Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

McDojangs: They’re Not All Bad

McDojangs sign

CC logo Mike Mozart, edited

Have you ever heard the term “McDojang”? Or “McDojo,” as it’s often called? (“McDojang” is used for Korean martial arts, so that’s the term I’ll use here.) Have you ever been to one? Don’t you just hate them?

For the uninitiated, McDojangs are also referred to as belt factories. They teach watered-down martial arts and quickly promote their students through the ranks. The students feel like they’re progressing, but they aren’t learning anything of real value. Sure, they have fun, but they don’t learn real martial arts. And because most people don’t shop around, they don’t even know that they’re getting an inferior product.

But McDojangs aren’t necessarily bad. In fact, I’ve seen some good ones.

I say they’re not necessarily bad because there’s no consensus definition of what a McDojang is. (See this list for one person’s take.) It seems like the definition is a personal thing. It’s tied to whatever a person thinks the martial arts should be. To some people, spending a lot of time practicing patterns would make a school a McDojang. In case you haven’t noticed, that definition would include almost every Ch’ang Hon Taekwon-Do club out there. To other people, practicing sport-style sparring qualifies a school for the dubious distinction.

And then for others, a McDojang is less about what a club practices and more about how much money it makes off its students.

But why would patterns and sport sparring make a school a McDojang? It’s because those things have little or nothing to do with practical self-defence. By doing patterns all day, or practicing sparring as a sport, you aren’t learning to defend yourself in “the street.” These people believe that martial arts are always about self-defence first.

It is true that the martial arts started as a system of fighting and self-defence. But today, I would argue that martial arts are what you want them to be. If you want them to be recreation, a sport or a hobby, then fine. As long as you don’t believe that your sport is the same as self-defence, I see no problem with that.

As for a club maximizing its profits… As long as the students and parents aren’t being cheated, and are 100% aware of all their fees, I see no issue with this, either. People are allowed to make a living. Having said that, when a club tries to squeeze as much cash as possible out of its students, it’s hard to make it a good place to train.

McDojangs: the good, the bad and the ugly

Now, let’s be clear: I’m not trying to say that all McDojangs are good. Some of the worst clubs I’ve ever seen are terrible because they’re McDojangs. They embody the term. The instructors don’t seem to know much about the martial arts that they teach. But they act like experts and pass off their terrible technique as effective self defence. The students gain no real skills, but still have confidence in their techniques. Meanwhile, these terrible schools are efficient businesses with tons of students. A lot of people are paying a lot of money for a crappy product.

But, some of the other worst clubs I’ve seen are hardly what I would call McDojangs. They aren’t in it for profit. They’re in it to feel like modern-day ninjas. They believe they’re doing true traditional martial arts. They only have a handful of students and work them like dogs with little regard for safety. Like the bad McDojangs, the instructors have little technical knowledge but act like experts. And they pass off what they are teaching as effective self-defence. The students aren’t very good but they have tons of confidence in what they do.

I guess you could say I don’t have a problem with McDojangs; I have a problem with crappy schools.

To illustrate my point, some of the most technical clubs I’ve seen have McDojang written all over them. They are businesses, designed to pull in hundreds of students and get as much money out of them as they can. They have contracts, kids’ programs, after school programs, patches on their uniforms, extra stripes on their belts and black belt clubs.

The difference, though, is that the instructors know their stuff and know how to teach it. They’re honest with their students about their knowledge of self-defence and what might and might not work in a self-defence situation. These clubs also aren’t quite belt factories. While their typical belt exams may not be the hardest things in the world to pass, the belts aren’t handed out like candy, either. People do fail tests—especially black belt tests.

There may be some aspects of these schools that I don’t agree with. But the combination of top-notch instruction and a McDojang business model allows them some nice perks, such as better facilities than most schools can afford. With large dedicated dojangs, instead of shared spaces like gymnasiums, these clubs are able to hold more classes during the week, and even have open training times. Nice-looking facilities also make students feel comfortable.

The instructors at these clubs also make Taekwon-Do their living. But this isn’t inherently a good thing or a bad thing. It may mean that an instructor can dedicate more time to TKD. Or it could mean that instead of doing TKD, the instructor is actually running a dojang for a living and the art will eventually suffer.

This is the real risk of the McDojang. Most terrible schools have terrible instructors. Regardless of whether the club is a belt factory, it will still be bad. But when a good instructor pays more attention to the business than the students, the quality of instruction can go downhill as the profits go up. I’ve seen it happen with what used to be one of the best schools I’ve known.

But as long as it can avoid this trap, a McDojang has its benefits.

Self-defence has nothing to do with it

The good McDojangs I’ve seen teach their students specific self-defence techniques. But like every TKD school I’ve seen so far, that isn’t their focus. There are so many other parts to Taekwon-Do. To me, effective self-defence education has nothing to do with whether a school is a McDojang, or whether it can even be good. A great club can focus of patterns and sport sparring. And a McDojang can teach nothing but raw self-defence techniques.

It all comes back to what you want to get out of martial arts training. If you want recreation, a good workout, a sport, a way to learn the esoterics of a martial art, or lessons in rudimentary self-defence, then you can be happy in a McDojang as long as the instructor is good. If you want to become “street lethal”, then look for a school that will teach you how to maim other human beings. (Also, good luck with that, because while there are some fantastic self defence-based clubs out there, a lot are full of bullshido.)

The problems happen when a club claims to be teaching effective self-defence, but really isn’t. That can happen at McDojangs and non-McDojangs alike.

There’s a fine line between a full-time dojang and a belt factory. And self-defence has nothing to do with that. Both are businesses, and that’s OK. Nowhere is there proof that martial arts are better when done on a low-budget, not-for-profit basis. But it’s not OK when that business is put ahead of quality instruction, and false claims are being made about what they offer.

In the end, it’s all about the training environment that you want. So don’t automatically dismiss the McDojang. It might just be what you’re looking for.