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Why Martial Arts Schools Fail #5: Black Belt Eyes


white belt child kicks with instructor watching

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MATA Martial Arts Instructor Certification Course

Module 21-The Proper Use of Student Instructors

by Scot Conway, Esquire

The $25,000 Volunteers

Excerpt from the Martial Arts Instructor Certification Course:

Using upper ranks to teach classes has been a long-standing martial arts tradition. But, is it legal?

A California instructor had his black belts teaching under-rank classes at his studio. In exchange, he no longer charged them tuition.

This continued until one fateful day when the owner and a black belt student had a disagreement.

The vindictive student contacted the California Labor Board and reported that his instructor had been employing assistants by requiring that they teach classes each week.

This can constitute an Employer – Worker relationship. The only thing missing was payment for the workers and the taxes the government would collect if they were being paid.

The State of California investigators concluded that the owner, over the years, had a total of 25 black belts teach classes.

They defined them as uncompensated employees, which is illegal under the laws of California, and fined the instructor $1,000 per incident.

The final bill: $25,000 for the volunteers.

Lesson: Know your state laws regarding utilizing assistant instructors.

My first art director Scott Kelby ( and I created an ad of showing one of my students throwing a jump sidekick under the headline, “Kids Don’t Seem to Mind Our Summer School.” 

The ad was a big hit. Schools reported 40 to 60 phone calls, more than they had ever received. Some members, though, wanted to cancel their membership. Why? Because they didn’t do a jump sidekick in their style. Others complained because they wore white uniforms, but the kid in the ad was in a black gi. This is a classic example of Black Belt Eyes.

Black Belt Eyes are based on false assumptions. For instance, with the jump sidekick ad, the guys who canceled may have feared that a mom would bring the ad in and say, “I want to enroll my child, but first show me this kick.” Or, “Do you have that uniform in black, like this ad?” Of course, that never happens, but we are so deeply connected to our systems that our Black Belt Eyes often get in the way of our more useful Market Eyes.

Black Belt Eyes assumed people would see that the school wore a different color uniform or wouldn’t recognize the technique. Market Eyes are the eyes of your potential students, who don’t know a jump sidekick from a jumping jack.

Learn to use your Market Eyes and if you don’t have them, use someone else’s. Typically, a spouse or friend who is not highly trained in the martial arts can provide a set of fresh eyes. They do not have the emotional connection to the arts that you or I have, so they see your school and procedures from a more pragmatic perspective.

Just be sure to smile and bite your lip when a well-intended suggestion flies in the face of your concrete hard belief systems regarding the martial arts.
The Black Belt Management System Preview

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