Hint: They Don't Serve Big Macs

A "McDojo" is a negative term within the martial arts community used to describe a training establishment that prioritizes profit over the delivery of quality training. Drawing an analogy from the fast-food chain McDonald's, a McDojo often focuses on churning out large quantities of high-ranking students rapidly, rather than fostering genuine, gradual skill development.

Characteristics of a McDojo may include quick belt promotions, high and inflexible fee structures, instructors with questionable credentials, and a lack of full-contact sparring. The term is usually used to warn, or caution against organizations that undermine the values and traditions of martial arts.

Your guide to becoming an expert:

Understand It So You Can Avoid Them

Understanding the term "McDojo" is essential so you know if you are receiving high quality training that respects the values, traditions, and integrity of the martial disciplines. The term helps distinguish between genuine martial arts schools focused on proper skill development and those that prioritize profit, offering quick progressions and belts without cultivating true martial skills.

Recognizing a McDojo can prevent you and other practitioners from falling into traps that could hinder your true potential and growth in martial arts.

The McOrigin of the Term

The term originally emerged in the martial arts community as a derogatory label for martial arts schools focused more on profit than fostering legitimate skills. The "Mc" prefix, borrowed from fast-food chain McDonald's, symbolizes the process of mass-producing low-quality goods quickly.

This is similar to how these kinds of martial arts schools rapidly promote students to higher ranks for financial gain. Rapid promotion without travelling on the road to earn it devalues the authenticity and natural progression of martial arts training.

We're not 100% sure when (or where) the term was first used, but we know it's here to stay.

Common Characteristics to Look Out For

When you try to understand whether or not a martial arts school may be a McDojo, there are a few key characteristics to look out for.

Rapid Belt Promotions: McDojos often promise or execute quick belt promotions. This is contrary to the principle that martial arts proficiency is a long-term commitment, where progressing to higher ranks requires time, effort, and mastery of skills.

High Fees with Contractual Obligations: McDojos typically charge high rates and lock students into long-term financial contracts. It’s common for institutions like this to demand payment upfront for years of classes or belt testing fees in advance.

No Contact Sparring: Sparring is a key element in most martial arts disciplines. In a McDojo, no contact sparring might be emphasized, limiting students' capacity to understand the art form in a realistic context. This could lead to a false sense of competence and possible danger if a real self defense situation arises.

Two women in karate gis engage in competition at a tournament.
The best gyms actively encourage participation in competitions or tournaments.

Questionable Credentials of Trainers: In a McDojo, instructors often have dubious credentials that are not easily verifiable. They may claim high ranks in multiple disciplines (without proof to back it up) or allege to have been trained by prominent masters.

A lack of transparency about the instructors' training lineage and qualifications can be a red flag.

Overemphasis on Marketing and Sales: McDojos tend to place heavy focus on marketing gimmicks and sales tactics, like uniforms with many patches (that carry little or no meaning), walls of colorful belts, and mysterious trophies and medals. They often prioritize sales over the quality of training they provide, leaving their customers feeling more like transactions than students.

By understanding these characteristics, you can make informed choices about your training. You deserve to get quality instruction that respects the traditions and teaches you valuable skills (especially if you're paying for classes).

Impact of McDojos on the Martial Arts Community

McDojos present a significant issue within the martial arts community, and cause damage in various ways. This particularly applies in terms of undermining traditional values and creating a false sense of competence.

Undermining the Value and Tradition of Martial Arts

Martial arts carry a rich heritage of discipline, respect, and continuous self-improvement, involving years of dedicated training. McDojos, with their focus on quick belt promotions and profit-oriented practices, undermine these core values.

By giving belts away with little required effort or skill, they dilute the meaningful progression typically associated with martial arts ranking. This not only discredits the value of the belt system but also devalues the effort put in by students in traditional dojos, who work hard to earn their ranks.

Creating a False Sense of Competence

Additionally, McDojos often promote a false sense of competence, which can be dangerous. By avoiding proper sparring practices or teaching ineffective techniques, they fail to prepare students for real-world self-defense scenarios.

Students from these schools may find themselves poorly equipped for physical confrontations, leading to potential harm. There's also the psychological harm that comes as a result of trusting students being led to believe they have practical skills that have been pressure tested.

Students at an Aikido dojo practice technique on the mats.
If you never pressure test what you're learning, you'll never know if it works.

This can lead to a harsh reality check when students put their training to the test and it fails them. Overall, McDojos distort the essence of martial arts, harm its reputation, and potentially endanger their practitioners. It's wise for the martial arts community to remain vigilant and committed to preserving the integrity and authenticity of legitimate martial art forms.

How to Spot a McDojo: Key Tips and Advice

To find a legitimate martial arts school and avoid falling prey to one of these so-called "dojos", it's essential to be informed and equipped with the right tools. Here are some key tips and advice on how to spot a McDojo.

Research Instructor Credentials

When assessing a martial arts school, take the time to research the instructors' backgrounds and qualifications. Look up their training lineage, claimed achievements, and affiliations with martial arts organizations.

Genuine instructors will have transparent, verifiable credentials and will be proud to share their backgrounds with prospective students.

Evaluate the Training Curriculum

A good martial arts school will have an organized curriculum, with well-defined goals and objectives for each level. It’s essential that the training program teaches effective techniques and incorporates realistic sparring and self-defense scenarios. (Especially if that's what it claims to teach.)

If a martial arts school doesn't focus on skill development at all and instead emphasizes quick progressions, it may be a McDojo. Additionally, if possible, you can observe a few classes before you commit to signing up, to see the quality of instruction and the student-teacher dynamic.

Check Reviews and Testimonials

Do your homework by checking online reviews and testimonials. Genuine schools often have positive feedback from satisfied students, who highlight the quality of instruction and their personal growth in the discipline.

Keep in mind that a few negative reviews should not necessarily discredit the school, as no institution is perfect. However, if you notice a pattern of negative reviews that mention concerns about receiving low-quality instruction, high fees, or quickly-advanced belts - make a note and consider them red flags.

By doing thorough research, evaluating credentials and curriculums, and looking at genuine feedback, you will increase your chance of finding a reputable school that upholds the true values and traditions of martial arts.

Strategies to Combat McDojos

Both the martial arts community and regulatory bodies can take proactive steps to counter the promotion and spread of McDojos to maintain the integrity of martial arts. But how? Here are some strategies that can be implemented to help preserve the authenticity of legitimate martial arts schools.

Set and Enforce Standards

Martial arts organizations and regulatory bodies can establish clear criteria that could include guidelines for instructor qualifications, belt promotion requirements, training curriculums, and safety measures. By setting a benchmark, schools would have a goal to strive towards and meet, or risk losing their credibility and affiliation.

In theory, this sounds like a good idea. In practice, competition and rivalries between gyms might prevent this from ever happening.

Create Institution Certification and Accreditation Programs

Another potential way to distinguish legitimate institutions from McDojos, would be to have regulatory bodies introduce institution-specific certification and accreditation programs that rigorously examine and evaluate martial arts schools. This process would involve verification of instructors' credentials, direct observation of training sessions, and evaluation of the school's curriculum and facilities.

Schools that successfully complete this process could then be granted accreditation, providing students and parents with a guarantee of quality and adherence to martial arts values.

Launch Public Awareness Campaigns

Martial arts organizations, together with the broader community, can raise awareness about McDojos through campaigns and educational initiatives. These could include seminars, workshops, and online resources that provide information on how to identify a McDojo and the risks associated with training in such establishments.

By raising public awareness, the idea is that the demand for McDojos will decrease and aspiring students will be more likely to avoid them.

Report and Enforce Changes

Regulatory bodies could also establish a mechanism for students and martial arts practitioners to file complaints or report suspicious establishments. This reporting system would serve as a way to identify schools that might be spreading misinformation and therefore warrant further scrutiny.

Organizations should then take steps to investigate these reports, using their authority to enforce sanctions or revoke affiliations if necessary. By implementing and advocating for (some, or all of) these strategies, the martial arts community—including practitioners, instructors, and regulatory bodies—can work together to mitigate the negative impact of McDojos.

Avoid McDojos to Preserve the Integrity of Martial Arts

The rise of McDojos is an unfortunate trend in the martial arts world, driven by profit-oriented motives instead of a commitment to the authentic teachings and traditions intrinsic to these arts. They prize quick advancement and financial gain above a true embodiment of martial arts values such as discipline, respect, and humility.

As potential students or parents of prospective students, the responsibility is on us to ensure we are not contributing to the spread, or profit of these McDojos. By looking beyond flashy marketing techniques and convenient advancement schemes, we can make educated decisions that will benefit everyone involved.

Create a Culture of Teaching and Learning

Remember, the path to martial art mastery is a journey, not a sprint. It involves hard work, patience, and a deep-seated respect for the art form you enjoy. The satisfaction earned through diligent practice, skill development and improvement is only achievable through skillful instruction and guidance.

We encourage you to seek reputable schools so you can learn from qualified and humble instructors in a training environment that fosters both personal growth and a genuine appreciation of martial arts. At Martial Nerd, we do our best to create a culture that values this style of teaching (and learning) since we understand that it helps promote self discovery and personal growth.