A HARD LESSON LEARNED
Several years ago my son expressed an interest in a martial arts program. At nine years of age, he had a friend there, and it seemed like it would blend in with his soccer schedule. I took a cursory look at the website, and they had flashy photographs of smiling fit people doing kicks and referred to themselves as “a “premier Martial Arts and Fitness school” located in southern New Jersey. There were testimonials on Facebook and the website professing how proud the children were after testing for their belts, and the sense of accomplishment moving up the belt ladder. Reflecting back, I am embarrassed to admit that considering the amount of money we were getting ready to invest, I did very little research. We signed our son up, and the first few classes the instructors came around and shook our hands and made our son feel like a king on the mat. A month into the program, my son said it would be “really cool” if we trained together and one day became black belts at the same time. My Dad heart melted, and I signed another contract for me with a combined monthly fee for the two of us equivalent to a car payment.
Flash forward a few years, and we are both brown belts and eyeing down the calendar towards black belt testing. Martial arts had become a way of life in our home during these years with my son and I out of the house at least three nights a week – three nights a week my wife ate dinner alone and fell asleep alone while we attended class. The washer was always clogged with our uniforms which took priority over everyday clothes due to the frequency of our classes – a minimum of two per week for both of us. Our biggest athletic investment was in the martial arts, and the holy grail of recognition – the black belt – was in clear calendar sight for 2019.
Then the bomb dropped. It began with a posting on Facebook from a friend I had made at the martial arts studio. He had just completed his black belt test and posted his photograph wearing his new belt and holding his new certificate proudly. I blew up the photograph on my phone to see just what it said on the certificate because all through white, yellow, orange, green, blue and brown belts we had only received either stripes or a new belt after testing – but no actual certificate. The certificate my friend had earned only bore the name of the school and the school’s owner as authorizing the awarding of black belt, and frankly, and most disturbing to me, it liked like a generic certificate one could have bought at Staples and filled in with printing.
I inquired with several dojos in neighboring towns which eviscerated all sense of accomplishment. The martial arts school, which we had been attending for more than two years and invested more than $8,000, was not accredited. In other words, our belts were absolutely worthless outside the dojo, and as one person put it, the equivalent of something we could have bought at Target or ordered off of Amazon. Should we move, should we wish to go to another martial arts school, should we wish to compete and enter tournaments, our belts would never be recognized. It was a devastating blow.
I called several governing bodies that accredit martial arts in the United States and even one in the United Kingdom. For a school to be accredited, it means it must submit to a higher body that regulates curriculum, standardizes the testing, and oversees training and certification to Instructors. It also means a direct lineage to the training and testing that means one’s belt is recognized worldwide in that particular martial art. There is most certainly a cost associated with accreditation, but with such comes legitimacy and integrity. An easy way for a martial arts school to substantially increase profits is to do away with accreditation, but with that increase in profits comes a huge disservice to the students in that school. To my surprise, a high-ranking member at the dojo told me the owner, who taught us, took his belt testing in Florida to maintain its legitimacy. That was a particularly hard blow to know he valued his belt but not his students – not mine, not my son’s.
I continued my research speaking with martial arts studios in Colorado, New York, Connecticut, New York, Florida and New Jersey and found that the martial arts world is fairly small. In industry terms, the martial arts studio we have attended the past few years is known as a “McDojo” and the realization of such was very upsetting. The main characteristics of a “McDojo” are automatic belt advancements every few months, lots of children with black belts, and relatively little sparring which fit the description of our martial arts studio. It’s basically a belt factory where one pays to play. To advance a level, one had to attend a minimum of sixteen classes over eight weeks – and pay the monthly fee of course. One local competitor described the place we had been going as a “…glorified daycare center where people run around in t shirts learning a few punches and kicks to tired Rocky music.” I swallowed hard as he was spot on. At that point, the humiliation of allowing myself and my son to be so deceived set in. I felt I had failed as a father.
Telling our son, now age eleven, was the worst. Extremely proud of his brown belt, he had formed relationships with the class instructors, had made friends, and had spent an average of four hours a week between travel and classes for several years devoted to his pursuit of a black belt. For the last year, meaning since age 10, he had held his own with the teen class, ages 13-18, because he found the younger class boring. As parents, we chose to tell him the truth because we did not wish to further the deception. He took it hard – it devastated him. For days, he called the owner and instructors at the martial arts studio “fakes” and “liars.” It rocked his confidence, and he wanted his belt progression rack torn from his wall. We are struggling to reinvigorate his interest as he comes to terms that he will be of starting over as a brand new white belt.
In writing this blog, I took one last look at the website of our former martial arts school. A recent post had been submitted by a grandmother stating, “…tonight he tested for his yellow belt and I gotta tell you…he walked out of there like he just graduated college.” And so it perpetuates to another family. The deception is heartbreaking.
Russ P. has asked me to write the end of this blog. Russ has been a consultant to and a member of Performance Krav Maga for the last eight months. He became interested in Krav through a friend while still pursuing training at the other martial arts studio. Russ also participates in Spartan races, Navy SEAL Bonefrog races, Triathlons, Marathons, and his daughter owns a Crossfit gym. Some things just run in families – pun fully intended. Nothing like what happened to Russ, his son, and others at non-accredited schools will happen to you. Our accrediting body is the Krav Maga Federation – AC, and it is an official Federation registered by the Israeli Sport’s Ministry. Our conduit to such is Master Alain Cohen. He is an official Krav Maga Coach certified by Wingate Institute in Netanya, Israel, which is regarded as the birthplace of Krav Maga and its highest authority. KMF-AC certificates are recognized worldwide. This is the reason, I only award KMF-AC certificates to our students.
Greg Dziewonski, 4th Dan Black Belt, Head Instructor Performance Krav Maga, National Director Krav Maga Federation of America