I've been operating a martial arts school full-time for 40 years. I think I may have made every mistake that can be made in this business. The reason I’m still in business, I believe, is because I asked for help. I learned quickly that others before me had already found solutions. In this reality-based column, I’ll point out key mistakes I made in my business career, which are common errors among school owners, both large and small, throughout our industry. Then I’ll share the solutions I applied to overcome them.
In our early years in running a dojo as black belt instructors, we came to work, taught classes and tried hard to manage a business that was our sole source of income. As instructors and owners, we made student progress the priority in the school. While that’s a respectable and sensible idea, it left out a very important pillar of our growth.
I think, in those early years, we were missing a huge opportunity. We basically never showed our students our own talent!
We have learned, as the years have gone by, that showing our students our own efforts at promotion was a huge part of their attitude toward their own training. If they could see their teachers working on promotion, it made them embrace it more and realize that black belt truly was only the beginning of a journey, not the end.
About 15 years ago, we started encouraging our black belts to work together for an entire year and to put on a performance of their own in November of each year. We called this group the Class of 2019, or whatever year they were promoting. They did all of their testing together, and the performance at the end of the year was their celebration of rank.
During this process, we found that the energy level in our school was palpable. We now know that if we want to ratchet up our attendance, we need to show, from the top down, that we also are actively training.
In our annual show in November, all of our black belts perform, not just those testing for their black belts. We have a choreographed, musical, two-hour performance every year. Our adults see the adult black belts practicing for the event. Most of all, for our adults, they see that some of us have been training for 40 years and are still training.
We involve children and teens in the performances as well. We practice what we intend to perform, in portions of their advanced classes. Working as a team on a kata that involves eight people takes practice and builds friendship.
The children and teens benefit from seeing how we work as partners, rather than opponents. We model thoughtful behavior for our younger students. Most children have a favorite teacher, and seeing that teacher prepare for testing is inspiring.
In the earlier years, we didn’t have 60 black belts performing, as we do now. We included advanced students of varying levels, by having a black belt ask them to perform with him or her. It was easy to get them practicing extra with us, because they saw it as a privilege to be asked.
In a newer school trying to start this tradition, I would suggest, as the sole proprietor/owner, that you be willing to perform in front of your students. I would then set a date at least six to 12 months off in the future, and start asking others to join you. The easiest groups to ask to join you are the brown and black belts, by making it part of their promotion process.
We do not do individual performances in this show at all. All performances involve a group of students performing together. We demonstrate kata, sparring, self-defense, judo, jujitsu, weapons and anything else that we are teaching in our program. We sell tickets to the show at $5 each, to pay for the chairs that we rent for the spectators.
Some other schools I know rent out a local academic school’s gym and sell tickets to pay for the cost of it. However you do it, it will be a gold mine for energy and referrals— and can be a great marketing campaign if you include it with some anniversary for the business.
Kathy Olevsky can be reached for questions or comments at [email protected].
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