This is part 2 of ‘The Complete History of McDojos’. Here’s part 1.
Long Distance Courses
People have long engaged in correspondence courses and it can be a very respectable way for an individual to gain a qualification if their time constraints, commitments and general circumstances make it difficult for them to attend classes and lectures.
However, these courses have mainly centred on non-physical education, as it has been very difficult to assess a person’s physical performance without having them there in person. There was a time when comic-books offered martial arts correspondence courses in their notorious classified ads.
Advertised alongside “X-Ray Specs”, these courses promised training in a variety of different martial arts with “guaranteed results”. These adverts became a nostalgic memory as they acquired the reputation they deserved and it would appear that long distance correspondence courses for martial arts were finished. That was before the advent of multimedia. Now students have access to a wide range of tools that allow them to record their performances and watch lessons. The arrival of webinars allows lessons to be directly streamed into the student’s home.
Many martial arts correspondence courses have been criticized for doing the bare minimum. Quite simply they have set courses the instructors send out and the students complete the requirements and send their evidence back in some form. There is little actual correspondence, just worksheets and DVDs. Finally, at the end of the correspondence the certificate is sent.
Many would argue that this is little different from Ashida Kim’s black belt book or online membership registration. There is also no guarantee that the person responding to the student’s mail or emails is the instructor or even someone qualified to deliver judgment or advice. This might just be the next stage of the conveyor belt system that is associated with the McDojo and is obviously ripe for corruption in the unregulated world of martial arts.
1. Scrutinizing the Black Belt
The issue of awarding a black belt was always going to be a highly subjective and controversial topic.
The closest the UK ever came to setting up a governing trade association for all registered martial arts was the ill-fated aforementioned Martial Arts Commission. Since then many other groups have been set up, but politics from individual arts and styles makes it very hard to set basic standards. Trying to establish standards of ranking across the board is a very tricky issue indeed. In the early days a smaller number of graded students meant that standards could be easily monitored. However, over time, the classes got larger and the standards adjusted to accommodate the scale and diversity these numbers present.
After all, a 65 year old black belt student surely shouldn’t be expected to have the same level of physical ability as a brown belt half his age. What about disabled students? Furthermore, as the numbers increase it is going to become evident that standards have to vary. You are going to have club level black belts and national and international level black belts. The equivalent can be said in every other activity or profession.
Next we have the issue of the value of the belt. In the east the black belt does not carry the same level of importance as it does in the west and the time it takes to achieve it varies from art to art. The average kendoka achieves his black belt in a year. Not only do we we have the aforementioend famous American karateka Joe Lewis achieving his first dan in seven months when he was stationed in Okinawa, the birthplace of his chosen art, but the author Robert Twigger achieved his first dan in Yoshikan aikido in Japan after one year’s intensive training along with many of his fellow students. It throws into question why associations set up in countries outside of their art’s origin have strict minimum timeframes – often three and a half years to black belt – for a student to achieve the black rank.
Now we move onto the controversial junior black belt. If you have a junior syllabus and the high grade is designated as a being a junior black belt, I do not see there being a problem. However, it needs to be thought of as a children’s martial art and removed from its senior equivalent. The grade should not be automatically transferrable when the child enters adulthood and said individual should be made to take examinations to prove their competence at adult level. The argument could be made that we don’t typically award accredited qualifications, like degrees, to children so the same should stand for martial arts if they wish to retain credibility.
It should be remembered that there have been several child prodigies who have achieved accredited academic and vocational qualifications to university level many years ahead of the average expected age. Examination boards in democratic countries do recognize varying abilities in individuals and so should martial arts. This is why I don’t see any particular value in having a strict time adherence to a time restriction between grades. I put it that is has less to do with having a firm and transparent structure for testing and more to do with having a regular source of revenue and as an incentive to keep students training.
I can see why some systems, such as judo and Brazilian jiu jitsu, have opted to have different belts to distinguish junior and senior rankings, and to retain their black belt’s credibility, but in the same breath why should age be such a deciding factor. I once saw a 14 year white belt mow his way through a Brazilian jiu jitsu tournament, submitting adults as he went through the featherweight division with ease. He would not be eligible to get a blue belt until he was 16 and yet his technical and athletic ability was clearly of an adult blue belt. Surely ability and knowledge need to be weighed more carefully against age.
Many are holding onto an outmoded grading system. Since the days when judo first introduced their belt system the art now accepts a series of other coloured belts as standard, as does karate. Currently Brazilian jiu jitsu have two different ranking systems for children and adults designated by different coloured belts. This is comparable to the way Kodokan judo first handled their ranks. Brazilian jiu jitsu did well to keep a strong level of credibility with the way they graded, so much so that their blue belts were often regarded as the equivalent of most other martial arts black belts. Grades were traditionally awarded when there was a transparent ability demonstrated by a student to hold their own against other students of the next rank.
As time has moved on and Brazilian jiu jitsu has fast expanded and inevitably suffered fractions, more rules and regulations have been introduced to clubs. Official gradings are now taking place and stripes on belts have been added to keep a student motivated between grades. The Helio Gracie lineage of Gracie jiu jitsu no longer permits competitive sparring up to blue belt level, arguing that they are preparing their students for self-defence fighting during this period rather than sport. This prompts more debate, but I think such arguments do not decide whether or not a school has good martial arts practices.
It is interesting to see the veneration, fixation and mystique that many still hold over the black belt. Everyone seems to have their own opinion on what a black belt should be, but neither time nor international practices provide us with much of an accepted standard. At this point I hear the cry, “A black belt must have the ability to teach his chosen art proficiently!” However, although that is certainly a laudable aim and one I would like to endorse it does not define a black belt.
Firstly, many martial arts systems have a separate instructor qualification that students have the option of taking after they achieve their first level black belt. Secondly, many martial arts have lower grades teaching classes. Now this isn’t just the somewhat dubious practice of putting a black and white belt on a student that has received three months training in order to rapidly build classes, but there are many genuinely good instructors who take classes wearing the belts of lower grades.
Many UK karateka who trained in the ‘70s will tell you that black belt instructors were quite scarce and many clubs, which have gone onto produce world class athletes, had brown belts and below teaching classes. The scene was comparable to the late ‘90s and early 2000s, where Brazilian jiu jitsu blue belts (the second adult belt in the system) regularly ran clubs under a respected association brand. My first judo course was very competently run by a brown belt.
In fact, some clubs actively teach students how to teach early on, believing that teaching material is an important skill for retaining information. This is sometimes counter to a more classical practice, where students are not actively taught to share information. One very sound argument against pre-black belt teachers is that it prevents irresponsible and unregulated teaching. A more cynical view is that instructors wish to keep a tight rein on their business interests and wish to ensure that any money made from teaching they pass on makes it back to them.
I think it is time that we accept there is no universal standard for the quaint custom of the martial arts belt ranking system. This system, despite the acclaim it receives in some trade associations like the UK Stunt Register, will probably remain an internal level of achievement respected by certain areas of the martial arts community, but not by the world at large. I am not diminishing it, just stating the facts as I see them.
Movements to seek more generic accreditation, especially through national government recognized bodies outside martial arts associations, should be applauded for the most part. I find arguments made by those who cry such bodies might have little knowledge of their particular art somewhat tedious. Experienced professionals across the martial arts spectrum acquire verifier, assessor and equivalent government recognized vocational and academic qualifications to better ensure there is sound peer review of students.
We can see this sort of thing at work today to some degree. Good associations demand certain transparent credentials that one would expect from a teacher of any discipline. This includes adequate insurance, Criminal Records Bureau clearance, first aid certification and an internal qualification verifying the teacher’s ability to teach
2. Paying for Art & Service
Hold a meeting of martial artists with a view to create any sort of project and ask them what they expect, and the most common answer will be “professionalism”.
The spectre of disorganized classes and the various frauds that have haunted the teaching of martial arts since they first became a burgeoning industry in the 19th century is always present at such gatherings. Everyone has their horror story and all want to see martial arts to be respected by the general public. The consensus at most pivotal historical meetings is that better organization and acceptance of standards need to be achieved and maintained.
However, such is the almost religious reverence given to the martial arts that certain fundamental issues regarding business – money in essence – are rarely discussed. My concern here is that certain unpredicted consequences occur. This includes an unspoken culture of exploitation on the one hand and a soulless corporate imitation of budo on the other.
I once asked my grandfather what the difference was between a professional and an amateur. This side of my family was the one my father ran away from to join my mother’s side in the circus. My grandfather on this side was a no-nonsense businessman who had taken the successful sand and gravel company my great-grandfather had grown from a single wheelbarrow, and expanded it into a thriving enterprise. His answer to me was that a professional was paid for the work an amateur did for free. This surprised me. I was so used to hearing the word professional to define an expert and an amateur to mean someone that lacks experience that I pushed him for better clarification. My father, a highly experienced and respected wild animal trainer, would frequently use the term “amateur’s night out” when his trainees were not performing up to a certain standard. My grandfather would not be moved. The definition was simple to him and he has a point. It took me years to allow that point to sink into my view of the world.
Therefore, my inevitable response to the assertion that martial arts need more professionalism is that individuals need to be paid and paid fairly. We are in the business of selling an art or a service. At the risk of sounding trite, a professional tends to earn the reputation for being an expert – rightly or wrongly – because a core motivation to improve comes from the fact that his work provides for his most basic needs.
Somewhere behind every work of sold art is someone who, at least at one time in their life, chose a discipline they loved so much that they developed it to a higher level than the average person. They did it so well that people were willing to pay them for their skill. Different artists have different motivations and levels of ability, which led them to branch off in different directions. A successful artist might be a critically acclaimed individual who can command huge sums of money for his work. However, a successful artist might work at the other end of the scale, where he is employed to create very cheap mass-produced work. Both these extremes have their place in society the world over and, of course, there is a vast range of variables between them.
The service industry is the same. We have to come to expect to pay high end rates for exclusive and highly specialized services, and low end rates for basic and non-specific services. In a perfect world, those who have the passion and skill to provide the best would simply earn a great reputation and be able to command appropriately high prices. However, life rarely works out that way. A highly talented person can die in near poverty before his genius is realized. This is so common it has virtually become a parable.
I have met many brilliant martial arts teachers who are bad at business, especially marketing. The romantic story of the struggling luminary being discovered is a very rare one. Few of us have people that will look after our best interests and allow us to just do what we want, at least not at the early stages. There aren’t teams of talent scouts scouring our fractured industry looking for talented martial artists that they can sponsor. It is very naïve to think one can just work narrowly at one’s passion and expect the world to take notice. So many other factors are involved and a big one is to understand how to sell one’s talent and how to manage one’s financial affairs.
One non-martial arts businessman I knew was shocked at the culture of the industry. He summed it up as a system of exploitation. To him, everyone seemed to be swapping favours, but inevitably many individuals were profiting through false promises. It resembles the seedier side of show business in this respect and therefore it is unsurprising that many martial artists have been used in films for free under the promise of increased fame. This is a common theme that runs through martial arts industry. It is not unknown for martial arts instructors to teach for free, considering it an honour to work for their profiting superior instructor. In the desire to build their profiles martial artists will write and perform for free in hope that these loss leaders will eventually generate them business.
Then there is a corporate side of martial arts, as we have seen, where teachers can make a very good profit from martial arts. Here teachers organize their affairs in ways that are comparable to other leisure services. They meet at networking events, where motivational business workshops are given and tips on marketing and student retention are swapped. Methods that are working in other leisure services are filtered down and applied to martial arts schools. On the positive side, going down this route can ensure that ways are open to instructors so they don’t get exploited and they can be considered true professionals at delivering their art. However, inevitably, these approaches are designed to cultivate the masses, turning individual students into commodities.
Children make up the largest percentage of martial arts attendees by far now and clubs are fast to display bullet point lists of multiple benefits a child student can enjoy. Age levels for admittance to classes have been lowered to two years old in some instances. This seems absurd given the complexity and coordination needed to master even the most basic of skills in a martial art let alone the principles behind them. However, a closer look at how many children’s classes are run reveals a larger proportion of the lesson time being absorbed by unrelated games as instructors desperately try to retain student interest. Many clubs accept their humble role as being just one of the many activities millennial “helicopter parents” use to keep their children occupied during a typical week and, in many instances, resemble little more than a crèche. In efforts to promote and increase numbers, there are regular “karate parties” and similar events plus a whole host of recruitment incentive schemes.
One school instructor happily told us how he had reduced children’s lesson times in his school. Was this in line with some new development in line some new study regarding information retention you might naively ask? No, it meant the school could accommodate more classes. I have been in some martial arts schools that did just the same thing for their adult classes. As often happens, there is no question of altering the prices. In fact, it is not long before a price review will lead the pupils to be paying more or find themselves being moved onto new contract systems that the school or association have deemed is a more efficient way to run the classes. I see the shortening of lessons to accommodate more classes to be comparable to the addition of more belts in order to increase revenue from gradings or retain interest. It is has a monetary objective and this objective has had a direct impact on the training.
Some schools try to have the best of both worlds. They run large classes based on the corporate structure so they can afford to book high quality martial arts teaching services in the form of courses and seminars. Many other good quality teachers run corporate style regular classes and then reserve their high quality teaching for select serious students who can attend their in-house training schemes. Whether or not this is a fair compromise is another argument. Again, we can see the comparisons in the art and service industries. Some artists in some disciplines support their serious work by applying their skills to lower end mass market work. They are often called sell-outs, but shouting such criticism is easy when you are not caught in the limbo of trying to get established and having to eat.
Interestingly we are less critical of the service industry, where high end brands can and sometimes do offer descending grades of service.
Conclusion & Verdict
There needs to be more consumer awareness in martial arts.
A prospective student should be made aware of what is available and what he will get out of the experience. He also needs to understand what is required of him when training at a school or under a certain instructor. This means more honesty in martial arts circles. Everyone’s objective in professional teaching is to make money. If that isn’t your objective then you are an amateur or hobbyist. This is not a slight on your abilities, but a straightforward definition of your role in business terms. If you are a teacher, what needs to be decided is whether you are a specialist teacher that provides a high quality service and uncompromising art for high sums of money or whether you are a general teacher to the masses that provides an affordable martial art past-time. By all means, you can offer both so long as you are honest about the difference.
I know a good number of students and experienced black belts who make the simple confession that they just enjoy engaging in martial arts as a hobby. They made me feel guilty when I discuss practical applications or the depth their art provides. These discussions I had with them visibly made them feel uncomfortable. Such people have made peace with their limitations and have decided pretty much what they want out of their art. I know of two unconnected high ranked black belts in taekwon-do and tang soo do who told me, in their own way, “I just like kicking and performing patterns”.
They have little interest in whether or not their art resembles what it did at origin and have even less interest in learning about the real applications of technique taught in their patterns. The uniforms and ritualization holds a natural human appeal for many and martial arts can be something that people do as an alternative to other activities in their week. Most people enjoy an art or activity at face value and get fulfilment from this surface level, whether or not it is true to their art’s original intentions or not. Therefore, time has allowed me to look less harshly on the vast majority of instructors who wish to provide this service.
I admit to sometimes eating in fast food restaurants. It is not a regular occurrence, but not a particularly unusual one either. What’s more I know plenty of top level athletes who do the same. I also enjoy reading some trashy fiction and some pulp non-fiction, I watch many cynically produced superficial films and the odd guilty pleasure TV show and my shopping list will contain a fair number of lower grade products.
This is not shameful and it really doesn’t need to be justified. The important thing is honesty. Both the vendor needs be honest in what he providing and the consumer should be honest with what they are buying. A martial arts club that follows a mass-market approach shouldn’t advertise benefits it does not directly provide. There needs to be more transparent peer review in the martial arts industry and subculture to avoid confusion as well as false claims.
The methods used by McDojos are another argument. I feel that there is an unfair demand on many teachers to provide a good service for ridiculously low prices. If a student is serious about his training and his requirements he should be prepared to pay the price being offered, and willing to make reasonable sacrifices in order to meet these costs. If a student is serious and still cannot meet these costs then it is down to the judgment of the instructor whether to lower his price. I know many good teachers who follow this rule. Above all, the serious student needs to appreciate that if he wants professional and high quality teaching he needs a teacher that can afford to dedicate a large amount of his time to updating and improving his teaching, a teacher who one would expect to have invested a large amount of money and an invaluable amount of his time learning the skills he now teaches.
I am not a fan of aggressive sales techniques. Like any other business, martial arts should be criticized for pushing people into buying items they do not necessarily need or be persuaded into memberships on their own doorsteps. I don’t like class times being reduced with no reduction in price either. That is just my view though. Everyone needs to make a living and it is up to writers like me to give the “Consumer Beware” notice. What the consumer needs to be wary of is whether or not he is getting the service he wants. One drive by a McDonald’s and expects to be met with Kobe beef via silver service.
The term “McDojo” has barely made it out of the martial arts subculture despite its strong growth. However, we live in a time where the martial arts have arrived. Films like “The Foot Fist Way” as well as the popular internet show, “Enter the Dojo” send up commercialized schools. The term has almost become meaningless in the martial arts world as many just seem to apply it as a broad term for bad martial arts schools. The term’s original and only meaningful interpretation is for a school that delivers a generic and convenient service. This might involve charlatanism and even outright fraud, but my experience has shown that the higher end of the industry is just as susceptible to these vices and it is not a defining feature of the McDojo.
So although it was first applied as a derogatory noun by those who saw themselves at the higher end of the service industry it really just means mass produced convenient martial arts for the casual practitioner, which makes up the majority of people who train in martial arts.
This is supply and demand, and it all started the day martial artists started teaching civilians en masse.