(Not) How to Choose a Dojo

Someone once asked me whether I’d write a guide to choosing a dojo, to go along with a training manual I was working on. I thought about it, but decided the answer was “no.”

It’s not that I don’t have ideas and opinions on the subject; I have those on all subjects, and generally am more than happy to express them and try to persuade people to my point of view. At the same time, I want to leave plenty of room for others to have their differing points of view. This particular subject is one that has a strong element of personal preference embedded in it, which (I believe) needs to be respected.

I’ve read quite a few such guides, some written as chapters in longer books or training manuals, others presented on dojo websites. They are always colored by author bias. (I suppose everything is—but this subject more so than average.) Either they’re biased toward particular martial arts styles and approaches, or they succumb to stereotypes. The ones on dojo sites often list a lot of detailed questions to ask and requirements to meet—plainly tailored to match what you’d find at their school. Click to another site, and you’ll get a different and equally persuasive list of specs.

Some of them include questions to ask a prospective instructor, interview-style. These smack of someone having been asked to come up with a list of questions, for the sake of having a list of questions. I’ve been “interviewed” in this fashion a few times by prospective students or their parents. I am of course happy to answer whatever they’d like to ask, and I’ll do so thoroughly and with good humor—but sometimes it feels odd, contrived. As though they are challenging me to come up with the “right” answers—the ones prescribed by whomever wrote their list. I often think how easily they could answer their own questions by observing or participating in a class or two and listening to what I say to my students, instead of by testing my verbal facility one-on-one.

Indeed the people who will do best in these “interviews” will be the silver-tongued among us, and those who have studied what the marketing consultants say. And I wouldn’t say that makes them the best instructors. There are excellent instructors who are not silver-tongued, and who don’t subscribe to marketing consultants. They just believe in what they’re doing, and act on good instincts—which they might or might not be able to articulate.

I once read a parents’ guide in which the author suggested short, stocky kids should be directed to judo, while thin kids with long legs should be encouraged to try taekwondo. Okay, there’s some stereotyping for you. I know plenty of tall, skinny folks who excel at judo, as well as chunky people who can kick you in the side of the head without blinking. Whatever basis there may be for stereotypes, they should not be used as directives. Kids should get to find out what their passion is, regardless of body type. So should adults.

Martial arts devotees can have strong opinions about how a dojo should be run (and I notice the strongest opinions often come from people with little or no experience running their own schools). Their advice of course bends to their pre-formed opinions. Some hate the idea that money should be charged for classes at all; they’ll lump all commercial schools together as questionable. People who adhere to strict, traditional “white gi” backgrounds will sometimes suggest that any school wearing any colors or patches must be full of phonies. But these stereotypes don’t hold up, either. Just apply a little vigilance about money, and pay some attention to what’s actually being taught and learned at the school. That should tell you what you need to know.

Some assert that a head instructor should be at least a 3rd degree black belt, and perhaps over a certain age. Now, I was just a shodan in what became my primary art when I started my own school. And while I certainly know a lot more now than I did then—about teaching, running a school and everything else—if I had to choose between younger me and present-day me as an instructor, the choice would not be clear at all. Younger me was energetic, creative and not so set in my ways. Either choice could be a good choice.

The question of “McDojos” gets a lot of attention. I admit, the first time I heard the term it cracked me up; I loved it. Likewise the term “bullshido.” For “McDojo” especially, I think there’s a colloquial understanding: It will be a school using inferior ingredients to turn out large quantities of mediocre product for profit. But when it comes to specifics—describing to a non-martial artist what exactly that would mean in a specific case—stereotypes and author bias come pouring back in. It’s just not that clear. Things quickly get snarky, to use another popular term. One particularly snarky piece I just read asserts that any school not basing its training mainly on hard-contact sparring is probably a McDojo. Any school that uses one-steps or board breaking is probably a McDojo. Any school with lots of students is probably one. And so on. Ridiculous.

Another great term is “Faux-Jo,” which I encountered in Matthew Apsokardu’s eBook, The Student’s Guide to Surviving a Traditional Dojo. –And by the way, I think he did a great job on the book, on the whole. It’s well worth a read by people starting out in a traditional art. It’s a good “orientation tour,” and I especially like all the material about mindset and attitude. –But back to our subject: I think the brief Faux-Jo section suffers from the same problems as most McDojo discussions: It relies on the personal opinions of a martial arts insider, and doesn’t bring any clarity to a newcomer or outsider. What does “excessive” mean, when it comes to belt ranks and certificates? (For example, we give out a certificate of rank at each promotion; is that “excessive?”) Does my colleague have a Faux-Jo because he lets the demo team wear colored gis with a special patch? Does my friend who holds hard-earned rank in several styles have to keep those ranks secret so he won’t be seen as having “many belts in different styles and few real credentials?” Are my brown belt assistant instructors to be seen as “teachers from accelerated ‘teacher programs’?”

I suspect Matthew and I would probably be in agreement about which dojos out there are really Faux-Jos. I know exactly what he means by all his bullet points. But that’s because I’m a martial arts veteran with experience of these things. They don’t have that much meaning for someone who doesn’t come to the discussion with a lot of knowledge, and opinions already formed. The best illustration of this is his final bullet point: “no feeling of cheesiness” versus “strong cheese vibe.” I laughed at this one, but think about it: “Cheesy” doesn’t really mean anything if you don’t already have an opinion about what it should mean. It’s mainly just snark, I’m afraid.

Instead of snark, what we need for “how to choose a dojo” is respectful clarity, with room for different points of view. I don’t know that it can be done. There are few clear-cut cases. The quality of a dojo isn’t easily captured by superficial things, and what’s under the surface must be experienced to be known. In the end, the best advice is the least advice, in my opinion. Maybe what we really need is a guide to choosing a guide to how to choose a dojo.


4 Responses to “(Not) How to Choose a Dojo”

  1. You’ve touched on a great point here, one that caused me lots of frustration. How does one ‘sum up’ the concept of choosing a good school?

    The non-martial-arts-insider is perpetually looking for a general guide for where to start. They don’t want to begin with a 100 page exploration of every style and teaching method; they want some launching off points. So it becomes the insiders job to create those points – but how? Is it possible to create that without relying on snippets and assumptions?

    Through the ebook I link to a blog post that goes into greater detail about the main martial art styles and what to expect from them. Even in this expanded version I make a ton of assumptions.

    If you tell someone taekwondo relies heavily on kicking, you’ve already made an assumption. It can, but doesn’t have to. Karate is even harder to put in a box as their are lots of different branches and distinct differences between Japanese and Okinawan. Pile on top of that the different teaching methods of every instructor and you’ve got yourself a mess.

    I guess with my bullet points I was trying to create a frame of mind – generalizations to look out for and to explore further. A little bit like kata in a way. There is no doubt though that my section does indeed suffer from the shortcomings you mentioned. Great post and thanks for bringing this into discussion!

  2. serpentstaff Says:

    Thanks, Matt. I do appreciate what you were trying to do.
    [Here is an edited version of the off-the-cuff comment I left earlier (See? I just can’t help it.)]
    People do ask for information and guidelines — and that’s when some writers jump in with axes to grind, trying to sway everyone their way. But people like you who try to put together solid, unbiased information– I completely respect the effort that goes into it. I just don’t believe people need all the info they’re asking for, and every attempt to give it is doomed to be faulty or biased. People don’t need to know all about martial arts before getting started in it, any more than they need to get in shape before starting a fitness class. What they need is to go out and see things, try things. Follow the itch that is making them want to train– not bury it under a lot of reading. People have a habit of asking for ready-made guidelines, but what they really want is a push to get out there and try something. So the ready-made guidelines should simply say: Get out there and try something, based on your interests and your itch. Your eBook’s material about what to expect, and mindset, could be helpful extra info. –And, just as there are people who don’t eat right (in spite of knowing better), there are people who will make what we think are bad decisions about where to train. But they’ll learn through the experience, and some of them will get out and find a better place; others will quit, just as most people who begin a martial art quit. No one can prevent this by writing essays. (Although guidelines for avoiding financial scams and abusive situations might be genuinely worthwhile, if they’re specific enough to truly be useful.)

    In some post-Post googling I discovered a blog entry on the subject that I actually like:
    And this blogger is funny, too, I like her tone. (A bit foul-mouthed, though.)

  3. […] (Not) How to Choose a Dojo « American/Traditional […]

  4. If I were to write a guide it’d go something like this:

    1) read a few books and search the internet for correct, neutral information on styles so you’ll at least have some general idea about what to expect when visiting a karate dojo vs an MMA gym for example. If you have more time visit blogs and discussion fora and weigh the vieuwpoints there.

    2) make a list of your goals: what do you want to get out of training? Is it mainly learning self defense, competition, to get fit, to become more balanced mentally…?

    3) combine point 1 and 2 (the knowledge you’ve acquired plus the direction you want to move in)

    4) make a list of available schools in the vicinity that meet your criteria.

    5) visit each of those schools, preferably after making an appointment. First observe for at least one lesson: usually teachers will encourage you to jump right in but it’s a good idea to have a look first so you can observe the group dynamic and better judge the teacher’s style and general attitude towards all students. After the visit make use of the try out lessons and try to absorb as much as you can and be sure to ask questions when things are unclear: this is the way you learn and you’d better know beforehand if they’re willing and able to effectively answer your questions. On a final note: it’s a good idea to jot down your thoughts and impressions as soon as possible so you’ll have a base for comparison later on.

    6) make your choice and enroll: if you’re not entirely sure expand the search and take a look at styles and schools that weren’t on your first list, they might surprise you and the only thing you have to lose at this point is a little time. If you’re the cautious type you might want to pay per class for the first few weeks or take a session ticket (10 or 20 classes) so you’re not stuck for a year if things go awry, just remember that martial arts training is hard work and not always pleasant… Keep your eyes on the prize and remember later on you’ll probably look back on this time period and consider it one of the most worthwhile and exciting in your training.

    Good luck.

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