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The McDojo Excuse

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Shutterstock / Anel Alijagic

I have a question.

How do you identify a McDojo?

I was in a conversation with a high-level martial artist, superbly skilled in his art and who had obviously dedicated many years to training, when something he said made me pause. We were catching up with local happenings, talking about the nearby studios and how the experts in the area were doing with their lives.

It was in this broad conversation that he dropped this bomb: “It’s impossible for real martial art training to make money”.

Ok, hol’ up.

Why, pray tell, do you feel that is?

It’s not that potential students are lazy–becoming fluent in a second or third language is just as, if not even more, challenging mentally and a crossfit class can kick the ass of many hardened martial artists, even if they have deeply traditional training.

It’s not that people don’t want to invest time or money on something from a different generation or that the thirst for wisdom and ancient knowledge is a water well long dried up either.

In many cases, it comes down to high-level martial artists being stubborn and adamant that they are already doing the best they can to pass on their knowledge appropriately. Though we remain a forever student in our style, we refuse to learn–much less accept–anything new that may help spread the system to another generation in a wider or better way.

We struggled for our skills, but don’t dare embrace the frustration of learning marketing or pedagogy to better impact our community.


Rather than dismiss all of the ideas that help sustain many modern studios, let’s look more into the logic behind the operations. Whether they are practices we choose to adapt, adopt, or avoid is irrelevant for the sake of reading this article. What matters more is that we are able to better understand the mentality and actions of those living differently than us. From this perspective shift, perhaps we will find a solution to the problems we can face when trying to pass the torch from our generation to the next.

Upgrades, Renewals, and Enrollments–Oh My!

Let me start by saying that any program guaranteeing a Black Belt is not the subject of this discussion.

Nor are we talking about fast-track programs that purport to give you skills in a more expedient manner.

In both of these cases, the only thing that should be more guaranteed to be expedient is your feet out the door–get out fast!

With that warning out of the way, also don’t toss the baby out with the bathwater. If a martial art studio has multiple program options–such as a Basic Program and Master’s Club or Leadership Training–that can actually be a good thing.

These offerings aren’t always intended to alleviate more money out of your pockets. We have to remember–and come to terms with–the fact that not everybody needs everything from our art at one time.

We may prioritize the whole of our art, especially if the concepts and movements are intricately interwoven with each other pedagogically, however consider that parts of it may be overwhelming or unnecessary for students just getting started in the martial arts world.

It’s this train of thought that drives separation of a style into multiple tiers. Perhaps the Basic tier is an introduction of the most essential skills and perks (e.g. twice a week training or just empty hand skills), then the next tier introduces weapons and sparring or leadership development.

Yes, there can be a money component (we need money in order to keep our doors open and keep empowering our community while teaching the next generation), however it is also about providing program options so nobody has to reject the full price or experience.

At the end of the day, we want to be able to ensure success for who and what will succeed us, that includes our art and our students.

Having multiple program offerings can help a studio be able to do exactly that.

Cash Rules Everything Around Me...?

Do you know anybody that harvests gasoline only for the sake of putting it in a stagnant car?

I’m not talking about stockpiling fuel in the middle of a worldwide crisis, I mean somebody whose lifestyle it is to just collect profusely yet they continue to neglect the purpose of their pursuit.

It’s not for aesthetics, practicality, or deep interest, they just...keep collecting.

In a popular video clip, author Simon Sinek relates that to people and businesses whose sole aim is making money.

Money can be likened to an enabler. It allows you the opportunity to reach more people and make a wider, more everlasting mark on your community. If money is fuel and your business is the car, you can’t forget to actually pick a meaningful destination as your goal and drive over there however.

It would be a pretty uninspired life just traveling from gas station to gas station. Maybe your “destination” is to have a lifestyle that allows you to turn your passion into your life pursuit and go deeper into it than ever before or maybe you care mostly about ensuring your art doesn’t die out and become just another footnote in history.

Regardless of motive, the other side of the fuel analogy must be kept in mind; unless you have the long lifespan, energy, and ability to manually push that car for thousands of miles, you’ll need to keep the car filled with fuel.

Of course, you can just teach in a park for free.

There is nothing wrong with that. It can be especially good when teaching privately or when life

is too busy to commit to teaching.

When doing that, there is little to nothing in overhead costs, but there is also little to no chances that we’ll be able to reach many people in the community.

I’ve regularly trained outside, overseas and locally, during blazingly high heat and icy winters...but that’s not for everybody and certainly not at all times.

Perhaps you set up special training that takes place in the elements (I’m a big fan of it), however, to succeed on a wider level that allows us to eventually take people with us on those adventures, we need money to afford indoor space and/or at least the things that make for a nice presentation of classes wherever we are.

Peer Pressure from the Past

Can we be real for a moment?

Tradition is often something we romanticize because we want to make the past more epic than it may have actually been. That’s not always the case, but it certainly does happen at times. A good example of this in our realm is in the frustration of the “Skittles Bag” of belts and uniforms you see in studios nowadays.

Relatively speaking, martial art belts aren’t that old of an idea. Certificates such as a menkyo license were in place long before colored cotton started being wrapped around our waists.

In fact, it wasn’t until roughly the 20th century that belts even began to become an idea.

Spoiler alert: it wasn’t started by a novice wearing a white belt that kept getting caked with dirt, blood, and sweat. It was started by an educator, Jigoro Kano (yep, that Jigoro Kano), who thought it would be a good idea to classify what level of experience and ability his students were at.

“Blasphemy”, I know.

Don’t worry, I agree that the legend of a belt stained with your efforts sounds nicer and is certainly more motivating.

When we hear the truth though, it stops being a mystical tradition that’s been kept alive by devout, purist schools. Instead, it’s simply a natural byproduct from the evolution of teaching and how to encourage further learning.

Do you want a camouflage belt or one with the color scheme of a superhero? Go for it. Aside from looking a bit silly, there is very little harm in using random colors.

The same can be said, to some level, regarding uniforms as well.

A uniform is meant to identify you with your tribe and is a “switch” for your brain to go into preparation for what you are about to do. Because of this, uniforms can hold special meaning in adding to the culture and vibe of the classes, however any organized look can do similar.

At the end of the day, it’s less about what you wear and more about why you wear it–look past the superficial details of the specific garments and instead consider the purpose and intention behind them.

This is how we discover the similarities in what and how we each train, realizing that perhaps other methods and ideas aren’t as ridiculous as once thought.

Time to bring it back to the initial question–what’re your answers? Again, how do you identify a McDojo?

Here’s what I think.

If it is a studio that doesn’t care about its students and their genuine progress, it’s just a bad school.

If the staff shows up just to get a paycheck, it’s just a bad business.

If it is a school whose students barely know how to move and think–well, I’ve seen plenty of those in traditional locations as well. A high level practitioner doesn’t automatically equate to high level students. Sounds like a bad teacher.

Is it a McDojo just because they make money and, because of that, the instructor can actually devote his time and energy to teaching everyone in the community full-time?

Is it a McDojo because the teachers strive to run classes that reach and engage as many different people with their art, ensuring the style doesn't become extinct?

Is it a McDojo because they also teach children, the students who–depending on how well they are taught–will grow up to love the art and become the next generation of serious adult students and teachers.

To be blunt: it’s not about selling out your art, it’s about leveling up your approach.

Again, it can be tricky to accurately pin down what a McDojo is, if not simply labeled as a bad

business or lazy studio. It’s a bit easier to nail down what it isn’t though.

A martial art studio that can comfortably keep its doors open isn’t a McDojo. It’s a success.

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