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Martial Arts Instructors: Why Schools Fail #3: Poor Teaching Skills

by | Instructor Certification and Training

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.

In 5th grade, my class rehearsed a play that we were going to perform on Parents Night. I didn’t have any lines or much of a role. I think I was a plant. I just had to stand in one spot. Sounds simple right? An hour before leaving for school that night, I locked myself in the bathroom and refused to come out until I was sure the time had passed to go to Parents Night. The idea of getting on a stage in front of people terrified me.

Two years later, in 7th grade, my electronics teacher showed us this amazing new invention. It was a camera that recorded on something called video and it could be played back instantly on a machine. I thought that was super cool until he started to video the class. I immediately jumped under my desk so that I wouldn’t appear on camera.

I share this because I am not a natural born speaker by any means. I was terribly shy, but one of the key lessons I’ve learned from the martial arts is that there is a technique for everything. Anyone can learn to be a better speaker.

Once I started teaching martial arts professionally, I did what most of us do and just imitated my instructor. That worked for a while. But, once I began to host a weekly cable TV show, USA Karate, I knew I had to improve my presentation skills because the camera, or in this case, three cameras do not lie. My presentation was awful. I remember showing a friend of mine a video of my brand new TV show. After about ten minutes he asked, “Is there something else we can watch?” That was painful.

I had to learn how to speak and teach like a pro so I started to study the speeches of people like Ronald Reagan, JFK, Martin Luther King and watched Dr. Robert Schuller’s The Hour of Power on Sunday mornings.

What I discovered is that being a good teacher is NOT about gimmicks like praise, correct, praise or proximity influence. It’s about learning how to consistently manage and motivate a diverse group of students to do things that are difficult and thank you for it.

It’s an evolving process of calibrating your class control with a balance of discipline and motivation in order to help students and their families to develop a long-term attitude and approach to your classes.

Few students join your school with the goal of earning a black belt so your ability to inspire the desire to earn a black belt is one of the key skills of any professional martial arts instructor.

Central to inspiration is creating emotion. Logic helps, but it’s not enough. Creating an emotional connection is more art than science. Emotion breaks down barriers and accelerates loyalty.

As an example, when I took the stage for my first keynote at my NAPMA World Conference, I knew that most of the 1,000 owners in the audience either didn’t know me at all or knew of me as a fighter and Joe Lewis protege from the karate magazines.

I knew that career martial artists were far more focused on what happened in the past than what can be created in the future. I was sure they would view me as a sell-out McDojo advocate unless I could quickly convey that I was just like them. I hold the same standards and values as the most staunch traditionalist.

I had to quickly bypass their logical mental blocks and penetrate into their subconscious emotions. When the moment came and I was introduced, I didn’t enter from stage left or right. Instead, I entered from the back of the room down the center aisle. Audience members had to turn to the side to see me as I walked to the stage carrying large luggage bags. The audience was instantly in a state of curious anticipation. 

When I got to the stage, I dropped the luggage, turned to the crowd and said, “20 years of carrying baggage can really slow you down.” I then spoke about the baggage that we carry as martial artists. It was my way of saying, I’m just like you guys. Because I am and it worked.

See the open to the keynote.

Learn How to Become an Authoritative and Influential Instructor with the MATA Certification Program

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