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  • Trials & tribulations of running a martial arts school
    What are the major problems of running a martial arts school? Does it involve finding students, accidents, training monotony, weekend schedules, non payers, legal issues, etc.?

    Since we have a number of martial arts school instructors and/or owners in this community (such as [171786,Christopher Adamchek] , [174082,Andrea Harkins The Martial Arts Woman]" , [186241,Nathalie] , [181642,Ced] , [175467,Kenneth Winthrop] , [178814,Patrick Lee] and many others), I thought they might share their "trials & tribulations" in order to educate others.

    Will
    Black Belt Wiki
    http://www.blackbeltwiki.com

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      • 1
      Nathalie Hello everyone,

      My boyfriend and I operate a kyokushin karate school and I am training 2 teens to become junior black belts and 1 girl who is going for her first dan at the age of 24. This young lady has been avid at our school since 2011. Listening, being present, showing up, training, etc...Now, she trains 5-6 days per week to prep for the big test. I love her determination and she is very sweet.

      The thing is that she is very soft in her movements as in katas, she speaks very low, when she is quizzed, if we can't read lips, we don't get what her answer is and she has never kiai'd in the 5 years that she's been with us. She is very shy and does not socialize with anyone. Not that she has to but there is never a conversation unless someone else engages her, she just picks up her stuff after class and she is gone in a flash.

      I can kind of relate to her because growing up and as a young adult, I was morbidly shy but I made myself get over it and though I get fleeting thoughts of self-doubt sometimes, I don't let those get in my way. I even remember being shy to kiai in class and thinking, after a few years of hearing others just let it all out, that I better get over that one before I get noticed as the one who is scared to kiai so I just do it from the gut, especially since my brown belt level training for my bb test.

      I have explained the meaning of the kiai to the group (oh, and they do it but they hold back so much) (thank you Jesse, btw, for your great articles, I love referring to them) the importance of putting power into their katas plus how important the breathing is as in Sanchin kata . She will nod, agree and just continue to do what she usually does, soft punches and mouth shut, not a sound of breath nor kiai.

      One of my previous instructors who is strict suggested that during the kata part of the test, we should make them all redo the katas over and over until done perfectly (as in our usual way of testing) but make sure all the kiais are heard clearly otherwise this segment won't end.

      My first question is: Is it not a must at this level? and How do I make her feel secure enough to express herself? (believe it or not she has a masters degree in communications).

      Thank you for your attention

      Nathalie
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        Manie Hi Nathalie
        I fear doing a million katas will not be helpful. Chances are that you will lose a student. Sorry to disagree with a colleague. I also think that her weak techniques is more of a problem than the matter of not kiai-ing.

        If I think like a therapist (not implying that she has any kind of problem. :-) ), I would ask myself what the root cause of the "softness" is. Only after I have confirmed with her what the cause/origin may be would I try to modify her behaviour, with her approval, of course.

        Possible causes: cultural (in some communities it is not on for women to be demonstrative), home environment (in some families they never raise their voices), physical (is it at all possible for her voice to be loud?), psychological (a fear of loud noises or making noise), "stage-fright" (focusing attention on yourself). And there may be other causes - but what is the use of listing them all? The point is that she must discover what the obstacle is.

        How about taking her for coffee and just talking girl-stuff to see if she can open up? On a one-to-one and relaxed basis you may get some idea of the way forward. OK, I know about boundaries, but subjecting her to a situation where she cannot escape and is forced to do something she is incapable of doing, is tantamount to abuse. Not respectful at all.

        The other thing is that she is clearly intelligent (education). She should understand the reasons for strong techniques and kiai when discussed with her. She may understand that despite the promise she shows, she can hardly progress without overcoming this obstacle. A kindly, reasonable and non-threatening discussion of options may be helpful.

        Finally, if she has a real fear, one could think of desensitation techniques (do some Googling), but
        tread very very carefully there. Maybe I should not even have mentioned this bit.

        Good luck! (Oh, I now note that her test may have already come - so this post may be too late for any benefit. But anyhow! We all have challenges at all stages.)
          • 1
          Will - Black Belt Wiki [233964,Manie]

          Welcome to the wiki community. Good point about making sure students realize why they have to do kata strongly (versus just going through the motions). Instructors need to emphasize these reasons (perhaps repeatedly) to younger and/or inexperienced students.

          This goes back to the community's discussions on kata such as
          http://community.blackbeltwiki.com/post/5652954/positives-negatives-of-kata
          http://community.blackbeltwiki.com/post/3251753/is-kata-useful-or-useless

          Will
          Black Belt Wiki
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        Will - Black Belt Wiki Hi [186241,Nathalie]

        Doing a million kata redos during the test might be a tad rough (as you don't want to put off a good student). However, you could do kata redos (for any lacking adequate kiais) during any pre-test prep workouts with her.

        Maybe create a fun shouting class too - everyone has to do their loudest kiai - otherwise push-ups. :)

        Will
        Black Belt Wiki
      • 1
      Ray Late to the party but.....

      I do not own or run my school. Nor do I have a real say in anything.

      I do have the largest class. My own account for gear with kwon u.s.a. I get everyone set up for tournaments open up most days, and sub for some of the other instructors on a regular basis.

      My biggest obstacle is not owning my own gym.
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      Ced I am confident that between the various opinions you will find what works best for you. Good luck wish you much success.
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      Hermit While I do not run my school, my wife does the ofc side of things and being one of the few adults that can make it to most of the classes, I've started to become one of the main assistants, so I get to see the behind the scenes of running the club, often taking on as much as I'm able as the instructor is from a city an hour & half away, he has to travel 2 nights a week for our classes. I've found so far that the biggest issue we are facing is trying to keep a good balance between keeping the smaller kids interstested (we run a 4-6yr class, 6-12, and 13+) while maintaining a disciple level that a martial arts deserves. Especially being a small town club we don't want to loose members for being too strict, but we don't want a bad name for teaching skills that could be dangerous without the proper respect (and as people get to know me, they will know I'm huge on respect) and disciple required. The club has been running for about 4 yrs, but in the last year (as my wife and I stepped up to help out our instructor it allowed the club to grow a little more) we've opened in a new location that is our own do jang (was practicing in a community hall before) and we've got to go through quite a few different issues, from setting up the do jang, to an influx of new students that has been a learning experience (club had under 20 members at the end of may, and we are sitting somewhere around 60 on paper now, with most of them showing up consistently). Collecting fees is always tough for some, you are dealing with kids that love it, but parents that don't love paying a bill (and our prices compaired to others in the surrounding communities are very fair), especially with an economic slowdown we are facing. Very tough to say that a student can't train until their parent takes care of the 2-3 months they are owing for.
      Good communication is key between parents and the club, but can also feel like your banging your head off a wall, we've tried newsletters, nightly announcements, emails, etc but still get people that just don't care to listen to what is going on in their childs club.
      We also face an issue that was my first post on here, and that's finding decent tourneys that can test our skills but not beat our kids up, as the TKD scene is not huge around our area, we often have to go into open tourneys. We have one we attend with a Kung fu school that is good, but otherwise for anything that is soley TKD we have to travel 5-6 hours to get to one. (a city about an hour and a half away has another TKD school, but a disagreement between their instructor and ours has kinda soured the relationship). We just tried a new one that was billed as an open tournament that hosted by and "MMA" club was billed as all styles friendly, but we quickly found out that was not the case at all, most of our members got hurt in some form or another (but that is a different post, if your interested in the story I called the post "is MMA hurting traditional martial arts")
      All in all we just try to keep our heads down, keep going, keep it fun but safe and hope that we can attract the right type of students that make our job easier. I also plan to post another topic regarding a mentally disabled student that has been causing some challenges if anyone can give some help on would be much appreachiated.
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      Sensei-Chap1 One major challenge for me during my two year period as a Tae Kwon Do instructor for YMCA was the large turnover in younger (teenage) students. Many of them were just looking for something to do over the summer or made to try out martial arts by their parents. Several stayed with me the entire time while others quit because it was too hard, they didn't care for learning violence or they simply lost interest. Since I was also part owner of a traditional Tae Kwon Do school in the area and nearing the end of my military assignment there, I decided to direct the more serious students to our actual school. As I near retirement from military service and plan to open a school in my current area, I am all ears for the challenges that you all are witnessing/experiencing.
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        Will - Black Belt Wiki [200293,Sensei-Chap1]

        Something else to consider when looking for the perfect location for your schools - size & wealth of a town. Seems like some people see a town without a martial arts school & think the town is perfect because there will be no competition. However, they run into difficulties because the town is too small (so not many kids) and/or the parents can't afford this relatively expensive hobby for their kids.

        It might be better to consider towns with growing population bases and 2+ existing schools, esp if these schools are filled to capacity. Competition but hopefully more than enough kids for everyone.

        Will
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        Will - Black Belt Wiki [200293,Sensei-Chap1]

        That sounds like a wonderful idea... and retirement option. I guess the first question should be who will be your main audience (adults or kids). Probably easier to make a martial arts school viable if it is focused more towards kids. However, if you don't mind a small school, adults are more serious.

        Next, is location, location, location. I have seen people open very nice schools with lots of space but in the wrong locations. So ultimately after a few years of losses, they are forced to shut down. It is better to start small and very close to your target audience because most parents value convenience over great instruction or a particular martial arts style. It is always better to have too many students in a small affordable space versus too few students in a large expensive facility.

        Will
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          Sensei-Chap1 @Will, Thanks for the great advice! Initially I plan to open the doors to anyone interested. I seem to have had more success with the younger population in TN, so I'm brainstorming how to attract more adults. A study of my current location, in which I plan retire, yields a different interest in martial arts than that in TN. So, I've been busy revamping the business strategy. One thought is to tone down the physical fitness and contact portion of my adult program. Of course there's much more to consider. I'll definitely take your points into account and keep you posted. Semper Fidelis.....
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            Will - Black Belt Wiki [200293,Sensei-Chap1]

            I know it is probably a couple of years away but let us know when your school is up & running. We can post a nice description of your school on the wiki & hopefully drive a few students your way.

            Will
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              Sensei-Chap1 @Will, Thank you very much Sir; I will certainly do so.
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      (deleted) My biggest issue is that I live in a very rural area, my town has only 26 people per square mile. It has proven difficult to maintain a student base because not only is it a fairly long drive to me. It is also a very untraveled road by the time class ends. Fortunately lately I have been working with some people who live close by.
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      Nathalie We have been a little torn making a decision about not taking students until they are at least 5 years old. We have tried a few 4 year olds recently because their parents assured us that they were mature enough but we are not sure that it is a good idea...we teach all ages and levels in one class and are able to divide by age when needed. Any comments would be appreciated.
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        Will - Black Belt Wiki Hi [186241,Nathalie]

        This is a tough age because there is a huge variance between 4 year old kids in terms of being able to handle disciple, being able to focus, interacting with other kids, etc.

        My youngest son started martial arts when he was just turning 4. He did great but we did many of his early classes as a family so I could manage him.

        Here are 3 potential options:

        1. Allow 4 year old kids but only in a family class where they train with their parents. When you have judged that they are mature enough, they could be allowed to attend regular kid classes.
        2. Have a trial week where you test these "parent maturity assured" 4 year olds. The parent is told clearly up front that if the kid can not follow directions & is constantly running out of the room for Mommy/Daddy that they must wait until they are 5. This can be hard as an immature 4 year old can disrupt a regular kid class during this trial period and you might lose a "rejected" kid forever to other courses/sports.
        3. Have a special class for only 3-4 year old kids (if enough demand) where everything is fun and short. Think of it as an extended white belt class where the kids can have fun until they graduate to regular kid classes.

        Will
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          Nathalie Thank you, Will. This was helpful.

          One of our 5 year old has his mom in our class and the other has his older sister. That is good in some ways but not in others.

          For the 4 year old boy that we tried out. He was very insecure and the mom said he was being bullied at pre k. I had to reassure him when the class kiwi'd because he was on the verge of tears every time he heard it.
          We made the mistake of allowing his parents to sit in the front on the side of the class because I believe it was harder for them to separate than the kid. Of course the boy kept running to mommy and when the instructor tried to gently re invite him into the line, he would turn his face into his mom's lap. That was disrupting and all eyes were on this situation... Needless to say, we won't be making that mistake again. Parents are normally sitting along the back wall, no exceptions from now on because the kids still know that they are there.


          We do not have enough little ones to offer a separate class but we can separate them and have another instructor lead them for a few drills.

          It certainly teaches our older kids and teenagers to be patient and understanding and we do reward them with great workouts, drills and sparring that they love.
          • 1
          Christopher Adamchek [186241,Nathalie] we have had a similar situation at my school

          we didnt have enough but i would recommend [171668,Will - Black Belt Wiki] 's 3rd idea , have a separate fun section for them thats not too long, a class that focuses more on helping them improve their motor skills than learning karate untill they are ready for the next class
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      Gottfried Roser We teach a very traditional martial art and we had to find the perfect balance between the business side of it to create student base and to keep retention high. It took a while but we figured it out and it works for us wonderfully.
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      Andrea Harkins "The Martial Arts Woman" My family and I teach our program at a YMCA. It makes life easier. They do the registrations and collect the fees. They carry the insurance. The downside is limited times available. Other perks: parents get to work out while their kids are in class and it is a community-wide involvement. I can do add-on classes such as tests or self-defense classes. There is no overhead on my part. These families become like my family and it is very personal for us. It is in a good location and already has many people who go there to work out so exposure is good. I'm writing an e-book now about starting a karate "program" as opposed to a "school."
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      Nathalie I am the admin part of our school and the assistant sensei. I also add a "fitness" aspect to the first part of the class at times.

      Finding a place was difficult as renting a building was too expensive as we are beginners with 40 students. We opted for a community centre that rents by the hour. We teach there 3 nights per week.
      Definitely, the goal is to up our number of students to eventually have our own dojo where we can go to whenever we want to train.
      Advertising through the post office did not prove to be fruitful like it was in the past.
      We did a demo in the park in the spring where we approached people, spoke to them and passed flyers. We are on FB and have a website.
      Any suggestions are welcome as I think it is our biggest challenge. It's going to be 1 year that we opened and we still have the same number of students.
      We've had a few parents join since we teach to all ages at the same time. And a few younger kids through word of mouth.
      Now, we are doing a "bring a friend" month.

      We seem to be appreciated for our style of teaching and approach. Kids with issues such as ADD, autism and bullying can be a great challenge behaviour or focus wise but respond and progress well and that is very rewarding for us.
      Also our young teens and adults are a charm to teach because they choose to come and really want to learn.

      Our classes differ each night. No monotony. We are mostly spontaneous depending on who is in class and which levels and sometimes we look for ideas on line just for fun.

      Aside from bumps, bruises and sore muscles, we have had no accidents. Sensei broke his hand during sparring a few years ago at our old school...

      The community centre took away our Saturday morning class so we had to replace it reluctantly with Friday nights. In the end, we are getting the more serious and advanced students on Fridays since parents and young children often take that night off so that class is great.

      One student quit after her parents' cheque bounced and they could not afford to pay anymore but aside from that, we don't have issues with non-payers.

      We differ from other schools around us as we are not a Mc dojo, we are non-competitive, we encourage our blue belts and up to learn to teach, we teach all levels and ages together (we sometimes divide the class in two where I or our young senpai will take one group and sensei will take the other).

      No legal issues.
        • 1
        Will - Black Belt Wiki Hi Natalie

        That is a great (and very sensible) suggestion about using a community center as an intermediary step before opening your own dojo. This allows you to attract loyal students and work out your class schedules before you get locked into an expensive and long-term lease.

        I am sure that many school owners have panicked when they have signed a long-term lease and suddenly realize that they don't have the student income to pay the ongoing monthly payments. This forces them to compromise their standards and become McDojos in order to keep the business going.

        Here is our thread on martial arts school advertising - http://community.blackbeltwiki.com/post/3457864/successful-martial-arts-school-advertising

        Will
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        Andy Hi [186241,Nathalie] and welcome to the community, I am glad to hear that your school is running well. We have a post on here (somewhere) that has some good advice on promoting schools and I'm sure some of our other members will offer some more advice.
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      Ced This topic is actually one that I am currently facing, and as I previewed the lead-in I can definitely relate to some of the considerations. However, I might point out from experience having run both a free community based program (based in a community center town owned) and a commercially operated dojo that the issue are often the same. So some of the legal issues for a community based program were concerns about who you might not want as a student and be faced with discrimination claims, even though as an instructor you might have legitimate concerns about how that training would be put to use. In a commercial operation you are always faced with attracting paying and dedicated students of the caliber that you want in your dojo, after all your students represent you and your reputation.

      Since I consider myself a "koryu" which in western parlance translates as "old school" traditionalist I have refused to submit to what some schools do which is put on "martial arts kiddie parties. Or offer discount sign ups or free uniform give a ways to attract students. I realize that for those operations it is a business but I think of it this way if a doctor or lawyer offered some gimmick to get my business they would be the last place I want to be.

      So attracting enough student who pay on time is crucial to keeping the dojo open. As far as training and monotony I have always approached my training from two angles, one part of class time is focused on the techniques required for the next level while the initial aspect of class time is focused on theme such as self defense based on type of attack coupled with analogous discussion of various dojo members circumstances. It helps in that area having been a career law enforcement officer.

      So as I consider opening a new dojo a 1000 miles away from where I lived and practiced my martial arts for the past 30 plus years I have come up with these considerations. (1) can I attract enough student to pay the bills while maintaining my personal standards I regards to the type of caliber and character that I would want to represent me and the dojo. (2) Having the right location which can be a major impact on who you attract. (3) The legal issues are somewhat simpler in that getting the proper business permits, dojo insurance and legal liability release are fairly easy even though there is the initial outlay of cash. (5) One other thing probably over looked for new school operators is starting from scratch especially when you don't have an assistant instructor to help over see class. Central to all of this is maintaining student enrollment especially if, like me, you don't use contracts. Well that's my two cents on the subject.
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        Will - Black Belt Wiki Thanks [181642,Ced]

        Lots of great insight for prospective martial arts school owners.

        Is there anyway to achieve a happy balance between a serious martial arts school (where it is harder to attract students and thus difficult to pay the bills) and a "kiddie party" school (where you offer less serious events in order to pay the bills)?

        The one man band schools also have to face issues such as the sole instructor who gets sick (i.e. who runs the classes esp if there are no senior students), potential burnout (i.e. you are running the school at night and have a family & another job during the day), lack of a coworkers/partners to discuss how to handle potential problems, etc.

        Will
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          Ced Yes I'm sure there is we just have to find out what works for us.
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        Andy [181642,Ced], excellent post regarding the running of a school there Ced! I think you have covered a lot of bases (some of which I had never considered).
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      mnninja Great idea [171668,Will - Black Belt Wiki]! I think we could also open the floor for questions. As one in the industry, I see a lot of trends in issues and obstacles. [171786,Christopher Adamchek] hit on a few very similar ones already.
        • 1
        Will - Black Belt Wiki Hi @mnninja

        We would love to get your thoughts on industry trends and school issues. Your work with your consulting firm should give you lots of insights.

        Will
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      Christopher Adamchek Location has to be one of the most difficult my school has faced, its hard when you dont have a store front on a main road

      We have hand next to no problems with accidents

      Scheduling can be tricky depending on how many instructors you have

      Non payers is a big problem in innercity, especially when you can see that the kid loves it but the parents dont pay on time. You dont wanna kick the kid out so you let it slide, then they get behind and quite in another month or so owing a month or two of payment. And its almost not worth the hassle of trying to take legal action.

      Finding dedicated students can be hard, people like to try karate and then quite, so lots of waves of beginners

      If you keep getting new people that dont stay you get monotonous with classes and longer spent students get bored
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