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5 Reasons Martial Arts Schools Fail

by | Offline Marketing & Sales

Setting Expectations for Martial Arts Students Upfront

Authority is highly influenced by emotion.

While your staff and students may intellectually understand that you are the boss and master instructor, they have to feel it, not think it.

It’s the emotional connection that anchors your authority on a deep level.

If there is one powerful moment in your role as a professional martial arts instructor, it’s in the enrollment conference.

While the parents may see you as the master black belt, they usually don’t have an authoritative reverence at this early stage.

The enrollment conference is a seminal moment for you to establish your authority and gain the respect and gratitude of the family you’re dealing with.

Presenting the programs and their cost to parents can be tense at times. Some parents want to negotiate. Others might object to the agreement. Some want a safety net in case their child wants to quit.

While it’s important that you are prepared to overcome any objections, it’s when the bottom line is signed and the initial investment is completed that you have a critical window to demonstrate your authority.

Many owners complete the transaction and gush with statements like, “Awesome. It’s great to have you on board. Johnny, you did an awesome job tonight. High five! Thanks Mrs. Jones it’s great to have Johnny as part of our family. Let me know if I can help with anything.”


Who has the role of authority here? Mrs. Jones and her credit card. That was a missed opportunity.

Let’s try again. You would adjust this script to the age and circumstance, but here is an authority template for the enrollment conference.

Mom has just enrolled Johnny into the program.

You, “Johnny. You want to learn Empower Kickboxing, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good. I want you to understand that your mom just enrolled you into a six month program. You are going to learn a lot of great skills and lessons. It’s going to be fun and sometimes it’s going to be hard. That’s the good part because that means you’re learning. So you have to pay attention and practice at home 20-minutes a day when you don’t have class.

Are you going to work hard and practice?”

“Yes sir.”

“I’m glad. Your classes are Monday and Wednesday at 5pm. When are your classes?”

“Monday and Wednesday at 5pm.”

“Good. You’re a smart guy. That means that you have to be ready to come to class by 4:30 on Monday and Wednesdays so that you’re not late. Will you do that?”

“Yes sir.”

“No matter what you are doing, you will be ready by 4:30, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good. The first lesson is integrity. Integrity means that you do what you say you are going to do. You keep your promises. You promise to work hard and be ready for class, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“No matter what you’re doing. Right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Great. We’re going to be so proud of you. Your mom just enrolled you, so please turn to her and say, ‘Thank you mom.”

“Thank you mom.”

“Alright. When someone does something good for you, you always say thank you. That’s called gratitude. What’s it called?”


“Correct. So you’ve learned two important lessons today. Integrity and gratitude. What does integrity mean?

“Keeping your promises.”

“Yes. What does gratitude mean?”

“Saying thank you.”

“You got it! You are going to do great, I can tell already.”

“Remember, your class is…”

“Monday and Wednesday at 5pm.”

“When will you be ready to come to class?”


“You have a good head on your shoulders Johnny. You’re going to be good at this.”

“Because you’ve showed your mom gratitude and you’re going to keep your promises, here is a school t-shirt for you to wear. Every time you put it on, I want you to think of integrity and gratitude. Will you do that?”

“Yes sir.”

“I just gave you a shirt. How do you show gratitude?”

“Thank you sir.”

As taught in the MATA Certification program, it’s also a good idea to let mom know that it’s important that she control what Johnny is doing around 4:30 which is the agreed upon to be ready for class.

If Johnny is playing with his friends or deep in a video game, it’s going to be harder to get him to get ready than if he is cleaning his bedroom or something he’d like to leave to go to class.

Keep in mind that mom is watching this happen before her eyes. What have you done to establish your authority?

  1. You’ve provided her with a language pattern that both her and Johnny understand. This is huge.
  2. You’ve given mom the “integrity” framework to deal with any reluctance to go to class.
  3. You’ve provided her with a strategy to engage Johnny in less fun activities so that going to class is an easy decision.
  4. You’ve laid out when Johnny should get ready for class without complaint.
  5. Before her eyes, you taught her son important lessons with real world examples. No doubt, your authority sky-rocketed in her eyes and in her heart.

Look for places where you can make these kinds of strong emotional connections.

Demonstrate true authority and leadership. That will last much longer than a trite, shallow compliments like “Awesome! Good job.”

This will help your students to understand how and why they are training with the best school.

5 Reasons Martial Arts Schools Fail

2. Holding onto Inherited Curriculum

by John Graden

My instructor kicked me out of the school when I was a 16-year old brown belt for good reason. I would wait outside in my car and watch through the storefront window until my class of brown and black belts finished kata practice and geared up to spar. I would then join the class.

I hated forms practice but loved everything else about our school. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t appreciate kata. It was at the core of most dropouts.  

My instructor Walt Bone believed in kata and built the curriculum around them. He was also a stickler for respect and protocol. My conduct was totally out of line, so he cussed me up one side and down the other and told me to get out of his school.


Nine months later, he let me back in. I returned with a deep appreciation of tradition and kata. I went on to win many more kata trophies than sparring trophies. To be clear, you can run a successful traditional martial arts school. Jim King, Buzz Durkin, Ric Martin, Carmen Diaz and many others have proven that. I am sharing my story and how I increased retention through curriculum modifications.

When I opened my school though, my curriculum was basically the same as Mr. Bones. Testing for black belt required 18 forms. Even though I knew this was bad for business, I was not going to “break tradition.” Instead, I was just broke.

This was right around the time of the “Karate Kid” boom in martial arts. Millions of kids joined martial arts schools just like mine and then millions of kids dropped out of schools just like mine. Why? Too much emphasis on kata. The kids found it boring and tedious, just like I did as a kid.

Kata was designed by highly disciplined adults to be taught to other highly disciplined adults in a military-like atmosphere. They were not designed to be taught to an eight-year-old kid with a video game attention span.

Eventually, I replaced traditional kata with fighting forms. It was a night and day experience. Rather than downward block-lunge punch in a stiff stance with your hand on your hip (which never makes sense), a fighting form would start with a step in jab-cross-weave-hook-front leg round kick. The student would turn 180 and do the same combo on the other side so that, like kata, we would gain bi-lateral coordination.

Many huge benefits came from this transition.

  1. Fighting is fluid, kata is not.
  2. We no longer spent half the class teaching students to pull their hands down to their hips and the other half of the class telling them to keep their hands up as they spar and do pad work.
  3. With fighting forms, students could move at their own pace, rather than being forced to stay with the class. A smaller, quicker student executes differently than a 210 lbs student.

A big shift in my mindset was the realization that most of the traditional kata were designed by black belts just like me. If they can create a form, so can I.

The key is to understand what benefits you want your students to get out of your school. That is what matters, not the techniques. I wanted my students to:

  1. Be fit.
  2. Execute with excellent form whether it’s a front kick or a hook punch.
  3. Be able to defend themselves. In retrospect, this was the weakest area for me. Talk about drinking the Koolaid. Thank you Chris Sutton and COBRA-Defense helping me realize that.
  4. Have a positive, resilient attitude.

I realized that I had the freedom to continually modify my curriculum to enhance these benefits because students were staying around a lot longer with the new fighting forms.

Retention was greatly improved and more students were able to enjoy the benefits of the martial arts. That’s what we all want, isn’t it?

MATA Curriculum Concepts Section

1. Lack of Confidence

by John Graden

My martial arts marketing strategy started with the plan to be the MOST expensive school in the area. I worked hard to be the best teacher in the area so I rarely, if ever, discounted my programs. Someone has to be the best and most expensive. Why not me? Why not you?

Most martial arts school owners think about marketing in a panic to make rent. We see this on Facebook every day where an owner posts a poorly designed ad screaming, “50% off. Hurry now! No contracts!” That kind of marketing just smells desperate. It certainly doesn’t build confidence and trust.

How you market your school is a reflection of where you place the value on your school. For instance, 50% off, hurry now places the value of your school on price.  

Of all the things you could share about your school, is that the best you can do?

If martial arts teaches so much confidence, why are you embarrassed to ask for a fair tuition?

A screaming discount ad presumes that there are people on Facebook waiting for 50% off from your school so that they can “hurry now!” That is not a sound plan.

The truth is the less than 2% of the population in your school’s pull radius will enroll in any martial arts school. That also means that every school in your area is fighting for that 2%. Yet, in virtually every market, the school with the highest tuition and contracts has the most students.

At the least, your martial arts school marketing plan should be at least 90-days in advance, with the offer, budget, platform, and goals laid out in advance. Since you are a school, work to educate rather than sell. Create an image of education rather than desperation. 

Here are some ways to build trust through educating people about the martial arts and how your school operates.

  1. YouTube / Facebook videos that are less than 90 seconds. 
    • Self-defense tips
    • How and why you teach the way do 
    • Safety tips for class
    • Addressing misconceptions about the martial arts
    • Anti-bully tips.
  2. Reach out to local schools, civic groups, and anywhere else you can get an audience to deliver a powerful presentation on what you do, self-defense, success principles or whatever you think will connect and motivate an audience.
  3. Showcase any national or international recognition you receive with press releases and blog posts.
  4. Converting scripts to articles
    • When you script your video, turn that script into the description of the video on YouTube and Facebook
    • Make it into a blog post on your website.
  5. Show your face as the leader of the school
    • Talk about your students and staff success stories
    • Tell your own story, especially if you grew up in the area.
    • Here is a video from Ric Martin in Largo, FL. He has been in the area almost as long as I have. While this video is longer than I suggest, the content is excellent and Ric does a nice presentation. Ric has never wavered from his traditional path and uses this video to help people make sense of it. Watch Ric Martin.
  6. Discuss community events and crime
    • Your blog activity is a factor in Google ranking. When you discuss a local crime or event, include the address so Google can see you are active in the community.
    • Show crime videos (not too violent) and comment on the mistakes made that led up to the crime and how it could have been prevented. You don’t have to go on camera. You can just write the article below the video.

Once you’ve started to establish yourself as a local martial arts educational expert, you won’t have to offer 50% off. You can stand by your tuition because you’ve established that you’re worth it.

See also: The MATA Student Sales Funnel

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