Thoughts of a Proud McDojo Graduate

In the martial arts world, “McDojo” is a pretty derogatory term. Also known as a “black belt factory”, a McDojo is a term for a low quality martial art school where the standards are low, but the rate of black belt earners are high. The people who earn black belts from that school tend to be out of shape or have little to no fighting skills.

I got my black belt from a McDojo. I never really wanted to admit this, especially since I still love and respect my master. However, he didn’t train me as well as I would like in terms of fighting. In terms of other areas, such as courtesy and respect, he was great. I still hold an affinity for him and he even said he was proud of me for continuing on my martial arts journey which made me cry manly tears of joy.

Nevertheless, my Taekwondo school was a McDojo. The way my master taught his forms were pretty weird, I did get promoted up the belt ranks a lot, and I did realize how unskilled I was compared to my other peers once I went into university.

All that being said, I am peace with it. I am also proud that I got my black belt from a McDojo.

I shall explain.

First, let’s think about education in general.

Many of us are in school for at least 12 years, some go to school for up to 16. During those years we learn a variety of subjects such as languages and literature, the different branches of science, mathematics, foreign languages, and so on.

Now, despite all of your schooling how many of you . . .

-Understand how the system of your government works?

-Can use the quadratic formula?

-Are conversant in your nation’s history?

-Can write and analyze poems?

-Can solve chemical equations?

-Can fluently speak a foreign language like Spanish, French, German, or Bahasa Indonesia?

-Can name more than 20 countries on a map?

Chances are, you can do 2 or 3 of these things but you can’t do them all unless you are a genius. Maybe you can do chemical equations but don’t know where in the world is Tajikistan. Maybe you can analyze Shakespeare, but can’t do trigonometry to save your life.

Is this a failure of the education system? Not really. It’s just that when we are finished schooling, we remember what we use or find interesting and simply forget what we find boring or useless.

I would like to use my family to illustrate this point. My brother took four years of Japanese and I four years of Chinese. Yet, my brother forgot everything from his Japanese classes while I can still hold a conversation in Mandarin. Why? Because he doesn’t use Japanese and stopped caring about it, while I still have an interest in Chinese and even use it in my job. However, my brother can crunch numbers and analyze statistics like it’s nobody’s business while I can only do basic mathematics as he works in business administration and I don’t.

My sister can tell you every part of a cell while she is horrible about history. I am the opposite, I can expound on historical events but only know that the nucleus is the center of the cell and nothing more. That’s because my sister is into biology and works in environmental science while I have a huge interest in history. I hardly use it as a job, but it helps a lot whenever I work overseas.

This phenomena also happens in the martial arts.

Lots of Americans would take a martial arts class, especially as kids. However over time they either lose interest in the art, have other commitments such as school or career, have to deal with life’s problems, and so on. That’s when they stop and their martial art skills basically fade into obscurity. Then there are those who continue which means their skill level increases.

Many schools don’t have a weed out process, but some do. If a student can’t do enough push-ups or is not up to par in fighting, then the master might kick that student out and tell them never to come back ever again . . . which you ask me is very cultish.

That being said, though, most students tend to weed themselves out. First you have a group of students with colored belts. Overtime many quit until you have a few who obtain their black belt. Then a lot more quit until one gets their second, third, fourth, and whatever the highest degree.

I don’t subscribe to this cult attitude of people quitting because they are fakes or losers. There are some things more important than marital arts and sometimes they have to stop. However, there is a difference between one who quits and one who continues after a hiatus.

Whenever I go on social media, especially in martial art groups, I always encounter people who decry the existence of McDojo black belts like me. They decry how they had to do 1000 push-ups or fight against three people in a sparring match or break bricks with their bare hands to get a black belt while there are those who simply waltz into a school and get one in almost no time without breaking a sweat.

I do agree that quality control is a problem and that it is horrible that these low quality schools exist. Not all black belts are created equal. That being said, though, the same goes for high school and university degrees.

A high school degree from a public school in Detroit is a lot easier to obtain and has less quality than a high school degree from Choate Rosemary Hall or from Phillips Academy. A college degree from Yale opens more doors than California University of Pennsylvania. And while there are many many articles about people like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates being successful college dropouts, they are more of the exception than the norm. It is better to have a degree than not.

That being said, what really matters is how said person uses that degree. Larry King graduated from a public high school in Brooklyn and didn’t even attend college. Steve Jobs was also a public school graduate and dropped out of Reed College. Ronald Reagan graduated from Eureka College and he became a successful actor and president of the United States!

The point I am trying to make is that it less about education and more about how one uses it to get ahead in life.

The same can be said for martial arts. Unfortunately, I don’t have any names of famous martial artists who got their black belts from McDojos and found further success, but I can bet there are those who have. Maybe they are in the military. Maybe they are actors and stuntmen. It’s even possible that many of them are MMA fighters. They took their McDojo training and used it as a stepping stone for something better.

The only issue with McDojos I can agree with many others is the false sense of confidence one gets when learning a martial art in a low quality setting. The lower the quality of training, the less likely one is going to survive in a fight. I am glad that I got beat up in a tournament and sparring setting, but things could have gotten worse if I was involved in a street fight.

It might be a cop-out to say this, but that’s why martial arts should be used as a last resort. It is better to give the money to the mugger, run away from criminals, and be sure to avoid dangerous areas. Even if one learns a lethal martial art, there is no guarantee one can survive a dangerous encounter.

Still, to reiterate, I am still proud of my McDojo training as it gave me a unique insight in persistence and tenacity. Hypothetically speaking, getting a black belt from a substandard martial art should set me up for failure. It should have since whenever I sparred with people from better schools, I almost always got my ass kicked. It should have as I got ridiculed for my mediocre techniques. It should have as many people view Taekwondo as an ineffective martial art (which I strongly disagree).

I am proud of the setbacks as these force me to take charge of my own practice, to be mindful of my strengths and weaknesses and find ways to improve my skills for the better. These setbacks compelled me to be more creative in my training to compensate for the lack that I had when I first started practicing.

In the end, my McDojo black belt paved the way for me to learn self-reliance and personal responsibility.

So for those who did not get a black belt from a McDojo and trained like an elite warrior, I have this to say to you: be grateful. Not everyone has the chance, luck, or karma to train with a master as awesome as yours and receive the valuable lessons that you possess. I get where you come from in how hard your worked for your black belt and how little people like me did, but it made you a better fighter in the long run. I still have a lot catch up on.

If you have a black belt from a McDojo, do not despair. The fact that your techniques are crappy puts you ahead of those who never learned them in the first. All you need to do is take inventory of your strengths and weaknesses and find ways to improve upon both. Read books by other teachers on how to level up your training (Loren W. Christensen is a favorite of mine, and a funny guy too!). Read up on your art and look for ways to improve your techniques. Watch videos and maybe even try cardio kickboxing. Seek out a friend and teacher who is willing to help you improve what you know . . . provided no ego is involved. Of course taking up a fitness regime helps as well.

Last, but not least, don’t kick yourself for your previous training. Not everyone has the same chances to train in the most elite schools with high level teachers. In some cases, some martial arts styles are not as widespread as others. So do the best you can with what you know and keep going.

Jiayou, Osu, Taekwon, Tang-Soo, and go for broke.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts of a Proud McDojo Graduate

  1. You have piqued my interest in McDojo and I am going to search one around me and go get my black belt next week. Well… I am really not into the tradition of “torturing trainee”. I think it’s a time honored tradition to treat trainees like servants and inflict them with all kinds of pain. It happened to herbal medicine workshops, sushi chef training, and many other trades as well. Well, also in music instruments, painting… Every apprenticeship was a sadistic undertaking. I am not sure I agree with it. It only shows the lack of psychological awareness of human learning and try to use brute force to justify …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure you can find a McDojo in your area, but you have to be oblique, haha. Again, McDojo is an insulting term so if you ask if such a school is one the master/teacher would be insulted.

      But I also know what you mean about how these traditional Asian trades involve a lot of abuse and I find it disgusting. When I was living in China and in Korea, I met a lot of men with anger issues and I wonder if this is why. Long time ago I watched the film, “Farewell My Concubine” about 2 boys training for the Beijing Opera and it broke my heart how much abuse went on in the film. There was even a scene in which this 11 year old trainee decided to hang himself after getting beaten by his teacher. It’s pretty messed up.

      Like

  2. Wonderfully written post. “McDojo” is fun to say and I liked the diverse examples of the knowledge questions you asked.

    In the end what is important is the growth mindset, isn’t it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a lot. The whole McDojo concept is almost universally condemned and very much like the mark of Cain in the martial arts community. That’s why I wanted to write about it in a more hopeful, especially for those who feel like their martial arts practice was a waste.

      Liked by 1 person

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