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How Do You Let Your Students Go?

lesson learned mentor Oct 04, 2021

by Kathy Olevsky

I’ve written this column for 10 years now, telling the world how I’ve survived 45 years in the martial arts business despite having made many mistakes. In fact, I have not even begun to cover them all. I share my stories to help you learn from them — and because it’s important to know that you, too, may blunder along the way but that your school can survive.

During the pandemic and the period that followed its darkest days, most martial arts schools had to contend with students who wanted to terminate their programs. Because of the unique circumstances, martial arts academies around the world had to relax their cancellation policies. I’ve talked with school owners who struggled with the new normal of letting students leave because of COVID-related issues.

This is the one time in our history when most of us have had to make concessions. I know that our schools drastically modified their cancellation policies. In speaking with other school owners, I found that we were not alone. Here’s a short list of what some of them are doing:

  • Requiring 90 days’ notice, 30 days’ notice or two weeks’ notice
  • Requiring 30 days’ notice and imposing a cancellation fee
  • Imposing a cancellation fee based on the outstanding balance of the program
  • Requiring 30 days’ notice on a one-year program and 90 days’ notice on a three-year program
  • Imposing a cancellation fee of 25 percent of unused services or $500, whichever is less
  • Allowing cancellation because of a move that’s more than 30 miles or because of a disability

What should you do? I can’t say, but I’ve learned that whatever you do, you had better make the students happy when they leave. This is the era of social media, and good and bad reviews will follow you across multiple platforms.

After some conversations with people who are smarter than I am, we came up with a strategy that has worked well for our schools. For the past six years, we’ve allowed students to leave as long as they give us 60 days’ notice. We ask them to continue to train during those 60 days, and we do everything we can to kill them with kindness and keep them training. But in the end, if they leave, we send them a handwritten note thanking them for their business and assuring them that they’ll be missed. We’ve found that it’s much better to have them leave with memories of how good we were to them. They know they can come back or refer their friends to us.

Of course, it’s always a disappointment to lose a student, but we must look at it as a learning experience. It’s possible that we failed that particular student. If you suspect that’s the case, check your records to see if there’s a trend. If you find that a significant number of students at their third belt level between ages 6 and 10, for example, are leaving, you should evaluate what’s happening in those classes and in that age bracket. Perhaps you have an instructor who’s dropping the ball. Or maybe your testing requirements are too stringent. It’s a great time to take a look at your practices and do some brainstorming.

In our case, during COVID when we were losing students, we made plans to improve our customer service as soon as we returned to in-person classes. We ramped up all our free activities and special services. At least once a month, we scheduled an event that could be described as a “feel good” activity. In the past few months, we hosted a Mother’s Day class, a Father’s Day class, a parent-coach class, a “super fitness workout” for adults, a “teens night out,” an annual picnic in the park, an end-of-summer pizza party and more.

Our theory is that we’re making students feel more welcome as we build a culture of appreciation in our schools. We still charge a fair fee for most activities. We just make sure that we balance them with our customer-appreciation events.


To contact Kathy Olevsky, send an email to [email protected].


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