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.

Ouch.

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


John Graden
John Graden

John Graden is widely credited with leading the martial arts school business into the modern age. He is the founder of the first successful professional association and trade journal. MA Success editor John Corcoran first called him a “visionary” in 1995. Martial Arts World magazine dubbed him, The Teacher of Teachers. Mr. Graden’s leadership was recognized in many mainstream media outlets including a cover story on the Wall Street Journal, documentaries on A&E Network, and as a guest on the Dr. Oz Show and many others.

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