by Kathy Olevsky
I’ve been writing this column for 10 years now, telling the world how I’ve survived 45 years in the martial arts business despite many mistakes. In fact, I have not even begun to cover close to all of them. I share my stories to help you learn from them, and because it is important for you to know that you, too, may blunder along the way, but that your school can survive all the same.
For five years, my martial arts business experienced slow-but-steady growth while meeting the needs of a solid foundation of students. The staff became skilled at keeping our students happy and excited about training as they rose through the ranks. Our retention rate was good.
Then everything changed when COVID struck. I’m guessing it’s the same for many dojo around the world.
We lost more than 100 students because of the pandemic. Then we grew by 150 students between February 2021 and August 2021. All of a sudden, we had to increase our support for beginner classes while reducing some of our intermediate classes. We had lost the middle section of our student body.
Our brown belts and black belts, for the most part, hung in there with us through a year of virtual instruction and limited in-person training. Our intermediate ranks, on the other hand, left in droves.
For the first time in many years, we started to hear complaints about how we were managing our classes. I remember when the first parent left because he didn’t think his child was learning anything new.
Our instructors were doing their best, but we were overloading them with new students. In a period of normal growth, we would have had between five and 10 students in a trial program over the course of two weeks. When people started coming back in early 2021, we sometimes had as many as 15 new students in a single class. We had lost so many students that we couldn’t afford to miss the opportunity to sign up any of the newcomers, so we took them all.
The problem was, our staff had been teaching virtually for a year, and this new rush was a bit overwhelming. While we easily could have handled such a rush in 2019, we’d become different teachers in 2020.
I’ve heard martial arts school owners say that they would welcome an onslaught of new students anytime, anywhere. The reality of it is you have to prepare for something like this before it happens — if you want to succeed.
Before the pandemic, we evenly balanced our teachers throughout our ranks, and they all had unique skill sets. Of course, there were instructors who could teach everyone, but in our school, most were fine-tuned to a specific age group or belt level.
In addition, we had instructors who preferred not to be vaccinated, so they continued with virtual classes. We had other instructors who chose to stay out because of age, the needs of family members and other reasons. But the new students kept coming through our doors.
To be honest, we didn’t manage these changes well for a few months. As always, though, we learned from our mistakes. We adjusted our class times to better accommodate the ages and levels of our students. We moved some instructors around and made class sizes smaller for a six-month period. By late fall 2021, we were back to normal with all our instructors working and most of our students happy again.
It was strange seeing so many new faces on the floor while missing all the familiar faces. However, we realized that they’re not lost. Having all those students who were so happy with us before COVID meant that we had a whole list of names we can market to — and, hopefully, get back in the dojo.
So we begin 2022 with a host of new students to teach and lots of former students who might be convinced to return to the martial path. All things considered, it’s a good place to be.
To contact Kathy Olevsky, send an email to [email protected].
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