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Supersize my karate

by on January 14, 2010

“Welcome to <insert name here> dojo, may I take your order please?”

Dare I use the forbidden M word?

Are McDojo’s the future of martial arts clubs as we know it?

The problem is that martial arts is becoming something that is being offered to the masses, no longer do we see small clubs of a few highly skilled and hard training and devoted members; more and more clubs are popping up all over the place and advertising to attract members. But how did this start? where did the shift come from? Is it the natural progression of things and are we witnessing the end of the small “secret” club?

The main problem that I think is the root of this issue is money. Sooner or later, what it all boils down to in the capitalist culture that we live in is a rectangular piece of paper, with some old dead person’s picture that nobody can really recognise anymore anyway. Because dojo’s need cash flow to survive, they are forced to do what they can to attract a larger student body. The result? Martial Arts for the Masses. Unfortunately, in any sport the people that train the hardest and become “super athletes” are not the average joe, they are usually only represented by less than 5% of the population (ok I can’t support that statistic) and unfortunately it is the remaining 95% that pay the bills. Pushing everyone to their limits generally only attracts the hardcore ahletes, the ones willing to really put in the effort to see the major returns. This strategy unfortunately drives away a lot of students, which means less dues and a tougher time at making the rent. Even if these clubs can make rent, where does that leave the instructor? More often than not they have to volunteer their time… Is it any wonder that in all popular media the “superhuman martial arts instructor” that runs the club/dojo that our hero joins to train at is struggling to break even or living at the dojo to keep costs down?

So what is the solution? I don’t think there really is one… some dojos / clubs have gone the other way, bumping up the fees so that they can get by with fewer members. The problem with this approach is that it excludes the people who just cant afford exorbitant fees…. so what next? A return to backyard dojos?

I just don’t see this epidemic going away. McDojos are here to stay and they are a fact of life as it really is the natural progression if we are trying to make martial arts accessible to the masses.

  1. Fingers permalink

    The only way to stop McDojos is to educate people.

    Reading blogs/forums and looking for recommendations on clubs will help. Having a guide to what makes a good club, and what to expect from a teacher/club would help people evaluate waht they want from the experience.

    I agree that cash is the drive for these places, but would like to add that we (society) are generally lazy and have come to expect immediate gratification. So a fast black belt with no effort is just an extension of this.

    Anything that is an ‘art’ will IMHO by definition take years of practice.

  2. Great article! If there was a proverbial nail, you hit it on the head. Membership fees are also largely driven by external forces to karate (actually, other martial arts are facing this problem as well).

    As the world moves on and inflation continues to … inflate, facilities costs go up. Take any medium to large city and look at the real estate market from the last few years. It continues to grow and that won’t stop. Clubs have to put up their fees and recruit more members to compensate. The result: discretion goes down and a club that may have started as a “traditional” karate club of 1 or 2 dozen hardcore super karateka is not consumed largely by people who just want a work out (as you write). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with people joining karate for a good workout, but this is the result.

    I’m not sure if increased fees and the use of marketing necessarily means the club is a McDojo. Rob Redmond has an interesting article on what he sees to be the criteria of a McDojo (; I tend to agree with him on this point.

    Fingers: I don’t foresee education helping anything. People are told not to drink ‘n drive continuously and you still have droves of sub-humans who do. The majority of the population is motivated by observable progression and belt factories like McDojos satisfy that need, at least for a while.

    I don’t think the definition of “art” includes a requirement of taking years of practice. You’ve got a lot of Beethovens and Van Goghs out there.

    • yeah i didnt really mean to imply that those were the key factors signifying a McDojo spefically, I think the McDojo’s generally have lower fees haha…

      As for education, call me jaded but I don’t really know if that will fix the problem… basically I see it like Phil said. And at the end of the day, the people who really want that kind of training will seek it out.

      Maybe the solution is some of that bailout money…. 🙂

  3. McDojo Customer permalink

    “Hi, I’d like to order some weight loss, … umm, a black belt to show my friends within 3 years, and a false sense of competence on the side, please? Hold the philosophy!”

    “Sure. That comes to $900 a year please, drive through.”

  4. Anything that goes mainstream is going to end off being diluted in the sense that you have more average data points than you have exceptionally high data points.

    In the karate sense, you have more people of average athleticism (like me) than you have gifted athletes. A class that’s going to accommodate both has to boil down to the average case (or at best, slightly above average in order to give most people something to strive for).

    The same thing occurs in the educational system.

    This is the case in most areas of life as I see it: the majority of people (of average ability) get satisfied, those of very low ability struggle or just don’t participate, the top 0.1% of people get large monetary backing, and the gifted people who are above average but not in the top 0.1% are the ones that suffer the most from any situation that attempts to bring in as much participation as possible. Think again of the school system, sports, karate, politics, etc.

    • The thing is that the way I see it those of us of average athelticism (I would rate myself behind you in that Phil…) are still ahead of the bell curve when you look at the level exhibited in the McDojo stream… the dilution is just that bad.

      I don’t really think the solution is to move to Japan at all really. There are at least a few good martial arts clubs knocking around in the western hemisphere, but I get the gist of what you’re saying – the problem is inherent in the capitalist North American “please me now” culture that we live in, and nothing that you or I can do will change that. Western society is what it is, there are just too many people who believe that they don’t need to work for things and that it should just be handed to them on a platter, and the problem is they have the buying power, so the product being sold (karate) takes the hit.

  5. Brian permalink

    I grew our club from me plus my instructor to 15-20 current students in a four year period, using advertising, word-of-mouth, and flashy demonstrations. Speaking from that point of view, I feel like the desire to recruit new people boils down to a few simple facts of human nature.

    1. Students feed on each others energy. Too few people in a class means that no one tries as hard as they are able to together. Teamwork is more than just tournaments, and I think few of us would have been able to learn without our classmates.

    2. People need time to become dedicated to anything; no one is dedicated right away. In the interim, they need things like friends in the club, hard workouts, games, and clear goals like performing a team kata or earning a belt rank.

    3. People like to teach. I find karate to be very valuable for myself, and I want to help other people find that same value in it for themselves.

    It’s true (arguably) that I was able to learn things more quickly when it was just me and Sensei, so perhaps you could say that my own training has been diluted by focusing on people who won’t necessarily be as dedicated as me in the end.

    However, I also feel a sense of obligation to share karate with my fellow [wo]men, and to pull people along for a little while, until they can grow their own sense of how karate is valuable to them.

    Although there have been plenty of washouts over the four year period, I’ve also gained many incredible friends, have a dedicated group of seven students who come to nearly every practice (even if they aren’t necessarily natural superstars), and can be happy that I’ve done what I can to spread what I love to other people.

    It is a shame if an instructor refuses to teach all knowledge-seekers because they want to keep karate contained to a secret club.

    • anna permalink

      I think you and I have been in the same situation, but you’re taking it far more diplomatically than I did. Thankyou. You have given me something to think about.

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