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Are Your Students Draining Away?

By Christopher Caile

You're a good teacher and new students regularly appear at the door of your school, but something is wrong. Somehow your martial arts school isn't growing as it should. You also seem to be continually short of funds.

What's wrong?

More often than not, the critical missing factor is your student retention ratio. In short, that's the number of students who drop out over a fixed period of time. It is one of the most important elements in the success of any martial arts school or program, but very few school owners or teachers understand why students leave or how to retain them.

First, you should realize that many students will leave your program through no fault of your own. And for these students, no matter what you do, your actions will have little effect.

Gary Gablehouse in a article "Why Students Quit" noted that, in a survey conducted by his polling company, 54 percent of students quit for reasons beyond the control of the school - they move, can no longer afford the monthly dues, don't have time, aren't available when classes are held, lose interest or find new interests.

The percentages for any school or area will vary, but realize that a 40 percent to 55 percent attrition rate should be unexpected. That means only 45 percent to 6o percent of students will stick around if they are happy, interested, have time, are free and can afford it.

So what kind of retention should you look for, and how do you figure the ratio out? Take all the students you had at this time last year and then add all the new students who enrolled in the following 12 months. Compare that sum to the current number of enrolled students. You are doing well if there is less than a 35 percent to 40 percent difference between the two. It means you lost just a little over one third to two fifths of your students.

How the loss of students affects you, of course, depends on your cost of recruitment, the number of students you have, the number who enroll each month, overhead and other factors. But, if your loss ratio is greater than 35 percent to 40 percent, you might be advised to take steps to reduce the loss. This is especially important since no matter what you do you will inevitably lose a high percentage of students to factors outside of your control.

So what can you do? Here are some suggestions.

Find out why your students enrolled -- for self-defense, to build confidence, to get in shape, to make friends, to learn a martial art, etc. Then make sure your program meets their needs.

Ask students who leave, why they left. This might uncover problems or personal conflicts that might be rectified. It will also guide you as to how to teach and conduct your classes better.

Add classes or extra days when you hold classes. Scheduling conflicts lose a lot of students or potential ones.

Make classes interesting. Always add exciting, interesting elements to your teaching. Explain a kata technique, show a unique self-defense move, explain a principle of movement or technique, tell interesting stories about your teachers or great masters. Sit down with your students and encourage them to ask questions. Some of these might be reserved for the end of the class or afterwards, but some are easily added into the class curriculum.

Minimize injury and fear. A lot of seasoned martial artists forget the fear and intimidation of their first martial arts classes. Also, pain and injury will quickly discourage many, especially those who are weaker or less physically able. A good idea, if you are a karate school, is to put off kumite for a while and teach people all the elements of fighting first. Then wear safety equipment and stress safety in class.

Build a positive student relationship with each student. Know all your student's names. Take an opportunity to get to know each student in your class and something about them. Be supportive, encourage your students and complement them when they have done something well. This works much better than repeated criticism, because no matter how well intended, repeated criticism can wound your student's ego and concept of worth. It can also drive them away.

Monitor your students. If you teach a class be careful to notice any problems, seeming disinterest, or poor attendance. Talk to the student, let the student know you think he or she is important. Try to find out what is happening and how to remedy a situation if it is deteriorating.

Ask for a commitment. If students enroll to achieve some objective (and you should know this), let them know that it takes time and dedication to achieve it. Tell them that you will teach them, but ask for their commitment in return, for without it, their goals are meaningless. As part of this you might ask them to commit for a specific time period. You may decide to use contracts.

Use of agreements to commit your students to study. These are contracts, but it is better to call them agreements because the word "contract" can scare a lot of potential students away. Explain to the potential student that the agreement is useful since it spells out his or her costs, as well as their commitment. You can also offer discounts, if the student commits for a year or longer.

build appreciation on a different, more meaningful level. Let students and potential students know why your school is different from health clubs or other sports and activities. Let them know that what you teach is much more than a martial art -- it can help them improve themselves, build discipline, confidence, grow stronger and learn how to deal with problems. Your students may never have to defend themselves, but their martial arts can affect their lives, their families, and how they deal with others. Let them know this. Also, be sure to explain to parents how your martial arts program can benefit their kids.

Make promotions probationary so students keep motivated to improve and practice. Tell students when they have graded that their new ranks are not final, and that they will have to show a dedication to training before you will give them a certificate. By the time they have received their grading certificate they will be well involved in the next level of study.

Hold annual ceremonies, school events, special training or seminars -- any number of things to create a community around your school. This builds a social foundation to support your martial arts teaching.

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About The Author

Christopher Caile has been a student of the martial arts for over 40 years, and a teacher for more than 35 years. He has an MA in International Relations with a specialty in southeast Asia, and has lived and traveled in Japan, Okinawa and south and southeast Asia. He is 6th degree black belt in Seido karate under Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura, a long time student of aikido under Roy Suenaka (Wado-kai aikido), as well as a student of other martial arts (including daito ryu aikijujutsu, judo, boxing and several Chinese arts) and Zen. He is also a teacher of qi gong (Chinese energy medicine), in which he trained under Master Zaiwen Shen and is Vice-President of the DS International Qi Medicine Association.

In his business career he has been a newspaper journalist and entrepreneur of several business ventures, and he designed innovative telecommunication and marine products which were developed in companies he founded. In 1999 he founded (which went live in August 2000) and its parant company eCommunities LLC.

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martial arts business, student retention ratio, student retention, martial arts students

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