Video: What Makes A Martial Art School A McDojo?

signs of a mcdojo

Video Transcript: (Transcript edited for length and clarity)

(Begin video transcript) The subject of today’s video is “what makes a McDojo?” This is a touchy subject for a lot of people, both people that run martial arts school and people who don’t run martial arts schools but who are avid martial artists.

The term “McDojo” is a term that gets thrown around quite often in the martial arts world., Sometimes when people toss it around, it makes me chuckle and other times I wonder if they really know what they’re talking about. Often the people who toss the term around have never actually run a martial arts studio.

What I find interesting is that I’ve had acquaintances that were martial artists that liked to toss that term around quite a bit. Then they opened up their own martial arts schools and suddenly they stopped throwing it around. So why is that?

It’s because the standards instructors have for determining or declaring a martial arts studio to be a McDojo suddenly change when they find out what it’s like to have to pay the rent and make payroll on a full-time school. The realities of being in business force them to change their outlook on what exactly makes or defines a McDojo.

Why I Don’t Care For The Term

Personally I’m not really fond of the term, simply because it’s so easy to throw that word around. To me it’s kind of like the martial arts equivalent of throwing around a term like Nazi or communist, or, depending upon your ideology, flaming liberal or raging right wing conservative or what have you.

There are just certain words that we use that are emotionally charged. They come with a lot of baggage and there’s a lot of crap that goes along with them. And when you label somebody with one of those terms that it can have a really devastating effect.

It would be, in some cases, the equivalent of calling somebody a bigot when they weren’t really a bigot, or a misogynist or whatever. We have to be very careful with these terms and who we label with these terms because you might be unfairly calling somebody or somebody’s school of dojo without knowing them – and that happens quite often in the martial arts industry.

Why You May Be Wasting Your Breath

One thing I will say about people that are out there that are running good schools, that are actually making money and so forth is that they don’t give a crap what somebody out there on some martial arts forum is saying about them or whether they’re calling their school a McDojo or not. They really, really don’t. It’s usually their students that will chime in and will try to defend them.

I can tell you guys that when I first came out with my book on starting and running a martial arts school ten years ago, it immediately was described in martial arts forums across the internet as being a McDojo book. Yet the people who were saying that had never read it!

Had they read it they would have realized that the book was actually the opposite of a McDojo manual. It actually explains how to run a martial arts school without being a McDojo. Of course, after people actually read it and reviewed it, I started getting some positive reviews and that all changed.

So, I’m just saying that you could unfairly label somebody as being a McDojo school owner, or label a school as being a McDojo, and potentially injure that person without it necessarily being the case.

Debunking The 3 Reasons Why Many Schools Are Labeled McDojos

Let’s talk about how people throw around that term, because one of the things I noticed is that school owners who throw around that term are often broke. They’re usually struggling and their schools usually aren’t doing very well, and at times it seems like it’s just sour grapes when they’re using that term.

It’s a mythology that in order to make money in the martial arts industry you have to lower your standards and be something that you don’t want to be. That’s totally a mythology. I’ve busted that myth many times over the years, both with many of my clients and also among my own studios. I’m not saying that I ran the toughest school out there but we maintained high standards and I was still able to make a decent living at my school.

The thing is, when we look at why people label schools a McDojo, typically they’re using some sort of a justification for it and usually boils down to either money or the size of the school or the style that they teach. I’d like to debunk those first before I go into what I feel makes a McDojo.

The Money Myth

Let’s talk first about money. To some people, the amount of money that a school makes or a school owner makes automatically makes them a McDojo and that is patently false. If we simply look at martial arts school owners who are the most successful financially, and labeled everyone across the board who was financially successful as being someone who is running a McDojo, you would have to label a lot of very successful martial arts schools and MMA gyms as McDojos that obviously aren’t.

There are gyms out there that are financially successful schools that train mixed martial arts fighters and professional kick boxers and professional Thai boxers and international karate champions and jiu-jitsu champs, you name it, that are financially successful but obviously are not and do not deserve to be qualified as McDojos.

These schools are financially successful – I’m not going to name any names but I think that you can probably come up with some names on your own of high profile, high-level martial arts instructors. (I’m referring to) people who run studios and gyms and that train professional MMA fighters and jiu-jitsu competitors and Muay Thai fighters and what not, that have financially successful operations. So, money cannot be an indicator of whether or not a school should be classified as a McDojo, if any school actually should.

The School Size Myth

The next thing we look at is the size of the school. We can’t really say that because just because the school is small it doesn’t mean that they’re not teaching crap. I can tell you, I’ve known a lot of small schools and small operations that just were teaching crap martial arts, and then I’ve known large martial arts studios that maintain very high quality, that are teaching very good martial arts.

One thing I will say though is that the larger the operation gets, the harder it becomes to maintain quality across the board. And, you’re always going to have a percentage of people in any martial arts studio that are going to be the type of people that aren’t naturals. (I’m referring to) people who are not physically gifted and they’re going to struggle with learning martial arts, and sometimes those people never really attain a very high level skill.

So we can’t really say that because a school has some students that are not physically gifted, that are not talented and that will probably never reach a very high level of skill, that that school is a McDojo. Those people are there enjoying the benefits of training in martial arts.

An Aside – Students Who Aren’t Serious

You also have to give some allowances for a martial arts studio, especially as they grow larger, to have some students who just aren’t serious about it. The bottom line is that if you run a commercial martial arts studio, you’re going to have to put up with those people and take their money because those students are going to pay the rent and pay the bills for the students that are really, really serious.

I remember one of my Shotokan instructors told a story about his instructor who was a very high ranking Shotokan instructor from Japan, one of the instructors that JKA sent out way back in the day. There were these students that would come into class late every day, their uniforms were wrinkled and dirty, and they were just cutting up in class all the time.

One day he approaches his instructor after class and says, “Sensei, why do you put up with these guys? Why don’t you kick them out?” And his sensei looked my instructor in the eye and said, “The reason why is because without students like those, I wouldn’t be able to afford to have students like you.” And so my instructor just nodded his head and walked off and never mentioned it again.

These are the realities of running a martial arts studio, that sometimes you have to accept students that maybe you wouldn’t care to teach under normal circumstances. Unfortunately, it’s a circumstance of (being in business) and typically the way I look at it is those students are going to come and go. I’m going to take their money, let them come, let them go, and keep on teaching the way that I’ve always taught.

The Style Myth

The third thing that a lot of people will use as a justification for labeling a school a McDojo is the style that they teach. This can run the gamut, because everybody has their prejudices in the martial arts – in the martial arts world, prejudices abound. It’s perhaps the most fractious industry that I have ever been involved with, and I’ve been involved with a few.

You can’t really judge a martial arts school based on the style they teach. I know that Korean martial arts often take a hit because there are a lot of Korean-style martial arts schools that have been fly by night and turned out very low quality black belts. But, you could say that about virtually any style. And we’re even starting to see that to some extent in martial arts that have traditionally been viewed as exempt from the McDojo label.

Even in  some Brazilian jiu-jitsu schools there are people getting black belts quickly or I guess they’re handing out rank more quickly and so forth. At least these are the rumblings that I’m hearing among the jiu-jitsu community and I think that’s been going on for a while.

On the other hand, I’ve known some Korean martial arts instructors that were just phenomenal. They were really hardcore. I met some guys that were really good fighters. And you can’t really say that Korean martial arts is not viable in some sense. A lot of the kickboxers out there, guys from back in the PKA and WKA era, to K1, and now even into the UFC, are guys that have a background in Korean martial arts.

For example I believe the guy’s name is Anthony Pettis if I’m not mistaken – he was the guy that had that spectacular kick off the cage and knocked a guy out. The guy is a taekwondo black belt.

(And in another example) there’s a fighter (Serkan Yilmaz) who is not very well known over here (in the U.S.) but very well known in Europe, a European kickboxer that comes from one of the former Soviet nations (correction – he’s Turkish) that (is a taekwondo practitioner). He’s phenomenal. I would not want to face that guy down. He’s vicious.

(My point is that) you can’t really say based on style that the school is a McDojo. You can find low quality schools in virtually every style, every system.

The 3 Reasons People Take Up Martial Arts

Related to that topic is something that I teach my students and that’s the three reasons why people will take up martial arts training (Note: I first heard this concept from Dr. Maung Gyi about 15 years ago). Typically I introduce these concepts when I’m training instructors so they understand that not everybody who comes in a martial arts studio shares their motivations or their reasons for training in martial arts.

Reason #1: Aesthetics

There are basically three reasons why people will be motivated to train in martial arts, and the first reasons is aesthetics. These people train in the martial arts because it’s an art, and typically they’re looking at martial arts training as being a way they can express themselves. Also, they’re sometimes very enamored of the culture that the particular martial art they practice comes from.

They’re practicing their martial art primarily for the aesthetic aspects of it, for being able to perfect their technique and look pretty if you will, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. A lot of really solid technicians that have really beautiful technique have also been very good fighters. I don’t think that those 2 are mutually exclusive.

Reason #2: Athletics

The second reason people will come to train in martial arts is for the athletic benefits of it. The athletic benefits can include somebody who wants to get in shape, or somebody who wants to lose weight, and people who want to compete. Some people are into it for the competitive aspect of it, and that’s also another very strong motivator for people to train in the martial arts.

Reason #3: Self-Defense

And of course the third reason, which is the reason why I took up martial arts and why I continue to train it today, is because of the combative aspects of the martial arts. Many people primarily train for the combative aspects, and are interested in self protection and personal preservation – what many people would term self-defense. That’s the third major motivating factor for people to train in the martial arts.

Accepting All Comers

So, (when you open a commercial school) you’ll have people that will come to your martial arts school for any one of those reasons. And, pretty much anybody who trains or who wants to train in the martial arts is going to do it for recreational purposes, because quite simply a lot of people find the martial arts enjoyable, whether they train simply for the aesthetic reasons or for the athletic reasons or to learn how to protect themselves. You’re not going to continue doing something for very long if you don’t enjoy it.

That’s why you have to accept as a martial arts instructor that people will come to your martial arts school for many different reasons. And, you have to accept that you’re going to get some people in your martial arts studio that are training for different motivations than you yourself have for training, and that’s something I learned to adapt to early on in order to have a financially successful studio. It didn’t mean that I changed my standards any; as a matter of fact, I’d say my standards actually kind of got a little bit stricter as time went on. But it is something that you have to accept when you’re a professional martial arts instructor.

3 Signs Of A McDojo?

Having stated all that and knowing that we cannot judge a martial arts school to be “McDojo” simply based on the amount of money they make, or the size of the school, or the style they teach, or by the nature of the students that train there… then what standard can we use? What standard or what justification can we use for labeling a school a McDojo?

I would submit that there are 3 things that I have observed that indicate a school is a McDojo. And those things are:

  1. Low Standards
  2. Misrepresentation
  3. Selling Rank

Low Standards

When a school has low standards (it’s easy to see). There’s a series of videos that have come out recently that have been going all over social media and YouTube. (In the videos) a particular martial arts organization was having a black belt grading. These videos leaked out and they were later removed from YouTube, but once this stuff gets out in the wild, forget it – it’s done.

In these videos it’s very obvious from watching the quality of the performances of the people that the standards of that organization really weren’t very high. It’s also very apparent from watching the high ranking individuals and the head of that particular organization that they probably were not taught correct principles of physics and body mechanics and so forth when they were coming up through the ranks.

Somewhere, somehow there was a breakdown in quality and standards, whether it came from the top down or whether it’s somebody else; I have no idea. Did the person that founded that organization actually not get their rank legitimately? Who knows? There are people out there that don’t get rank legitimately and end up teaching and creating their own organizations. Sometimes they realize they aren’t legitimate, and sometimes they don’t because they were duped by somebody else.

Regardless, it’s very obvious that the standards were very low for these people in these videos, and they came under a lot of scrutiny. Low standards would be the first thing that I would suggest would denote a school is somewhat of a McDojo.

Misrepresentation

The second thing that typically to me would mark a school as being a McDojo type is misrepresentation. Meaning, when either the instructor misrepresents who they are and what they teach, or they use misrepresentation as a means of attracting and then also enrolling students. Some people call it fraud, and legally it is fraud.

For example, there’s one instructor that’s on YouTube, and actually he’s a very talented instructor. I’ve seen this guy. I’ve seen his videos. He obviously has some martial arts skill, but this particular instructor became known on a fluke for posting videos that had to do with ninjutsu, but this guy apparently was not a ninjutsu instructor.

All of a sudden he started saying that he taught ninjutsu when actually he taught a completely different style and had virtually no training in that system. The guy misrepresented himself. He was called out publicly and I guess later retracted and redacted everything he put online or whatever, I don’t know. Anyway, that’s an obvious misrepresentation. That’s something that I would say would be cause for calling somebody a McDojo.

And then when they lie to students, when they tell students certain things, they lie to them to get them to enroll in extended memberships. One of the practices that I just simply can’t stand is what I consider to be a bait and switch. (This is) where a martial arts school brings a new student in, and they’ll bring him in on a special offer (such as with a) very low membership fee and very low monthly tuition.

Then a couple of weeks later they’ll bring the student and their parents, or the student himself if they’re adult, into the office and tell them something to this effect – “We’re really impressed with Johnny. We think he would be a great black belt club student. We’d like to enroll him in our black belt club.”

Now, black belt club is an often maligned practice among martial arts studios but it doesn’t have to be. Something that I teach in my materials is that you can use the black belt club concept in a way that’s very ethical. (But used in) this way, it’s used very unethically.

What they’ll do is they’ll upgrade the student and they’ll get a huge down payment from them or get them to cash out or they’ll raise their tuition (a lot). (And they do this) using the black belt and this idea that the student is really something special to get them to enroll for 3, 4, or 5 years when they just started martial arts.

That student has really no clue whether he’s ready to make the martial arts a part of his life, to be something they’re going to continue doing several times a week for the next 3, 4, or 5 years. It’s just horrible to do that. That’s just one example of misrepresentation.

Selling Rank

And then the third is selling rank, and I think this is perhaps one of the most egregious sin that a martial arts school owner and instructor can make. It’s crazy. You can go on eBay right now and buy a black belt certificate and instructorship certificate and couple different arts.

There are even people out there that have sold a series of DVDs, and when you buy the DVD series, you’re going to get your black belt and a certificate. It’s just nuts, it’s crazy. Anybody who thinks that they’re getting anything of value or anything of worth by doing that is just simply fooling himself or delusional.

It’s unfortunate that people are taking advantage of others who don’t have the mental capacity to realize that they’re being taken. When you see martial arts schools doing that, they’re not just in a grey area of ethics, they’re definitely in a black area of ethics and I would say that definitely indicates that they’re running a McDojo when they sell rank.

Here’s Where I Go Off On A Tangent (But It’s A Pretty Good Story)

There was a guy who opened up a school down the street from my second studio and he would approach my students (in an attempt to recruit them). For example he approached one of my green belts who was working my table at a health fair and said “You’re a green belt? You train at Massie’s?”

And she replied, “Yeah, I train there.”

So he asks, “Well how long have you been training there?”

She said, “I’ve been training there for 8 months,” and he said, “You know if you came to my school, you’d be a black belt in six months.”

He did this stuff all the time. It was just ridiculous. This same guy went to a weekend jiu-jitsu seminar with a very well known jiu-jitsu family or one of their representatives and then posted pictures all over his website of him in a jiu-jitsu gi, wearing his black belt, his taekwondo black belt.

It’s just ridiculous. I had to put up with that stuff for years until I eventually ended up selling that school. but you run into people like that (quite often in this industry). I thought, “If ever there was a McDojo, this guy is it.”

The Recap

(To recap) what I think denotes a McDojo or qualifies a school as being a McDojo, I would say it’s those 3 things:

  • low standards,
  • misrepresentation
  • and selling rank.

Those are the three signs of a McDojo. I also think if you’re labeling a school a McDojo because of your personal preferences or your personal prejudices, you can’t really say that somebody is running McDojo because you’re prejudiced against their style.

I hope this video helps, maybe for some of you guys out there that aren’t really sure or trying to figure out this stuff for yourself. Maybe this will help you develop your own idea of what makes for a quality martial arts school and what doesn’t.

And hopefully too perhaps this video will help sway some of you who are out there throwing around this term, perhaps a bit irresponsibly, and maybe help you take a step back and rethink whether or not you’re being responsible in labeling certain schools with that term.

Anyway, this is Mike Massie from MAbizU.com. Remember, you can go to Martial Arts Business Daily for free martial arts business advice. There’s tons of information on there. You might have to search for it – just type what you’re looking for into the search bar to find it.

Also if you want low-cost business coaching, you can always go to MAbizU.com and join there. It’s very inexpensive. There’s a ton of information on there that I don’t share publicly, that I’ll only share with my personal coaching clients and you can get access to that information very inexpensively by becoming a member.

Once again, I hope you enjoyed this video and I’ll see you the next time around. (End transcript)

1 Comment

  1. […] You’ll notice that I didn’t have a lot to say about black belt mills and other McDojo-type behavior on this list. That’s because, sadly, those types of schools often seem to make a lot of […]



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