Martial Arts Instructor News and Articles

John Graden

John Graden

Executive Director

John Graden led the martial arts into the modern era by creating the first professional association, trade journal & instructors certification program.

How Billy Joel Can Help Your Retention

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This is an update to the article at the bottom of this page.

I know a guy, Steve Harrison, who is a huge Billy Joel fan. He wanted to learn how to play the piano just so he could play along with The Piano Man.

Steve went to a music school and told the instructor that he wanted to learn how to play piano like Billy Joel. The instructor told him, “No problem. Just enroll and we’ll get started.” For the next four weeks, the instructor tutored this guy on the classical piano. It was hard. It was not fun. Most of all, it was not Billy Joel. Steve figured that learning piano was just too hard, so he quit.

Almost three years later, he was speaking with a client of his when he noticed a keyboard in his office. Steve told the client about his frustrating experience with the piano school. The client laughed and said, “Steve, Billy Joel is super easy to play. It’s just three chords. Watch…” Steve said his jaw dropped and within 60-seconds he was playing Billy Joel.

This is the experience for too many students in martial arts schools. There is a tight set of benefits they are seeking yet, like the piano instructor, we create all kinds of hoops for the students to jump through in order to reach them.

Though we’ve taught this way for decades, it’s failing. People are more educated about what’s involved in martial arts than ever before and they are choosing other activities.

When I start working with a new coaching client, one of the first places I go is to their curriculum. Your curriculum is like the recipe book for your restaurant. Do your recipes have your students asking for more? Or, are they choking them down for a few months before excusing themselves from the table?

Take a good look at your curriculum. Odds are it is bloated and boring. There are way too many requirements and most of them only remotely related to the benefits a student is seeking when enrolling in a martial arts school.

If you’d like some help, email me and/or join MATA, which has a ton of curriculum content.

NOTE: Below is the annual State of the Schools article that this is a follow up to.

MATA Annual Martial Arts School Business Report: 2017
Where did 5,342 Martial Arts Schools Go?

December 30, 2017, post

Though it seems like there is a martial arts school on every corner, according to, the number of martial arts school businesses in the USA continues to decline:

2013: 20,234
2016: 15,896
2017: 14,901

These are businesses under Karate & Other Martial Arts Instruction (7999-44) and Martial Arts Instruction (7999-45.) That’s about a 27% decline in four years. Where did 5,342 schools go since 2013?

Based upon the number of new schools that join MATA each month, we know schools are opening. The problem is that more are closing than opening.

The question is: Why? We’ll post our thoughts next week. In the meantime, please share yours below in the comment box.

Notice Tyson’s hand is by his face, not his hip.

His chin is down instead of up.

His shoulder is up instead of pulled back.

His body is sideways to his opponent instead of squared off.

His legs are under his body not spread apart like he was riding a horse.

With this kind of form, he would fail his orange belt exam in most schools. 

How does that make any sense?

Sensei Tyson?

If Mike Tyson or a world champion kickboxer came to your school to teach your black belts. What do you think he would work on? Double punches, square blocks, and keeping your chin up?

I’m pretty sure he would emphasize head movement, how to snap your punches and a defense that does NOT include pulling your punch back to your hip.

I’m sure the students would learn advanced applications to adjust for different fighters. Notice I said advanced applications, not advanced strikes.

When you focus on application, you can apply that to almost any technique.

For instance, if the drill is about how to fight a taller fighter, the answer is more about footwork to stay on the outside until you can secure quick access. My brothers are 6′ 3″ and 6′ 4″ so I know something about fighting a taller opponent.

Drills that teach that application do not require complexity. They require simplicity.

The more complex a skill becomes, the less chance it can be used. Have you ever seen a double punch? Only in kata and here:

If you eliminated all kata and traditional skills, you could devote that time to drills and conditioning that would give your students a true advantage in sparring or self-defense.

Imagine teaching fewer skills that are easy to teach and learn than traditional skills and kata.

You could spend more time on the application of those skills rather than stepping up and down the classroom and holding blocks and punches out in the air, which leaves you wide open for a counterattack.

Rather than spending student’s time with the complexity and frustration of spending years perfecting the bad habits of pulling their hand back to their hip, keeping their chin up, aiming and holding a punch in the air, and blocking with power while stepping forward, your retention will improve. Your student quality will improve. Your curriculum consistency will improve.

This is the core of our white to black belt curriculum Empower Kickboxing.

It’s an old saying, but true. “Less is best.”

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  1. Sifu Rick Ostrander

    I believe there are many factors, first, the economy has to be looked at. Then we have the culture mindset of an instant gratification society, then we have dysfunctional adults today called parents who have a hard time buying into principles HONEST, COURTESY, PERSEVERANCE, INDOMITABLE SPIRIT, MODESTY, ECT,

    • John Graden

      That’s an interesting angle Rick. Instant gratification is not found in most traditional styles, but the desire is here to stay. That’s why programs have to provide instant value for the student instead of…”do it this way for a couple of years and then I’ll show you how to really make it work.”

  2. Leon Myburgh

    Outdated traditions & curriculums that are not relevant to modern self-defense and the ways of modern society does not have mass market appeal. If the owner in addition does not have business skills/knowledge and aim to stick to the traditional “honor” of being able to teach but not make a decent profit, the school is sure to fail or at best remain a part time hobby partially funded by the owner. Think about it, it takes many years of study to become a lawyer or doctor and they charge premium rates for products that nobody wants, except when they desperately need it. Martial arts instructors also have specialist knowledge and study many years to perfect their art, yet many insist on offering their hard earned specialist product by teaching for free or at minimal rates. This is not sustainable = school closes down.

    • John Graden

      I totally agree Leon. I also think that many martial artists are raised to see money as “the root of evil” rather than as a tool. Many times the toughest black belt in the room can’t get the courage to ask for the check.

  3. Paul Miller

    Paul Miller, Shigung Penna.
    The biggest problem that I see is that school owners are treating their schools like a hobby. Like it or not this is a business that needs critical business skills to stay in business. We can make all the excuses we want, however let’s look inside and see we are lacking and get the skills we need to continue. The only way to survive this business is to teach great classes, charge enough for our time, and run a great business.

    • John Graden

      Great point. Central to that is developing solid systems for every aspect of your business.

  4. মজাদার রেসিপি

    Running a school takes a lot of time work and effort, especially if you don’t have a staff to help you. Also, dealing with disfunctional students and parents adds to the stress. Many leave after earning their Black belt leaving a school owner without the needed help for lower color belt classes. Even with two people (husband and wife) its very taxing especially if your still teaching well past 55 years old.

    • John Graden

      We are all getting there Phil. If I were to open a school today, at age 57, I would run it 100% as an after-school program. Open at 2pm and leave at 6pm after teaching just 1 class. MATA is rolling this out in January. It will be a life changer for many of you.

  5. Michael Read

    I think some of the problem is once you get your black belt you can teach and some schools push for them to start there own schools. There’s a big step to trying to impart knowledge to others and keep training and motivated yourself. Plus the maturity to teach other without ego problems. Martial arts schools need to have training for teaching others. Not just in the arts but in the running of dojos . Also teaching is not for everyone. Many a student has stopped training because they have had to teach. I have been in martial arts fo 37years been teaching my own club for 20. Sometimes itshard going but the benifits are great. Not financially but in the people you meet and the friend’s you make.

    • John Graden

      Good point Michael. That’s why the MATA Certification is important. There has to be a universal language and training beyond the skills of a style.

  6. Griffin Martial Arts Private Martial Arts Program

    Old school recruiting methods and mindset of the instructors had great talent but in today’s terms lose marketing social media advertising sales leverage upgrades because in the old days it was no upgrade program it was just work and tired until you get your black belt and then work hard if you want to be a tournament competitor work hard if you want to be an instructor nowadays patches certificates trophies other tanglement of an encouragement or dangle and people in America have a short turn microwave mentality they want it now they want a quick they wanted fast don’t really care about the quality of the belt of the person behind the belt but just that they have the belt not that they earn the belt and put in Thai time and work outside of the classes but being able to say they earned a black belt is different than saying that they am a black belt Grandmaster Griffin Griffin martial arts

  7. Griffin Martial Arts Private Martial Arts Program

    Old school instructors knew that one marketing method would gain 20 new student of Bruce Lee movie Ninja Turtle movie Power Ranger movie Karate Kid movie now you have to have 20 methods to gain one new student through Twitter Facebook YouTube Vimeo blogs online marketing being Yahoo AOL if that’s still a thing Myspace if that’s the only thing live streaming through Periscope LinkedIn using social contacts and context with four referrals possibly Angie’s List possibly Thumbtack possibly Groupon being able to leverage those assets is what a lot of old school instructors old school owners are lacking the under 30 kids use it every week every day every hour for some of those and they are on the pulse of how people shop and how people buy old school methods can work but they’re outdated and it’s a small small percentage of the new business opportunities that are available the reason that schools fail is because school owners fail if they take it as a job that’s fine but you need to take it more than a job because of business owner Works harder than an employee a job is different than a Hobby Lobby you spend money to do like golf fly fishing skiing tennis if it’s a hobby you spend the money most of the karate schools are Hobbies 80% and then another 10% are jobbies meaning it’s a job parading as a hobby

  8. Ernest Rothrock

    There is a host of reasons. Let’s look back at the Bruce Lee days. Schools were packed and everyone wanted to learn martial arts. Then came the PIF Black Belt Club era, where schools didn’t care about keeping students as much as getting those PIF’s. They know students would quit after so many months, but they still got all their money. People got a sore taste in their mouth about the martial arts and contacts started to decrease. Then came the era of the internet and new marketing strategies. Most people could do their research online and read reviews about different schools. In 2013, the economy started to tank and people were scared to spend money on anything but essentials. Then the amount of time that people have for martial arts per week declined because everyone is busy with 100 different things. Top that off with all the confusion of MMA, Kickboxing, etc. In addition, many instructors insist on doing things the old way. This is prevalent in Kung Fu… everyone is stuck in the 70’s. What most schools failed to realize was that they needed new sales procedures, a beefed-up website to encourage and entice people to visit, a change in curriculum to meet today’s busy lifestyles, and a comprehensive database to track student’s payments, promotions, and sales stats.

  9. Thomas Gordon

    Problem doesn’t seem to be limited to martial arts. From what I can tell there are several factors. Some apply to some schools and some don’t.
    1 – This generation isn’t joiners.
    2 – Seems many hide behind their social media accounts and are introverts in real life.
    3 – It’s so easy to join and gain rank fast – no wow factor and doesn’t feel earned.
    4 – The marketing & advertising world has changed dramatically in the last 5 years. Most school owners haven’t kept up
    5 – The curriculum is tired and the classes are boring. As with above, many instructors simply haven’t kept up. Social media and Youtube exposes this very quickly. We must keep training ourselves in martial arts AND business.

    • John Graden

      I couldn’t have said it better.

  10. Robert Duzoglou

    The market is finding its own level. There is the rush of the new, saturation, and leveling off. This happens in many businesses. In addition there is a attrition rate, stats show business failing as stated by Business Employment Dynamics: “the number of businesses surviving past the first year has dropped from 569,419 in 1994 to 106,789 in 2016.” As we become more mature, educated and experience we start to notice these trends that travers across all industries. I am glad that you are bringing these points to the attention of the Industry. Besides these trends the maturity of the industry is requiring a more professional quality product to be delivered. If you are not growing or improving you are slow becoming irrelevant. Stay informed, improve your service and persevere.