Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Appeal of McDojos

I was talking to a friend of mine named Slan at work this morning. He was planning to take up Aikido at a local community centre. That is, until the Vancouver civil service strike shut the community centre down for nearly three months. Frustrated by the strike, he complained about it nearly every morning. He even threatened to start a blog about it to voice his complaints. He's a programmer though, not a writer.

"So Slan, have you started your Aikido classes now that the strike is over?" I asked, looking forward to discussing his experiences.

He looked up at me from his desk with a defeated look. "No, not yet. I've been emailing every other day since the strike ended and the instructor only responded once to tell me that 'He'd let me know when things were up and running again.' No timeline, nothing."

Slan trained in the martial arts for most of his life. At one point he was a running a school, a commercial one at that. He recently read my blog posting about McDojos, and fully agreed with my criticisms of them, having experienced them first hand.

"McDojos have their faults, but there are advantages to them, otherwise they wouldn't they wouldn't make it as businesses," Slan put forward. "Someone should write an article about that."

So here I am. I, myself, have trained at a couple of McDojos in my time. There were times when there was an art I wanted to learn that simply wasn't available in a non-commercial school. With my experience, I was able to be sufficiently discerning to be able to take what I needed to learn out of my time there, stripping away the baggage the commercialism carried. That being said, I agree with Slan. In my mind, there are clearly some benefits to the commercialism along with the baggage. These are as follows:

1) Stability. A McDojo with a good business platform tends to have a stronger base. It has full control of its school, its commercial space. It is not at the mercy of a public school's or a community centre's scheduled events, strikes, other programs, etc. This means the schedule and location is more consistent. These things only change if the head instructor decides to change them.

2) Instructor focus. The head instructor of a McDojo has their focus entirely on running their dojo as a business. This means that new students get the care and attention they need when making the decision of whether or not to join their school. If the dojo owner is running it well as a business, he or she ensures that there is advertising that helps people find them and they handle dojo enquiries in a communicative and timely manner.

3) Class flexibility. Because a McDojo has to pay rent, they tend to have more classes available. This is, of course, so they get the most out of the space for which they're paying. But for a student, it means that if for some reason you can't make class on Monday, you can make it up on Tuesday. Or if you do shift work and you can't make an evening class, you can make it up during a day class. This is more convenient for people with inconsistent schedules.

So what does this mean for non-commercial dojo owners? Running a commercialism-free school doesn't mean that the business side should be ignored. You can reject the negative byproducts of commercialism but still make use of some of the good business practices that they follow. Even if you can't offer as much stability or class flexibility, you should always make efforts to communicate with your students. That way you can draw in the kind of students that are best suited to your dojo and retain them better once they get there. Though it can be difficult to find the time to do this if you're also working a full-time job.

It is my life dream to run a basement dojo. No, there isn't as much space as what you can get in a typical McDojo or a community centre class. But it does afford me the stability and control that I want, without having to run my dojo with profit as a primary concern.


Glenn said...

Sometimes I wish your DOJO was more McDojo.
Here are my reasons; as a student who is now approaching two years of training and 100 classes (six more classes and it will be 100) I have invested a great deal of time energy and finances into my self improvement and you have no idea what the last two years have done for me on a personal level. My fear is our Dojo will not remain economically sustainable, then what? How can we continue training in the WestCoastCanRyu system (easily the most well rounded system out there)? Students come and go and teachers easily adapt, but when a good teacher goes it is very for a student to adapt.

I have many friends and co-workers who train in various martial arts at McDojos and they have advanced through there belt colors faster than I have and they can't believe that at two years I am only a Orange belt. Sure I know they are shit promotions and I can hold my own against them in a self defense situation. But the fact remains we live in a rewards/motivation society and I do feel down on myself for not progressing as quickly even though they are training at around the same pace as me once a week.
So my point is from my view, students of McDojos never worry about schools closing or moving and students of McDojos have a real sense of accomplishment sooner as they move up the ranks. Maybe beginner belt levels should not be as difficult to advance in regards to the amount of technique need to be memorized.
Sorry I may be way off base here but these points do come to mind after reading your blog.

Cranky Programmer said...

First of all I would like to say I do not comment on blogs but this last response to your blog has provoked me enough to leave my thoughts. I would like to address some of your concerns Glenn. I have taught Kempo at a so called McDojo, in fact it was the largest school in North America for over 60 years. The doors have since closed and the students have been left to fend for their own with many of their contracts remaining unfulfilled. A McDojo is not a guarantee that the school will be around tomorrow.

In respect to your progression, I would like to say that you are progressing with or with out your belt. The belt is virtual, it does not mean a thing, at all. It is a modern concept and in fact, in some styles there was a time when you where either a white belt or a black belt. As commercialized martial arts rolled on into the 1950's , most teachers and school owners found it necessary to recognize and promote their junior paying students at a faster pace, in order to hold their attention and interest. I repeat, to hold their attention and interest! What does that mean? The belt was intended to be used as a way to keep the student coming. Someone figured out that the average student has a short attention span and needed to find a way to keep them coming. The sense of accomplishment that you are talking about is virtual, it is a way to please the ego.

Once you have trained in the martial arts for long enough you will realize that your landmarks of accomplishments will change. For example, you will focus not so much on the belt but on the attitude of what that belt symbolizes. You will learn that a black belt is not recognized by a rank but by how you carry yourself. As I think back to people I admire I would say that I have met black belts that have never stepped into a Dojo or trained in the martial arts. These people have the attitude and perseverance that make them champions. They never worry or even care about a belt or certificate. The concern themselves only with the experience and the journey.

I hope this helps you on your journey.


Anonymous said...

I'm not a big poster but I don't normally read such interesting blog posts either. I used to teach Shotokan in a small dojo and have trained in the Can Ryu system. I happen to really like the Can Ryu system. But at this point I care much less about training in a good system and training under a good instructor. The later is much more uncommon than the former and a good system with a weak instructor is surprisingly unsatisfying. I throw in with Slan on the economic sustainability front. In a small non McDojo it is very difficult to make a real profit by running a dojo. As such most of the instructors running such dojo are doing so out of their love of the art, and their love of teaching it. They happily teach while making a small profit (usually rolled back into equipment for the dojo) but would very likely still be teaching in their dojo if they were making a small loss. On the other hand a McDojo is a business (by definition) and as such if they aren't making a profit they will shut down.

Regarding the promotion system at your dojo. I understand the situation when talking to a friend who has their brown belt after two and a half years. If you only have your orange at the time, you started at the same time and are training just as often, you might feel some stigma associated with 'only' having an orange belt. Just a quick warning, there is a flip side to this social stigma in a bias held by a lot of the more traditional community. It lies in the question "How long does it typically take to get a black belt in your dojo?" If the answer is 2-3 years many people will look down on your dojo's training as they feel that 2-3 years isn't nearly enough time to properly learn your basics to a teaching level in many arts. A few schools with black belts training at orange belt skill levels can be devastating for a style in a given region.

As far as a sense of accomplishment goes. If you are only speaking of a self motivated sense of accomplishment I would say that a persons sense of accomplishment should be weighted by how difficult a particular task was to perform. As such if each of your belts takes 9 months or so to earn you know that they are all meaningful accomplishments and that you've earned them. Where if they each took half as long I'd say that you'd feel half as satisfied by the accomplishment.

Now I recognize that the belt system is a purely artificial system introduced to keep students interested but I actually quite like it for a number of reasons. First, I really enjoy being able to walk into a dojo and quickly assess the level of teaching by examining the behaviour and skill of the dojo's students. I rarely care how skilled the instructor is, I'm far more interested in how good his advanced belts are and what attitude has been instilled in them. Being able to easily identify upper belts for such a task is darned handy. From a teaching perspective I also want my junior belts to be able to get advice and help from my senior belts and in a bigger dojo it's hard for new students to get to know everyone and remember how much training they've all had.

The other option for more frequent advancement is the inclusion of more belt colours. Which is definitely possible but gets expensive both in your time, your instructors time (they must test you) and in money as you typically have to pay for these tests. I've seen it done, WTF Tae Kwon Do has 9 belt levels two of them using the stripe system (red stripe and black stripe). The difficulty with introducing, for example a burgundy belt, is that when you deal with other dojo's there isn't an easy mapping between the belt colours. I personally feel that the benefits of having a few extra belts and as such shorter times between tests are outweighed by the problems. Of course many people may (and probably do) disagree with me.

Mind you I have seen an interesting system introduced in kids classes in a Tae Kwon Do dojo. Tae Kwon Do trains in forms and as such these forms make a major part of the testing. After the instructor felt that each child had a sufficient knowledge of their form they were given a stripe (of the next belt colour) on their belt. After accumulating the appropriate number of stripes the student would test for the next belt. It was nice in that the stripes had no cost associated with testing, the students rank was easily recognized, and the children had more bite sized doses of accomplishment.


Glenn said...

Thanks for the feedback guys.
It sounds like you both have a great deal of experience and knowledge.

Hopefully your comments will keep me on the right path to my destination.


Lori O'Connell said...

I appreciate everyone's comments on this article. I had no idea it would be such a hot topic. So instead of doing a long comment about it (Slan and John actually reflected much of my way of thinking), I'll do a posting on the topic this weekend. Stay tuned...

Jenny said...

We'll get there (green that is) and when we do we'll know that we are doing the techniques correctly and confidently. I have no shyness in taking my time to learn and do it correctly. I don’t mind staying orange until I get it right. At least once a class something clicks, even if it's just a straighter jab, a smoother foot transition, a balanced side kick or hip throwing Dave. That alone is reward enough for me. I’m in for the fun of training. I’m sure some wise, old, famous martial artist spoke the words “The journey is the destination”.