades, and the general age that one reaches them is pretty consistent. I was raised on a system where the title of “Master” is provided to someone who has achieved a rank of 5th degree black belt or higher. But when you get someone who is reasonably young and has already achieved this rank, there’s a good chance it’s a self-promotion for the image of the school as opposed to actual rank;
- The information is lacking or seems “sketchy”: An instructor should be able to recount the history of his/her style. How else can you teach the style if you don’t know where it came from? If an instructor is unable to provide you with basic background of where they trained and what the history of their style is, there’s a problem.
There’s a lot involved in choosing and training with a martial arts school. The reality is that you’re going to sweat, you’re going to cry, there will be pain and you’ll likely want to quit as often as not. THAT’S the reality of training with a genuine martial arts school. It’s a life-long commitment and it will take decades to reach a significant level. And it shouldn’t require a second mortgage or your first-born to do it.
At the end of the day, I’m in my 40’s and I’ve been doing karate (as well as some other martial arts) for over 30 years. I still don’t have the title of “Master” in front of my name and maybe I never will. But my skill has been acquired through decades of blood, sweat and tears. Such is the truth behind the way; if it were the simple way, a passing way, everyone would do it. ☯