martial art recommendations

12 Signs You Belong to a McDojo

As most people know, McDojo is a term used to describe successful martial arts schools that seem to churn out black belt students who have no real skill at a high rate. Typically, when you see an article that tries to identify the traits of a McDojo, most often the dojo, dojang, kwoon or school is criticized on the characteristics of success; such as displaying many trophies, having a thriving children’s program, the leaders sound like motivational speakers, or wearing “flashy” uniforms. This stuff is surface level, though, and sure, may be a turn-off, for some martial art enthusiasts, but these things do not really indicate the value of the program. Listed below are some obvious and not-so-obvious signs that you belong to a McDojo:

  1. Abusive attitudes or actions toward students.

  2. You never spar/ All you do is spar.

  3. Rank awards based on time or fees paid, not skill.

  4. You are required to compete / You are not encouraged to compete.

  5. Status comes before students.

  6. There is a sales pitch around every corner.

  7. Your relationships have not improved.

  8. Your health has not improved.

  9. The techniques don’t work.

  10. The instructor cannot explain “why”

  11. You cannot ask questions.

  12. You don’t know the history of the art.

1) No one should tolerate abusive attitudes or actions toward themselves or others in the martial arts environment. “Martial” does mean military, and a high degree of self-discipline is required to to not only learn new skills or techniques, but more importantly when and where to use these potentially damaging skills. Just like you would not want an irresponsible person wielding a firearm, you do not want a person like that with empty hand or cold weapon skill. However, an instructor's feedback or use of consequence should never injure a student mentally or physically. Push-ups may get you sore and words may be harsh truths, but at the end of the day, it is the instructor’s duty to educate and uplift. Students should not be punching bags for an instructor’s ego.

2) If you never do any type of live skill challenge, the purpose of the art is lost. You won’t really know what works in reality, or what works for you, or when and where to use what works. If classes are just sparring only, “fight club”, then you have the tendency to reinforce bad habits, skill refinement will be neglected, and you will only be as good as your physical attributes. Again the purpose of the art is lost. A true combat system has the potential to give you and edge in the event a physical attribute like size, strength or speed is less than your  opponent’s.

3) It is hard to believe that some instructors may dishonor an art by selling a rank, and this is a sure warning sign that it’s time to move on to a better environment. However, there are many places that  emphasize skill with the absence of rank, and it is easy for a student to get just as discouraged, It is important to remember that the skill is the reward, it is better to be a black belt that to have a black belt.

4) Being required to compete isn’t inherently a bad thing, it just means you joined a sports team. Unfortunately, if you just want to reap other benefits of martial arts such as physical fitness, coordination, stress relief, and had no intention of testing skill in a public forum, this may not be the school for you. If the instructor does not respect that, then it is time to move on. However, if an instructor deprives his students of the option to engage in the competition experience, then they are limiting their  students’ potential and growth, which is the opposite of what a good instructor should do.

5) Many times, an instructor’s desire for status is related to #3 and #4. An instructor may decide that they need a certain number of black belts to become a master, and may award rank to those who may not have the skill. Or, they may feel in order to become more respected as a coach they need to field a larger number of competitors in order to increase the odds of their school winning. These types of behaviors are a result of the ego taking over, causing backward thinking. Rank is an acknowledgement of skill development for the student, a true validation of an instructor’s methods is the amount of skill that any number of their students possess. Competitions are a way for a student to test their skill. The focus should be on the student’s experience. Win or lose, the instructor should feel privileged to have been a part of a growth experience.  

6) In this day and age, martial arts is a business, but no one likes to feel they are being sold. If a product or membership tier has value, then it should be expressed during honest interactions between the instructor and student or students. The mentor-student dynamic shouldn’t be exploited for financial gain.

7) The lessons that can be learned from a martial art should be much more than just about  physical fighting. A true martial arts system provides the tools to resolve conflicts in all areas of life. The goal of most Eastern martial arts is to harmonize in combat, as opposed to clashing. If you can harmonize on the mat or ring with an opponent, meaning the ability to adapt to the energy coming at you in order to avoid damage, and getting a better position to seize an opportunity to flee, strike or control, then you should also be learning, by studying your art, how to resolve conflicts with acquaintances, co-workers, and loved ones, thereby improving the way you relate to people all the way around.

8) There is a saying that, “The practice of martial arts without conditioning is just the flailing of arms.” Though most real fights are over in a matter of seconds, those few seconds can be exhausting no matter who “wins”. Just like you would not want our soldiers fighting with dirty, rusty firearms on the battlefield, the human body should be kept in the best shape possible for the worst case scenario. Any school that neglects physical (emotional, and mental for that fact) fitness is teaching an incomplete art.

9) if a technique violates the principles of physics, or the human anatomy, the it is obviously worthless. Techniques that rely solely on individual attributes, where mechanics cannot be developed are only worthy only to a few. If a technique cannot be demonstrated in a realistic or lively scenario, this is dangerous for the student, and it may even be safer to avoid the technique altogether in a real-life situation.

10) If an instructor cannot explain how or why a technique works, you will have a very difficult time learning or using it.

11) Again, martial or military arts must have a degree of etiquette and protocol in order to provide the most benefit to the student, but a student cannot grow if they are not given the opportunity to respectfully ask questions, and the teacher can grow if his perspective is not challenged.

12) Context is everything. Why was your art developed? When was it developed? Who developed it? You have to know where you come from to know where you are going. Knowing our history contributes to our  sense of purpose. The answers to those three questions can also answer a multitude of other questions like: “why do we use this technique?” “why do we use these weapons?” “when do we use this technique?” among others. It is the responsibility  of the instructor to have a deeper knowledge of the art, so he can broaden the perspective of the student.

This may not be a comprehensive list but if you encounter any of these indicators where you are training now, then know that there is a better place out there for you. If none of these indicators are present, I believe that means you are fortunate enough to have found a martial arts home.