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Saturday, November 26, 2016

Motivation and Retention of Students in the Martial Arts

Palmer Renshi receiving instruction from Nagamine Hanshi (undated)

Note: Before writing this piece I did some research on available literature on the subject, there is a reference list attached at the bottom of this post if you are interested.

Many highly skilled martial arts instructors fail miserably when they open their own dojo. Not because they are bad teachers, not because they are poorly skilled practitioners, but because they believe being skilled in karate somehow equates to be skilled in teaching and that personality is all you need to motivate students. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Students do not remain in training because of the instructor's skill, the size of the dojo, how great a guy the instructor is or how fast they get promoted. They stay because they are motivated to do so.

Now here is the part nobody's Sensei taught them: as a Sensei, Renshi, Shihan or Hanshi you CANNOT motivate a student. Motivation must come from within the student themselves. You can provide a caring nurturing training environment but still the motivation comes from, and must come from, within the student not from us.

However, instructors CAN de-motivate a student and do so very, very quickly.

When we think "motivation" we really need to think on "retention", i.e. "what can I do to retain this individual as a student even as their motivation vacillates over time?"

Well the first attitude I have to "fix" is my own. My personal motivation in no way equates to what motivates my students, every student is different.

Some students start because they want to learn how to kick someone's ass. Usually those students last 6 months or less.

Some students start because they want to be able to say "I study karate". Those students usually last 6 months to a year or two.

Students who start training so they can learn "self-defense" usually face a crisis when, at some point, they realize self-defense proficiency takes 3-5 years (no one in the street ever remembers that "cool" technique they learned at the seminar.) You fight like you train so you have blocks, punches and straight kicks for a very long time. No one leaves a $400 seminar with even one new muscle memory. It doesn't happen like that - you may not like that but neurophysiology is neurophysiology.

Who is more motivated, the student who trains 5 days a week solid for five years or the student who trains once a week for 15 years? Certainly the retention of the 1st student appears to be better, especially during those 5 years and thus more motivated - but is it really.

Consider these examples:

Example 1: There's an old John Wayne movie called "The Green Berets". In it, when selecting members for a new A Team, Wayne chooses a new team member. The SgtMajor questions his choice by saying "Are you sure you want Sgt Smith? The jumpmaster says they have to kick him out of the aircraft every time he makes a parachute jump." Wayne responds "That's exactly why I want him: he keeps going back up."

Example 2: Bill Hendrix was a "star" in the dojo from the day he walked onto the floor. His reflexes were like a cat. His speed and accuracy rival the best yudansha. When shown a kata once or twice in one class he returns the next class capable of teaching the moves. Basically everything comes easy for Bill. Karate is fun, ranks comes quickly, Sensei uses Bill as the example to other students, and always spends a few extra moments in every class focusing on Bill and his techniques.

Once promoted to Shodan Bill stops being a idiot-savant and simply becomes another yudansha, albeit a good yudansha. 6 Months later Bill discovers skydiving and leaves karate behind.

So, who do you feel is more motivated? Bill or Sgt. Smith? Looks a bit different when viewed in these terms, doesn't it?

So back to the question, what motivates them. Do they "want to be like Sensei"? That's not motivation, that's an unresolved Daddy issue. An instructor who wants students to match the instructor's level of motivation is looking for sycophants not students.

For me to try to motivate a student by pointing out how motivated another student is only runs the risk of alienating the very student I want to motivate. No matter how you phrase it they still hear "Why can't you be more like your Frank?"

Some instructors think that only pearls of wisdom flow from their mouth or, worse yet, the have no one else to talk to. Students make the perfect captive audience. Unfortunately both techniques server only to alienate students.

Having a black belt or the title "Sensei" does not mystically embue the bearer with the skills and training they need to be an effective instructor. Unfortunately those exact skills sets needed to become proficient as an instructor are rarely taught in a dojo.

So, as an Instructor what can I do to provide a training environment that encourages retention and gives students a reason to motivate themselves to train?

Suggestions to Instructors on How to "Retain" Students:

1) Individualized instruction (even with yudansha students) the mudansha still need that 1:1 attention from Sensei.

2) Every student progresses at their own speed, don't be a speed bump. Nothing demotivates a student as quickly as being held back. Holding back a student is almost as bad as promoting a student too quickly.

3) Yudansha who are not good teachers should not teach UNLESS they are being directly supervised and their teaching is part of THEIR professional growth. How do you know who is a good teacher? Assume everyone is a bad teacher until proven differently.

4) Set clear individualized expectations for students collaboratively. I know that's not the way they did it in Okinawa but WE are not in Okinawa. The millennial student of today, and our dojos, would not survive under that training model nor should they have to, this is the 21st century not the medieval Ryukyu Kingdom. To retain students, the first person that has to adjust, who has to learn to be flexible, is the instructor, i.e. US!.

5) Care about your students, legitimately care about them. I'm not talking about making them a member of your family, we're talking about what Carl Rogers referred to as "non-possessive caring".

6) There is no place for ego in the dojo, least of all from the instructor. That's not what teaching martial arts are about.

7) If you have a "favorite" student, shut-up about it. One favorite student equals ten demotivated, "done quit" students. Its like being a parent: Parents lie all the time and say "Oh I love all my children equally" your children know better and, in the dojo, your students know better as well.

If your best friend(s) are your students you have your own issues. Students are students not peers or friends. This is not to degrade them but to ensure there exists professional distancing between student and Sensei - this is called a psychological and professional boundary. There has to be boundaries and you, the instructor, must set them. If you worry students will not like you if you are not their friend then you have other issues. In the dojo you are "Sensei" ALL the time and should be addressed as such before, during and after class.

Outside of class the salutation "Sensei" is inappropriate. If a student chooses to address you as "Sensei" at church fine, don't shut them down but don't insist on it.

9) Here's a novel idea: Actually learn how to teach. Learn how to develop your personal pedagogy for teaching. Your local Community College offers educational courses year round - take advantage of it, become a professional teacher not just another guy who knows karate and teaches.

10) This one is very important: Don't be afraid to say "I don't know". If a student asks you a question you do not have the answer to, tell them "I don't know". You then have two choices for follow-up:

a) "I don't know but I'll find out by the next class." Then do so.

b) "I don't know. Why don't you find out the answer and let us all know by next class?" Then make sure YOU do find out the correct answer before next class in case the student does not or in case they find the wrong answer.

Great Ways to Lose Students:

1) War stories; the dreaded "No crap there I was...." Your spouse is tired of your stories, your yudansha are tired of your stories and so are your mudansha. Students are in the dojo to train, not to hear your philosophy of life, political viewpoints, world traveling adventures, etc. etc. If you suffer from an external locus of evaluate and, as a result, you have a need to have people listen to you in order for your to validate your sense of self worth, join Toastmasters ( .

2) Exclude from your training statements such as: "...then tear off his arm and beat him to death!" or "Once he's out, kick him to make sure!". Sounds great in the movies but in real life it just guarantees you will be in the "plaintiff boat" in court. The plaintiff boat is when, in court, your ex-student recounts the story of how you taught them to continue beating the victim after the danger had been neutralized. The student will lose in court and you will share the blame for teaching them. There is an old saying: "Never say anything in the dojo you could not justify saying in court."

3) Homophobia, genderism, and ageism have no place in the dojo - ever. If you cannot or will not teach the female student the homosexual student or even the older student, not only are you breaking the law, setting a horribly poor example and missing a profitable income stream. If you are homophobic but feel sure you can "hide your true feelings" in the dojo you're an idiot. A student will see through you in about 30 seconds. A Sensei teaches, period. Prejudice (of any flavor) converts an instructor into a liar; to themselves and to their students and, in the process, they sully the name of their art.

4) There can only be one "instructor" in a class at a time. Martial arts training is not a consensus of opinion. This goes back to boundaries. No one every said to Nagamine Hanshi during a class, "hold on Hanshi, I think twisting it this way works better" or worse yet "I studied another style before this and we did it a different and more effective way." Sensei is always right. period, end of story, no further questions your honor.

I once had a green belt (with no teaching experience) come up to me after a class, in front of other students, and say "Would you like some feedback on your teaching?. My answer was, of course "No". For a student to display that degree of arrogance is, in itself, a harbinger of issues to come. As a Sensei do not be afraid to maintain a healthy professional distance with your students. When you have a student you work with or run into on a constant basis in other life ventures this known as a dual relationship". When a dual or multiple relationship exists, the student's ability to observe boundaries becomes paramount.

5) Don't bad mouth other styles. No style is "pure" and no style fits everyone. Despite that, all styles have something we can all learn from.

There is an old saying: "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." It is not encouraging violence. It is saying be your own person. Whoever, whatever your instructor was, don't become a "Minnie Me". Bring your personality into your teaching

Teaching is hard. Good teaching is even harder but highly rewarding.


Cox Hakase


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