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The Beginner’s Mind: How Black-Belt Teachers Can Benefit From Adopting a White-Belt Mentality

mentor retention Oct 02, 2019

by Justin Lee Ford


Shoshin is a word one encounters in the traditional Japanese martial arts, as well as in Buddhism. It doesn’t refer to a technique or form; rather, it’s a general concept. Translated, it means “beginner’s mind.” The term is used to remind practitioners to keep an open mind akin to that of a beginner in any endeavor.

In the martial arts, having a beginner’s mind can foster humility and make you receptive to new ideas. In the business of martial arts, having a beginner’s mind can help you connect with new students and retain current students.

How so? When you, as a martial arts instructor, remind yourself of what it’s like to start learning a new physical pursuit, you better connect with white belts. This is because there are many things newcomers don’t know but you take for granted. Adopting a beginner’s mind reacquaints you with their stage of training, and it aids you when it’s time to improve your advertising, remodel your dojo interior and fine-tune your communication skills.

Example: Suppose you’re planning to hold a tournament at your school. It’s easy to assume that all the new students know what to expect and how to sign up. Unfortunately, assumptions are the reason many students slip through the cracks. White belts, like all human beings, tend to fear the unknown. Rather than asking for more information about the event, many will choose not to attend.

“I’m not good enough to compete.” “I wouldn’t be interested in that type of tournament.” “Entering wouldn’t help me get better as a martial artist.” These are a few of the concerns that can run through their heads. While the concerns are especially common in teenagers, they can crop up in students who are older or younger.

To end these toxic thoughts and remove the potential for confusion, let everyone know what to expect, how to sign up and, of course, why it’s an event they should be part of. This may require you to analyze the way you convey information about events so you can identify any gaps in your delivery. If you find such a gap, you need to fill it before your next attempt to pass along information about the event. Hone your delivery so you speak long enough to share the essential facts and get people excited — yet not so long that you lose the listeners’ attention.

It’s easy for new students and their families to feel overwhelmed by new experiences at your dojo. If you don’t handle this correctly, it can drive them away. Do what it takes to make your studio and staff as professional as possible. Understand, though, that even in the best studio, questions will arise.

Of course, prevention is better than a cure. In a perfect world, every question would be answered or remedied before it became an issue. Unfortunately, that isn’t the world we live in. Problems do crop up. New students and prospective students will have preconceptions. It’s your job to deal with them as expeditiously as possible. Listed below are five of the most common issues beginners will have.


“I Don’t Feel Motivated Anymore!”

Unfortunately, this notion and slight variations of it are ubiquitous. Perhaps the student seems lethargic during class. Perhaps he hasn’t been training as often. Perhaps a family member mentioned that it’s been a struggle getting her daughter to the dojo. A dip in motivation can manifest in a variety of ways.

While some students or their family members will talk about the issue, it’s much better if you notice it first. That will demonstrate that you care and enable you to address the problem more quickly. Good teachers cultivate an interest in each student and stay aware of how they behave before and during class.

Examples: Once you notice signs that there may be a motivational problem, pinpoint what’s causing it. Is the student less motivated because he’s struggling with the curriculum? If so, extra help after class might be beneficial. Has a particular student been feeling like she has to choose between martial arts and her favorite school sport? Help her see how the two activities can be mutually beneficial. Soccer needs precision, just like kicking a target in class does. Basketball requires agility and good footwork, as do most martial arts.

Once you’ve identified the cause, break down the problem and devise a solution. Regardless of the issue, show that you understand what’s wrong and take measures to reduce the seriousness of it.

Remind troubled students (and their families, if applicable) that what they’re feeling isn’t unusual. If they believe it means martial arts training is not a good activity for them, they’ll be inclined to quit, so reassure them that it’s OK to feel burned out from time to time. Everybody in every activity goes through that phase. What’s important is that they continue despite this momentary feeling.

Example: Help motivationally challenged students get into a routine by encouraging them to associate every Tuesday and every Thursday with a “karate training day.” That way, attending class will become a habit, and as we all know, habits are hard to break. Training regularly no longer will be a test of self-discipline; it will become part of their lifestyle. They will see the value in it, and their motivation will self-renew.


“Am I Any Good?”

A phrase that has circulated in the education industry for some time is, “I’m a teacher. What’s your superpower?” While it’s easy to chuckle and forget, it does afford an opportunity to think about the abilities teachers really have. One is the ability to influence the thoughts and lives of others. To borrow a line from a comic book, with great power comes great responsibility, however.

Many students come to you with no prior experience in the martial arts. Consequently, you’re the person who shapes their perception of the arts for the rest of their lives. Daniel-san’s skill at putting the wax on and stripping it off cars may have brought the student into your school, but you’re the one who influences things thereafter.

In the dojo, comparison can be a “student killer.” Any white belt will tell you how disheartening it is to be the only student in class struggling with a basic move. That’s why when teaching new students, it’s recommended to start “within” and work your way “outward.” Build a solid foundation of self-belief and have the student focus on training in a manner that’s physically or mentally demanding.

Example: One way to do this is by seeking out the good in whatever the student is doing. Be a finder of good things. Short term, this will make the student more receptive when you make a correction. Long term, the student will be inspired whenever you notice his or her progress, and that can be very motivational.

In addition to reaffirming that new students are doing something right, this practice communicates how much you care about them and their martial arts journey. And that is directly proportional to how long they will stay enrolled.


“I Don’t Want to Become a Bully!”

Think about how you start your martial arts classes. The beginning of a session may have students reciting a pledge or a creed of positive affirmations, or perhaps make a promise regarding what kind of martial artist they want to become. This is an excellent protocol, especially in children’s classes.

Why? Because it’s easy for the public to assume that the martial arts are simply about fighting. Although that idea is slowly being erased, it’s still common to find parents with reservations about letting their kids study punching and kicking. The best solution is to constantly remind new students of the benefits of training using a pledge or otherwise integrating the message into the class. If you do have a pledge, explain it to families when they enroll their kids. Find ways to tie these non-physical benefits to the drills you do.

Examples: If you’re working on punching targets, you can relate it to developing focus, a skill students need in school and at home. If you’re working on partner drills, remind them of the way respect is shown by bowing. If you’re working on a move that requires them to control their bodies, relate it to the need for self-control.

Another strategy for alleviating the perceived problem of becoming a bully pertains to how you speak. Be mindful of the implications of what you say and the way you say it. When possible, be positive and precise. Strive to impart the correct message each time you speak. It’s easy for simple things to get misconstrued by students who are just starting their martial arts journey.

Example: Referring to self-defense tactics as what students do “when they’re in a fight” fosters a different interpretation than saying “when they have to defend themselves.” A fight implies that the aggression is mutual. Emphasize that martial artists prefer to avoid fights, deter fights and, when absolutely necessary, end fights as quickly as possible. Word choice is conducive to communicating the true meaning of the martial arts and cultivating the culture you want in your school.


“That’s Too Pricey!”

Here, it’s beneficial to separate two ideas that are as easily conflated. When selling anything — be it a product, location, service, etc. — there’s a price and a value associated with it. The price is the amount of currency you’re requesting. The value is the worthiness the thing has as determined by its importance to the customer and its overall quality.

Example: If I buy a snack from you for $1, the price is $1. The value might be far greater if I’m starving and haven’t eaten all day.

Understand this difference and you’ll possess a wonderful solution to any argument a potential student might present that pertains to your school’s tuition rates. The price might be $199 a month, but the value is priceless. The value includes learning confidence, self-discipline, perseverance, leadership skills and a new way of thinking — not to mention self-defense that could save the student’s life.

If a prospective student insists that price is an issue, communicate the value of the training before you look at different price breakdowns. Tell him or her that every activity carries a cost: Going to school means buying textbooks and supplies, just as participating in an organized sport means buying a uniform.

Tell the student that if he or she is going to spend the money on an activity, it should be spent on one that’s worthwhile in the long term. This is the real purpose of offering a trial lesson or a week of free classes. It’s not just so the student can see what your art is like; it’s so he or she can grasp the value of what the lessons teach.

Make sure your enrollment conference and presentation skills address this distinction. Your goal should not be to get them to buy something they don’t need. Your goal is to help them see how beneficial training at your studio will be.


“Is it Safe?”

You’re an experienced black belt. You know that you teach martial arts, not masochistic arts. However, new students might not be so sure, and most are not looking to pay good money for a daily dose of pain and fear. Consequently, it’s not uncommon for them to have concerns over safety, especially if a child is involved.

To alleviate those concerns, you must demonstrate your professionalism at every opportunity. You might run the safest school in town, but being safe doesn’t always equate with appearing safe. The safety factor needs to be communicated at all times.

Example: Whoever happens to be teaching must keep his or her head up so all students can be observed and, more importantly, so eye contact can be made with each one. It’s not just about being able to see them as they train. It’s about showing students and their families that you’re watching them.

An important way to alleviate safety concerns is to create an environment in which students can ask questions — because unanswered questions can lead to problems. You should minimize the need for students to ask questions by explaining things thoroughly and making sure everyone knows they can seek clarification.

One of your responsibilities as an instructor is to constantly evaluate yourself. It’s even more essential if you’re the highest-ranked black belt or the owner of the facility. Analyze your skill level, your teaching style and the way you conduct yourself. Also evaluate the environment you’ve created and the effect everything is having on your students.

Are your white belts struggling with a certain skill? Do they feel free to ask questions? How does their behavior reflect the mind set you’re trying to cultivate? What do they think you’re promoting at the school? Tradition? Competition? A healthy lifestyle? Pay attention to what they tell you, both directly and indirectly, and make it apparent that those qualities matter to you, as well. Do this properly and often, and those who drop by your dojo will have only one question for you: “How do I sign up?”


A student of several martial arts, Justin Lee Ford is the head instructor at an American-karate school in Georgia. When not sharing his passion in the classroom, he shares his martial arts knowledge at To contact him, send an email to [email protected]

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