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The Song that Got Me Through High School

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.

I have a question for you at the end, so read on, please.

While martial arts is a good influence for 99% of people, it was a not-so-good influence on me. The Florida Karate Academy was more about chasing the dragon than entering the dragon.

I went from being Student of the Year in 8th grade to five Fs and one C on my 10th-grade report card. I recall one of my teachers saying to me, “Your attitude has really turned bad since you started karate.”

The problem was simple. I knew from my first class that I was going to do this for the rest of my life. That was on February 12, 1974. 

The problem may have been simple, but I didn’t have a solution. I stopped caring about school. The only teachers I cared about wore white gis and a black belt.

According to scientists, we each have about seven to eight decades on this earth. I’ve burned through six of them and I want to make sure my last few are meaningful.

When I look back, I look more at seasons of life rather than decades of living.

High school was torture for me. Each day I’d get home, turn on my “stereo” and listen to the album Yessongs full blast. At the end of the opus Close to the Edge the vocal crescendo is, “Seasons will pass you by. I get up. I get down.” That line got me through high school. At least until I dropped out in 12th-grade.

Four years after earning my black belt in 1978, my instructor was killed in a plane crash while smuggling pot from Mexico. That was the end of the Walt Bone season. (That story is in Blood and Guts Dojo)

Two years later, both Joe Lewis and John Corcoran moved in with my friend Mike Anderson and joined him as two of my closest friends and mentors. That was a truly treasured season in my life.

In 1993, I created NAPMA. In 1996, I launched Martial Arts Professional magazine. That season came to a screeching halt in a courtroom in Oklahoma City where Century sued NAPMA into bankruptcy. I lost my business and my marriage.

I always try to turn a negative into a positive, so I launched the in 2003 and it’s been supporting my family ever since. I also married the woman of my dreams, so I would do it all again to get where I am now.

Enough about me, what about you? We all have seasons in life. Here are my questions about your seasons as a martial arts instructor

  1. Are you stuck in a season? 
  2. Are you moving forward or are you repeating the same year after year?
  3. Has your curriculum changed or are you in a perpetual loop of some traditional style? 

I was coaching a school owner last week and he said that he feels he has to honor his instructor by teaching the style the same way he was taught. 

My question was, “Is it more important to honor your students or honor your instructor?” After some silence, he replied, “I never thought of it that way.”

That is a telling trait of traditional martial arts instructors. The focus is more on retaining the past than forging the future

It’s a natural flow to fall into because it’s natural to teach the way we were taught.

However, in this post-COVID season, the schools that thrive will have a program that focuses on their students rather than focusing on the style.

Once I started to realize that I was contradicting myself in each class, I made the decision to scrap my tae kwon do curriculum

It didn’t feel right to demand students aim punches, hold them out and pull their other hand to their hip during the first half of the class. 

Then, during the second half, when they were sparring or doing pad work, I’d demand they snap their punches and pull their hand back to their face. That was the complete reversal of the demands in the first half.

Once I made the change, my retention sky-rocketed. It was a huge hit and the launch of a new season in my life as a very successful martial arts school owner.

Eventually, I knew I had more in me, so I sold my schools and launched NAPMA. 

  1. So what’s it going to be for you? 
  2. Do you feel you have more in you as well? 
  3. Do you think your program focuses more on students or maintaining a style?

I’m available if you’d like to explore this in a phone call. Just set an appointment. I’m sure you’ll get some value out of it.

When Combining Features and Benefits Gets Confusing

  1. “Hold the lunge punch out with your chin up.  This way you honor the art with good form.” (Is form more important than defense?)
  2. “Before you block, cross your arms and step forward. This way you can create power.” (Why does a block need power?)
  3. “When defending against multiple attackers, you want to stay on the outside and line them up so you’re only fighting one at a time. In kata though, you’re in the middle of an attack from six guys. And, if you get it wrong, you might not pass your belt exam.” This way you honor the art with good form. 

Your Assignment as an Intellectually Curious School Owner

Take another look at this list of benefits. Remove your sensei/master perspective and look at this with one goal in mind.

How can you provide these benefits in a more DIRECT, BAGGAGE-FREE, and EFFECTIVE process?

BENEFITS of most martial arts schools.

  • Fitness
  • Flexibility
  • Life Skills
  • Self-Defense
  • Sport
  • Friendship and Social

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  1. Dan Cuthbertson

    That was very insightful. I have a similar story, even down to the Joe Lewis influence on my instructor, Escalante. I am on my 43rd year of teaching and am excited about future modifications. Thank you for sharing your personal challenges.

  2. LT Wimberley

    No one should instruct based solely on their Art or instructors. That would just be mimicing what they had been told to do. Instructing is not a repeat what I do,, it is an interpretation adapted to the student based on many factors..
    I have been an educator for 5+ decades. Martial Artist for 4+ decades. Acquiring 3 degrees and 2 teaching credentials.
    It takes more than a course to be a good educator, and more than physical abilities to be a Martial Artist.
    I wish you well in your trade…I am curious what your program includes considering one of my degrees is a Masters in Education.
    Teaching as well as learning is a life long talent and endeavor.

    • John Graden

      You can see course content at