Should You Lower Your Standards In Order To Increase Retention?
“How long does it take to get a black belt?”
We usually hear this question from new and prospective students, but the following question was actually posted on my member site forums this week by an instructor:
“How long does it take your kids to reach black belt? I have been told by my instructor that I will have extremely poor retention if it takes longer than 2.5 years, but I just don’t feel like that is enough time for the students to achieve the level that I expect out of a black belt.”
Kudos to this instructor for wanting to keep their quality high, even though their instructor obviously isn’t so willing to sacrifice profit for quality (I’d argue that improving quality leads to greater profits overall, but more on that later).
There were some great comments from the other members in response to the question this instructor posed. So if you’re a member and you get a chance, log in today to see what the other members have said so far.
Why I Insist On Keeping My Standards High For Achieving Black Belt
As for my answer? I replied, “As long as it takes.”
I’ve been teaching professionally for years (two decades + teaching kids). And, let me tell you…
If you set the proper expectations FROM THE BEGINNING, you are going to retain a HIGHER QUALITY OF STUDENT than if you set your school up to be a black belt mill just to make a quick buck.
Let me tell you something – the public is NOT stupid. They know exactly what is going on in your school when you “bump” someone in rank just to keep them around.
If You Think Your Clients Don’t Realize What You’re Doing Then Most Certainly, You’re The Fool
Case in point:
Last week I had an interesting conversation with a salesperson who called on my office. Once she found out what I do for a living, she quickly told me about her daughter, who has been enrolled in martial arts for the last five years. Her daughter is close to earning her junior black belt, and the mother just went on and on about all the benefits of martial arts for kids.
Her only gripe? That the instructors would often promote students whose skills and knowledge were grossly inferior to their peers, out of an apparent profit motivation. She said it was obvious they “wanted to move the kids up so they could keep making money off them.”
Trade A Legacy For A Lexus? Not Me…
In my schools (where we teach a curriculum that is old school martial arts combined with modern self-defense) the average time is 4.5 years to 1st dan black belt.
For kids, it can take longer depending on at what age they enrolled. Younger kids just move slower through the junior ranks. Older kids sometimes move faster. And, we don’t give kids black belts – they get a half-black “junior black belt” in my schools.
Of course, teens and adults can do it in three years, if they’re dedicated. It’s only happened once so far, though. And, I’ll be honest – I simply don’t turn out a whole lot of black belts.
That’s for good reason. You see, I have a philosophy that not everyone is meant to be a black belt. That doesn’t preclude anyone from achieving it in my schools – far from it. However, few people will stick around and pay the price for earning a Massie black belt, because my standards are so high.
Sure, I could lower my standards and probably make a lot more money. But it’s an integrity issue for me, because I’m not going to be the type of instructor who stands on the shoulders of giants, only to walk all over their legacy.
A Quick History Lesson
I have more training and rank in Korean systems than any of the other “traditional” systems I’ve studied, and I was fortunate enough to come from a line of really hard core Korean-style instructors. Also, I am very well read and knowledgeable regarding the history of martial arts in America.
Historically, the trend surrounding taking people to black belt rapidly started with a certain large chain of Korean martial art schools, who built an empire on selling instant gratification to their students.
No, they weren’t the only ones doing it…
However, they were perhaps the most successful. Due to their success, many other school owners (including those from other styles) started seeing how much money they were making by selling belts, and it caught on.
A Few Bad Apples… Can Look Like The Whole Bushel
The sad thing is, lots of Korean and Korean-style instructors kept their standards high and refused to follow the practice. But unfortunately, the practice became so widespread among Korean-style schools that it eventually damaged the reputation of the Korean martial arts overall.
What a crying shame. Personally, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to show people how serious I am about martial arts to get respect from them, simply because of my background in Korean martial arts.
Never mind the fact that plenty of great martial artists have backgrounds in Korean systems. But, let me assure you there are still quality instructors turning out quality black belts from Korean-style schools.
But I digress… I only brought this up so you’d know how the practice of lowering belt rank promotion standards came about, and to illustrate to you younger instructors that it wasn’t always as easy as it is today to get a black belt.
Getting Back To Promoting Kids To Black Belt
Now, it’s almost the norm in American martial art schools that teach sub-styles of karate (Korean and otherwise) to rank people very quickly and rush them to black belt for fear of losing students.
Again, what a crying shame…
By making this practice the status quo, the martial arts industry in America has succeeded in doing the following:
1. They’ve watered down the martial arts in America by turning out black belts who aren’t really prepared at all to teach… who then in turn start schools before they are ready and teach their own students their own bad habits and pass on their underdeveloped knowledge of technical execution -
2. They’ve conditioned much of the public into expecting to get things quickly and easily when they enter a martial arts school. Certainly, I can teach someone to defend themselves in two or three years of study (sometimes less, depending on the student). But it takes much longer to train a competent black belt who is capable of passing on what they know.
3. They’ve led the public and their students to believe that the only prerequisite for being a competent instructor is to hold a black belt… a belief that in turn has made it much easier for the public to be duped. Typically this is by marginally-qualified charlatans and con artists posing as legitimate instructors who are more than eager to fool the public into thinking they’re getting good martial arts instruction – all while charging them handsomely for sub-par training and instruction.
Since When Did Maintaining Quality Become A Hindrance To Doing Business?
You know, one of the fastest growing martial arts styles among kids and adults in America is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. And, as everyone knows, BJJ instructors are famous for being “stingy” with rank – or, at least that’s how they’re often categorized.
Me, I say they do it right. Eight to ten years on average for earning a black belt is just about right to me, when you’re talking about preparing someone to teach and pass on what they’ve learned.
Sure, a good four or five year purple belt is more than capable of leading a good class… But I’ve long believed (based on years of observation) that it takes about ten years for an instructor to really gain a sufficient depth of knowledge regarding the subtleties of their art to become an accomplished instructor. (Note: I don’t certify a black belt as a full instructor until they’re 3rd dan or higher – which takes about eight to ten years typically.)
But wait a minute… it takes about two years on average to get the first belt in BJJ. Yet, we’ve seen people turning out in droves to join Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu schools over the last decade.
Could it be that the public really wants something that is real? Something that is worthwhile and truly earned? Something not watered down, but that’s been kept pure and honest?
I say, the answer to all of the above is a resounding “YES!”
So, Here’s My Advice…
So, here’s my advice to you – instead of worrying about losing students because you aren’t lowering the quality of your programs enough…
Worry instead about retaining students by teaching the highest quality program you possibly can – trusting that your reputation and high standards will be your strongest retention tool.
-- Michael Massie has owned and operated martial arts schools and fitness studios for most of his adult life. A lifelong martial artist, he is the author of "Small Dojo Big Profits", runs the Martial Art School Alliance International (MASAI) business coaching website, and is the creator of The Self Defense Black Belt Program (TM) and Fighting Fit Boot Camp (TM). For more of Mr. Massie's low-cost martial arts business materials, check out his martial arts business books on Amazon.com.