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3 easy ways to better reach your martial arts students

June 20, 2017

Command respect and authority to set the right tone in your dojo.


A lot of martial arts instructors focus heavily on bringing in new students to help drive more revenue. And while we all want to increase our enrollment rates, you should never lose sight of keeping your current crop of students happy, engaged and enrolled. After all, it’s going to take a lot of time, energy and resources to go out and find replacements for any students who drop out of your classes.

This is especially critical at the end of the school year, when parents may decide to take some time off from their kids’ weekly classes during summer vacation. Before you know it, that short break has become a total abandonment of martial arts.

How can you stave off student churn and bolster your retention rates from season to season? The answer can often be found in how you conduct business within each class. You need to be able to get through to your students to keep them excited about their martial arts journey and coming back for more. As long as you follow these three simple steps, you’ll be sure to improve student engagement and reduce class churn:

Always be challenging students to keep them engaged and driven. Always be challenging students to keep them engaged and driven.

1. Treat belts like gold

We all know belt progression is typically the dangling carrot that keeps many students motivated to continue practicing martial arts. You don’t want to overdo it, though, and start handing out new belt colors for every little achievement – or worse, when a student hasn’t really earned any kind of advancement. The moment you make a compromise here, the value of your belts goes down. If anyone can move up the ranks regardless of their skill or development, why would students feel motivated to pursue that ultimate prize: the black belt? Once they get over the short thrill of a new belt, they’ll realize that without any true meaning attached to that badge of honor, it’s ultimately an empty gesture.

By adhering to your standards and only awarding new belts when students have truly earned them, you’ll strike just the right balance of motivation and achievement.

2. Be clear, concise and honest

Kids sign up for martial arts classes to have fun, of course, but the last thing you want is for them to walk all over you, dictate how you run your class or just outright lose respect for you as their instructor. You’re not there to be their friend, so don’t act like one. If they don’t respect you, they won’t respect the craft. And if they don’t respect the craft, they’re less likely to continue practicing and developing it.

How you conduct yourself and interact with your students will determine how much respect you command in the dojo. Always be clear and concise with your instructions and feedback. Your students should know precisely what’s expected of them and how they can improve.

“Always be clear and concise with your instructions and feedback.”

Writing for the Martial Arts Teachers’ Association, martial arts expert John Graden explained that false praise can also be detrimental to setting the right tone in your class. If students continue to receive praise regardless of how well they perform, what motivation will they have to improve? When you tell your students everything they’re doing is great, they’ll lose their drive and become bored. If you’re honest and clear with your feedback, students will know precisely what they should be working on and will stay engaged.

3. Kick things up a notch

If you’re concerned about student retention, you may feel pressure to start going easy on them – especially if you’re getting the feeling that a particular student is circling the “burn out” drain. Often, that’s the exact wrong approach to take.

Even long-time vets like Mike Massie have made the mistake of going easy on students when they should have really been putting the hammer down. As he noted, you might be tempted to take the foot off the gas around the end of the school year when kids’ attention spans are already razor-thin, and they’re counting down the days until summer vacation starts. In one particular instance, Massie found that by taking it easy on his students, he was actually driving them away because he wasn’t consistently challenging them.

If you think your students may be drifting away, consider upping the ante with a more strenuous class schedule. Throw some curveballs in there to keep things varied and your students on their toes. Most of all, get that blood pumping!

The main takeaway here is that student engagement directly correlates with the perceived value of your instruction and brand as a martial arts teacher. If you just give away belts, let students walk all over you or fail to continually challenge them, you’re sending a message that none of this really matters. And when that happens, students will drift away and eventually drop out of your classes.

Stay focused, stay strong, stay engaged: That’s the recipe for getting through to your students and keeping them excited about martial arts.

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