An Open Letter to Strip-Mall Martial Arts Clubs

Dear Owner:

Before I begin, I want to first say that I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt on a number of things. For example, I’m more than happy to assume that you are, in fact, a skilled practitioner of some sort of martial art. I may not know what that martial art is–and you might have just made it up yourself. But I’m okay with assuming that you put in some considerable time learning what you now know. I’m also willing to assume that you’re genuinely interested in improving the lives of other people through martial arts training. I don’t even have a problem with the fact that this interest may run parallel to your interest in making money–a dojo is a business, after all. You have bills to pay just as anyone else does. I’m not even going to give you a hard time about some of your fees–when I built my dojo, I looked at retail locations. I know how expensive they are, so I would expect your prices to reflect that reality. In short, I want you to know that I’m not looking down on you. I respect you, and I appreciate the situation you’re in.

So if I can respect you, how about you showing some respect for yourself? Or, if you can’t do that, how about your students?

When you throw a big neon sign over your door, what are you saying about yourself? The sign itself might be okay–but when it’s bright green and uses a font that makes all the letters look like lightning? What’s all that about? You might as well stick an inflatable gorilla outside your door. Are you a martial artist, or a used car salesman?

When I go online to look at your web site, can you PLEASE at least state what style of martial art you study? Don’t tell me, or your potential students, that you teach a “blend of karate, tae kwon do, kung-fu, aikido” and so on. That sort of laundry list of martial arts just gives the impression that you really have nothing to teach–you’re just throwing a bunch of names out there and hope something sticks with your potential customer.

And speaking of customers–is that what they are? I know that you’re likely to scoff at me here, but I don’t have customers. Our dojo has students. We have members. And I count myself as one of them. Yes, we frequently have people who come to the dojo who assume they are paying me (as chief instructor) for a service. But even these folks quickly realize that we are, at our very core, a club. We are not a blackbelt factory, where anyone gets a blackbelt because they’ve paid for it. We are a dojo–where anyone can get a blackbelt because they put in the time and the effort to EARN it.

Let’s talk some more about payments. As I said before, I respect that your rates may be high in order to pay for your highly-visible location. But why don’t you tell us your fees up front? Why do you only tell me what your latest beginner’s special is? I’ve learned the hard way that when you don’t see the fees of a martial arts club, it’s for one very simple reason: the fees are high. In some cases, VERY high. So what you’re trying to do is hook people in, and then hit them with the fees. I remember a parent telling me that one of their kids was asked to test for a new rank. The fee? $500! There was the test fee, the new uniform fee, the new board fee, and so on. If you’re not comfortable with the fees you’re charging, then maybe you’re charging too much..

Finally, trust your skills. If you have to put that your school is a part of some major organization and, when I look up that organization, I find that its SOLE PURPOSE is to create martial arts schools, I admit that I have some concern. Are you a dojo? Or a franchise? I’m afraid you must be the latter if you need some major organization to start your school. And if that organization is your ONLY martial arts experience, then I’m afraid all my previous statements about respecting your abilities go out the window. You are not a martial arts instructor, my friend. You are a charlatan, plain and simple.. Stop now before you delude your students into thinking they are learning something of value.

In the end, it’s your call. You know as well as I do that most parents and most people don’t know what a martial art is. They see a place that claims to teach a martial art of some sort, and they walk in trusting us that we know what we’re doing. In a way, we’re similar to auto mechanics. Most people don’t know how their cars work, so when they go to get them fixed or upgraded, they trust that the mechanic is doing their job. If that mechanic decides to pad the bill, or claim they know how to do work when they don’t, well, their customer won’t know until it’s probably too late. You know as well as I do that the people who walk through your door are, more often than not, going to take you at your word. Don’t you think you owe it to them to know what you’re talking about?

Thanks for your time.

8 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Strip-Mall Martial Arts Clubs

  1. Thank you. There’s a prominent chain in Orlando, Fl that I won’t name here that I came across over and over again no matter where I went. I went inside one day because I was just looking for a place to knock off the dust on my Judo and Aikido skills. All I got was a guy wearing a black belt with a tank top and sweat pants telling me about the new specials they had. They didn’t do any of the martial arts I was interested in, but they KNEW I’d be more than happy taking some of the ones they did offer, and I got my first test board to break for free. There was a very large banner on the wall that said “Your goal is to become a black belt” and I just turned around and walked out. It seems like an epidemic. When I started teaching Aikido here at the Bremerton YMCA, I got parents who were disgruntled because I didn’t agree to promote their kids within 2 weeks of joining. What ever happened to actually wanting to learn without needing instant validation? I felt like I’d actually earned my belt when I got it, not that it was handed to me.

  2. Unfortunately I think this letter would fall on deaf ears. Charlatan instructors are exceedingly good at buying into their own hype.

    Every shady strip mall instructor needs two things – a sign up contract and a long winded explanation as to how great their system is.

  3. I have been a practioner of Shotokan Karate and Shorinji Kempo for over forty years. The last ten I have been studying Aikido an Pa Kua Chang.
    At my former dojo I charged a thirty dollar registration fee, which included uniform, first month of practice and charged twenty-five dollars a month dues.
    My objective was to share what I have learned and not make a profit. But it seemed if you don’t charge the higher fees, the public think you are less qualified and knowledgeable.

  4. Very well put. I’ve been around martial arts most of my adult life. Practicing several diciplines over the years. I’ve seen several of the type of establishments described. However, I am a firm believer in the old idea of a black belt being only a white belt turned black from the blood, sweat, and tears of dedicated practice. Martial arts are fun and have much to offer someone looking to improve their life, not some kind of entertainment such as one could find in an arcade. Finding a good, qualified teacher can be difficult, but worth it. One should avoid such places as these and look somewhere that learning is key, and not showmanship. It’s just my humble opinion.

  5. I think you hit the nail on the head with your article. I am in an area surrounded by these type of Dojo’s, although we are in a small strip mall we do not fall under this catergory. We teach Kempo Karate and we have a separate dojo and program for Aikido. We tell people up front what we teach and what the costs are. We have no contracts of any kind and students pay month to month. We are an independant Dojo for all of the reasons you mentioned, we are totally against the flavor of the month programs and style changes. The instructors that take a weekend seminar so they can teach and promote people in Krav Maga or some other art is so unethical it makes me sick. I have been involved in the arts for more than 32 years and have seen so many ugly changes in martial arts that I’m surprised these type of so called martial artists haven’t ruined the arts for the legitimate Instructors. Keep up the good work.
    Master Dominick Violante

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