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Lowering Standards

On this page:
Spotting a McDojo/McKarate/Belt Factory | Lowering Standards | Demo Teams

You should know that there is no oversight commission for the martial arts. There is no organization that determines professional standards, ethics or quality control. The state of Florida considered a proposal to establish a regulatory commission and abandoned the idea after realizing it was an impossible task. There was no way that individuals from different styles could accurately judge or set standards for all the different martial arts systems available to the consumer. In addition, when they closely examined all the complaints against martial arts schools, they discovered that they primarily fell under already established business practices and violations (such as contract disputes).

The long and short of this is there is no government certification or standards for teaching martial arts in the United States. While there are countries around the world that do have such governing boards, they operate with varying degrees of success (every solution presents its own set of problems). What this means is that in the United States, anybody can hang out a shingle that says they teach martial arts matter how qualified or unqualified they are. Furthermore since organizations and federations are not recognized above simple businesses or nonprofit organizations, their certifications hold absolutely no value outside themselves. Certifications that they offer have no weight other than what they carry with people who honor them. A Ph.D from an accredited university is a legally recognized document. A black belt certification is not. Outside the group that issued it or those who choose to honor it, it is nothing more than a piece of paper.

Spotting a McDojo/ McKarate/ Belt Factory
Perhaps the most telling sign that you have walked into a belt factory is the number of 8- to-14-year-old black belts you see running around the school. Young black belts are a massive hot button in the martial arts world. Reporting honestly about all the arguments against granting someone that rank before he or she has reached physical, much less emotional, maturity extends way past the scope of this Web page. It is a huge can of worms. But you should seriously question the standards a school if 9-year-olds can attain black belts.

The second warning sign is the number of black belts who are wandering around -- especially with multiple hashmarks on their belts. It is not uncommon to walk into a large commercial school and see several third or fourth degree black belts strutting about. In such schools, you will also see more temporary, first and second degree black belts running around than you can throw a tonfa at.

Often these two issues combine. How high do you think those standards are if, not just a 14-year-olds, but 10 or 20 14-year olds can achieve second or third degree status? If you stay and pay, you too can become a black belt.

When you see these signs, you have definitely walked into a belt factory

This is not much of a problem if all the school is focusing on is sport. If the school is claiming, however, to teach self defense you have a serious problem. Such low standards might work in the "dough-jo," but they won't help you survive a serious assault.

Having said all of these things against McKarate schools, let us say that they do have their time and place. Yes, little Johnny can benefit from studying the martial arts. Should he be given his black belt at 8? Personally, we say no. That doesn't mean that he should not try the martial arts. The self-discipline, perseverance and self-confidence that Little Johnny and Little Janie get from truly accomplishing something will last them a lifetime. That is not self-esteem, it is self-respect, because they have accomplished something of note.

Let me also point out that a good martial art school is not a day care centers. Martial arts are hard work. They are not for slackers. They require commitment, self-control and dedication. Tears of frustration, anger and embarrassment are common -- to everybody in the arts. So are aches, pain and even injury (although a report released by one of the national insurance agencies stated that sport martial arts ranked somewhere in the high teens for risk of injuries, whereas football and soccer were in the top five. So martial arts are actually much safer). If you insist that Little Johnny and Janie test every month, regardless on how badly they do or how much they don't practice, you will be defeating the purpose of enrolling them in the martial arts in the first place.

Lowering standardsWe have already mentioned that in truly traditional martial arts, one can study for 40 years before being attributed the title of "master."

And that title is invariably given by other people. It is not self-imposed.

In the world of commercial martial arts, however, as long as the business doesn't violate legal standards, anything goes. It all boils down to the subjective standards of the school's owner. We mentioned earlier that franchising schools and affiliations are common in commercial schools. This can be either a blessing or a curse or, often, both. Larger organizations often help keep standards higher in affiliated and satellite schools. To remain a member, schools must meet certain codes and standards. Conversely, however, such an affiliation also can lower standards -- especially in the name of profit. There are several so-called "martial arts" organizations that can be found on the Web that will -- for a big enough fee -- certify you in anything you want. This goes up to and includes Ph.D.s in martial arts from nonexistent, defunct and unaccredited universities. Such pseudo degrees normally run about $2,000 dollars (about the same amount you will pay in schools that promise you a black belt within a year).

Quite frankly, there is no legitimate way that an organization that teaches a specific style of martial arts can prevent someone from hanging up a sign saying that he teaches the exact same system. A person could, quite literally, have his students dress up in chicken costumes, dance in a conga line and call it martial arts. Moreover, he could specifically call what he teaches Shotokan karate (that name is not copyrighted) ... and there is nothing that anyone could do about it -- legally. If he tried to register his business name as an existing Shotokan school, then, yes, a school with that specific name could prevent it. But they cannot prevent him from teaching whatever funky chicken dance step he wants to(5).

While the previous example is obviously taken to a ludicrous extreme, the underlying idea does show how someone can break with an organization, then go out and open his or her own school. And they can teach the exact same style without any oversight. Without any control, the decisions regarding standards are entirely left up to the school owner. Unfortunately, the best of intentions are often no match for the realities of generating enough funds to keep the school open, much less making your house payments. This is how even the most honorably intentioned individual can find him or herself lowering school standards in order to stay in business. On the other hand, someone who would pay $2,000 for a fake Ph.D. and other kinds of mail order certification probably isn't that honorable to begin with. Nor would such a person's standards be all that high.

Putting it bluntly, such a person could certify people in his or her system using whatever standards -- high or low -- that he or she wanted. In that regard, such an instructor could hand out black belt certifications like candy for whatever funky chicken dance or screwball standards he or she compiles. And that unfortunately is not an exaggeration. There are several very successful "belt factory" franchised chains that do promise a black belt within a year for sufficient payments. While that is an extreme, other schools quickly promote people for achieving significantly lower standards. It is not uncommon for students in such schools to achieve a black belt within three years.

These chains do a thriving business with "karate moms" and other people, who do not have familiarity with the martial arts, and who will accept the claims and sales pitches of these kinds of instructors. Karate moms are just tickled pink that "Little Johnny" has earned his black belt at 8 years old. Speaking bluntly, in order for an 8-year-old to achieve a black belt, the martial art has to have been significantly "dumbed down." Often in such cases, a spin has been put on this rank (e.g., junior black belt) because he, physically, mentally and emotionally, cannot meet the requirements set for an adult black belt. This difference in criteria is vital because, if there wasn't, it is no challenge for an adult to meet the standards set for an 8-year-old. Still if the criteria has been dumbed down for children, how does one know that same hasn't been done for the adult standards? Furthermore, these "junior black belts" also cheapen the belt for people who have worked long and hard in more traditional systems with higher standards. How can you compare the 10 years of hard work and study that a practitioner of such as system put in to earn his or her black belt with that of an 8-year-old? Technically speaking, they both hold the same rank, regardless of such qualifiers as "junior"

Unfortunately, in these circumstances you often end up with "why Johnny can't test" situations(6). These are where the parents expect their little Johnny to test every two months and to automatically be promoted, no matter how poorly he does. When faced with a choice between losing paying students or lowering their standards, the house payment usually wins. This degradation of standards is reflected in the quality of the students who are produced by a school. Such schools become derisively known among martial artists as "belt factories." While this or "McKarate," means a lot to serious martial artists, it doesn't mean much to little Johnny's mom -- she can't tell the difference. This, blended with a convenient strip-mall location and a smooth sales pitch, is why she takes him there.

Demo Teams As Advertising
Often when we mention the points on this page, people get a confused look on their faces. The reason is that what we're saying doesn't mesh with what they have seen.

How can we be talking about lowered standards, bad teaching and limited knowledge when they have seen a school's demo/tournament team sweep tournaments? (Or they see walls upon walls of trophies). One look at the amazing feats these team members can do and who wouldn't believe these people can teach! And quite frankly, watching these kids do these impressive kicks, flips, twirls and whirls is pretty amazing.

Ever heard of a natural athlete?

Remember the kid in P.E. that would blur by you and the ball would be gone? Remember the other kid that on the school track all you saw was the bottoms of his shoes as he flashed down the track? Remember the kid that could somehow manage to always hit the ball, make the shot or run circles around you? Since public education has scaled back the Phys Ed. programs, he or she is now in the martial arts --  especially if that person isn't a team player. (Oh sure, the person may be on the school's 'team' but you step onto the mat alone.)

There are several reasons why you cannot judge a school by its demonstration or tournament team. The first is that these kids would excel in almost any sport that they participated in. Although the teaching helps, a huge part of why these kids are so impressive is natural talent. A talent that has indeed been refined by the teaching, but it wasn't created by it. If the talent of that team member is 100, he or she started out at 60. Whereas most people start out around 20 or 30.

School owners and instructors 'cherry pick' these students to be on their teams. Not only that, but they pay extra attention to the training and grooming of these young athletes. And well they should, these kids are the best advertizing and therefore the biggest revenue generators of the school. Because those amazing young athletes dazzle and awe potential customers into believing if they joint THAT school, they (or their child) could be THAT good.

Also realize these dojo-jocks are mini celebrities in that school and on the tournament circuits. All the other students are supposed to look up to them and strive to accomplish what they have done. We're not going to comment on too much on this social aspect, except to say that's the environment you're putting your child into.

However, what we will comment on is how often the rest of the student base is used as financial support for the all-stars. That the quality of the instruction that other students receive is substandard because the school owner only teaches the 'team.' It is not unusual for the instructor to leave the instruction to lower belts (especially the beginner classes). Sure the school can produce a winning team (or a stable of winning fighters), but that doesn't mean that will be the quality of instruction you or your child will receive. In fact, your presence can often be viewed as only a way to pay the bills ... especially if you've signed a contract.

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