Top 12 Signs Your Martial Arts School Is A McDojo

This article is part of our series on the subject of "Fake Martial Arts". Read more:

What Is A McDojo?

The definition of a "McDojo" is a martial arts school that is solely established to make money instead of genuinely teaching martial arts.

For example, due to the widespread watering down or commercialization of the martial arts in the last half century, a huge percentage of McDojos exist in the United States and North America.

While McDojos of course exist elsewhere as well as in their countries of origin, the chances of these McDojos popping up and staying for a long time in their native countries of origin are less common, as it is more difficult to be fake in a country where the martial art originated from, as there would be much more competition and scrutiny both from a sports performance aspect as well as pressure from a cultural / societal aspect (although there are exceptions).

For example, if you opened a pastel de nata bakery in Portugal, it better be amazing. But if you were the only pastel de nata bakery in Alaska, you wouldn't have any competition to be compared to.

Are you concerned that you or your child may be stepping into a McDojo to learn martial arts?

Read on to find out the top signs of a McDojo, and if your school has checked off the majority of these boxes, your school might very well be a McDojo!

1. Weird Name

The school has a wacky, gimmicky, or vague name that was likely made up, or it references a martial art but isn't actually a martial art that exists.

For example: Joe's Garage Fighting Systems, Snake Crane Boxing, American Jiu-Jitsu, Irish Karate Fu, British Barjitsu Wing Chun, Korean Kenpo Taekwondo, Capoeira Jiu-Jitsu, etc.

2. No Young Adults (Age 18-35)

Wait, what? There's literally a toddler on the left and right hand sides that have black belts.

Classes are mostly comprised of kids and teens, or older aged out-of-shape mom / dads / granddads / grandmothers.

No young adults or adults train at the school in a serious manner, because able bodied adults would rather train at a better school that actually proposes a realistic challenge.

A McDojo is usually a "safe", harmless training environment that tries to cater to the lowest level of student or customer by offering very easy (and unrealistic) training.

3. "Black Belt" Fast Track Program

If the school offers a "black belt program", where you pay one fee and you will be fast tracked to the rank of black belt in a few years or less, then this is a sure sign that this school exists to make money and not teach martial arts seriously.

4. Overused "Black Belt" references

In the school, either in its name, or the environment, there exists an overuse of the words "black belt". On the walls, there are motivational messages that everyone is capable of reaching "black belt" status, you will become a "guaranteed black belt" at our school, etc.

Trying to cater to the clueless casual customer that anyone can become a "black belt" is one of the biggest signs of a McDojo.

Everyone can be a black belt in our dojo! If you pay enough, you may even get to hold the special rank of red belt!

5. There Are Fees / Costs To Literally Everything

While most schools charge fees for belt gradings / testings and private lessons, if they are commercializing every single thing in a martial arts school as an extra fee, this could be a red flag.

A school might charge extra fees for purchasing equipment that only the school sells, in order to participate in a special members-only class.

Or they might be keeping beginners in a beginner's only class, and only if you pay more, do you get "access" to the regular class or sparring class, or open mats.

We can understand if there's a skill gap difference and keeping students injury free, but if this is done deliberately to make beginner students stay at a beginner's level for a set period of time rather than their skill level, this is a red flag.

If you must pay a belt grading fee and there are a large number of stripes of belts that you must pay for, this is also a red flag.

6. No Applications / Sparring

Applications of techniques or moves are never taught or shown, only talked about or theorized through compliant demonstrations.

Most classes consist of just technique, drills, and forms practice.

Sparring is never allowed or there is no sparring component built into the classes.

This ensures that every student stays as clueless as possible about real, effective applications of moves, and the instructor can continue to swindle these students without ever needing to prove that they can actually make their moves and techniques work in a real environment.

7. Instructor Never Spars

He's an 8th Degree Black Belt. Don't even try!

The instructor / coach / master / Sifu / Sensei / Sabumnim never engages in free sparring with his students.

While there are exceptions such as accumulation of injuries or advanced age (40+), an instructor should still be able to light spar or light roll with their students.

If the instructor insists that they cannot be touched or cannot spar, or if / when challenged, deflects it to one of their students to accept the challenge, then this is a red flag.

8. No Competitions Allowed

If the school never competes in competitions or allows students to compete, this is a red flag.

A McDojo or fake martial arts school will always stay away from competitions because they know they would likely lose every single one of them.

Or - they might compete in every single tournament possible and every single student receives a participation trophy no matter their performance, so that they can scatter it all around the school as a sign that their school only produces winners.

9. Certifications / Lineage Cannot Be Verified

This is a tricky one, but it mostly rings true.

If your instructor is asked where he / she got their black belt from, or what teacher they studied under, under which lineage or organization, they should have a clear answer, and a quality answer.

This factor is obviously more important for traditional martial arts styles, where importance is placed on authenticity, tradition, terminology, culture, and history (although arguments can be made here that authenticity and traditions are subjective and useless in the real world - but that is a different topic altogether).

For more modern martial arts styles such as combat sports or Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), then the lineage or certification / belt rank is less important, and more importance is placed on sports / competition performance (fight record / experience) and how many champion students a coach has produced.

If a martial arts coach has verifiable in-ring combat experience, titles, or championships, and / or has produced championship students, then their rank or lineage is not as important as they have already proven their experience in the real world.

There is a flip-side to the lineage argument, of course.

If your instructor can ONLY rely on name-dropping and / or throwing around his / her lineage as a means of respect or "authenticity" or "symbol of quality", but has shown no real world skills of his / her own, then watch out, this ones a fake one!

10. Everyone Is Eventually Promoted (Participation Belts)

If your school promotes every student on a timely basis, regardless if they did well on their belt grading or how skilled they actually are, then they are likely a McDojo.

If students get promoted quickly by the school to the next belt or stripe in a matter of months, without actually competing or sparring regularly, then they've essentially earned a higher rank just by participating and showing up to class, rather than show / prove their knowledge and skill level.

Worse yet, if they earned their belt or certification virtually (online). We all know martial arts is a physical activity, and you cannot trade real training and hard sparring with theoretical knowledge and drilling practice.

Anyone who believes martial arts can be practiced and mastered without real live resistance or fighting is in for a rude, ugly awakening should they find themselves in a dangerous scenario.

A belt rank (or equivalent title of recognition) should be earned through blood, sweat, and tears, not just given away by paying money for it or just by "showing up" to class.

11. School Is Top Heavy (Everyone Is A Black Belt)

If almost every student is a black belt (or worse, if in the kids / teen department), then this school is likely a McDojo.

While it may make sense to have a team of high level black belts that compete in a large established gym, it is impossible for any real, quality gym / school to have more experts than there are students (unless it was a professional fighter's gym).

It is because for advanced students, they usually will have gotten as much as they could out of that martial art and either quit / moved on, leave to train at another school, or end up teaching classes or opening their own academy.

Thus, a successful school requires constantly fresh new students to join the gym. Therefore, it is only natural (and normal) that the majority of students are beginners or intermediate level students.

It is rare for a large number of advanced students to stay and continue training at the same place for extended periods of time, for they would most likely be the teachers or instructors already.

If almost every member of the school is advanced, or if there is a large team of instructors who are all black belts, then there is something fishy going on.

This usually means that their ranks / belts are inflated, and that not all of them could possibly be real black belts.

12. There Are Made Up Ranks / Belts

There better be a valid explanation for this belt rank.

If the school advertises a certain martial art that traditionally (or at least officially recognized) does not have rankings or belt levels, then watch out, they may be a McDojo.

In arts such as Kung Fu, Muay Thai, or Boxing - there does not exist any known rankings, coloured shorts, sashes, or belts.

Belt levels are largely a modern, commercialized aspect of martial arts schools or coaches looking to establish some sort of a system of progression to encourage students to keep training and to not quit.

If the rank within the system can clearly define what a practitioner is supposed to know, and the rank is enforced through quality testing, then it may be okay for it to be employed.

However, if the rank is nothing but a phoney or fictitious way of differentiating between low and high, or ranking students who have paid more / stayed more loyal to the school rather than by actual knowledge or skill, then the rank or belt system is useless and fake.

Especially if the made up ranking system is 10 levels or more - that is a sure sign of making a student pay their way to get to the top.

Beware of instructors who have "black belts" in Kung Fu or Muay Thai - they do not exist!

Conclusion

Do you agree with our list? Let us know in the comments if you think we missed any!

- Dynasty Team

November 04, 2020 — Dynasty Team

Comments

Sam

Sam said:

The Pink belt actually has a great explanation.

Jesse “The Karate Nerd” Enkamp has everyone wear them at his seminars to create a more collaborative/relaxed/ego-free atmosphere. Everywhere wear them from senior instructors to beginners, a great idea.

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