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Drew Loto
Drew Loto's picture
Student Retention

In the diverse modern market of martial arts, this is perhaps one of the greatest puzzles that teachers must address: how do I offer a product that will engage students long after they've earned the black belt?  I realize by framing this question this way, I've introduced some superficial success criteria.  Not all schools use a classic ranking system, for instance.  However, I come from a background that does use a relatively classic belt system, and so referencing it is the easiest way to express the questiion for me.  Of course, most schools that have survived for a while seem to retain a handful of students after they've achieved "black belt".  For instance, I am one of them from my school.  But in order to feel like I am completely engaged in my karate training I've had to reach out to other sources (ie. cross-training and focussing my study on areas of bunkai to which my instructors don't give a lot of attention.)  While I continue to train in the same school, numerous other students from that school have earned their black belts and then disappeared.   In an American context, where people are often trained to be goal oriented, it might be unsurprising that they set "black bekt" as their goal, achieve it, and leave.  To those of you from other countries, do you also observe similar things happening in your schools?

Different schools use different strategies in their attempts to ensure student retention on beyond black belt.  Some will use a ranking system that offers a structured way of earning additional ranks (usually in the form of degrees of black belt), others will offer their black belt students isntruction in various weapons, and still others will allot their black belt students additional teaching responsibilities. 

For those of you who have encountered issues with students leaving after earning their black belt, what strategies have you used?  How do you make your training deep, rich, and fufilling enough that your students stay with you well after earning their rank?

I am particular interested in hearing answers to this question from people who orient their karate primarily around the study of kata and its bunkai.  I know that some people, after teaching their kyu ranked students the entire pinan series will teach their black belt students a handful of the kata that Itosu incorporated into the pinan seires.  Does anyone save advanced applications of some of the basic kata for their advanced students?  Or withhold certain kata based drills until their students are sufficiently advanced? 

I've often thought about conducting activities with advanced students in which I give them the freedom to produce their own interpretions of kata.


Black Tiger
Black Tiger's picture

Good post.

I find that its 4th to 2nd Kyu is where my retention figures are put to test as its a big step up from the intermediate grades to the advanced grades. Also its where the time between each grade doubles. I had one 3rd Kyu who left because they weren't at the level I would expect for 2nd Kyu, they'd stayed at that level for 9 months.

Too many hold "Black Belt" as the goal, its like passing your driving test and never driving a car again.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

I don't have a big club, 5 adults and me at the moment. I also haven't gotten anyone to black belt, but i'm gonna chime in.

I just try to have fun and get to know my people, and make sure that what I am doing is pushing them in a direction beneficial to them, as much as it's possible to know such a thing.

I have had a club for just 7 years or so, and the one constant that gets people through the door regularly is a fun, energetic envrionment - even if you are learning something ostensibly brutal etc., the best dojo environments IMO are those where people become self-motivated, have fun, and develop a holistic picture of what they are doing, and why. I can't see that that should change with shodan..perhaps part of it is weaning people off the idea that anything magical changes with a shodan promotion?

DaveB's picture

As a student, a continuation of structured goal oriented learning and skill development would do it for me. If you as a teacher need to branch out of your style then so be it, but I suppose you also need to consider why you want to keep students post black belt if you haven't got anything to teach them? Might it not be better to advise them where to go next and ask that they visit or make themselves available to assist and bulk up numbers on request. 

MykeB's picture

Black Tiger wrote:

Good post.

I find that its 4th to 2nd Kyu is where my retention figures are put to test as its a big step up from the intermediate grades to the advanced grades. Also its where the time between each grade doubles. I had one 3rd Kyu who left because they weren't at the level I would expect for 2nd Kyu, they'd stayed at that level for 9 months.

Too many hold "Black Belt" as the goal, its like passing your driving test and never driving a car again.

I lost a 3rd Kyu for much the same reason.  A lot of his physical skills were coming along, but there were maturity issues holding him back (he was in his 30s!).  After a year of time no progressing and even a sit down talk on the matter, he faded out last summer. 

Part of what has to be understood is that the primary draw of most martial arts classes, for adults, are the ages of about 15-25.  That is the span where people are most likely to have free time.  After that point it's work and family and commitments.  Part of retention pre-black belt, is to build a strong community and family atmosphere in the dojo.  If it's a fun activity where you feel like you have friends, it is easier to make that time as commitments build up.  Post black belt, I feel they need a little motivation.  Point toward a conintuation of what's out there, or point out a path they can persue.  Give them something other than just muddling along with a kata for the next two or three years until their next chance to promote.  A lot of schools are laid out with a very focused course up to black belt that students can easily understand.  After that though, things get hazy and students lose focus and can't see what's next or that there is anything left to learn.

harlan's picture

Well, one is setting one's self up for high attrition if utilizing a belt system/syllabus driven goals to retain people up to BB...and then dropping it afterwards.

But with, or without a set syllabus/ranking/clearly defined goals, as long as students keep learning, as long as training is kept fresh, I can't see longterm students quitting for lack of interest. At some point, kata collection becomes a matter of breadth...not depth. So, my thought is analysis of what one has is where the focus should be.

For example, I see teachers/students that have trained for 10, 20, 30 plus years in Goju and it's still fresh. :)

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Some of this might sound controversial, not trying to be too critical of methods different from my own, these are just my thoughts:

People have to really want to come to class. If it becomes "work", even if they spent a number of years applying themselves to it as "work" (since this is exactly what many people are used to applying themselves to), eventually there is burnout and quitting, no one wants to do another job, or have another boss to please in their spare time. If there is a playful spirit there is room for resilience when burnout comes, IMO.

I've seen dojos where everything is framed in terms of hard work, seriousness, and sort of a sense of .. narcissistic ascetiscism ...IMO this will lead to people who might otherwise stay  leaving naturally, no matter how hard they tell themselves that they will reach their next goal in order to become better, stronger, faster or whatever, some will burn out and quit because the journey itself has been made meaningless by too much focus on a goal. It has to be something people look forward to, not something that they there are supposed to do.

So i'm coming to believe it's not only hyper focus on external goals like blackbelt that are a problem, it's having training motivation that is too goal-oriented itself, there is no way to get "lifers" that way I don't think, they have to be in it for the experience itself, not the goals.

I do teach primarily around "bunkai", for what it's worth, and i've found the biggest factor for keeping people engaged in the material is the right balance between progressively allowing people to develop their own "stuff" after the early stages, giving them level--appropriate ways to test it and bring it to life, and throwing enough physical exertion that they don't fall asleep;)

John's picture

The biggest problem in most clubs is the lack of proper goals. I think Rob Redmond (at 24 fighting chickens) has it right when he says that a karate's instructors job should be to help students achieve their goals in karate, not dictate them. Learn how to treat your students like customers (ie be a good manager) and reconize that your club is a buisness.

deltabluesman's picture

Without knowing anything more about your dojo, I would say that you are already on the right path.  You mentioned that you have started cross-training in order to make a more complete study of bunkai; I believe that this is key.  

I left my karate dojo shortly after achieving my black belt.  Since then, I now train almost exclusively at a local MMA/reality-based self-defense gym.  I still practice the kata I learned as a black belt.  Training in MMA has enabled me to isolate my boxing, wrestling, and grappling skills in new ways.  Improving these skills led to a much improved understanding of bunkai.  

For example:  As a black belt, I followed Iain’s work and knew this throw as an application for Kanku-Dai:  http://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/article/kushanku-kanku-kosokun

I could demonstrate it on a partner and I occasionally spent time drilling the movement.  But I do not feel that I really *knew* the technique at the point.  Having now spent several years wrestling in an MMA gym, I feel I can say that I *know* the technique.  I am able to regularly throw resisting opponents with it, I can use it to set up strikes, and I know several variations on this same principle (which I consider to be very similar to a fireman’s carry).  When I see an opening for the throw, I am able to react quickly to this opening without thinking about it; if the technique fails, I can swiftly transition to an alternative.

And this of course is nothing special...almost any wrestler or combat athlete with a decent understanding of the technique will be able to do this to a greater or lesser degree.  But this is an example of how cross-training enabled me to genuinely understand my kata.  I think that this sort of cross-training can be very valuable for a black belt who feels he or she is losing interest.  And I would think it could take quite a long while to achieve such mastery over an entire kata...especially one as complex as Pinan/Heian or Kushanku/Kanku-Dai.

Of course, some instructors may not be able to provide this sort of cross-training experience for their students; in the same way, I have only a superficial understanding of Unsu and could not teach it to anyone.  But these instructors would be well served to actively pursue this sort of cross-training if possible; and I think this would open up entirely new realms for black belt study.

Just my two cents... 

shoshinkanuk's picture

Student retention?

It's not really something I give a second thought to, if people want to come they will it's not my place to motivate or convince them. It is my place to ensure I teach our Ryu well to those that want it.

This is of course a poor business model, but I do not wish to engage in martial arts as business.

If what we do, how we do it and why we do it is not right for a student I am very happy to suggest where they may better fit in, but usually they just stop coming before thats needed.

I think I would be disapointed if a long term serious student decided to stop training with us, but happy they are being true to themselves and getting on in life in what they want to do etc.

John's picture

"I do not wish to engage in martial arts as business"

Rob Redmond makes the very excellent case that if your teaching people martial arts you are running a buisness even if money is not being exchanged. You have your product (ie karate) and you are selling it to your students (the customers) to help them achieve whatever goals they might have for doing it.

A lot of people complain that Rob is very negative towards karate training but I think he is someone who has realized how wrongly karate is taught almost everywhere. Basically he points out in a very differnet way Ian's "Karate's 3 biggest mistakes."   Read the articles "why your karate club is small." Your not doing those things and telling yourself it's the students fault your club is small are you?

shoshinkanuk's picture


My view is very different, karate is not a product, I do not sell it to anyone and im very pleased our dojo is small (it is not a club and not for everyone at all).

To add in, im not a coach either.............

Granted my stance on this is unusual, but it is entirly consistant with our Okinawan Ryu.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

"Why Your Karate Club Is Small"

Checked out the article, it made some good points in places...but BOY does that guy come from a different world than me, completely different set of priorities. Alot of assumption there about what people want when they run a club that simply doesn't line up with a wide range of values, and reasons for teaching the arts. For instance, I personally don't want a very large class, I want a group of something like 6-10 people who stay around a long time, so far so good.

On that subject, retention is also related to cultural stuff, I don't know if the UK is different in this way, but Americans are constantly jumping from interest to interest, exercise program to exercise program, and there is a whole market of basically seasonal exercise/self improvment/whatever programs going at any given time geared towards giving people a quick fix that they will likely leave in 3 months max. Some even run in sessions of a few months, specifically for this reason I think. I have tried to informally survey my non-martial arts doing friends and I can say with some confidence that almost all of them are doing something different with their free time every couple of months as far as physical activities goes.

So the thing is drawing in people who might have an earmest interest in the first place, and then supporting them to best of your abilities, including making sure they understand exactly what they are doing in terms of historical context, self defense, and everything else. Then the big part, you have to make it a funner, more unique and enjoyable experience than all those three month classes, if you are pulling from the same demographic at least.

While there was some truth to the article, it went way too far in blaming the instructor for lackof students, it's quite a complex thing, and there are plenty of schools that are chock full of people that do the exact things he claims are deal breakers - for better or worse.

John's picture

"karate is not a product"

When teaching a group of people you are the coach/instructor/sensei the students are the customers and karate is the product.  That's how it's defined in that situation. If you were practicing by yourself or with a group of peers it would not be defined as a product.  

"I do not sell it to anyone" "it is not a club" "im not a coach either"

Regardless of how you  define what your doing I don't see Robs advice and being inappropaite. Good feedback (very important), communication style, etc. Being a bad intructor just because you want a small class is not a good idea. Be a good instructor and just don't allow more people to join. I think everything Rob has under "instructor training" still holds regarless of what type of club you have. Many of his articles in other areas are more from his experience with shotokan clubs where "Karate's 3 biggest mistakes" are generally made.  In the case where contexts and goals are clearly defined some of his advice becomes irrelavent.

Going back to Drew's original question of keeping black belt's all I can offer is Rob's advice. He has an article labled "The Jefferson Karate Club" (http://www.24fightingchickens.com/2005/11/10/the-jefferson-karate-club/) where a group of black belts would get together in an interdependant relationship. It would be something meaninful for the black belts do to after reaching a certain level of proficiancy. Realistically you would need a decent club size in order to get enough black belts first so being happy with a class of 6-7 people would doom that idea from the start.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

My dojo is basically a "black belt club" with people of two different styles that ended up also drawing in a  few new people. I can vouch it's a good setup..IF you can keep the newer people accomodated.

shoshinkanuk's picture

John wrote:
When teaching a group of people you are the coach/instructor/sensei the students are the customers and karate is the product.  That's how it's defined in that situation. If you were practicing by yourself or with a group of peers it would not be defined as a product.  .....

John, I can respect your perspective, please simply respect mine- they are different.

Anyhow no real answers there but just saying..........

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

As a quick aside, the next podcast will be out it a day or two and it is called “money and the martial arts”. There is quite a bit in it about charging for instruction and whether karate is a product or not.  In fact it touches upon quite a few things that have also been raised in this thread. Hopefully it will be of interest.

All the best,