This is a sample lesson from our MATA Certification Program.
By John Graden
From 1984 until about 1989, I was training three times a week in a dark, dirty boxing gym with retired world heavyweight kickboxing champion Joe Lewis.
The only reason we would miss the workouts was the scheduling challenges his seminars sometimes presented. The fighting was hard contact and as intense as you can imagine it could be climbing into a 12-foot-square ring with the man cited as “the greatest fighter in the history of karate.”
Joe taught me that fighting should be as real as possible. He also confirmed my opinion that point karate had little value in instilling the tenacity or attitudinal conditioning necessary to go three rounds with anybody, which we agreed should be a minimum standard for a professional black belt.
My motivation has always been as a teacher, not a fighter or champion. Even though at the same time I was traveling to Europe regularly to compete with the United States Karate Team, I’ve never had a compelling drive to be a world champion or trophy collector. I’ve always competed for education and experience.
Whenever I’m in a learning environment, such as working with a great teacher or taking a personal development seminar, I am always asking myself, “How can I teach this to my students?” In the case of fighting with Joe Lewis, the question changed to, “How do I teach this to my students without driving them out the door or to the hospital?”
In most schools, sparring is one of the leading causes of drop out among students. Even when the school sticks to the relative stop-and-go safety of point karate, students still drop out. How, then, could I motivate these students to engage in sparring without hurting them or scaring them off?
I learned that the key is in the perspective you keep in working with your students. If your goal is to get your students to black belt, then you that you have three to five years to accomplish that.
It’s important, then, that you structure your curriculum to gradually introduce the student to sparring. There’s no rush.
A student that drops out of the martial arts because of sparring is a student we have failed.
White – Orange Belts
In the sparring program I developed, white and gold belts are required to learn simple block and counters while wearing pads on their hands and feet. These techniques are executed against the jab and reverse punch — but without any contact.
In addition, we will have them work slipping drills, target drills, defensive footwork drills, and set-point movement drills to get them moving and firing techniques.
Understand that this represents the first six to eight months of their training. Often, instructors have their students sparring within the first three months. Our students don’t even make contact for eight months.
Green – Blue Belts
When the students graduate into the green and blue belt class, they begin to actually spar following the rules of light-contact continuous karate. That is like point fighting without stopping to decide who scored a point.
However, there is still no head contact, but body contact is permitted. Of course, the students wear headgear, hand-and-foot protective pads, shin pads, a mouthpiece, rib guards, and a groin cup for the guys.
Limited Sparring Drills
Limited sparring drills are a great way to help students get comfortable and build skills while sparring. A limited sparring drill is a sparring match with a strategy other than winning as the goal.
For instance, one student might be limited to executing only a jab to the forehead. For these drills, we always target the forehead instead of the face, as a safety measure. The student’s partner could then be limited to using only positional movement (footwork) and head movement as a defense.
So, in this example, the jabber is working on stepping in and snapping his jab to the forehead, while the defensive fighter is learning to slip and move against an attack.
In the following round, we may have the defensive fighter add hand traps to his defensive choices. For round three, we may slow things down slightly and place the defensive fighter with his back against a wall to prevent him from running from his opponent.
The final round could allow a counter technique to be thrown.
So, through this structure, we’re preventing the fighters from being overwhelmed by trying to figure out on their own what to do. At the same time, they are actively, enjoyably and safely engaged in a sparring-like exercise.
The end result is, the defensive fighter gains confidence in avoiding contact.
You can see within this scenario that there is no winner or loser. Instead, the students are taught to judge the match by how well they stuck to the strategies of the drill.
While the majority of the class time devoted to sparring is spent on limited sparring drills, we will allow the students to go a round or two of free-sparring under strict black belt supervision.
The matches always begin with the students introducing themselves and shaking hands with their partner and a verbal review of the sparring attitude towards each other, which is, “I’ll make sure you don’t get hurt.”
Also, explain to the students that while control is required and demanded, they are going to get accidentally whacked on occasion just as they are going to whack someone else. Teach them exactly how to inform their partner if the contact is too hard.
You can even talk to them about the tone in which they make the request to lighten up. An angry demand may elicit a different response than a respectful but firm request.
Respect and courtesy are key attitudes. Make sure that the person being requested to lighten up is taught that “Yes ma’am or “Yes sir” is the only acceptable response. Only the person getting hit can determine the contact level and he cannot be questioned.
Graduating to Head Contact
After an additional eight months in that class, the students graduate into the blue and red belt level. At this point, they are allowed to make light head contact in addition to moderate body contact to the rib-guard area. Students are taught to strike the headgear and not the face.
You may think that twelve to sixteen months is a long time to wait to spar with head contact. I think many of your students might disagree with you. I would also argue that your students have a lifetime to spar from that point on.
Students must be mentally conditioned and have their confidence and tenacity built to prepare them for actual sparring, which is part of the Phase One Training explained in Chapter 2 in the Pedagogy section of the book.
At that point, mentally they are ready to face the challenges sparring will present. But now, after a year of training, they’re ready to meet it head-on with excitement and anticipation instead of anxiety and trepidation.
Eight months later, they graduate into the brown and black belt class, where the intensity and contact level is somewhat more “realistic.” But after close to two years of training and preparation, these students are ready for the challenge mentally and physically.
Take good care of your students and nurture them along to ensure they are going to be part of your school and part of our martial arts family for a very long time. When they enroll, they are investing a lot of trust in your leadership and guidance.
Few areas of the martial arts can be as confusing or intimidating as sparring. Keep a long-term black belt-oriented perspective on training your students and you will have a much better chance of having them stick around to successfully achieve that goal — and more.
A Typical Martial Arts Summer Camp Day
Structure two classes per day each day with one class at 10:00 a.m. and the other to coincide with your after-school program from 4:00 pm to 5:00 pm. On field trip days, you may only want to do one class for a total of 8 classes instead of 10.
Kids start to arrive at 7:30 – 8 am.
They can spend that time in quiet activities until the program officially starts at 9:00 with a morning snack. They will have to bring a snack or purchase a snack. It’s against code in most areas to provide snacks. Kids help to clean up.
10 – 11 am
Board games and a short movie or TV show will fill the time until the first martial arts class of the day. This is a martial arts class just like your evening classes.
11 – noon
Martial arts class.
12 – 12:30
12:30 – 1: 30
Downtime as kids watch a G-rated movie or play board games.
Maybe a field trip or a guest comes in to teach and speak with the children. Local police and firefighters are great options. Amateur magicians looking for stage time can work as well. Get creative.
4 – 5 pm
Second martial arts class of the day.
Clean up and prepare to go home. Pick-up is between 5:00 and 6:00 with a late fee for anyone after 6:15 of $3.00 for every 15-minute block of time. During the summer, you will have late drop-offs and early pick-ups, because of the nature of summer camp.
Escape the Jail Cell of Style
I recently posted this “Fighting Form” from our Empower Kickboxing program on Facebook. I designed the forms in the late 1990s to replace the traditional TKD forms I practiced and taught since 1974.
While the video didn’t quite go “viral,” it did stimulate over 100 comments and a number of “debates.”
I loved kata. I won more trophies in kata than fighting. I was the first center judge for the WAKO World Kata Championships in Berlin in 1986-ish. I was the US Open Korean Forms Champion in 1982. Just like my instructor Walt Bone, I was a kata guy.
However, after opening and running my school for a few years, I had a few revelations that I’d like to share with you.
Traditional kata creates confusion and contradiction.
1. It makes zero sense to teach my students to pull their hand to their hip during basics and kata in the first half of the class only to yell at them to put their hands up during mitt work and sparring.
2. It makes zero sense to make students memorize and perform a clunky series of skills in stances that are way too deep and static only to yell at them to keep their legs under them and move during mitt work and sparring.
3. Each form and skill has an Asian name that students had to remember. For instance, one brown belt form was named Kwan Gae after the 15th Empower of some Korean dynasty. What do I care?
Why was I teaching Korean history in class? If I was going to teach history it would be American history. Remember, we won the war.
I wanted forms that taught the skills of sparring and self-defense.
Today, we can see what really works in self-defense because YouTube has hundreds of thousands of security and iPhone videos of real self-defense.
Do you know what I’ve never seen in a real self-defense video? I’ve never seen an attacker in a deep stance holding his arm out with his other hand on his hip.
Why on earth would I spend time teaching what is clearly decades old impractical theory?
Some will argue that the deadly skills of self-defense are hidden in the kata. Maybe they are, but people do not pay tuition to learn tedious forms in the hopes that one day they might figure out how it really works or, even worse, doesn’t work.
Think about it. Of all the skills that can be taught in a martial arts class, why would you pigeon hole yourself into the limiting jail cell of a style?
How often have you had a prospect contact you can say, “I want to learn traditional kata.” Never.
When I replaced my TKD forms with these fighting forms, the students loved it and retention skyrocketed. I replaced basic TKD blocks and lunge punches with dynamic boxing and martial arts based combinations that they could apply that night in sparring.
The reason that most of us are so emotionally attached to a style is only because that’s what the school nearest taught. If the school taught a different style, you’d be just as attached.
Attachment to any style is limiting. It’s limiting in what you learn and what you teach. Style attachment is like a brainwashing experiment reminiscent of The Manchurian Candidate.
In my first white belt class, my 14-year old brain was ripe for influence when my instructor Walt Bone said, “We teach Tae Kwon Do. It’s the best style because it emphasizes kicking. Your leg is a much longer and stronger weapon than your arm. An attacker has to get past our kicks and then our punches in order to get to us.”
Three years later, a dad of one of the students didn’t think karate worked so he challenged Mr. Bone. Bone put sparring gear on the guy and bowed him in. After an initial clash, the guy tackled Bone. It was not pretty.
So much for the power of the style. Walt Bone is facing the camera in the dark grey gi.
Grab a copy of The Dark Side of the Martial Arts at WaltBone.com
Your Martial Arts Student Loss Ratio
Now that the first quarter is in the books, let’s find out what percentage of your student body that you lost from January 1st to March 31st.
1. Start with the total number of active students as of January 1.
2. Add to that the total number of new students who have enrolled year-to-date.
3. Count the number of active students you currently have. An active student has attended class in the past two weeks.
Divide #3 above by the sum of #1 & #2. That is your retention rate as a percentage. For example, if you were to do this in April:
1. January 1 starts with 150 students
2. New students January 1 to March 30 = 40
3. 150 + 40 = 190 students (this is 100-percent retention and zero loss)
4. Current active count = 165 students
5. 165 ÷ 190 = .86 or 86-percent retention or a 14% loss rate.
The shorter the period of time, the higher the percentage. Don’t be fooled into thinking you have an 86-percent retention rate year round. Most schools end up with around 50 percent for the year. You, of course, want to push it as high as you can but it has to be more than 50 percent to grow.
Is Your School Attractive?
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit martial arts schools on three continents. As with anything, there is always a top, middle, and bottom third of success. I’ve been in schools that have not changed since they opened decades ago. I’ve been in schools that seemed as though they haven’t cleaned the school since they opened decades ago. I’ve also been in schools that were multi-stories high with a restaurant as part of the facility.
What I’ve learned is that the schools that continue to evolve and adjust grow while those who do not stagnate. To help you evaluate your school, I’ve broken this down to a number of categories that collectively make one school more attractive than another.
Before we dive in, let share an observation I’ve had for years. In every market, the most expensive school with contracts typically has the most students and income. Why? Because they are constantly evolving and improving. That doesn’t mean that they chase every shiny object, but they work on their teaching skills and their selling skills. Every aspect of the operation is part of a system that is usually in writing or video.
Here are some important areas that when optimized, make one school more attractive than another. We start with what you teach and how you teach it.
Your Martial Arts Curriculum
In designing your curriculum, it’s important that you take a step back and run everything you teach through a series of filters including, “Why am I teaching this?” “Is it necessary?” “What would happen if I stopped teaching it?” Attractive schools consistently review their curriculum and modify it as new information comes in. Just because an Asian in an Asian country decades ago did it this way doesn’t mean you have to do it that way. Design your curriculum to serve your students best interests, not the styles’ legacy.
See more on Curriculum Design
Professional Martial Arts Instructors
Everything starts with the interaction of the instructors and the students. The quality of that relationship will set the ceiling of potential for school growth. That’s why we have the MATA Certification program. This gives everyone a common understanding and language for becoming a professional instructor rather than simply repeating the same patterns and methods of previous instructors.
Martial Arts Uniforms
Adults, especially women, are sensitive to required attire and how it makes them look. The traditional karate is unflattering, to say the least. Some of you may be thinking, “Good. That teaches students to be humble.” The problem is that they have to be in class to learn these lessons and many women will not enroll because of the uniform. Many are also turned off by the prospect of being barefoot in class.
Martial Arts School Logo
Most martial arts logos look either like a pesticide company or ancient hieroglyphics. The goal of a logo is to brand the school, not tell a history lesson. A good logo has one or two elements to it. That’s it. Think of the Apple logo. It used to have multi-colors like a rainbow. Today, it has one element, the gray apple. Most of the time, it doesn’t even have the name Apple on it. Think of your favorite sports team. Odds are their logo is simple but exciting. That is what you want for your school logo.
Martial Arts School Name
A good martial arts school name has one or two words followed by, “martial arts” “karate” or “kung fu.” Never use a specific style in the school name. It has no meaning to non-martial artists. Never use your name in the school name. It makes it harder to sell the school. If your area has a common reference like Tampa Bay, then Tampa Bay Martial Arts is a good name. Tampa Martial Arts confines the school to that cities’ identity which may make it less attractive to those who live outside the city and can create confusion if you want to open a branch school in another city.
Martial Arts School Website
Your website should reflect your school’s spirit, colors, and language. Have your site designed and built by a professional, not a friend of a friend or student. Make sure the images are NOT stock and that the students are smiling and enjoying themselves.
Understand that just having a website is not enough. You can have the best-looking school but if it’s out in the desert people will not find it. You have to invest in SEO so that people searching for martial arts will see your website on the first page of the search results.
Martial Arts School Condition
Your school must be clean and free of a barefoot stench. I always traded tuition for cleaning since that’s how I could afford classes myself. Whatever your system, be consistent.
From answering questions to dealing with complaints, there is a communication skill for every situation. Learn them and rehearse them with your staff.
Martial Arts School Systems
Attractive schools stay attractive by recording everything in a system’s manual that is a combination of video and written steps. From how to order equipment to how to tell a student he didn’t pass his exam, everything is part of an established system.
Energy and Excitement
Attractive schools have a good energy. The instructors, including you, are in great shape and lead with a sincere smile. There is nothing less attractive than an obese instructor promising to get you in shape if you join. The easiest way to lose weight is not to “diet” but “decide.” Decide if this pizza at 10 pm after classes is worth the calories. Make it a habit to burn 300+ calories a day with exercise and keep your caloric intake under 2,200. You will begin to shrink.