Escape the Jail Cell of Style

Escape the Jail Cell of Style

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

Your Student Loss Ratio

Your Student Loss Ratio

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.

What If a Kid Wants to Go But Can’t Afford It?

As we all know, coming up with the money to let your child go on a three- or five-day camp can be challenging. However, with a dash of resourcefulness, a pinch of hard work, and a couple of handfuls of persistence, your students may be able to reduce their cost to a more reasonable amount. The recipe for success is called “fundraising.”

Before you begin, you’ll need to form a strategic fundraising plan. Set a monetary goal that you would like to reach. For instance, if you’d like to get the cost per student down to $50 each, you’ll have to raise $13,375. That’s $107 that each student will need to raise.

Choose three or four fundraising methods you think would go over well in your area, and time them in such a way that it doesn’t seem like you’re pestering folks to buy something every other week. Here are some fundraising ideas that, hopefully, can help raise enough money to offset student expenses.

School yard sale

This can be held in your school parking lot. Students and their families donate items to sell. And, aside from the cost of advertising the sale in the local paper, there are no other expenses to this venture.

Pot Luck Dinner Party
Put on your chef’s hat for this one. This has great potential, however, it requires extensive planning and coordination for it to be successful. Your first step will be to find a facility that can accommodate this particular activity. A local church may be willing to help out. Once you find the facility, you’ll need to begin ticket sales. Advance ticket sales are important, as they will help you to determine how much food to prepare.

Parents may want to get together to donate the meals, drinks, and desserts. They may even donate the paper plates, cups, napkins, etc. You can play a fun martial arts movie like The Three Ninjas after dinner. Everyone knows it’s a party to raise money for the camp. You might even auction off some private lesson with you.

Cooking and cleaning would be all that is really required of the students.

Have a little brainstorming session with your staff and students, and you’re bound to come up with even more great ideas.

The Weekly Card Count Meeting

Early identification is one of the best ways to keep clogged arteries – -or empty classes – -from ruining your day. What’s that? You say your disease is already in an advanced stage? No need to fret, it’s never too late (at least with a martial arts school) to turn things around – -all it takes is some changes in your behavior.

While I believe the first and foremost way to build a healthy school is by teaching phenomenal classes, a staff meeting I call “The Weekly Card Count” runs a close second. The Weekly Card Count can be a school’s vitamin pill, fitness program and medical check-up. Like a health maintenance program, it focuses on prevention rather than therapy.

This can be done with a computer print out the the students, but Student Cards is the reference here.

The Weekly Card Count tackles the problem of student attrition (and a lot of other issues at the same time). It’s like putting your entire student body through a weekly flour-sifter, sorting out those that need your immediate attention. At first you’ll have some big chunks to contend with, but with this step-at-a-time approach you’ll soon have sorted through anything that could clog-up the machinery in your operation.   Here’s how it works:

The Weekly Card Count meeting is held with the entire staff present, and at a time when you will incur the fewest interruptions and distractions. During the count, every challenge your school has – -whether financial, motivational or organizational – -is going to pop-up. It’s the perfect time to train all of your staff.

Step #1

Count the total number of attendance cards held in every box in the school (“A” and “B” boxes, the “On Vacation” box, the “Sick and Hold” box and anywhere else they might be held). For the sake of explanation, let’s pretend that there was a total of 300 cards.

The next step would be to determine how many of those 300 people did not attend classes in the past 7 days. Once that was done you would know your ONE WEEK ACTIVE COUNT – -and your INACTIVE COUNT. Let’s say that your ONE WEEK ACTIVE COUNT was 225, and your INACTIVE COUNT was 75 students. Those numbers get recorded in your statistics record-book for future reference. After sorting, you would put aside the active student’s cards and take a closer look at the inactive people.

What To Do With Non-Attenders

Sort the non-attenders by rank. Spread the cards out on a big table or on the floor for a complete visual overview. Right away you’ll be able to see some interesting patterns. What if your biggest non-attending groups are white and green belts? Maybe there’s some improvements needed in their classes? You might need to add an instructor, or adjust the class size or time to improve retention? With all your staff present you can brainstorm ways to plug the leak.

After the visual overview, then you go through the cards one-by-one and check for the reasons these students aren’t attending. Here’s how it might sound:


“Ok, here’s the first card and it’s a white belt, John Smith. Does anyone know why he missed last week’s classes?

Head Instructor:

No Sir.

Asst. Instructor #1:

Yes, he said he was going on vacation for a week.


Good! So re-file him in the active count since we know he’ll be back next week. Next time, when you hear that someone is going on vacation, please write “vacation” across that week’s space – -so that we won’t spend time and energy trying to determine where they are. Alright, here’s the next card, Tom Jones. He’s been out for a two weeks and prior to that he had only been attending once-per-week for a almost a month. Does anyone know what’s happening with Tom?

Head Instructor:

Yes sir, I called Tom last week and he said he was really busy at work. I reminded him about his upcoming exam – -and generally tried to pump-him-up. He said he would try and make it next week.


Good job, and as a reminder, please make sure to note any phone calls you make to a student on their card. That way we have a record of what’s going on with them. What’s your opinion, is Tom being straight with us – -or do you think his motivation is wavering?

Head Instructor:

Honestly, I think he’s losing his motivation. I remember when he started he was really gung-ho. But after I held him back at the last test, he seemed to lose it a little.


Ok, here’s what we will do with Tom. I think he’s showing every sign of a potential drop-out. I’m going to call him myself – -and see if I can’t personally motivate him to come back. I’ll offer him a private lesson with me for Saturday morning – -perhaps I’ll be able to get him back on track.

Now, let’s talk about how we can keep this from happening again. Number one, If someone is held back from testing, especially at these beginning levels, we need to set an immediate private lesson to get them up-to-speed.

If at all possible, the student should then be privately tested before the next exam. Especially someone like Tom, who has the enthusiasm – -but just lacks some of the finer technical skills. (You know about that because of a note written on the back of the attendance card by your Head Instructor at the last pre-test).

Next, Tom went almost a whole month only attending one class per week. Did anyone talk to him after he missed his very first class? I didn’t think so. Remember, one of you checks the cards at the beginning of each class. If someone isn’t attending regularly, it’s time for a mat-chat there-and then. Find out why they’ve missed a class. Were they traveling? Busy with homework? Discouraged? Then you can play “drama-club” with them and emphasize the importance of making each-and-every required class. Then, you set a make-up class for them. If we make a policy that NO ONE EVER MISSES A CLASS —then we solve a lot of attendance problems before they happen.


Kathy (your school’s financial accounts manager), is Tom by any chance on our late-payment list?


Yes, he’s 15 days late on the third-installment of his course. He owes $150.00.


I thought so. When I talk to Tom if I find out he’s having some financial difficulties – -I’ll probably send him to you to make a new payment arrangement – -so be ready for him.


(To your school’s introductory-lesson instructor) Make sure that we drive home in the intro our policy on class attendance. Let them know that it’s OK to miss classes as long as they make them up. Let them know too about how much we follow-up on attendance – -that way when we call them panicking, they won’t be surprised.

Head Instructor:

Sir, I have an idea. Why don’t we come up with a way to give class credits to students, who for some reason or another, miss a class – -but still practice? If an adult attends another school’s classes while traveling, we could give them credit for the class. If one of our kids can’t     make it to class because their parents got busy, maybe they could turn-in a homework sheet? That way they would still get credit for that class, and their parents, who are already busy, won’t have to cart them in for an extra one.


Perfect! You design the form and bring it to the next Card Count Meeting. Good thinking!

The Weekly Card Count Meeting gives you a load of opportunities to teach your staff members and polish your operation. When you first start the meetings, the workload may seem substantial, but in less than a dozen weeks you’ll have it trimmed down so that even the slightest infraction sticks out like a sore-thumb. Think of the Weekly Card Count as a way to line-up and talk to every one of your students – -every week. And remember: Prevention instead of Therapy.

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