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Locking the Back Door

June 1, 2021

As an owner of a martial arts school since the early 1990’s I have gone through many seminars and sales pitches from some of the top industry experts over the years.  90 percent of those seminars will detail how you should be focused on driving new students in the door constantly. Embracing the churn is a common sentiment among those experts, meaning you are going to have constant turnover so just worry about getting more new people than the ones you are going to lose anyway.  But, what if you didn’t have to lose those people that you fought so hard to get in the first place?  Obviously, you will lose students over the years and you do have to replace them to keep your school financially feasible and growing.  The biggest question you have to ask yourself is how do I keep those students longer than they may have stayed otherwise.  Many times you will hear a variety of classes or styles, up beat classes, numerous classes and training times, and whatever the newest fad in the martial arts world is to turn your program around.  While all of these things help you in locking the back door and retaining students it is not what I have found to be the most effective.


I have found that selling the profound change that martial arts makes in someone’s life to be the biggest way to help with retention.  Now we all talk about the benefits up front with everyone when promoting our programs to prospective students, but how many of you keep talking about those benefits after the initial sale?  I have found that continuing to remind people of those benefits is what tends to drive retention in my school more than anything else.  


Years ago, I made a conscious decision to stop being on the floor as much, teaching my beginning students, and to turn that over to some of my assistant instructors.  The goal of this wasn’t so I could sit in my office and work on other areas of the business or take time off.  The main goal of this was for me to be able to walk out into my parent’s area so I could get feedback from the parents that are actually paying the bills.  Just building the relationships with the parents and finding out what they were seeing at home helped me determine what each student needed individually from our program and how best to interact with that student.  

And keep in mind that new parents and students are also trying to figure out how your school operates and will have several questions about equipment, belt testing, schedules, etc.  Instead of making them wonder or send constant emails I get the chance to personally walk them through those initial steps and continue to sell those benefits of martial arts.

Last but not least, I don’t know how many instructors I have run into over the years that teach an excellent class but can’t articulate why someone should continue to train.  I find it helpful to tell people personal stories of how martial arts has benefitted me over the years.  This isn’t a story about defending myself from an angry mob or the exploits from my tournament years.  It is usually about something that was difficult for me to deal with in my life and how I might have thought about one of the tenants of martial arts to get through it. 


We all know that martial arts can profoundly change lives. If you will continually remind your students and parents of the impact it can have on so many different areas of their lives, and reinforce this fact with real-life examples, you will find your students will keep coming back year-after-year.


David Clifton has been studying martial arts for almost 4 decades and has owned and operated American Sport Karate Centers in Kansas City for over 25 years. He writes a monthly column for Black Belt Magazine, Clifton’s Corner, where he addresses issues common to school owners and instructors in the martial arts industry. He can be reached at