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Your Martial Arts Students Are Customers Too

By Christopher Caile

One of the most critical elements in the success of any martial arts school today is how well teachers and staff interact with students. Your school may be traditional or not, teach a Japanese, Korean, Philippine or Chinese art, but if you do not make students feel welcome, appreciated and understood, or offer presentable facilities, you might be losing a lot of students who would have otherwise stayed.

Remember, your martial arts students are customers too.

This was not always so important. Thirty years ago if you offered martial arts lessons you had something special. All you needed was a space. It didn’t have to be special, have showers or look especially attractive. People would seek you out, train and they appreciated the opportunity. And many schools were rough. Injuries were common. The arts were new. Bruce Lee had fired up public interest, and a flood of students sought out instruction.

Now things are different, especially in urban areas where consumers have many martial arts choices. Karate, judo, aikido and other arts are not novel anymore. The market has gone from a growth stage to one of maturity. There are health clubs which offer a wide variety of programs that often include martial arts and kickboxing. The number and variety of martial arts schools and programs have also expanded. Often there is another school right around the corner, or at least nearby. Then there are also YMCAs, YWCAs and community centers that offer martial arts programs. Opportunity is everywhere.

If you are running a small club or school in a YMCA, in a school after hours, a church basement, or in a community center, you probably have seen the effects. But, if you are teaching as a hobby, just to work out or merely for the love of it, the net consequences may not be so serious. Your income won’t be greatly affected since you aren’t getting much anyway. And there are usually students looking for a nearby and/or low cost place to train.

A bigger problem is found for those who are making a living from their art, those who have commercial schools. Potential students compare your facilities with other alternatives, such as health clubs and other schools. They expect dressing rooms with presentable lockers, showers and toilet facilities: a clean and professional looking premises. If you are offering morning or day time classes many students will want to clean up after training before returning to work. Students also want school programs and services to fit into their schedules, rather than the other way around. This adds a lot to your cost and overhead.

Even more important, however, is attitude and presentation of the school’s staff and teachers. The school’s head teacher, assistants and staff members should make a special effort to better interact with, listen to, and respond to students. Too often, school staff members forget that students are more than just students – they are customers too, and will keep using your services as long as those services are enjoyed, needed and appreciated.

Too often teachers forget why they are there – to teach, mold and empower their students. Sometimes, however, power goes to some people’s heads. I have seen teachers get abusive with their students, yelling at some, over correcting many and generally verbally abusing the class. People don’t like being belittled, or criticized, especially in front of others. Even if the teacher is right at times, it is a wonder why students stay around in these situations. To avoid this type situation be careful to monitor classes, and the teachers who teach them.

If you are part of a dojo’s staff, no matter what your position, it is important that you are friendly, and that you talk to and listen to every one of your students, not just your favorites. You also have to be professional. You represent your school. Sometimes you are a salesperson, and other times a part-time counselor, or a helpful associate. You should be friendly and know the students by name. If you are teaching, be supportive and understanding even if the schools classes are strict. Take time after and between classes to interact, listen to and talk to your students. Know their problems, where they have to improve and know how to work with them so they best respond to your direction. Acknowledge and show appreciation.

You should also know why each joined the school. Were they looking to learn self-defense, to find friends, win trophies, to build confidence, get in shape, or lose weight, etc.? Find out if your school is fulfilling these needs and if not, you can suggest alternatives or build students interest elsewhere. Make notes and chart a student’s progress on individual student cards or sheets. Note any problems, such dropping attendance, seeming loss of interest, or problems with other students. Also, know who his or her friends are. All this information is helpful in monitoring students and helping keep their interest.

What you want to create, build and always reinforce are personal relationships within the dojo between the teacher, staff members and the students. No matter how fine your technique, how good technically you and senior students are, if you don’t build personal bonds and relationships with students, you will lose them to other activities, or other martial arts schools.

Just as important are relationships between students. Often a senior student will be a great assistance teacher, be active and also helpful around the school. But, they may also be part of an exclusive click within the school, feel superior to other students, or develop a dislike for another student. Students also sometimes date each other. If they break up their feelings can cause dissention -- toward each other, friends of the other party, or even another student who dating their old partner. I have seen this get really ugly with verbal fights, emotional outburst and a lot of irrationality ricocheting around the dojo.
This can present a real problem.

It is critical for the head teacher to stress to their assistants and staff that they have a responsibility to the school that should affect the way they interact with others. Even if you don’t like someone, it is your responsibility to represent the dojo and not respond to them in a negative, disruptive way. Be disciplined. You have a responsibility to your art, your school and your own training. If you find yourself severely criticizing a peer, talking critically of another behind his or her back, or talking or shouting out in negative fashion to another student within the school or outside, this indicates a real problem. This must be checked for it can also result in the loss of other students and damage the atmosphere of the school.

Part of martial arts is discipline. A martial arts school is also a place to grow. It is a place to show respect, discipline, etiquette, and to put the good of the school above personal ends. If a staff member is negative, disruptive or rude to others, that person is violating the very ethos of their study.

Make sure everyone in your school understands that they represent the school, that the way they interact, or don’t interact, with students affects your business, your students and the success of the effort you have devoted yourself to.

Paying attention to the human or relational element within your school doesn’t mean you can’t have a traditional school with strict etiquette. It also doesn’t define how hard you practice the technique of your art (although schools that produce a lot of injuries tend to lose a lot of students). But in today’s competitive market, ignoring these important elements may be the downfall of your school’s success, regardless of your technical talent.


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About the Author:

Christopher Caile is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of FightingArts.com. He has been a student of the martial arts for over 43 years. He first started in judo. Then he added karate as a student of Phil Koeppel in 1959. Caile introduced karate to Finland in 1960 and then hitch-hiked eastward. In Japan (1961) he studied under Mas Oyama and later in the US became a Kyokushinkai Branch Chief. In 1976 he followed Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura when he formed Seido karate and is now a 6th degree black belt in that organization's honbu dojo. Other experience includes judo, aikido, diato-ryu, kenjutsu, kobudo, Shinto Muso-ryu jodo, boxing and several Chinese fighting arts including Praying mantis, Pak Mei (White Eyebrow) and shuai chiao. He is also a student of Zen. A long-term student of one branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qigong, he is a personal disciple of the qi gong master and teacher of acupuncture Dr. Zaiwen Shen (M.D., Ph.D.) and is Vice-President of the DS International Chi Medicine Association. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from American University in Washington D.C. and has traveled extensively through South and Southeast Asia. He frequently returns to Japan and Okinawa to continue his studies in the martial arts, their history and tradition. In his professional life he has been a businessman, newspaper journalist, inventor and entrepreneur.


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