McDojo to Go? (Martial Arts Scepticism Series)

The teaching of martial arts is a widespread service offered to the general public in most countries. Like any service, it is expected that the client pays the provider. However, when I first started training in the martial arts my generation were observant of a growing criticism of martial arts profiteering. Scepticism of the efficiency of certain martial arts methods were being traced back to charlatanism and a general lowering of standards. Then I heard the word McDojo and I soon became painfully aware of the state of mainstream martial arts. Various different influences led to the creation of clubs clearly geared towards making as much money as possible with little concern over the standards of the service being offered. However, I also became aware of what I felt were unrealistic demands and unfair criticism levelled at those individuals who simply wanted to make a successful business out of what they were doing. The McDojo term is often loosely applied, so I decided to have a look at what I felt could and could not be justifiable in the name of martial arts business.

 

Martial Arts Commercialization

The history of the commercialization of the martial arts can probably be traced back to when citizens were first taught how to fight and paid for that privilege. A retired or injured warrior did not always have a state pension to support him and his family. Teaching the arts of war to those who would never use them in service was an obvious source of revenue for these ex-soldiers. Horse-riding, for example, is a leisure activity and sport that has its origins in the military. Beginning as one-to-one or small group private lessons, popularity for one fighting art or another would grow until the more business-minded instructors worked out they could make a living out of teaching regular classes for the general public.

 

Citizens were drawn in the past, as they are today, by the desire to emulate the alpha role of the warrior who had the ability to better protect themselves and their families from violence. 18th century boxing champions Jim Figg and Jack Broughton made it fashionable for gentlemen to learn their noble art and academies gained noble patronage.[i] Meanwhile in turn of the 20th century China teachers were using fakir tricks and acrobatics, along with a welded on philosophy, to attract wealthy customers to their martial arts schools.[ii] Over in Japan the likes of Kano Jigaro – the founder of judo – and Funakoshi Gichin – “the father of modern karate” – were laying the foundations for organized martial arts schools via the classes they set up in their respective educational institutions. Kano would be responsible for introducing the most recognizable martial arts uniform, the keikogi, and bringing in the belt ranking system. Funakoshi and his teachers would work out ways to accommodate large classrooms of students by setting up militarized rows.      

 

All the most recognizable and popular martial arts systems exist today due to the entrepreneurship of their founders. These men were not merely good teachers. They were driven by a desire to spread the name of their chosen discipline. By the late 19th century different ju jutsu instructors from Kano’s school had travelled to Europe and the USA, but it was Kano’s interpretation of ju jutsu in the form of his Kodokan judo that established an organized brand. Funakoshi and his son did the same with Shotokan karate and his contemporaries were not slow in promoting their respective karate brands outside of Okinawa and Japan.

 

However, it was General Choi, the man who coined the name Tae kwon do,[iii] who provided us with the most aggressive example of mass-marketing a martial art. Tae kwon-do’s demonstrations – which typically contained spectacular kicking techniques and the breaking of boards and bricks – were attractive. Many martial arts survived oppressive governments by convincing everyone that training in a particular system helped improve the spiritual growth of the country.[iv] Choi made tae kwon do, which was really Korean Shotokan karate, a patriotic art. He then went on to distance the art from its karate roots by adding new techniques, developing new patterns of movement and making the rules of the sport different. But it was the way Choi left Korea to purposefully install tae kwon do schools around the world that set him apart from anyone else in the martial arts world. His concern over the karate connection was not so great for him to instantly promote karate black belts to instructors in his association.[v] This ensured that the International Taekwon-do Federation brand spread fast. Meanwhile Choi’s rival brand, the World Taekwondo Federation, established itself in South Korea with the backing of the South Korean government. Using its considerable influence the WTF brand achieved its status as an Olympic sport in 2000. Between these two federations and the countless number of associations that have since split from either side, taekwon-do has become the world’s most commercially successful martial art.   

 

The idea of the McDojo fed its way into the martial arts consciousness around the turn of 21st century. By this time the tae kwon do business model had been copied by most mainstream martial arts schools and had mutated in line with other retail-based business methods. The exact origin of the word “McDojo” is not clear nor it the word it was derived from, McJob. The word McJob had already appeared in print prior to the publication of the philosophical novel, Generation X by Douglas Coupland.[vi] However, this novel is usually cited as the reason for its early popularization. Coupland used it to describe soulless employment in mass-market workplaces that treated their staff as if they were on a conveyor belt. The term McDojo was almost definitely popularized by the internet forum, Bullshido, created by Neal “Phrost” Fletcher. They originally used it as their title and website address before the McDonald’s franchise threatened legal action.[vii] The McDojo is defined as a martial arts school that allows its teaching practices to be dictated completely by the need to increase revenue.

 

Selling the Dojo – Martial Marketing

In order for martial arts to become commercialized they needed to be marketed. They were marketed to the gentry, to governments, to educational institutions and to the general public. Some martial arts, such as boxing, enjoyed a certain degree of patronage from wealthy benefactors and others, such as judo, had influence within their targeted institution. However, it was those that were forced to become entrepreneurial in order to thrive that would develop many of the models that corporate martial arts are now based.   

 

Live demonstrations have been the time-honoured way to generate interest. Many used the primal alpha male display of a sporting contest to show off the ability of the person teaching and the style they were teaching. In Britain some of the first ju jutsu instructors and catch wrestlers apparently took on random members of the audience to demonstrate their skills. These bouts along with boxing were popular in music halls, on fairs (or carnivals in the USA) and on circuses. Inevitably the pressure of having to fight nearly every night against unknown opponents and the desire to see more entertaining spectacles led to a lot of professional catch wrestling to become staged. This became the professional wrestling of today.[viii]

 

Elsewhere this type of marketing was particularly prolific when different schools competed for customers. Englishmen were drawn to the exhibition of the straight boxing match, but even they engaged in cross-continental bouts with France’s kickboxing arts of boxe Francais and savate. In Japan jiu jitsu schools competed and it was one decisive tournament that helped establish judo’s business in the Japanese education system. The 1920s saw the popularity of “Boxing versus Judo” matches being held in Japan, which were bouts that pitted fighters from different countries against each other, representing their particular style.[ix] China also has a long tradition of different representatives of styles facing one another and actively engaged with Japanese schools.

 

These challenge matches were turned into a long-held tradition by one 20th century martial art. Brazilian jiu jitsu relied on it to draw future students. The Gracie family actively challenged any other martial arts school. They advertised in the local papers, goading other fighters into facing them by volunteering to injure anyone free of charge in their “Gracie Challenge”.[x] Their fights were held in garages, on beaches, in their own school and other martial arts schools and drew audiences on television as they fought under vale tudo (Portuguese for “Anything goes”) rules. They took the Gracie Challenge to the USA, where it established support from prominent American martial artists and movie stars. The challenge eventually became the mixed martial arts behemoth known as the Ultimate Fighting Championship.[xi]   

 

At the turn of the 20th century the Chinese incorporated acrobatic displays and fakir tricks that had little relevance to the pragmatic roots of their arts, but encouraged the idea that fighters could develop supernatural powers.[xii] Such ideas were taken on by other martial arts. Japanese sword masters would demonstrate their abilities by chopping fruit and vegetables on students without harming them. The Koreans avidly took on the Chinese and western carnival/circus strongman practice of breaking hard solid objects with their bodies to sell taekwondo, tang soo do and various other systems that appeared after World War II.

 

Martial arts schools have also readily taken on marketed methods used by other businesses. They put adverts in papers, on the radio, on television, put posters up in shops and use the various different media available on the internet. The desire to tap into as broader amount of students as possible has led martial arts schools to offer an expanding list of increasingly abstract attributes. As my discussion on martial arts self-help, The New Martial Mystique, points out how self-help has influenced the development of martial arts in many ways and this can be seen in their advertising. Martial arts schools offer “Empowerment” and “Leadership” skills. Critics find little empowerment in being made to stand in line and not ever question the martial arts teacher. The leadership skills are often represented by the students who are on the biggest contracts or membership deals and/or have been nominated to be “Class leaders”, a role not dissimilar from being made the milk monitor at school. In addition to lists of benefits offered, martial art school posters display images of any number of different characters from happy children to movie stars and even cartoon characters.

 

Perhaps the most controversial advertising practice to date was introduced by the Go Kan Ryu karate school. This franchise was founded in Southern Australia,[xiii] but has fast grown all over the world and is heavily criticized by many in the martial arts world.[xiv] From its no-contact competitions to the practice of turning out instructors after just three months of training, one can see why it might be given the label of “McDojo”. However, what really seemed to set it apart from all other groups was the way it sent its instructors to sell the classes from door to door. Here karate would be touted using the same methods a sale rep might hawk windows. This was not just to invite students to a free trial lesson or promote awareness of the art, but to effect a cold sale with the instructor’s aim to get the person answering the door to sign up to a membership. Such recruiting methods seemed to be the extreme of the pre-commercialized days of martial arts teaching when a student might have to kneel for days outside a revered teacher’s door before he was allowed admittance to a lesson. For many this was the ultimate in the degradation of the martial arts. Other critics might wryly note that this further proves another similarity martial arts have with religion, echoing the methods of Jehovah’s Witnesses.     

     

Get Them Young

Statistics vary, but it would appear that the overwhelming majority of martial arts students in commercial schools are children. People are more willing to part with their money for their children’s perceived benefits than their own. This has led most commercial schools to focus on this as the primary source of revenue. Children are recruited through many different methods, including parties and many simply come directly from the place where Kano and Funakoshi expanded their martial disciplines: schools. The age for a child to start has also got younger and younger. Nowadays it is not unusual to see students as young as two in a karate class. This becomes less surprising when critics of many commercial children’s classes have described them as being little more than glorified crèches, where the infants play dress-up in martial art uniforms. If compromising the content wasn’t a big enough crime, many clubs have reduced the time of the standard one hour junior lessons to fit in more classes.  

 

Rewards for progress are an even greater incentive for children as can be seen by the acquisition of badges in Boy Scout and Girl Guide clubs. Many martial arts clubs have also used belts as mini-incentives for children. When I began my training “Student of the Year” was a prize already institutionalized for both children and adults, but today larger clubs have brought in “Student of the Month” and even “Student of the Week” certificates. It could be argued that the expansion and proliferation of the coloured belt system was driven by children in martial arts and it wasn’t long before the junior black belt grade emerged. Given the original rule set by judo and currently supported by Brazilian jiu jitsu whereby no student under the age of 16 may be awarded a black belt, many felt the introduction of the junior black belt threw this once revered rank into disrepute.

 

Nothing seems to shout McDojo louder than the figure of a child wearing a black belt. We have gone from an era where finding a brown belt instructor in judo or karate in your local town was a rarity and the training would likely take place in a drafty old hall, where you would endure a lot of physical hardship to a time where we have an army of seven year old black belts playing tag in centrally heated and air conditioned full-time martial arts centres.  

 

The Belt Factories

Due to coloured belts being the most common and recognizable form of martial arts ranks, schools that virtually give away their grades with little or no standards are sometimes referred to as “Belt factories”. Achieving a coloured belt became enshrouded in the exotic mystique that accompanied the whole concept of training in eastern martial arts ever since the westerners were made aware of their existence. The rank of black belt was perceived as being testament that the wearer was a high level fighter. Humans, often driven by a desire to be the alpha animal in their tribe, are obviously drawn to such visible displays of apparent power and therefore it is small wonder that an entire business could be built around selling such ranks.  The most extreme example of this to date is the mail order black belt service set up by the self-proclaimed “Ninja master”, Ashida Kim (aka Radford W. Davis, aka Chris Hunter).[xv] Black belt certification can be awarded through membership to Kim’s “Dojo” or through simply purchasing his book Mugei Mumei No Jitsu.[xvi]

 

Kano Jigaro, an educator, introduced gradings with belts to his Kodokan judo, taking it from the Japanese public school system. Just about every traditional discipline in Japan has a structured system of progression. The use of the obi ranking system was often found in swimming[xvii], as was the wearing of red and white colours to distinguish between opening sides in a sport. As the number of students taking part increased in a martial arts class and levels of different students’ experience and knowledge become apparent, it is understandable why someone would want to introduce a system of ranking. However, it is worth noting that there are plenty of combat systems and sports that have not adopted this method. Originally the belt was a wide sash, as found on Japanese kimonos. In 1906/7 Kano adopted the narrower judo belt as we know it. Originally there were two white belt grades and three brown belt grades before the shodan (first degree black belt) was reached. A violet or purple belt was introduced to boys under the age of 18 in place of the brown belt and it was forbidden for anyone under the age of 18 to be awarded a dan grade.[xviii] Funakoshi wasn’t slow in picking it up for karate and soon many other Japanese arts followed suit.[xix] Korean taekwondo, tang soo do, hapkido, kong soo do and others had their basis in Japanese martial arts imported around the occupation of Korea, and adopted their grading practices as well. Their coloured belt order was different from the Japanese arts, but they retained the white belt to designate novice and the black belt to designate a student at the end of his coloured belt promotions.[xx]

 

It is important to note the reverence the black belt has achieved in the west is out of sync with the country of its origin. In Japan it is not uncommon for a student to gain a black belt in a martial art within a year. The legendary karateka Joe Lewis famously achieved his first dan in Okinawa after just seven months.[xxi] Such speedy promotions would be frowned upon in the west. When judo and karate clubs first started springing up in the UK, the British teachers were not typically black belts. It wasn’t until 2004 that the first British Brazilian jiu jitsu black belts were awarded. Arguments over standardization of grades in martial arts have long been a hot topic, even before the arrival of the “belt factories”. The reasons for gaining a grade differ from school to school. Some demand a formal grading examination, which is typically paid for in addition to regular classes. These gradings are sometimes held outside of class time on a separate day as an important event on the martial arts calendar and it can consist of a complete ritual where a grading award is given to one exceptional participant. Others offer it after a lesson or hold it within the lesson or even instead of a lesson.  However, some clubs do not have an actual grading examination procedure and bestow new coloured belts on students they feel have achieved a certain standard. Then there are those schools that use the belts to designate how long a student has been with the school rather than any level of ability.  

 

Since Kano introduced the belt system the number of grades between white and black belt have increased in many martial arts. Originally there was only the white belt and the black belt, but this eventually changed to include a series of progressively darker colours in the Japanese styles. The Korean styles used their colours as symbols. The Chinese styles were late converts and used sashes instead of belts, and followed various sequences. Some Thai boxing academies have used arm-bands or sashes. Some Filipino and Indonesian martial arts have adopted belts whilst others have opted for coloured tee-shirts. The French system of savate uses coloured gloves. Even some western boxing schools have a progressive grading system now.

 

Additional grades have sometimes been represented by the adding of a tag to the previous grade’s belt. I guess this was done to not undermine the original colour order. However, some associations and schools had no problem with adding whole new coloured belts to their grading system. The camouflage belt or “camo belt” is an example of a controversial extra belt added to the rankings, and its creation is often attributed to the American Taekwondo Association, which is a common target for McDojo criticism. Defenders of the decision to add extra grades argue that they are required to lessen the jump from one grade to the next. To be fair, we have seen similar arguments used with good justification in education when new qualifications have been created. However, cynics observe that few students make it to black belt level and most of a school’s profit is made from the coloured belts. In other words, if more belts are added then more payments are gained from gradings.

 

Instructor Mills

If you don’t have the patience to buy your way through the belt ranks, have no fear as there is service that will fast-track you to instructor status in a fraction of the time. Of course, martial arts were far from being the first type of unaccredited institution churning out   qualifications on demand. Diploma mills and degree mills are a global phenomenon whereby unaccredited qualifications are issued in a variety of formats. At their very worst they offer counterfeit accredited qualifications and are blatant fraud. At their very best they are honouree qualifications awarded to an individual in respect of their experience and achievements. However, in the main, these institutions are factories that manufacture qualifications for a fee. Typically a qualification is gained in order for an individual to stand a better chance of getting a job. You might feel that having some experience in martial arts might pad out your CV for a vocation in security or stunts, but few are under the illusion that it will get you a job. The only martial arts qualification that carries a job description and therefore the only one that carries any sort of weight is an instructor certificate.    

 

The health and leisure industry was ripe for the exploitation of such qualifications. Pushed to provide a wider variety of services many leisure needed their fitness teaching members of staff – which are typically in possession of accredited qualifications in sport and leisure – to be able to run a wide range of classes. It was only a matter of time for entrepreneurs in fitness, often taking their cue from aerobics classes, to come up with their own brands and then offer instructor qualifications so that others can teach the franchise. Today we have a variety of one hour fitness classes that gym memberships offer. The most famous aerobics/martial arts franchise, of course, is Taebo. This was the brainchild of karate champion and B-movie action star, Billy Blanks, who was clearly inspired by the aerobics boxing fusion known as Boxercise. It has spawned many imitations such as Body Combat, Thai-Box and many more besides. It wasn’t long before other martial artists worked out that they could also provide a class that used martial arts movements and a thumping high energy dance soundtrack to create their own attractive variation on conventional aerobics lessons. These programmes were very easy to learn and virtually anyone with a good grounding in fitness training could teach them.

 

Given the drive behind the belt factories, offering fast-track instructor courses was a no-brainer. Our more enlightened age of martial arts cross-training has put pressure on instructors of one art to try to accumulate more black belts and their equivalents. This provides a founder of an established or trendy new brand of martial art with another source of revenue coming directly from someone who might be regarded as his competition. However, there is another longer term benefit for promoting more people to the rank of instructor in your brand of martial art and this falls in with the same business model that fitness franchises were offering leisure centre staff. General Choi, the founder of taekwon-do, worked out that he could spread his franchise by recruiting karate black belts in other countries and making them taekwon-do instructors.[xxii] Historically it is not unheard of for traditional martial arts instructors to create more than one martial art. However, today’s opportunist martial artists have taken their cue from the leisure industry and now offer a variety of programmes that provide instructorship qualifications. The previously mentioned aerobics/martial art fusion is the perfect example of a programme where an instructorship can be gained in a very short time – sometimes no more than a day – and given to someone with relatively little experience in the martial arts.      

 

We have arrived in age where more and more instructors have multiple teaching grades in different systems. The aforementioned Go Kan Ryu School of karate has a common practice of giving promising students a black belt with a white stripe so they can start teaching their own class. The white stripe black belt helps to distinguish the student from the club’s genuine black belts, but many argue that the unknowing new student just sees a black belt teaching his class. It seems rather cynical for the non-black belt teacher to be given a type of black belt when he teaches beginners. Surely a badge or some other less misleading form of identification would suffice. However, the wearing of the belt is the least concern for many ex-GKR students and instructors who say that many of the white stripe black belts were complete beginners themselves as little three months prior to running their own class.

 

However, the mills don’t just stop at the doors the corporate leisure and karate industries. The swift awarding of instructor grades has become quite widespread on the seminar teaching circuit and many teachers, of varying degrees of reputability, grant them upon completion of the course without a formal examination. Seminars are aimed directly at people already training in martial arts. Many rely on established clubs to pool the bulk of their participants. However, the need to sell this service to as wider an audience as possible pushes many teachers to offer something more tangible. Following the martial arts pyramid scheme model, the teacher offers the student the perception that he will walk away from the course with the ability to deliver the same course.  Some might argue this is simply responding to supply and demand. After all, I have even known instructors who train on intensive courses with highly respected and famous martial artists and then award themself a type of instructorship without anyone’s blessing or authority but their own.   

 

Memberships and Contracts

Like many other businesses that run classes, an increasing number of martial arts clubs insist on advance payments. This practice has been around for decades for many US schools.[xxiii] Some clubs ask for a termly payment whereas others are on a monthly basis. As time has moved on direct debits and standing orders have been set up in many clubs, and there are several billing companies that specialize in organizing these instant bank transactions for martial arts schools. Many clubs in the UK saw the arrival of the direct debit class fee collection service as an example of US commercialism influencing and changing the way martial arts were being run. The argument put forward by critics of the advance payment method is that schools that provide a good enough service have no need to worry about whether or not students will attend their classes.

 

Membership fees are also very commonplace in most marital arts schools. This annual payment is normally built into acquiring individual student insurance. Instructors usually pay a higher premium to those who run the association of their affiliated school. This is public liability insurance and students who are charged it are usually given record books for gradings and courses along with details on club rules and code of conduct along with an insurance renewal slip. Often these booklets are referred to as licences and may hark back to the martial arts myth that all martial artists had to be licensed. Many clubs copy gym memberships and include a joining fee, but might also include a club uniform. Some clubs use the opportunity to also sell various items of training equipment or offer different levels of membership with a scale of prices. Again, there are clubs that see no point in having students take out individual insurance let alone the various other fees.

 

Taking their cue from the leisure centre industry, some martial arts clubs took it all a step further by having their students sign contracts. This procedure allowed schools to offer an annual programme, which stipulated the maximum number of classes a student could attend during a month or a term and suited full-time martial arts gyms. The top end contract, offering an unlimited number of lessons, often has an attractive title such as “Black Belt Programme”. The contract is perhaps the most controversial of all payment agreements as it binds students often beyond the time they have ceased training. Many argue that it is wrong to take fees from those who no longer wish to train and, again, a good school should not feel a need to carry out this procedure.  

 

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.  

 

Devil’s Advocate

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 Brazilina 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, like my Clubb Chimera Martial Arts today, 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 an Art and a 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 marital 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 and 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.    

     

 

 

 

 

                                



[i] Bare Fists by Bob Mee, 1998, Lodge Farm Books

[ii] Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey by Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo, 2005, North Atlantic Books

[iii] I am following Alex Gillis’s example by spelling tae kwon do, when I am not referring to a specific title of an association, in this manner.

[iv] The Japanese interpretation of Chinese Shaolin martial arts via Shorinji kempo is a prime example of an art thriving by making the argument for growing a sense of national spirit.

[v] A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do by Alex Gillis, 2008, ECW Press

[vi] Generation X: Tales from an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland, 1991, St. Martin’s Press

[vii] From my interview with Phrost on 30 November 2005: “Bullshido started back in May of 2002, as “McDojo.com”. Within a few months we had the Intellectual Property lawyers from McDonald’s all over us and we changed the name to Bullshido going into 2003”

[viii] Western Boxing and World Wrestling by John F. Gibney (pseudonym of Robert W. Smith), 1986, North Atlantic Books, The Odyssey of Yukio Tani by Graham Noble, 2000, InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives ejamas.com

[ix] The Fighting Spirit of Japan and Other Studies by E.J. Harrison, 1912, New York: C. Scribner's Sons; London: T. Fisher Unwin

[x] The Gracie Way by Kid Peligro, 2003, Invisible Cities Press

[xi] No Holds Barred by Clyde Gentry, 2002, Milo Books Ltd

[xii] Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey by Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo, 2005, North Atlantic Books

[xiii] http://www.gkrkarate.com/index27.php?x=ABOUT-GKR~|^`1A ” Go-Kan-Ryu Karate (GKR) is a traditional Japanese style of karate. GKR was founded by Robert Sullivan in Adelaide, South Australia. Robert first began training in the art of karate in 1964, and spent time training and teaching in both Japan and the USA before establishing GKR in 1984”

[xiv] Virtually every martial art style, system, organization and established instructors are criticized in some way by other martial artists. However, one has only to put Go Kan Ryu into a search engine to see the first page full of criticism coming from a very wide range of martial arts websites and online forums.

[xv] Ashida Kim, Samuel Browning. http://bullshido.org/Ashida_Kim

[xvi] Mugei-Mumei no Jitsu  THE 21st Century Martial Art, Ashida Kim, 1998, Dojo Press http://www.dojopress.com/catalogbk7.html

[xvii] “THE TRACY SYSTEM OF KENPO – HISTORY SERIES – THE HISTORY OF THE BELT SYSTEM(JUDO — KARATE) – PART I I (last updated 10/18/10) by  AL TRACY “MYTHS AND REALITY”

[xviii] http://judoinfo.com/obi.htm The Judo Ranking System

[xix] http://www.minrec.org/wilson/pdfs/History%20of%20Belts%20and %20Ranks.pdf 

[xx] A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do by Alex Gillis, 2008, ECW Press

[xxi] The Secret of Inner Strength by Chuck Norris, 1987, Little Brown and Co.

[xxii] A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do by Alex Gillis, 2008, ECW Press

[xxiii] The Secret of Inner Strength by Chuck Norris, 1987, Little Brown and Co.

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This and other articles are scheduled to be re-edited and included in several collected works available soon. Watch this space for details on ordering

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