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On Teaching Martial Arts to Children...

By Mike Massie

The other day, I was clicking around on some martial arts websites and came across an interesting article on the Bullshido website, the topic of which was “The difference between a commercial martial arts school and a McDojo.”

Testimonial:

"Mike, referring to the Small-Dojo-Big-Profits book… I bought that book a year ago right before I opened my second location. And yes, it is an outstanding book and a I use a lot of the material in that book. Small-Dojo-Big-Profits is the reason I joined your website and use your advice.

I have gotten 9 leads and 5 new students in August so far and it is only the 7th. Hopefully this will keep up, because so far it is better than June and July put together. Only one was from my website and the rest were referrals from my students and my ----- ---- like your book recommends to do.

I’ll keep you updated on any more leads I get. I am using the Prospect Contact Record form that was one of the things that came with the book. "

Jerry Taylor
Madison, IN

Now, normally I’d expect to hear the standard diatribe – including a bunch of senseless yammering about how “real” martial arts schools don’t teach kids. As you might imagine, I was shocked when I read the following:

“Lets take a walk into a school shall we?

… there’s a large kids class going on right now. The kids are taking turns throwing front kicks and round kicks on kick pads and practicing how to roll someone off them on the ground. The parents are sitting watching their children drinking Starbucks and yapping about whatever it is they yap about while they watch their kids jump around in karate suits.

McDojo right?

Lets not judge so quickly here...

If the above description was a McDojo then EVERY professionally run martial arts academy would be considered a "McDojo". The Gracie Jiu Jitsu academy, Gokor's, Renzo's, the Beverly Hills Jiu Jitsu Club, the ADCC training center....ALL of them. Meanwhile, we all know that every school I mentioned has produced people that would kick your a$$ six ways from Sunday.”

Seriously, I have to hand it to the author of the post (I think he's a moderator on one of the forum topics) – he really hit the nail on the head about the fact that teaching martial arts to children doesn’t necessarily equal selling-out. Which of course brings me to the topic of this article; namely, how to avoid the stigma that goes with teaching children’s programs in your school.

Where the Stigma Originated

It all goes back to 1984, when The Karate Kid hit the big screen. Prior to that time, most of the students in commercial martial arts studios were adults. However, The Karate Kid changed all that. Almost overnight, martial arts studios were swamped with requests for children’s classes.

Soon, instructors discovered that you could make a lot of money teaching martial arts to children. Shortly after, school owners found out kids were an entirely different breed of student. For the most part, you couldn’t work them as hard (like by yelling at them or making them do dozens of knuckle push-ups) and expect them to keep coming back to class week after week.

In addition, they found out what professional educators had known for years about childhood development and learning. By their very nature, young kids are generally incapable of performing complex motor skills and of comprehending abstract concepts. In short, it’s damned hard to teach kid’s to do martial arts.

The result? In order to keep the enrollment up in their “cash-cow” programs, instructors had to simplify their curriculum and modify their teaching methods to accommodate the learning needs of young children. While this was not necessarily a bad thing, it was viewed by some as “selling out” or “bastardizing the martial arts,” and thus, the stigma surrounding children’s martial arts programs was born.

In the Proper Perspective, Teaching Kids is a Good Thing

Those instructors who continued to teach children also found out parents weren’t bringing their kids to martial arts classes for the kicks and punches. Instead, parents were placing their children in martial arts classes to learn the sort of character development lessons that Mr. Miyagi taught Daniel-san.

Miyagi: Your friend, all karate student, eh?
Daniel: Friend? Oh, yeah, those guys.
Miyagi: Problem - attitude.
Daniel: No the problem is, I'm getting my ass kicked every other day, that's the problem.
Miyagi: Hai, because boys have bad attitude. Karate for defense only.

Since many martial arts traditions already included references to moral values such as honesty and integrity, martial arts instructors were more than willing to emphasize such concepts in their kid’s classes. In time, word spread that martial arts programs could help children develop character and learn positive values.

Because of this, learning to enjoy teaching children requires a simple paradigm shift for diehard instructors. If you're going to teach kids, you need to accept that:

  • The majority of kids who enter a martial arts program will be incapable of developing any real skill until they are much older.
  • Even so, though they aren’t learning the whole art, martial arts training is a great tool for helping kids grow up to become happy, well-adjusted, productive citizens.
  • And once you change your expectations regarding teaching outcomes, working with kids becomes much easier to do.

Think about it – when you teach martial arts to kids, you’re being paid to help parents raise happier healthier kids. Maybe they’re not going to have perfect side kicks or be able to do long, complicated forms, but that’s not really the point. The point is helping parents raise better kids. When viewed from that perspective, making some extra money by teaching kids is not such a bad thing.

How to Teach Kids While Avoiding Being Labeled as a “Kid’s School”

When I started my studio, I purposely built a reputation as the place for parents to bring their kids for martial arts instruction. And, I didn’t just do it for financial reasons – the fact was, I’d had a rough upbringing. My martial arts training had a lot to do with keeping me alive, healthy, and out of the criminal justice system, and I wanted to pass that along by teaching kids.

However, what I never suspected was the fact that my public image as a “kid’s” martial arts instructor would make it more difficult to attract serious adult students. After a few years, I had become very well known in my community for teaching kids, but that’s all I became known for. So, we lost a lot of the local adult market due to the stigma that surrounds being a “kid’s karate school.”

So how do you avoid being slapped with that label? In my experience, there are two approaches you can take:

  • The first approach is to build your adult clientele initially, focusing on developing a public image as being a “serious” martial arts school. Then, after you have built a solid base of adult students, you can start adding kids programs. This way, you avoid the mistake I made of adopting the “kid’s school” persona and losing your appeal to adults.
  • The second approach is to advertise both your children’s programs and your adult programs separately but concurrently, and emphasize entirely different features and benefits for each program. I could have done this if I’d known better, but I just went after the kids market 100% from the get-go.

Now, this might be a more costly approach, because you will probably have to run concurrent ad campaigns that are targeted to each individual market. However, you can also take advantage of the seasonal ebb and flow of each market by concentrating on recruiting kids in the late summer and fall (back-to-school), and then focus on recruiting adults in winter through early summer (when they’re thinking about losing those holiday pounds, fulfilling their New Years resolutions, and getting in shape for the beach).

The bottom line is, if you want to remain attractive to the adult market while still offering kid's programs, you need to actively work to attract both segments of the market. Take my advice - if you plan your marketing properly it will prevent your having to overcome the stigma of teaching kids - and, you'll have "no regrets" about starting your kids program as well.

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Mike Massie has been a full-time school owner for more than 15 years of his 25 years in the martial arts, and has started three successful martial arts schools from scratch. Mike provides business coaching for instructors who are starting their own martial arts schools via his site.