Friday, October 25, 2013

The McDojo: It may not be what you think.

     This particular post may not be popular with my normal audience of traditional martial artists, but I have come to believe it is needed.  Traditional martial arts businesses are under assault today by other martial arts businesses, instructors, and schools in what started out as a genuine movement to educate the public, but has instead become a popularity contest of sorts in which one group can puff up their chests and feel superior to the other based on subjective criteria that often have more to do with generalized opinions than actual observed or measurable fact. This movement centers around one of the most common and pervasive pejorative terms in the martial arts world today: "McDojo".
     Although I have used this term in the past myself, I have grown to hate it.  It seems that in today's world, martial artists believe that anything they do at their own schools is wonderful and awesome, and that anything done at other schools that they don't do themselves automatically makes those other schools McDojos, when this simply isn't the case at all, based on my own personal observation.  Please don't misunderstand me.  "McDojos" certainly do exist.  They may even outnumber quality schools that teach "real" martial arts, though personally I haven't found this to be true.  My attempt with this post is to clarify what I believe a McDojo is, and also what I believe a McDojo isn't. Undoubtedly, there will be readers who disagree with my conclusions.  That is fine.  These are only my opinions based on my own experiences over the last twenty or so years of teaching martial arts.  There may even be some who will believe I can't see the qualities of the McDojo because I am running one myself.  If that's what you believe, I'll be happy to allow you to do so, because my arguments won't change your mind anyway.  All I ask is that you read with an open mind, and if you disagree, feel free to state your case with comments on this page or on our facebook page.  If there's anything I support, it is rational, open discussion, while argument for the sake of argument alone will not be accepted. To the point, then:

A McDojo is: A Belt Factory

     "Belt Factory" is another widely used pejorative term, but one that I believe holds up under scrutiny, although "Belt Dispensary" may be more accurate.  At a McDojo, belts are given rather than earned.  If belts are awarded solely because a student shows up to class and pays the testing fee, this is a good sign that you have entered a McDojo.  If no student is ever held back from testing "on time", and no student ever fails a test, or if no real test for advancement is given at all, there is a good chance that this location is a McDojo. (Please note that a "test" can come in a number of ways, and while I prefer a formal test day, the lack of one does not automatically mean that students have not been tested.) If there is no established curriculum outlining what each rank should know and should be able to do, you may have a McDojo on your hands. If older curriculum material  is dismissed entirely and never practiced again simply to introduce new material for another rank, you may be in a McDojo.  If belt ranks seem to exist solely so that the instructor can charge fees without actually increasing knowledge or skill, there is a good possibility that you are visiting a McDojo. 

A McDojo is not: A studio with child black belts, or unconventional colored belts.

     This one may make me unpopular with the "traditional, "old-school", or "hard core" martial arts crowd, but in this case, I can honestly say I don't care, and often find the accusation itself to be loaded with hypocrisy. Let's start with youth black belts.  While it remains unusual, I have allowed students to test for black belt as young as 9 years old.  For me, these students have usually trained for 5 - 6 years, 3 times a week, and have demonstrated a high degree of proficiency in all of our association's basic curriculum for colored belts.  They have each written an acceptable 1,000 word essay on a topic relating to martial arts and their own lives. They have each passed a minimum of two physical pretests, and have each passed a 100 question written test encompassing the subjects of history, terminology, philosophy, etiquette, application, and theory, and have done so at 80% or higher.  They have demonstrated leadership skills in class and the ability to teach basic skills to others.  They have, in short, earned the right to wear a black belt at my school, and in my association.  This means nothing anywhere else, and shouldn't. (See No, you can't wear your black belt here...probably.)
     What insults me is the automatic assumption that a child wearing a black belt is automatically an incompetent martial artist.  The exact same people who tell us that "black belt is only the beginning" and that "black belt only means you are good at the basics" will jump on the bandwagon that youth black belts should never be awarded and that the kids who wear them are not "real" martial artists. This is hypocrisy. Your standard may be greater than mine, and that is fine.  It may be less, and that may be alright, too.  Judge black belts on how they act and what they do, not on how old they are and what they look like. The videos below are just a couple of admittedly unusual examples, but honestly, I'd have a hard time telling these kids that they don't know the basics and aren't ready to "start" their training. Granted, these kids are not American, but they are even younger than the age at which I will begin to award black belts, and do illustrate that one shouldn't make snap judgments regarding ability based on age alone:

     Okay then, what about the "unconventional" belt colors?  There are studios out there that have adopted striped belts, belts that are half one color and half another, and even camouflage belts. CAMOUFLAGE?? That definitely means it's a McDojo, right?  Not necessarily.  Again, it comes down to what the belt means, not what it looks like.  I personally don't like the "unconventional" belts because of how I think they look, but that's an aesthetic choice, and should have no basis in judging the value of a belt to another martial artist.  As long as the belt has meaning and was earned through the demonstration of skills needed to convey that meaning, why should we feel a need to disparage it?  In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't really that long ago that yellow, orange, or green belts would have been considered "unconventional", and now they are so normal that we don't even think of calling a studio a McDojo simply because it awards them.  Hypocrisy again.

A McDojo is:  A place in which money is more important than martial arts.

     To some degree, we have already talked about this, but it bears further discussion, as this is a very fine line, which is at times difficult to see,  making it hard to determine when it has been crossed. Some practices are very questionable, though.  The general rule I give to my students is: If it costs me money, it costs you money.  The question we need to ask is whether we are getting what we pay for.  Does a studio charge you a high rate just to enroll, without ever taking a class?  This may be a warning sign.  Are you encouraged, and even pushed, to join "upgrade programs" like the "Black Belt Club" or "Master's Club"?  If so, be sure that you are actually getting something in return for what you pay.  Are you forced to purchase equipment that you don't actually use?  This one is a dead giveaway.  Do you always test as long as you pay the fee, even if you are not ready, haven't improved your existing techniques, or haven't learned anything new?   This is a problem as well.  Is it expressly forbidden that you buy or use equipment from anywhere outside of the studio? If so, don't you need to ask why? Any time you feel that a charge is unjustified, you should be able to question it, and the instructor should be able to give you a reasonable explanation why the charge in question exists.  If they can't do so, you need to watch out.

A McDojo is not: A place that charges reasonable fees for the goods and services it offers.

   There are still some people (though happily a diminishing number of them) that believe martial arts instructors shouldn't make money from teaching martial arts, and that making a living by teaching martial arts means that the instructor has "sold out."  How ridiculous!  We don't tell doctors, lawyers, accountants, or teachers that they shouldn't be paid for what they do, so why should it be the case for martial arts instructors?  Martial arts studios should charge what the market will bear, and have every right to do so. Let's be fair for a minute.  Let's assume that you have the option of attending 3 classes per week at 1 hour per class, and that you pay $100.00 per month to do so.  This means you are paying your martial arts instructor an average of $8.33 an hour for what they do.  I know babysitters who make more than that! If you are paying less than that, or attend more times per week, you should be happy with the deal you're getting.  "Upgrade Programs" are also not automatically the mark of the devil.  I have no problem with studios charging more for something if they are actually offering something more.  If the upgrade program allows you access to additional training time, curriculum outside of what you would learn in the regular class, or other specific specialized training and benefits, then you can and should pay for it.  If all you get is a flashy new patch and a spiffy colored uniform, though, where's your return on investment?  Finally, you should expect to pay for equipment that you will use in class.  Requiring specific equipment is okay, and should be expected, if you are actually using it.  Optional equipment may be offered as well, and this is okay, as long as you understand that it is optional and you choose to buy it anyway.

A McDojo is: A place in which undisciplined children are allowed to run amok.

     Make no mistake.  In the United States, most children who are allowed to run amok will certainly do so. What happens at the martial arts school when they do?   Are students disciplined, asked to sit down, or even asked to sit out?  Are they told that this kind of behavior is not acceptable?  Every studio will have occasional discipline issues and running children.  It is how this behavior is handled that lets you know whether or not you have entered a McDojo.  At first glance, a studio may seem chaotic, but is this because children are training, or because they are running free, without guidelines or structure?  Is discipline enforced, or is it only mentioned and forgotten?  Do students have clear expectations of what they are to do before a class starts, or is it "free time" in which they have too many choices unrelated to training?

A McDojo is not: A place that uses fun and games to teach martial arts concepts and skills.

     I have adopted a new saying in my youth classes that I have recently started to have students repeat: "We have time for fun.  We have no time for nonsense."  Teachers that use fun drills and innovative games to teach martial arts concepts should be praised rather than berated.  Some martial artists believe that there is no place for games in their class, though.  What a shame.  Games that teach essential skills such as targeting, reaction time, complex memory recall, awareness, danger avoidance, basic combative strategies, teamwork, etc., can and should be developed for younger students, and should, at times, be required for adults as well. Often the adult students will find out just how hard these "games" really are, and will come to understand the concepts that they teach.  These games should have specific rules, goals, and measurable outcomes related to martial arts.  They should never completely take the place of traditional techniques and methods, but they do not automatically make a class worthless, either.

A McDojo is: A place that never spars, or never allows students to get hit.

   I have, on occasion, had parents tell me that they want their children to enroll in martial arts, but want me to ensure that their child will never get hit or encounter contact.  I'm sorry, but I can't do that.  Certainly we have graduated levels of contact, and safety remains a priority, but never getting hit in your martial arts journey means you either have absolutely miraculous defensive skills, or you are in a McDojo.  I also believe traditional drills are important stepping stones toward learning how to fight, as well as learning how to control oneself in a fight.  At the darkest and grittiest level, though, what we are doing is learning how to hurt people while trying not to get hurt ourselves.  If we are never exposed to that possibility, our skills are not being developed, and we are doing ourselves a great disservice.

A McDojo is not:  A place that uses protective equipment, practices point sparring, or uses traditional methods to teach martial techniques.

     Most people would not suggest that NFL players stop wearing protective gear, or that college and grade school levels aren't playing "real" football because they wear helmets.  A better analogy might be that no one would expect a SWAT Team or military personnel to infiltrate a hostile area without protective gear. However, there is still a vocal minority that insists one can never learn "real" martial arts without engaging in sparring with no protective equipment.  This is, like so many other statements, a ridiculous one. While I don't deny that there is value in occasionally sparring without gear, I don't recommend it to the beginner or intermediate level student.  Quality protective sparring gear measurably reduces injury, helps boost the confidence of students sparring, and allows greater impacts to be taken without suffering too greatly.  Its benefits far outweigh any perceived liabilities.
     Point sparring is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.  It teaches us how to control techniques to near pinpoint accuracy, develops speed, focus, and coordination, and creates a positive outlet without automatically generating fear of injury.  What it does not do, is reveal who the best "fighter" is, although to me the best fighter is the one who never has to fight.  Philosophy aside, ANY method of sparring, from point sparring, to boxing, to judo, to MMA, that establishes a set of rules, is automatically artificial.  Certainly some of these are closer to "real" than others.  I never said we should only practice point sparring; merely that its presence is not an automatic indicator of a McDojo. Within the confines of the studio, though, we can only ever approach reality.  We cannot actually duplicate it.
     Finally, traditional methods like forms practice, one-steps , and board breaking have come under assault in recent years.  I will simple say this: I believe that those who find these practices "worthless" never understood the reason why we do them to begin with, and probably never will.  Nothing I can say will change that, so I won't even try right now.  I do feel the need to say this, though: anyone who believes "boards don't hit back" has never really trained at breaking boards. They hit back- believe it.

A McDojo is: A place in which the instructor claims very high rank, or multiple ranks, without being able to back up those claims.
     This one is pretty straightforward.  If someone claims to be a 9th Dan black belt in multiple styles and has done this in 5 years (yes, a ridiculous over exaggeration, but it helps make the point) and can't tell you where he got those ranks or how he acquired such great skill, you have a problem.  If someone has "created" the style he or she teaches, at least ask why and how it was created.  Maybe it has real value and maybe it doesn't.  The student should be the judge of that.  Questions that should be readily answered by instructors in order to avoid McDojos include:

"How long have you trained in the martial arts?"
"Where did you start your own training?"
"Who awarded you your rank/ how did you earn your rank?"
"What does your rank mean?  What was required of you to earn it?"
"What are the main characteristics of the style you teach?"
"Where did your style come from? What other style is it similar to?"

There are more, and some of these will only have meaning in the right context, but this is at least a start for the uninitiated.

A McDojo is not: A place in which the instructor has very high rank, or multiple ranks, and can back it up.

     Again, people often make judgments too soon without knowing the whole truth.  I know a number of high-ranking martial artists who hold rank in multiple arts and have legitimately earned those ranks, while still teaching classes every day.  These people can satisfactorily answer all of the questions above and then some, and will gladly share their knowledge and skills with you if you become a student.  As we have said before, it is an understanding of what the rank in question means, and what the instructor can teach and do that is important, not the number of stripes on his or her belt or the number written on his or her business card.

A McDojo is: A place of lowered standards.

     If you can't identify this one for yourself, do yourself a favor and conduct some research.  Compare what you see at different martial arts studios.  Hop on Youtube and compare videos of different styles, organizations, and schools.  Get on the web and google terms like McDojo, martial arts standards, martial arts curriculum, etc, and decide what standards you accept and the level to which you refuse to lower yourself.  Only you can decide.

A McDojo is not: A place that has standards you don't happen to agree with.

     If a studio has defined standards for advancement, you may find them to be below your own personal bar or above it.  This does not make that location a McDojo.  You must be honest with yourself when you choose to use this label, and identify everything that you find "wrong" or "unacceptable." You must then decide whether these things are truly present or merely perceived.  Only then will you know if you are in a "McDojo."

There are any number of categories that could be added to this list, and there are no doubt readers who do not agree with what I have written.  My true aim here is to be honest with myself and realize that I have, at times, felt superior to other martial arts schools, and  have, at other times, felt inferior as well.  As long as I strive to better myself and my students, hold strong to my own ideals, and teach what I believe to be right, effective, and "real", then I am not running a McDojo, whether anyone else thinks so or not.  While no one ever has told me I am running a McDojo, I can feel comfortable defending myself if anyone ever does.

Kick. Punch.  Easy Stuff.



Tuesday, October 1, 2013

You got your art on my martial! No, you got your martial in my art!

     Many years ago (even slightly before my time) someone was tasked with the creation of a new advertising campaign for the confectionery wonder than is Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. As a child, I actually didn't much appreciate these delicacies, but in my maturity I have come to recognize their genius. The marketing idea that came to pass for this marvelous blend of sweet and salty goodness was both simple and brilliant.  It created a perfectly simple scenario in which two people who loved an individual tasty treat would, through an accident of fate, come to realize that both things together can be even better. The rest, as they say, is history.  There were many commercials over the course of several years that followed the same pattern, but you can view what is possibly the earliest below.

In this clip, we see the principal participants move through several stages of development.  The initial response is one of surprise, shock, and disappointment. The disappointment turns quickly to revulsion. However, once each of them tries their newly created combination, there is an additional surprise that comes with acceptance and delight as they come to understand that this new and innovative combination is something good.  Much the same thing is actually happening in the martial arts world as well.  Unfortunately, it seems that many of us have been unable to get past the stage of shock, disappointment, and revulsion.  
     No matter what we do or how we present ourselves and our chosen path, there will always be a group that values the artistic side of what we do above the perceived violent nature of the martial side.  There will always be a group that moves away from real-world application and self defense and toward emphasis of movement, stance, positioning, athleticism, performance, and beauty. In short, this group seeks to preserve everything that is "art" without worrying about, exploring, or in some cases even acknowledging, the "martial." This idea is exemplified through much of today's "traditional" martial arts competitions, and has been carefully and meticulously nurtured in some (though not all) forms of contemporary wushu, in which performances are judged much like gymnastics, figure skating, or diving.  This movement has likely reached its apex in the United States with the development and proliferation of XMA, or Extreme Martial Arts, in which acrobatics, dance, and feats of gymnastic skill have been added in order to play up the aspect of showmanship in order to draw more attention from an audience.  The skills of the practitioners of these styles are undoubtedly impressive, and much of what they demonstrate could be applied to fighting or self defense, but those aspects are ignored in order to create a better show. Truthfully, in may ways, these systems have become more of a performance art than a martial art.  While these forms of individual expression have removed much of the real-world fighting and martial application from what they do, there has been an equally strong (or even stronger) movement against this way of thinking, in which many decry the development of "flash over substance."
     There has been a steady increase, particularly within the last ten to twenty years with the rise of technology and online media, toward the "bringing back" or "rediscovery" of the myriad of martial applications present in traditional or classical martial arts styles.  Internet websites and Youtube videos abound that are dedicated to sharing effective applications of traditional techniques. Proponents of this movement believe that traditional martial arts are not lacking in effectiveness, but have been "watered down" over years of ineffective and unimaginative teaching.  Personally, while I believe that this resurgence of  martial value in what we do as traditional martial artists is mostly a very good thing, I also believe that it can be taken too far.  I guess I blame Bruce Lee.

Well, not really, but we'll get to that.  I do realize that I'm walking on dangerous ground by challenging the "legend" that is Bruce Lee...but that's exactly what I intend to do: challenge the legend, not the man, nor the martial artist.  
     Bruce Lee was one of the first prominent figures in the martial arts world to encourage doing away with strict adherence to traditional styles. He believed that martial artists should expose themselves to as many styles as possible, absorbing what is useful from each, while discarding anything that was not effective, and thus deemed not useful. Lee believed that developing oneself as a martial artist was akin to creating the perfect sculpture, starting with a lump of clay, and through the removal of the unneeded parts, one would eventually arrive at a finished piece, including only that which was readily effective in a combative situation. He referred to this process as Jeet Kune Do. In essence, Bruce Lee was one of the first proponents of removing "flash" or "flowery techniques" in order to develop effectiveness or "substance."  This concept is wonderful in theory, and in that it forces us to question how and why we do what we do in our own martial journeys, it is good. However, I do believe that there have been some who have misinterpreted Lee's efforts to the point at which they have so zealously pursued the "useful" and "effective" that they have actively worked to remove the "art" from martial arts. 
     It is this idea that fuels and drives the modern juggernaut that is the MMA, or Mixed Martial Arts, industry. Many (though not all) proponents and practitioners of MMA seem to advocate either the stripping away or the combining of martial arts styles in order to arrive at something that is effective in a fight above all else. Traditional practice in forms, as well as the practice of tradition itself, is often abandoned altogether.  The "art" is removed, and the "A" in MMA goes missing. With the popularity of MMA on the rise, and the popularity of Bruce Lee never truly having waned, many who practice the traditional arts have felt the need to become apologetic or defensive about what they do.  In some cases, it has even been suggested that the term "martial art" (wushu, moo sul, bugei) should be replaced with the term "martial way" (wudao, moo do, budo), and some styles, particularly those of Japanese or Okinawan origins, will swear to the fact that they practice "budo" and not "bugei."
     If we do trace this movement back to Bruce Lee, though, we must acknowledge a fact that is all too often overlooked, in my opinion.  The fact is this: Bruce Lee was only 32 years old when he died, and at that time had been actively training in the martial arts for less than 20 years.  There is no doubt that he was a phenomenal martial artist, and perhaps was even a martial arts prodigy, but we will never know how his philosophies may have changed as he grew older. I myself have been training for nearly 30 years, and as I approach 40 years of age, my understanding of martial arts is much different than it was when I was 32.  I do not even remotely believe that I have discovered everything that is "useful" in even one style, let alone many, and I therefore do not feel that I can safely discard anything.  This is not to say that I think I am in any way a better martial artist than Bruce Lee, but I do believe that we often do not realize exactly how "useful" something can be until after we have discarded it, only later realizing that we need it (or at least that we can, in fact, use it). Just because we do not understand how something is used now, that does not automatically make that thing useless. I actually think that at some level, Bruce Lee would have agreed with this, in that while he may have chosen to limit the techniques he used to what he found to be effective, he never believed in limiting the self. It is unfortunate that many who choose to quote him and  believe they follow his example have chosen to do so.
     Real-world self defense, the development of fighting skills, and the deeper understanding of martial application are all reasonable and desirable outcomes of training in the martial arts.  Aesthetic beauty, athleticism, and grace of movement are reasonable and desirable outcomes as well.  Much like the chocolate and peanut butter in the Reese's commercial, each is a tasty treat all by itself.  It is the combination, balance, and blending of the two that brings out our true potential, though. It is the study and development of both sides that makes us martial artists. The desire to eliminate the art fom the martial or the martial from the art only limits us from experiencing the benefits which come only from the synergy of both.
       After all, if we examine the qualities that make a technique "artistic" what do we find?  We find art in the blending of correct body mechanics, athleticism, the proper alignment of our musculoskeletal structure, the appropriate execution of balance, speed, and power, and the elusive quality that is "attitude" or "spirit."  If we in turn analyze what it is that makes a technique "effective", we find the exact same things that make the technique "artistic." It is only the added understanding and comprehension of how to properly apply the given technique to an attack or series of attacks in a way that works which makes the technique "martial" as well.  In only one of two ways, then, is the "art" or the "martial" removed:

1. Through intention
2. Through ignorance

Traditional martial artists must strive to combat both of the above, as each is equally detrimental to the development of a balanced martial artist. By intentionally removing the art, we remove personal expression and "spirit" as well, and we begin to remove the desire to polish the self through our training while we instead work only toward polishing the "effectiveness" and "usefulness" of or techniques. We begin to forget that all knowledge is useful.  By intentionally removing the martial, we may create something that is entertaining, impressive, and even beautiful, but in so doing we lose the ability to do more than perform or demonstrate, and the skills we develop are of no real value in resolving conflict, which is the true meaning of the word "martial" in Asian culture.  This intent is by far more difficult to combat than mere ignorance.  At least when someone genuinely doesn't know what is missing from their training, we can attempt to show, to tell, to teach, and to guide them towards discovery of his or her own ignorance.  When people stubbornly cling to their intention to keep the art out of the martial, or the martial out of the art, it seems that all we can do is stand back and wonder why they simply won't take a taste of both together. In so doing, they may discover that true Moo Sul (wushu, bugei) is Moo Do (wudao, budo).  Try it. You just might like it.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.