What are things to look for in a school to indicate that one should absolutely NOT study there?

You know, things like having the name Cobra Kai or making you do donut runs because you're the new student. Or worse.

  • Community wiki this?
    – Russell
    Commented Oct 5, 2012 at 17:53
  • @Russell I don't know if I can, but it's a good idea.
    – Anon
    Commented Oct 5, 2012 at 23:48
  • Related: martialarts.stackexchange.com/questions/7006/…
    – Nav
    Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 13:44
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    Amusingly, the gym I train at is named "Cobra Kai Jiu Jitsu" and I have been thoroughly happy with them, so that name may not be a sign to run... Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 19:45

5 Answers 5


Here is a non-exhaustive list of warning signs. If any of them are present, you should definitely politely leave and never return.

  1. The dojo is a McDojo: Run, just run.
  2. Cult warning signs. Run, just run. Here is how to spot the signs although a Google search can lead to other sites.
  3. Injuries. Too many people with injuries should let you know that something is wrong with the way they train. Look for long term problems in senior grades.
  4. Money: Lots of (confusing) fees and the need to pay more to advance and learn advanced techniques.
  5. Secret techniques: There are things that are "too dangerous for the untrained to know or see" that require special training -- see point 1.
  6. Any forms whatsoever of Hazing.
  7. Overt (or covert for that matter) displays of violence, including sexual violence.
  8. Instructors or students are allowed to train without insurance.
  9. Unsafe training area because of disrepair, obvious unmarked hazards, or unhygienic surrounds. Note that old does not necessarily mean unsafe.

Lastly, some of the above might prompt you to contact your local law enforcement agency although I am not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV.

Edit on prices: All fees should be clearly labelled. I have nothing against contracts but do read them carefully -- see line about being a lawyer above. I have a problem with having to buy equipment, books, food supplements/vitamin pills, and so on all through the instructor's shell companies. I have a problem with charging extra money to learn the "secrets" of the art or learn extra meditation or whatever which gets you to "progress" faster.

On a side note, most martial clubs will be associations of some kind. In most countries those laws I am familiar with, those require to have a treasurer and accounts that are accessible to members. Thus, you should be able to look at the books. Of course, if the instructor has set up a company to teach martial arts, this is not available.

  • I would object to the rule no. 7 as this only applies in certain cultures (i.e. US and other ovelawyered countries) Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 20:25
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    @RolandTepp: I have trained with self employed people who, if injured, would have been unable to work. Thus, insurance was essential in case they got injured so they did not becoming homeless. It had nothing to do with being sued. Although, I am not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV and I am aware that suing is a favourite past time in some countries. I guess what the point is about "protecting yourself from medical and legal expenses". AKA self defence. Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 7:08
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    Yes! Avoiding toxic/abusive schools is critical! I can't upvote your answer enough times.
    – Bankuei
    Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 19:32

Sard has a good list. I would add a few other things:

  1. Unwilling to let you watch/try out classes for a week or so.
  2. A very high proportion of new students to more advanced students (Unless it is something like a brand new school) - this indicates lack of retention, which can be indicative of problems.
  3. Phsyical (As in contact) discipline.
  4. Long term contracts (See note below)

Now, some people may say that contracts are an automatic mark of a McDojo or crooked studio, but that's not necessarily the case. What a contract does, is allow the studio owner to project revenues and create a budget, without having to worry that 10 students might drop out next month. What to look out for are contracts that promise a rank (Join our Masters Club for 3 years and you'll be a 2nd degree black belt!), overly long contracts (More than a year) that don't have an "out" clause. There are some states where long (greater than 12 months) contracts without that out clause are illegal.

An out clause would be something like if you move more than 50 miles away from the school and can't transfer to another school in the same system, or pay a 1 month extra penalty and the contract is done.

I would also address Sard's #3 point about money/fees. I am perfectly fine with owners charging more for different levels of training, PROVIDING that the different levels is basically more floor time. I am NOT ok with Basic club doesn't learn forms/poomsae, Intermediate club doesn't learn weapons, etc. If it's structured so that basic club gets 3 hours of classes a week, intermediate 5, advanced gets unlimited, I'm ok with that.

Additionally, fees should be able to be disclosed up front. They should be able to tell you straight out "You will pay X for training, Y for belt tests, and Z for equipment. Here's a list of the equipment that you will eventually need as you progress."

  • 1
    Excellent answer; total agreement. These are the likely issues someone will encounter. Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 14:59
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    Watching should never be a problems. However, depending on the dojo/instructor insurance, instructors may have to ask someone who wants to train to get insured (thus pay a small fee) even if they only want to try it for a session or two. Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 15:47
  • RE:fees. Yes, I see how my answer was unclear. I shall edit. Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 15:47
  • Nice additions! I chose Sardathrion's answer because it was more complete; however, I don't want to discredit yours. I'm just not sure how to do that, other than upvoting it too. I hope that works out well enough.
    – Anon
    Commented Oct 5, 2012 at 3:02
  • @Trevoke No worries, mine was just an addendum, Sard's was more complete so I didn't feel the need to repeat. :D
    – JohnP
    Commented Oct 5, 2012 at 4:27

I don't have a lot to add, as others have done a good job of answering this one. I do have a pet favourite thing to look for, though:

Are the higher-ranked students obviously better than the junior students?

I'm not talking about fitter, or stronger, or able to jump higher. Even to a relatively-untrained eye, you should be able to tell the difference between someone who is experienced and confident and someone who hasn't been at it for long. If the black-belts don't look substantially sharper and more precise than the white-belts, something is wrong.

I did spot a real example of this when I was looking for a new school when I moved house. I didn't hang around long enough to find out whether it was because they gave out black belts much too soon, or if they just weren't improving that much over the time it did take.

Especially if you're just getting into martial arts, the lower-ranked students are where you're at now, and the higher-ranked students are where you'll be five or ten years from now. If you don't like the look of what you're aiming to become, go somewhere else.


First thing I look at is cleanliness. I expect the mats to uniformly be the same colour, unless they're distinctly different, but all the red mats should be the same shade of red, and the green mats should be the same shade of green (reasonable exceptions are made for colour fading due to age). I also want to see by the end of the first class that the mats are being mopped down and swept. If nobody pitches in to help, the instructor should be doing it, no matter what they feel about respect, they should be ensuring the facilities are clean.

I'll expect everyone to be wearing clean clothes, and there shouldn't be any unpleasant odours. Ideally there will be a sign in the change rooms asking everyone to be hygenic and have clean uniforms, but if everyone does it without the sign, that's fine too. I would also like for there to be showers. Some people can get home quickly and shower at home, but some people also have long travel times, and it's ideal if they have the opportunity to be clean, as that's what'll keep infectious diseases from spreading. Barring a shower, I'd expect a few people to be taking birdbaths in the washroom.

Also related are attitudes towards training. Boneheaded ideas of training regardless of how you feel means a flu or cold will easily get spread around, that's bad for everyone. People will also get injured if they're training sick.

I'll look at the warm-ups as well, they should really only be warmups, not a killer workout that leaves you exhausted for technical practice and sparring. Again, that's how people get injured. If there is a killer workout, I'd expect it to be at the end of the class, and even then I'd rather it not be there. There's nothing more idiotic than taking a martial arts class for self defense purposes and finding you can barely move, let alone defend yourself after a class and end up more vulnerable than if you hadn't trained at all.

The best schools will expect you to do your own physical training on your own time, and focus primarily on technique, tactics and strategy.

Class size to space ratio is also important. If there is insufficient space, you can barely train some things, and that leaves you with skill deficiencies. This is where I'm rather permissive of long term contracts and high prices. If that's what it takes to keep the business profitable while keeping the class size manageable, then so be it. If the class is a bit cramped and is priced to be affordable for everyone, then that also gets a pass - even if it's not ideal for training. Expensive and cramped though is an automatic no-no, that usually means they're spending a lot of money on advertising, and they're more interested in teaching from a business perspective than an educational perspective.

Actual respect vs ostensible respect is also an issue for me. I expect the highest ranked students and the teacher to be treating the newbies with the same level of respect that they would like to be shown to them. You shouldn't be able to tell who is who just by looking at who gets the most deference.

Attitudes towards other schools and styles is also something that can set off warning bells. Some criticism is valid, but it should usually be tempered by some sort of praise that isn't a backhanded compliment. Really almost anything has something good about it, and if you're actually knowledgeable about martial arts you should be able to identify it. That said, some schools are just total crap - no need to say anything positive about a school that doesn't let the kids go to the bathroom and expects them to pee themselves and keep training (yes, such a place actually exists!)

If it's an MMA type school, I would expect there not to be much in the way of rivalries, as that ends up wrapping you up in some very unpleasant politics. If it's a traditional type school, the instructor being dismissive of MMA in general terms is a warning sign that he really doesn't know much. There's obviously valid criticism, but the criticism should actually be specific (and usually confirmed by someone involved in MMA). I'll take false positivity towards other types of training over real negativity, simply as it makes for a healthy, less political training environment.

Also related, if cross-training isn't encouraged (it should be if you have a choice), it should at least be permitted, and definitely not forbidden. No single school or style is by itself enough, even if multiple styles are taught at the same location by multiple instructors. Outside perspectives are always valuable, and the instructors should be happy that people are branching out and diversifying what they learn.

Those are the main ones that I think are pretty important for anyone to follow. I have a bunch of other things that I personally wouldn't tolerate, but if I get to train there while making a short-cut around them while others don't, that's fine. This would be stuff like technique hierarchy based on rank. I've seen a few styles that teach crap techniques to lower belts to enforce a skill hierarchy in sparring. If I get to go straight to the good stuff, while everyone else enjoys the tradition in an otherwise socially and emotionally healthy training environment, then it's not a big deal. Realistically most people don't need to train martial arts to defend themselves as most people won't be attacked anyway, so what I want out of effectiveness doesn't necessarily apply to someone else, but the bottom line is that training martial arts should not be worse for your personal safety and well being than not training martial arts.

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    It seemed really weird to lead with uniform-coloured mats and on-premises showers - our kick-bags are varying shades of blue, being different ages and brands, but they're all kick-able and have enough padding to protect the holder. We don't have showers on-site because we train in a school hall. I wouldn't consider either of those points important enough to open with - maybe a footnote to consider if you need the showers and you're quite OCD. (For the record, you make lots of other excellent points)
    – Rophuine
    Commented Oct 9, 2012 at 0:18
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    @Rophuine It might not be a big deal if you're training a non-contact art, but if there's any contact, everything has to be clean, otherwise you pick up staph/herpes g./ringworm. Having an outbreak of that at your club is really nasty.
    – Robin Ashe
    Commented Oct 9, 2012 at 3:33
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    I strongly agree with "Realistically most people don't need to train martial arts to defend themselves as most people won't be attacked anyway, so what I want out of effectiveness doesn't necessarily apply to someone else, but the bottom line is that training martial arts should not be worse for your personal safety and well being than not training martial arts." - I think that is far more important than mat color; I don't quite understand why mat color makes a difference.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 9, 2012 at 13:37
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    @MarkC.Wallace Once you've seen a really nasty mat, you'll see what I mean about mat colour.
    – Robin Ashe
    Commented Oct 9, 2012 at 14:19
  • I think 'clean' is the point then, not uniform in colour.
    – Rophuine
    Commented Oct 11, 2012 at 4:11

Some things I've noticed, that led me to walk out on a couple of schools:

  1. Teacher singles you out and calls you out in front of the class.
  2. Other student(s) actually laughs/snickers when that happens. and the Instructor allows that!
  3. Teacher physically injures you. Could be to make an example of you. You notice the pinches are hard, the take downs are harder. Or the workouts are VERY strenuous before the actual practicing of forms and techniques.
  4. Instructor actually makes lesser instructors micromanage you.
  5. Sensei tells you that "just b/c you said that...re: what is needed to advance, you get to wait another month before I test you."
  6. Instructor bullies you, whether physically or mentally/emotionally.
  7. Mats are hardly ever used, and gym space is pretty dirty from other classes.
  8. You and your head instructor have a clear personality conflict.
  9. The head instructor and owner actually have drinks together after class!
  10. The owner puts down the instructor, but actually lets the instructor do as he pleases as "he knows his stuff", etc...
  11. The instructor says sexist, racist things at class level.
  12. On some level, regardless of what you did, he/she just does not like you as a person, and is easily annoyed by your presence.

So these are things that I've noticed, esp. in my last class. If you see them, you need to really walk on.

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