By Dr. Ronald Stone
As both a father whose daughter grew up in the martial arts and an instructor with black belt rank in three different styles I feel somewhat qualified to comment on some of the observations I have made in over 40 years in and out of training. I have visited numerous schools throughout the years and couldn’t help but notice that the more prestigious ones shared similar traits. Please note that I said “prestigious” not big or fancy, because while I truly believe quality and education should be rewarded economically, profit and prestige are not necessarily the same thing. One only has to remember the first Karate Kid movie. I ask you, would you rather study with a humble but qualified Mr. Miyagi at the beach or with the financially successful owner of the Cobra Kai school with all his colorful mats, punching pads and large number of delinquent students? I thought so. So what is it that all these schools I would have liked to study at have in common?
Forty years ago when I first went looking for a martial arts instructor I was more interested in the qualifications and knowledge of the instructor than the color of his floor mats but then I was a relative exception to the rule. Most parents today don’t really do much research and confuse “showy” with knowledgeable or worse yet fun with education and preparation. Having a lot of kids laughing and running around may impress a certain number of uneducated parents but my experience is that they end up leaving all too soon due to a lack of support or long term interest. A wise man once said that you only have one chance to make a good first impression and that is certainly true in the martial arts.
You can be a great instructor but to teach you must first attract, sign up, and maintain students. I believe that parents or prospective students shouldn’t feel uncomfortable or out of place upon first entering a dojang.
Regardless of how humble or large the school is, an effort should be made to welcome strangers and make them feel at home. Questions should be answered and a place made available where they can watch. Some sort of literature should be immediately handed to them in order to overcome any time constraints or in case they don’t know what questions to answer. I am also a believer in using posted legitimate credentials as a subtle marketing device. Diplomas, trophies and other awards should be obvious but not blatant. By this I mean they should be something the parent or student realizes but not one that is rubbed in their face (so to speak). I distinctly remember entering a dojang some years back and before anyone said hello or even inquired as to my previous experience they started bragging about all their trophies and the school’s success at tournaments. It was clearly a “my style is better than your style” situation and since humility is supposed to be part of the arts I left disgusted with their boastful attitude.
At the time I was more interested in self-defense than sport competition and consequently they were never given the chance to explain their capabilites in that type of instruction because they had jumped to the conclusion that I was ignorant of the martial arts. Listen to what the customer is interested in before beginning any sales approach. Fulfill their needs not your own ego’s.
Cleanliness and first impressions are very important. I’m not talking about fancy, just clean and orderly. Many parents are also interested in the discipline aspect of the arts, and if they aren’t they should be. In several of the schools I’ve attended a certain period of time before class even started was devoted to having students sweep the mats or vacuum and cleaning around the dojang. It was explained to the parents from the outset that this wasn’t to replace a cleaning crew on the cheap but rather to teach students to take pride in their school and to teach them responsibility.
Class schedules were strictly enforced and parents were made to understand the importance of not interrupting by tardiness or by uninvited participation. While no one understands the difficulty of risking angering a potential paying customer, for every parent who leaves because his child’s arrival twenty minutes late meant he wasn’t allowed on the mat, others will leave if they perceive a lack of proper decorum and object to the interference or interruption of the class they are paying good money for. The concept of respect for oneself and one’s classmates must be a hallmark of any martial arts school and this concept must be explained though the parents so they can help promote the concept. To avoid such embarrassments a large sign can be posted with a list of 5 or six major class rules (arrive on time, uniforms must be worn, they must be clean, etc.)
There seems to be a tendency to modernize the martial arts with name changes like “Modern this” or “Combat that” but truthfully I believe the core student population prefers stability and evidence of martial art longevity and traditional success. Uniforms and required routines like bowing in, facing the flag, addressing the instructors properly etc. help set the stage for that impression. Another more “modernized” school I visited in Miami in the 90’s was a classic example of how to turn away a serious martial artist. I was looking for a school to train my 5 year old daughter so naturally I chose the closest one in the style I desired. What I didn’t know however was that this particular school was one of a franchise chain. The school was situated in an upscale neighborhood and in a rather pricey mall. With all the signage and location I expected to find a successful martial arts school. It may have done well financially but when I entered I immediately noticed the number of parents and students walking around the mats with shoes still on. The noise was deafening and not from Ki-ahps but rather from parents talking and kids running around unsupervised. One young student ran up to me with a uniform emblazoned with so many patches he looked like a Nascar driver. On his belt were several stars and stripes. When I asked about the stars he informed me they were not from success in the art but rather because he had finished his homework or because he got a good grade in school on a report. In spite of the current politically correct mentality of child rearing I personally do not believe giving awards for merely showing up is in the long run a good idea. If everyone in class recieves a promotion simply for showing up then where is the pride in accomplishment? What does an “A” in school mean if everyone gets one.
Most of us remember the boring teacher in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Bueller, Bueller, anyone?) and trust me that attitude will lose students faster Bruce Lees one inch punch. The instructor must convey a sense of enthusiasm and vary the class routine. While repetition is essential to proper martial arts training it can still be achieved with moving drills and games that emphasize proper technique while still make the time go quickly. Such things as coordination exercises (crossing lines back and forth at a jump, maze drills, dodge ball, column moving drills etc) make the children feel like they are at play while still instructing them and helping increase strength and reflexes.
I am firmly convinced that the success of a child martial artist is due in large part to the “soccer mom” attitude of the parents. To succeed in the martial arts someone has to take the child to class two to three times a week for years and put up with temper tantrums, pleas to quit and do other things, financial hardship etc. Therefore it is essential to educate the parents as well and to allow them to participate in some fashion. Whether it be in hosting a birthday party, or helping organize a demonstration at a school or church. Whenever possible I like to have a couple of willing parents hold the kicking pads so I can do maze or speed drills.
It gives them a feeling of sharing the experience with their children and occasionally some of the parents end up taking lessons as well. A decent dojang should pay attention to detail. Having a place to put one’s shoes lends an impression of orderliness. The same is true of the locker room. Trust me, trying to change clothes in a bathroom so small there is no room to place to turn around or to hang one’s things is annoying.
Pads should be but away in an orderly manner, not left lying around. There is nothing wrong with not having the most expensive pads or kicking dummies (remember Mr. Miyagi’s “paint the fence or “wax on wax off?”) but what you do have should appear well maintained. Some of the best and most entertaining drills I remember were trying to kick a simple tennis ball suspended from a string or trying to block or kick a series of rubber balls thrown at the student.(Dodge Ball.) At the end of class however they should be collected and put in a bin or drawer.
I remember a rather small two story dojang taught by a Taekwondo master. The upstairs mat area was not big enough to both hold class and at the same time allow parents to watch. The master cleverly solved the problem by installing a camera upstairs and video screen downstairs so the parents could watch and comment without disrupting the class. A coke machine for the parents even helped a little with the school’s finances.
Finally the better dojangs are those who have instructors trained in a certified curriculum, not in a monkey see monkey do approach to the martial arts.
These types of schools often confuse endless exercises with martial arts instruction or disguise their lack of knowledge with a narcissistic attitude. Exercise is important but not to the extent that you lose students who don’t yet have the conditioning necessary or worse yet spend so much time with push-ups they never learn to defend themselves from a trained attacker.
Martial arts exercise is supposed to limber the student for class to avoid injury and to build the stamina and flexibility necessary to learn the necessary techniques. In the end however it is the technique one is supposed to learn not the exercise. The end goal having a superior self-defense capability not merely a superior physique.
So in the end there is no magic to what is mentioned above. Most partents teach it to their children early on. Respect, integrity, humility, cleanliness, promptness and education. Trust me, the discerning parent looks for the same philosophy when selecting a school for their kids. I know I did. As a martial arts instructor and student I try to implement all of the above tips into our Hapkido school in Ocoee, Florida.