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"Well, I guess we all have our priorities, don't we?"
           A 'famous' JKD instructor
                 to a student calling to cancel
                 an expensive private training
                   session because the student's
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On this page:
It's Not Cut and Dried | The Ability to Rationalize | The Willingness to Consider Why Schools Turn Into McDojos | Signs a School Has Slid Towards a McDojo

We already established elsewhere that there is a difference between commercial and commercialized martial arts schools/self-defense programs. That difference can either provide you quality service or cost you a lot of money and give you some pretty poor quality instruction.

But how do you tell the difference? What is the line a commercial school crosses over into a commercialized one? While we are at it, how do you tell a good martial art program from a bad one? (Whether it is a commercial endeavor or not, the same core problem can exist in a recreation center/health club/YMCA martial arts program.)

This, not only in light of they all say they are offering 'good' training, but both types of training often share many of the same traits.

It can be a complicated and confusing mess. Still there is one definite trait that seems pretty consistent in poor quality martial arts training. The problem is that this trait is often obscured by other issues. Issues incidentally that it still deeply effects. You can argue about these other issues until the cows come home and never get around to addressing the trait that is the both the core -- and the source -- of the problem.

We'll get to that trait, but to understand why something seemingly so minute is so important we're going to have to travel through many layers that might not seem relevant at first. We liken this to revealing a cockroach problem by flipping the lights on. Like cockroaches, there are certain behaviors that best thrive in the dark. But once the light is turned on, you know you have a problem on your hands -- and you realize how this previously hidden trait has been influencing everything else in that school.

It's Not Cut and Dried
Let's first start with some things we quickly realized while doing research on the page "Cults in the Martial Arts."

    A) There are no hard and fast standards as to what is and is not a cult.
        (Cults are organized differently and around a variety of subjects.)

    B) There very much exists a continuum. (That is to say that there are
        all kinds of shades of grey about what is and isn't a cult. A group may   
        have many -- or few -- cult-like tendencies and still not quite be a cult.)

    C) There's a lot of subjectivity on the subject. (What one calls cult 
         behavior, another sees as normal.)

With this in mind, we have to realize that these same ideas must be applied to McDojos (or another common term, "Belt Factories"). One person's belt factory is another person's good business sense.

Well except that it is, and it isn't. It's a lot more complicated than that. While no one element stands as absolute proof of the existence of a McDojo, legitimate commercial endeavors share a lot of attributes of belt factories and good schools share traits with both. So, too, by the way, do traditional "old schools." It's how they are used (or abused) that determines if it is a McDojo or not. A good school will have many of the same business practices as a bad one. The main difference will be the quality of what you are getting for your money.

So how can you tell?

You can start by understanding that one thing effects another. It's kind of a cocktail of things. These practices, by themselves aren't bad, but when mixed with other factors/influence/interpretations, they become something else. A new element change the significance of the original elements. Another way of looking at it is that it's like mixing ammonia and bleach. While each are useful by themselves, mixing them together gives you chlorine gas that turns the environment toxic.

The questions then arise "how is it toxic?" Or is it toxic, but still somewhat beneficial (e.g., chemotherapy is toxic, but serves a useful purpose)? Or is it an environment that not only attracts individuals with personality disorders, but reinforces that dysfunction (e.g., like a bar attracts alcoholics)?

Realize that we have just stepped into a very subjective grey area. You may see an environment as utterly toxic, and yet someone -- who is gaining from it -- sees that same environment as the greatest thing since sliced bread. In the same way a cult member will deny being in a cult and an alcoholic will be in denial about his drinking problem, a person in a McDojo will swear what he/she is doing is 'real' martial arts.

As a general indicator you should look for schools whose sales pitch quickly moves away from tangible and demonstrable results/standards and into vague, idealistic and un-provable concepts -- especially if these concepts are warm fuzzy and self-growth oriented. Often these lofty ideals are used as a means of distraction from the fact that the physical end of a program is very weak (1).

For example, many McDojos claiming to teach 'traditional' martial arts extol the 'fact' that they instill virtue, self-discipline, self-confidence and all kind of other forms of vague self-help terms. And that is a major selling point to get you to sign up (or sign up your children). Not to be cynical here, but when did getting your black belt come with a state certification to practice counseling, therapy and child development? But people who have bought into this whole self-help idea of the martial arts will gladly pay for poor physical training in the false belief that the martial arts will 'give' you these attributes. This is why someone in a toxic environment can swear that what he/she is doing is so great. It has nothing to do with the quality of the training and everything to do with what personal needs he/she is fulfilling by being there. That's a big part of why a McDojo is so hard to define.

McDojo is a very vague word. Everyone knows what it means to them (and why they aren't, but someone else is). Until you actually sit down and define what the term McDojo means with such a person and establish "for the purposes of this conversation McDojo means ..." you're never going to get a straight answer. Otherwise, you're having a conversation where the same word means totally different things. And one side isn't about to let go of all they have invested in their ideals. Not only do they have a lot of themselves invested in the concept, but often they have a lot of money involved, too.
And you can really see this manifest when these ideals  are tied into profit -- whether financial, status, social or emotional.

The Ability to Rationalize
Perhaps the biggest indicator that a school is sliding toward being a belt factory is when the owner/operator refuses to consider the idea that he/she is running a McDojo. The owner has decided that he/she ISN'T and, from then on, dismisses the idea out of hand.

Years ago, Marc modified the old saw "A conclusion is where most people got tired of thinking"  by adding, "Or they have reached a rationalization that supports what they want to believe. From then on, it's a matter of supporting that point of view." (The psychological basis for this is conformation bias.) By summarily rejecting the idea that one is running a McDojo one never has to examine one's behaviors, policies and standards in this light. This frees the school owner to operate without constraints. Specifically the owner never has to think about
    a) having sold out,
    b) the quality of his/her instruction or
    c) that he is not providing the service to his customers that he advertised.

Does this mean that the instructor never thinks about what he is doing? No, not at all. In fact, you can be assured that the school owner is thinking about the program quite often. But how the instructor thinks about the program is in the context of ways it can benefit the school -- and by extension him. That these decisions will lower the quality of the school and the service it provides is a perceptual blindspot. It's a blindspot because usually such decisions are financially profitable. The money being made overshadows the decay in quality. And realistically, how truthful do you expect someone to be about the downside of something that makes them money? (Think of the Tobacco Industry's 'stonewalling' the dangers of smoking before the 1998 settlement).

From the above section, one might assume that a McDojo owner never thinks about the idea of being a belt factory at all. This is not true. A secondary indicator of a belt factory is how fast and smoothly someone can supply reasons why the school isn't a McDojo.

Marc sums up this ability thusly:
Ever since I was a little nipper I've seen people rationalize the 'correctness' of their actions via justification. But it was always kind of slipshod (i.e. I'll do it because I want to and only bother to try to rationalize it if I get called on it). It wasn't until I actually saw this among cult members/leaders(2) that I saw it in a systematized manner. These people could explain to you in excruciating detail 'why' they weren't in a cult. In fact, they had pat answers for nearly every charge and counterpoint for everything wrong with their organization. All of these were neatly crafted to either evade the subject or justify what was being done in the cult. If you bought into their rhetoric, they'd take you on a merry little intellectual ride of logical fallacies and self-serving justification. As I progressed through life, I would see this kind of organized and refined justification crop up in many areas to excuse all kinds of bad behavior.
This kind of verbal adroitness does not come about without a lot of practice. And you will see some fast talking when it comes to defending a school against the charge of being a belt factory. The most common lead in is "We are not a McDojo because (followed by these polished reasons)." With whatever they tell you, notice three points here:
    1) The instructor's definition of a McDojo is never established.     2) The idea is rejected out of hand.     3) What's immediately at hand is a practiced answer.     4) These practiced answers are chock full of logical fallacies, evasions and
        vague/idealized/esoteric terms(3)

Another common dodge is usually the instructor has the name of a school that he/she considers a belt factory. This is used as a "They are, we aren't" distraction. This is why the above point #1 is important. Using that other school as the criteria for a belt factory, in his/her own mind the instructor remains safely ensconced in the belief that his/her school is not a McDojo.

All of this is understandable when you see it in school owners. But what about people who are involved in a program, but not necessarily profiting from it?

Going back to Marc's experience with cult members, he says:
While one might call what these people were doing  'spin,' it wasn't exactly that. In fact, it wasn't just for convincing others. It was AS much about self-convincing. By refusing to entertain the idea that they were in a cult, they could lie to themselves and others convincingly. They had such a strict and unbendable definition of a cult that they could always tell themselves that they weren't.

This is an important sub-issue of this kind of rationalization. We cannot stress strongly enough the point that not everyone who is involved in a commercialized school is making financial profit from it.   Therefore we cannot always blame 'greed' as the cause of the problem. Usually the most adamant about the 'high quality of the school' are the non-paid instructors and followers. It is those people who appear to be trying to 'self-convince.' This is where you really want to start looking for self-help or self-importance issues. (e.g. a big fish in a small pond).

Someone who isn't involved in a McDojo (whether it is a commercialized school or just a bad program) should be willing to listen to the idea that maybe something is wrong with the program. Furthermore, that person should be able to discuss different sides of the issue in a calm give-and-take discussion. These are good signs. The rejection of the idea out-of-hand and flurry of spindoctored reasons is not a good sign. Furthermore the verbal flurry is designed to overwhelm the idea that the school is a McDojo. The goal of that strategy is to crush the idea, not to consider it.

The Willingness to Consider
Every commercial school owner knows that running a martial art school is a constant balancing act between quality (both of service and content), numbers, covering costs and countless other head-aches that come with being a business owner.

Those that are worth their salt, admit this. And they admit this not only to their students, but most of all to themselves. They know that they are forever pitting their standards against the requirements of staying in business. Most of all they understand what a slippery slope they are on. They know how easy it is to start making small compromises that effect quality for keeping students. Unfortunately, once you start making those kinds of decisions, the next one is easier, and the next one and the next one ...

This is why we say the refusal to consider that one is running (or involved with) a belt factory is the first indicator of a program that is slipping into decay. In a business where walking the tight rope between quality and profit is an accepted fact, the attitude that one is solidly and unshakably standing on firm ground is not a good sign.
This again brings us to some of Marc's musings. But this time about dealing with evil people:
Some of the greatest personal evil I have ever seen committed was by people, who not only considered what they were doing was for the greater good, but, because they thought they were good people, they believed what they were doing couldn't possibly be evil. In fact, they'd convinced themselves that because they were 'good people,' what they were doing was -- by default -- good. These people had self-rationalized  their evil for good. What is most interesting is how many of these people really did start out good, but slid into this state.
This is in no way trying to get you to believe that McDojo owners are categorically evil. But, that bigger observation should get us thinking about the ability to rationalize our actions and  both their effects and end results. This brings us to the direct question of: How many people who run McDojos started out with the best of intentions, but slid downhill?

How many people when faced with the realities of running a business abandoned their own standards while maintaining the trappings of traditional martial arts-- if not heaping on more fluff? And they did it without ever realizing how far they were floating from their original standards?

We're not talking about the con artist who knows he's scamming people from the beginning. We're talking about people whose moral fiber eroded in the face of either financial hard times or, just as often, the appeal of more profit and power. People who have abandoned not only the quality of their instruction, but their own scruples ... and yet are still tell themselves they are doing 'good.'

Here's an example. How many martial arts pirates believe that what they are doing is for the benefit of their students? They justify plundering and teaching information -- without understanding or giving credit for what they're taking -- as helping their students. In fact, they often even go so far as to say it improves the quality of their students.

When in fact, often the flawed version of what they are teaching is physically damaging to their students. We're not even talking about buying an instructional DVD set and to gain 'certification' to teach information they are not qualified in. We're talking about seeing something at a tournament, reading something in a book, seeing a concept in a DVD or attending a seminar and then taking that and teaching it to one's own students as part of the school's curriculum. This, despite the fact, it is very easy to damage joints, ligaments and tendons when attempting the move. Movement patterns are very style specific (just like other sports). That instructor does not have the specific training to safely execute the move, much less teach it. But that isn't going to stop him from ruining the joints of his students by having them repeatedly move the wrong way.

And yes, then the pirate will claim "we teach that" or "we have that, too" to the next potential customer who comes walking in the door asking for anything specific. We've encountered school owners who claim to teach whatever martial art style the potential student asks about! (The main culprit we base that statement on claimed to be "cross trained" in an astounding number of radically different styles. Apparently his martial prowess was so awesome that if he just walked by a school, the school owner rushed out and awarded him ranking in that system). This is especially true in hybrid systems. Instructors of mixed systems often claim that because they have elements of different styles, 'teach' those styles as well.

Where this form of self-deception becomes potentially deadly for the student is in the subject of self-defense. Because although they claim martial arts will teach you self-defense, they have no idea what needs to be in a legitimate self-defense course. Much less the realities and variables of crime and violence. You can't teach what you don't know you don't know, and these instructors don't even bother to go out and research how crime occurs. Instead they just tell you what they teach works for 'self-defense' and let your imagination fill in the details.

In short, these instructors never consider the possibility that what they tell themselves is 'a good thing' might not be. So they continue teaching flawed systems because "Why fix something that isn't broken?" Except that it's not just broken, but dangerously flawed, both from a self-defense and a sports damage standpoint.

Why Schools Turn Into McDojos
The co-author of Becoming a Complete Martial Artist, Tristan Sutrisno once told us, "The teacher's job is to teach, the student's job is to learn." 

While you can take that to mean all kinds of things, the interpretation we prefer is you're talking about a two-way commitment. As the student is expected to try his very best, so too is the teacher.

And that means the instructor not only gives teaching his all, but also is striving to become a better teacher, a better martial artist, a better person in order to produce better students. That means the teacher is doing his or her best to help the student be the best that he or she can be. If he expects the highest from his student, then he better be giving his best to THAT student ... not just the school/business/his power base. That is a small, but important distinction, but one that is often confused.
When a teacher loses this commitment to the student -- for whatever reason the commitment is lost -- then you have problems. It's bad enough when there isn't much money involved, but we have seen all too many instructors in commercial schools lose sight of this commitment. When they do this they shift their focus onto commercialization while still pretending to teach 'traditional' martial arts.
What appears to be the most common way things slip is another small, but important distinction. One that is easily overlooked unless you are specifically watching for it. It's when the instructor turns his attention away from personally ensuring students develop and allows the 'system' to do  -- what by rights is -- his job.

Why is this a problem?

Ask yourself this question: Is it really the martial arts that gives a student self-confidence, dedication, commitment and focus? Or is it the teacher helping the students develop skills that will last a lifetime?

If it is the former, then you can create a production line that cranks out cookie cutter black belts. If it is the martial arts that does it, then what you are producing are little brain-washed automatons that all think and perform the same way. If the martial arts are really what is doing the trick, then a belt factory IS the appropriate term.

If it is the latter, then the onus is on the teacher to teach and lead by example -- not to rely on the system or senior students to do his job for him.

When that isn't happening -- whether you are dealing with a commercialized school or not -- you've got a bad school. Once the teacher loses commitment to being the best he can be for his student, things start to change. Not only do all kinds of other start creeping in, but that miasma starts effecting everything else. That's when previously harmless elements combine to form a toxic environment. And usually this includes poor quality instruction you are paying way too much for.

Signs a School Has Slid Towards a McDojo
Remember at the beginning of this page we mentioned three reasons that made it difficult to positively identify a cult? Then we said a similar set of problems exist for identifying a bad school? We have seen all kinds of problem schools that manifest the instructor's loss of commitment in many different ways. Here are just a few of them:

The school owner turns his/her attention to running the business over teaching.
     Instead of hiring a full-time business manager, the teacher becomes
     one. In light of the fact that managing a business is a full time job,
     the owner becomes, at best, a part-time teacher in his own school.

The school owner turns his/her attention to recruiting more customers than ensuring quality instruction to the students
    You may meet the owner of the school when you walk in and he shows
    you the school and answers all of your questions, but why isn't he out
    on the floor teaching? Often this is the only time you will ever get
    one-on-one time with the instructor unless there is a problem that is
    threatening you leaving the school. Other than that, your instruction
    is going to be farmed out to one of his underlings.

The school owner (or the school) has become a "big name"
     In these cases the reputation of either the school owner or the style
     has become the draw. This appeal is largely dependant on advertising and
     marketing. People flock to the school expecting to be taught quality
     because of the 'name.' Instead what often occurs is the students are
     taught by the instructor's high ranking belts -- even though they are
     paying greatly inflated prices for that training.

The school owner 'cherry picks' from the student-base for the school's prize fighters.      Closely related to the previous point, but different enough to warrant
     its own mention, basically the school focuses on providing quality training
     only to those physically gifted and interested in joining the school's
     'stable' of fighters or tournament team. This elite team not only
     ensures the reputation of the school, but their victories attract more
     Unfortunately, what often occurs is that all the other students are used
     as cash cows. They are not given anything close to quality instruction --
      much less the caliber given to the team. Their fees go into paying for
     the quality training of someone else. Just  because a school produces a lot
     of champions or has an impressive demonstration team, doesn't mean
     you'll be receiving quality instruction -- especially for the amount
     of money you will be paying to train at such a big name school.

The instructor encourages the 'elite scramble'
     All the previous four points overlap on this one point, often making
     it difficult to recognize for itself. While an in-depth look of this idea
     can be found on the Cults page, it is worth considering in light of these
     other points. Often school owners only teach the 'creme de la creme'
     of the school (often referred to 'high belt classes'). This not only frees him
     to run the business end of things while still maintaining the facade of being
     a full time instructor, but it encourages a scramble among students to be
     the chosen few near the 'master.' This sense of elitism can often be used
     and abused by the master by requiring extra volunteering (read free
     labor) as means to curry favor. The price of admission to this elite
     circle is pandering to the master (e.g. committing oneself to teach
     beginner classes for free -- while still paying for your lessons -- so the
     school owner doesn't have to waste time teaching low belts).

 The teacher/business owner promotes the style over the students
      While this can manifest in franchising and business expansion, it doesn't
      necessarily have to be so. What we mean by this point is that the
      value of the student exists only as long as he/she participates in the
      training/business. We're not talking about satisfying the customer base
      here, in these cases, that has become of secondary importance. We
      are talking about the presence and numbers of the students is used to
      promote the school/style. Those who remain with the program are being
      groomed to go out, and not become teachers per se, but to become
      'representatives' of the style. The health and expansion of the 
      style/business is more important than the growth and development of
      the students.
The teacher has burned out on teaching
     When teaching is no longer enjoyable for the instructor/school owner it's
     very easy for him to let things slide. The problem is that while teaching
     no longer holds any appeal, he has invested too much time, effort and
     money into the school to simply close it. This goes double for when the
     school has become his livelihood. It is at this time that many of the
     factors we have discussed on this page begin to creep in. It is far easier
     for an instructor to sit back, run the business, promote the business and
     tell himself that the program will do all the work for him.

Remember earlier we mentioned that when elements combine they can turn toxic? In the commercial schools page we listed a lot of practices that have become common in the martial arts. Practices that you as an informed consumer need to be aware of before you give up your hard earned money. By themselves those points listed on the other page are not bad. But the points we've talked about on this page and on the cult page can  -- and usually do -- blend with those elements to create that unseen toxic gas we spoke of earlier. An environment that you are going to be paying lots and lots of money for supposed training.

Before you put your money down on the table and sign yourself or your child up, think about the lack of commitment by a teacher can effect the quality of what a school is offering. If you're paying that much money, you have the right to demand better service than what McDojos provide.  

Return to top

1) Effective movement is based on tangible details. Details, while they take time to develop, can not only can be easily explained, but are the basics you need to be taught first. These details are what make a technique work and they are there for explainable reasons. A school that assumes the technique will do the 'work' for you won't teach you these details. Therefore your technique will have no power. That is why quickly moving away from teaching these details and onto other techniques or vague ideals is a danger sign of a bad school. Return to text

2) Back in Hollywood in the '80s you couldn't throw a stick without hitting a Scientologist. The 'church' was just down the road and they often brought projects to the business Marc worked for. Return to text

3) Often what you will encounter are vague, poorly defined terms. But terms that have very warm and fuzzy connotations, like "We help people", "We teach virtue" or "We build self-esteem and confidence." What exactly do they mean by these terms? And what qualifies them to teach that subject? When did a black belt start coming with a board certification as a therapist or ordination into the church? These terms imply the instructor is qualified to supply such services. More than that, it's going to cost you to learn them from him. Return to text


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