How NOT To Treat A New Martial Arts Student With Previous Experience

How to NOT treat a new martial arts student

How To Not Treat A Student: Exhibit A

Back when I first arrived in Austin, I was looking for a place to continue my own training, while also looking for a place to teach my own classes.

I’d been training mostly in the Korean arts at the time, and wanted to continue doing tae kwon do and also learn more hapkido. So I went in search of such a school.

As it turns out, I found a school that offered exactly what I was looking for, and not too far from me. The ads for the studio showed a guy in a suitably martial pose, holding a staff and doing some sort of Billy Jack style kick all at once.

“Cool,” I thought. “This guy has seen the Billy Jack movies.” So, I drove out to the school.

When I entered, I found an attractive if granola girl-ish young lady behind a counter who was obviously restocking their retail area. “Hi,” she asked me with a look that said she might be. “How can I help you?” she continued, with a look that said she probably wouldn’t.

“I just stopped by to check out the school, and I was wondering if the instructor was around.”

“Oh, he doesn’t normally speak with new students.” She somehow managed to get all breathy when she said ‘he.’ “But, I can show you around if you like, and answer all your questions.”

I asked the obvious question. “So, do you work here?”

“Sort of. We all volunteer to help out in the dojang.”

Now I was getting subtle but unmistakable Manson family vibes, but I quickly dismissed them since I was visiting a martial art school. I mean, no telling what sort of weirdness you might run into in the quest for martial knowledge – I’d seen every episode of Kung-Fu on TV… and I’d been doing traditional Korean martial arts for years. So, I knew there might be some strangeness.

I followed the flower girl around the school, asking questions about classes, the styles they taught, and the “master” instructor. He was once a direct disciple of some Korean instructor, but later broke off and started his own thing.

The girl turned to me and smiled. “By the way, we’ll be closed next week for our annual remodeling. All the students are required to help out. So, if you enroll today you can come by next week and help paint.”

I did my best to avoid looking at this chick like she was already high on paint fumes, then smiled and replied. “Sure, that’d be great! Any chance I could speak to the instructor…?”

“Oh, he doesn’t usually speak to new students.” This time, a sort of dreamy look in her eyes when she said ‘he.’ Dreamier, rather. Dreamy seemed to be her default mental state.

“Well, I’m kind of trying to make a decision here, and I’d really like to speak with him before I make my decision.” In other words, I want to speak with the owner of the circus, not the monkey. Help me out here, Squeaky Fromme.

She placed a finger to her temple and looked like she was thinking hard. For some time. Drugs will do that to you. Finally, she snapped back to the conversation. “Well, I suppose I could see if he’d speak to you. Let me check.”

Five minutes later I’m sitting in a chair that obviously had the legs shortened to afford the guy behind the desk the luxury of looking down at anyone who sat there. I’m nervously looking around the office while this middle-aged guy with a receding hairline and a pony tail is sitting across the desk from me, his eyes boring a hole in my forehead.

He didn’t greet me when I walked in. Just stared. I couldn’t tell if he was pissed off or just meditating in an angry way.

“Nice office you have here.” Still staring. No response.

So, I continued. “I, um, already have a black belt in Shotokan, and I’m a red belt in tae kwon do. That’s why I wanted to speak with you. About my previous experience.”

More staring. In fact, it’s been about three minutes already, and this guy has. Not. Blinked. Or. Moved.

I, being the intrepid seeker of martial arts knowledge that I am, kept talking. By this time, I was starting to show verbal signs of Stockholm syndrome.

“So, I’d like to continue training… in tae kwon do and hapkido… and I see that’s what you teach… more or less… and, er *cough* well, I was kind of hoping that I could keep my rank, or at least be able to move a little faster through your curriculum, based on my previous experience.”

Now, understand that I’d done my homework on this school. They did the exact same forms my previous instructor taught.

“No,” he finally replied. Hey, it speaks.

“I already know all the forms you practice.”

“We don’t do that here.” More staring. No elucidation. Still hasn’t blinked.

“Okay… well, I suppose I can deal with that. Can you tell me about the classes and curriculum you teach?” Still with the eyes boring holes in my forehead. Still looking pissed off, like I’d been stealing kisses from his sister – the one that I suspected he’d married when they were both fourteen.

Staring for about another 30 seconds. It seemed longer. Much longer. Even with my acknowledged social awkwardness and ineptitude, I knew this was loooooong past getting awkward. We were well into the realm of dialogue between Mike Meyers and Vicki the park ranger in So I Married An Axe Murderer.

Phil Hartman

Then, suddenly after making me feel extremely uncomfortable for five minutes, the instructor started talking to me like a normal human being. He explained everything about the classes and answered all my questions. Which was even more weird.

No, I never enrolled at that school. In fact, I tried to avoid even driving by it, for fear that I’d be abducted by their cult members.

How To Not Treat A Student: Exhibit B

A few years later I decided that I might want to expand my martial horizons and take up tai chi (I later discovered that I have about as much patience for tai chi as I have for watching paint dry, which I find to be about as exciting – not to knock tai chi, I just have ADD).

So, after looking around town for a suitable tai chi school I settled on one not too far from me that had daytime classes, which was a plus since I was running my own school by that time.

I stopped in during the day, and found the instructor and what was apparently one of his senior students working out. As I walked in, they paused and walked over to speak with me.

“Can I help you?”

I introduced myself with a smile and a handshake. “Sure, I teach tae kwon do, but I’d like to start exploring the Chinese martial arts. Can you tell me about what you teach?”

“We teach the Yang style of tai chi.” Looks at his student and rolls his eyes. What the hell?

Rude gesture

I decided to ignore it. “I was watching what you were doing right as I walked in, and I see some similarities in the stances I’m familiar with. Do you think that will help me pick up the forms?”

Turns and rolls his eyes again when he thinks I’m not paying attention. Student chuckles. I’m starting to figure out that this guy is a jackass.

Besides, this is NOT the way you treat an instructor who is visiting your school, regardless of his style. You always treat instructors from other styles with respect, so long as they’re being polite – at least, that’s how I was taught. By my mother, my father, and by my previous instructors as well. Basic courtesy says you don’t make fun of a guest. End of discussion.

At any rate, I continue to be polite while these guys are rolling their eyes at me and having a private laugh every few seconds. Shortly, I end the conversation and thank him for his time. And as with Mr. Unblinking Billy Jack, I never go near that school again.

How Not To Treat A Potential Student: Exhibit C

Like a lot of karate guys who saw the light, I’ve been doing jiu-jitsu on and off since the late nineties. I’m still not that good at it, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that I don’t actually like doing BJJ. I just do it because I know I need to do it.

So, I tend to train it for a while, get comfortable with being mildly proficient, and then stop training until I realize I’m out of practice… at which point I start up again. Probably not the best way to gain any lasting skill in a complex and nuanced martial art.

At any rate, early on in my somewhat checkered career as a BJJ student I decided to check out a local school. The guy who ran it was a black belt, and this was back in the day when there weren’t BJJ black belts teaching on every corner. At the time, I’d trained with a friend who was a purple belt for a while, but I wanted to get more serious about it (even though I more or less hated doing it).

So, I stopped by the school and spoke with the instructor, explaining that I owned a tae kwon do school, but that I was interested in learning jiu-jitsu, and that I had very little experience. He was very nice, if a bit full of himself… but nice, nonetheless. I paid for a month of classes and showed up the next day.

I said hi to the instructor, put on my gi, and got on the mat. There were about 15 or so students already warming up and stretching, so I found some mat space and started quietly doing the same.

About 15 seconds later, the instructor comes out on the mat. “Mike, come here for a second.” I jumped up and walked over.

“Yes sir?”

“Let’s see what you’ve got.” Then, in front of the entire room, this guy proceeded to whip the snot out of me for the next five minutes. He probably submitted me at least ten times before he was done. It was an obvious and clear physical message that he was the boss and that he had little if any respect for me.

Neck crank

Now, granted, I know what it’s like the first time you glove up in a fighter’s gym. I’d walked into enough boxing and kickboxing gyms and had my nose bloodied enough to know that you keep your head down and shut up when you’re the new guy.

But, this wasn’t a fighter’s gym. It was a regular jiu-jitsu school, with a bunch of regular people – professional types – working out for fun. Heck, I was there for fun. At least, I was until that first class.

However, I took it in stride and laughed it off. After he was done with me, I smiled and acknowledged that he’d wiped the floor with me. And, I came back for a few more lessons, just to show that I wasn’t going to be intimidated. But, after realizing that the guy was more or less a jerk to everybody, I left and never went back.

The Lesson Is Simple…

It’s not hard to get what I’m getting at here – common courtesy should be commonplace in your school, and extended to everyone. In all of the above situations, I obviously wasn’t there to challenge anyone, or to cause trouble, or to give anyone any grief in any way. I made it clear I was interested in taking classes, I was up front about my previous experience, and I showed every bit of politeness imaginable.

Yet, in each case I was treated like someone who was unwelcome. Whether the instructors above felt threatened, or if I perhaps rubbed them the wrong way, or if I just shouldn’t have mentioned anything about my previous experience – I don’t know.

But, what I do know is that I’ve had probably a dozen black belts from other styles or systems come to train with me at my schools over the years, and each time I’ve done my best to treat them with respect and courtesy as students. And, in many cases I learned just as much from them as they did from me.

Look, does it hurt your bottom line if you chase off a student or two every once in a while? Probably not. However, you never know what you’re losing when you lose a student. They might have turned out to become a real asset to your school – who knows?

The moral of the story is that you need to watch what people with previous experience do when they come in your school, before you make a snap judgment and treat them poorly. Not everyone who walks in your studio wants a challenge match. Instead, chances are good that if someone walks in with previous experience, they’re just there to learn.

Besides… if an instructor is that threatened by someone who comes to them with previous experience in another style, what does that say about them? Not much, in my estimation. And after many such experiences, I simply won’t train with someone who won’t show basic courtesy and respect to another person.

And I’d hazard a guess to say that you wouldn’t, either. So, think about this article the next time someone comes to you from another style or school, and remember to extend them the same courtesies you would give to any brand new student.



Fantasy vs Reality In Running A Martial Art School

Martial art school reality

I’ve coached a lot of people through the process of starting martial art schools. Some made it long-term, and some didn’t – but the interesting thing is that I give the same advice to everyone.

And, much of the advice I give involves doing what I call “the boring stuff.” It’s the stuff that (being an 80/20 guy) I believe 80% or more of martial arts school owners won’t, don’t, or simply can’t do (more on that in a minute).

It’s also the stuff that represents the 20% of activities that generate 80% of your profits… in other words, the stuff that keeps you in business.

The Boring Stuff

So what’s all the boring stuff?

“The boring stuff” encompasses a wide array of activities related to running your school. Most of it has nothing to do with teaching martial arts. And for the most part it’s the stuff that owners of financially prosperous and stable schools typically don’t give a second thought to doing.

boringThings like:

  • Tracking stats…
  • Evaluating your stats…
  • Bookkeeping…
  • Budgeting…
  • Marketing planning…
  • Marketing plan execution…
  • Building a house lead list…
  • Automated lead follow-up…
  • Personal lead follow-up…
  • Retention systems…

…and so on. None of this stuff involves learning any mystical business secrets. And, all of it revolves around activities that any savvy business owner does regularly.

Unfortunately, this stuff just isn’t sexy. It’s not as cool or as fun to do as bringing in the big name guy for the seminar, or going to compete at the championship event, or traveling to the industry convention in Vegas or Orlando.

“I mean, really… track my numbers?” Yawn.

But yet, talk to any successful school owner, and they’ll tell you that this is the stuff they do every single day. So then, why is it that so many school owners have such a hard time grasping that it’s the boring stuff that makes them money?

The Dream vs. The Reality

I think a lot of it has to do with the difference between the dream of running a martial art school versus the reality. Most of us who once dreamed of starting and running a martial art school had visions of doing nothing more than training all day and teaching all night…

make it rain money

…and in our dreams, we saw the money just pouring down like rain, kind of like in a bad R. Kelly video.

Because, of course, people would just come flocking to the dojo after we opened the doors. And that’s because everyone would just know we had the best thing going in martial arts instruction, and in our dreams we’d never have to do something distasteful like marketing or selling.

Reality Strikes

flying knee lumpinee stadiumBut once we opened our doors, reality hit us smack in the face like a flying knee at Lumpinee Stadium. Suddenly we were faced with the realities of starting and running a martial art school. That’s when we found out it’s not much like the dreams we had before we opened our doors…

Nobody told us we’d have to spend much of our day doing admin work like answering the phone and following up on phone and internet inquiries. No one told us we’d have to beat the bushes for students, or spend hours each week planning and executing our marketing, or that we’d have to remind our students that we “greatly appreciate your referrals.”


No one told us we’d have to be cleaning toilets, mopping floors, and putting up equipment at 10:00 every night after class. No one said that we’d barely have time to squeeze in a workout after we finish up our admin, cleaning, and marketing every day, right before the first students show up. And not once did anyone ever mention that someone would walk in to inquire about classes, right in the middle of that workout.

And who knew you’d actually have to keep track of your expenses when you run a business? Or stick to a budget? Or handle payroll, deal with the state workforce commission, pay sales tax, or any number of extra tasks and expenses that the government adds on top of it all?

In short, when we were young and dumb, running a martial art school seemed like it would be the ultimate job – because in our minds, it looked exactly like nothing that even closely resembled work.

Oh, to be young and naive again.

The Best Freaking Job In The World

teaching martial artsBut here’s the thing… in spite of all that, starting and running a martial art school really is the ultimate career. In fact, I’ve often told my clients that it’s the best freaking job in the world.

Seriously, teaching martial arts for a living is the best freaking job in the world. Think about it, you’re going to have to deal with bullshit no matter where you go or what you do for a living. But answer me this – what other job provides you with the opportunity to do what you enjoy, and have the opportunity to change lives on a daily basis?

Well, if you love doing something else you’d probably make the argument that another career field offers you exactly that experience. But if you’re a martial artist, you know there’s only one right answer… and that’s running a martial art school and teaching martial arts for a living.

Every day you get to wake up and look forward to having a positive impact on your students. Every day you get to go to work and help your students lose weight, increase their self-confidence, and attain their goals. And God forbid, but someday you might even teach someone something that could save their life.

So what if you have to do a little paperwork? So what if every once in a blue moon you have to deal with an unpleasant customer?

So what if it’s not all fun and games, and that there might be a lot of hard work involved? Personally, I’d rather be working long hours knowing that all my effort was going into building my own business, instead of building some corporate shareholder’s year-end dividend check.

And even though the reality of starting and running a martial arts school turned out to be a far cry from what I imagined, I still say it’s the best damned job on earth. So the next time you’re cleaning toilets at 10:00 at night, remember that despite the downside it sure beats the heck out of punching a clock at Initech.



Is Quick Cash Destroying Your Dojo?

martial arts business

There’s nothing worse than having an empty bank account and a school full of people who aren’t paying you… (© Vladislav Gajic – – click the photo to purchase)

You see it A LOT in our industry these days:

“After I joined Master So-and-so’s consulting program, we had our first $40,000 month ever!”

Is it true? Sure it is, but guess what they’re not telling you…

The Fallacy of the $30,000 Jump In Revenue

What they’re not telling you is that the huge jump in revenues these schools claim is mostly due to cash outs.

Now, for those of you out there who haven’t heard this term, a ‘cash out’ is when you enroll someone on a long-term membership and take all the money up front in a lump payment (sometimes called a “PIF” – paid-in-full). This is the cornerstone of at least a few ”business systems” that are being promoted in our industry.

I know what you’re thinking… “That sounds great, Master So-and-so! Tell me how I can post a $30,000 month, too!”

Not so fast… I want you to think about it a second – what’s wrong with this business model?

For starters, eventually you have to teach all those classes, right? What happens when the money gets spent and you have a school full of people you have to teach who aren’t paying you monthly tuition?

Unless you are EXTREMELY disciplined with your money, cash has a tendency to get spent. I have witnessed more than one martial arts instructor who did a good deal of their business using cash outs that ended up regretting it. They had already spent the money, their classes were full, but their monthly cash flow and bank account had dwindled down to nearly nothing (more on that in a second).

“So What? I’ll Just Do More Cash Outs…”

Now, the rebuttal to this has always been, “Well, you just go out and sell more cash outs!” That’s great, but what if there’s a month when you are counting on cashing out half or more of your new students so you’ll have operating expenses covered… and no one wants to cash out?

And what about recessions? You think people want to hand over their savings account or stack up more debt during a recession? No way… when money is tight, people tend to want to pay their tuition over time.

Personally, I have never really liked “cash outs.” Instead, I have always preferred to have a steady monthly income of payments coming in to my bank account each month. Here’s why…

I personally know of one instructor who succumbed to the charms of making a lot of quick cash up front. He was a young guy in his twenties, and found he was really good at selling. So, he figured out pretty quick that he could just get a lot of cash outs, and make a ton of money fast instead of having to wait and get it in installments.

Guess what?

He started counting on making those cash out sales every month to pay his bills… and then one month, he couldn’t get enough cash outs to cover his expenses. The guy had a school full of students, but only a small percentage were actually making monthly tuition payments. The bulk had already paid their tuition in full.

And because of that, he almost lost his school.

Should You Ever Take Cash Up Front?

Having said that, I’ll say that it doesn’t hurt to take cash up front every now and then. That is, so long as you save it in an interest bearing account until the end of the tax year, only taking it as profit when your taxes and all your other expenses have been paid.

I suggest you take no more than 20 percent of your new memberships and renewals as cash outs, to ensure steady cash flow year-round in your school. But for the majority of your income, I think it’s a much wiser choice to write the bulk of your memberships as monthly installment agreements, in order to ensure that you have reliable cash-flow every month.

And when you see an ad with Master So-and-so promising to show you how to increase your revenues from $10,000 to $40,000 in just one month… just do what I do and throw that rag in the circular file.



How To Clone Yourself In Your Dojo

How to clone yourself in your dojo

Ever wish there were two of you to run your dojo?

Me too. I’ve often wished I could clone myself, so I could be on the floor, in the office, and out marketing, all at once. Obviously, you can’t clone yourself – but you can hire and train qualified staff members to be the next best thing.

Learn And Do First, Then Train Your Replacement

Having said that, you should know that I’m a strong proponent of a school owner becoming the best at every job in the school. That includes everything from taking phone inquiries, to enrolling students, to teaching classes and mat chats, to renewal conferences, to knowing how the bathroom should be cleaned.

But, you don’t want to do all those jobs forever. Maybe when you’re first starting your school, you’ll have time to do it all yourself and your budget will dictate it.

However, at some point you need to start replacing yourself. Because if you don’t, you’ll never have a life outside of your dojo, and your studio will never grow past 75 or 100 students.

How To Replace Yourself In Your Dojo

So, how do you replace yourself?

In my opinion, the first “you” that you need to duplicate is “front office you.” You need to hire and train someone to handle the phones and enroll students when you’re out on the floor.

And, it can’t just be anyone. It has to be someone who is trustworthy and sharp, and who believes in your mission.

When you find that person (for me, it was my wife) then you have to train them. And that’s where a lot of school owners stumble, because they don’t have systems in place for replacing themselves.

Systems Are The Key

See, in order to replace yourself you have to train someone to do the job you once did. For non-critical jobs (cleaning toilets, etc.) you can train them at a minimal level of competency.

But for mission-critical jobs (handling the phone, teaching intros, enrolling students, etc.) you must train that person at a very high level of competency.

You can do that in one of two ways:

1. You can spend an inordinate amount of time and energy training them personally…

- or -

2. You can have systems in place that do the bulk of the training for you, and then fine tune your staff’s skills with short strategic coaching sessions.

As you can imagine, training your front office person one-on-one without systems in place can take a tremendous amount of time and effort.

But, if you have a system you can just hand over to them to teach them the critical tasks… well, that’s how you free yourself from 90% of the work in training your front office personnel.

And then you can just tell them:

  • “Read this…”
  • “Listen to this…”
  • “Watch this…”
  • “Memorize this…”

And then later say:

- “Let’s quickly review that audio I had you listen to yesterday…”


- “Let’s do five minutes of role play on phone skills…”


- “Let’s run through the four major enrollment objections and the responses you should use when enrolling students…”

Finally, A Life Away From The Dojo…

BOOM! You’ve just cut out 90% of the time it takes to train a front office person, so you can spend that time doing other high-ROI tasks.

At that point, you can spend the bulk of your time evaluating and fine-tuning what they’ve learned, instead of spending hours personally imparting the rote basics to your staff.

That, my friends, is working smarter and not harder. It’s also how I’ve been able to run successful schools and still have a life outside the dojo for the last two decades.

I strongly suggest that you start with hiring training a front office person for your school.  Hiring and training a reliable person to answer the phones, set appointments, and enroll students while you’re on the floor will change your life (just make sure you know how to do all those things at a very high level of skill before you attempt to hire someone else to do it).

And by the way, if you want a system that will allow you to easily train front-office staff members for your school, click this link:

Martial art school phone skills and enrollment training system



What's your martial arts business goal?