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Why Students Quit

(This article is based on a nationwide, market-research study performed on behalf of

By Gary Gabelhouse

In business, it is typical for a new sale to "cost" anywhere from 25%-40% of the contract or product's sale price. This is a standard business concept referred to as Cost of Sale. So, if you sell a $100,000 contract, it is likely your company has invested between $25,000 and $40,000 in making that sale, including salaries for sales people, travel for sales people, marketing and advertising support and materials, etc. In light of that business reality, it stands to reason that if a business can maintain those customers and clients, the cost of sale is significantly reduced, allowing the enterprise higher profits and earnings. Hence, the most profitable business is not necessarily the one that sells the most. The most profitable business is likely to be the one that retains the most clients for the longest period of time.

How is this concept relevant to a martial arts school? New dues payments are necessary and good, but the challenge is to build that client base of students so that you retain a growing level of financial support of the school. Many martial art school owners and head instructors feel the art itself, as it is taught by the instructor, and the character and quality of instruction of the teacher are the reasons why students sign up AND stay at the school. I contend this is not altogether true.

Let us consider the art, the curriculum, the teaching ability and character of the instructor to be the elements of a school's quality. Many instructors believe that if the school's quality is good, students will stay and continue their training at the school; if it isn't they'll go somewhere else, or quit altogether. However, I contend the school's quality may or may not have anything to do with why people quit.

From an objective view, I believe that our dojo has incredible quality, yet, we see students come and go. In fact, they leave the dojo in the face of quality they acknowledge themselves!

So, in our dojo we conduct the equivalent of an exit interview -- when possible, we question the student who leaves as to why he or she leaving or has left. This gives us some insight if there IS a problem with an element of our dojo's quality. Sometimes we have been fortunate to spot a problem and fix it, and the student comes back. As an example: A seemingly dedicated new student suddenly quit coming to the dojo. We called her and asked about why she was no longer training. We were told that a male student had, outside of the dojo, come on to her and that made her feel extremely uncomfortable in the dojo. We talked with her about what should be done, and then addressed the problem, communicating back to her what actions we took and what assurances were in place. She came back and continues to train. I recommend that all dodges conduct such exit interviews and continually build and enhance their school's quality.

In talking with Christopher Caile, founder of, we bemoaned the churn rate of dojos and mused aloud about the reasons why people quit training. I contended that I believed many students quit the martial arts for reasons that really don't have much, if anything, to do with school quality. After discussing this at some length, both of us decided that my company, Fairfield Research, Inc., would perform a national study and determine not only the size of the martial arts market, but also why one-time martial artists quit.

In the study, we contacted via telephone 1,000 adult, heads of household. We asked if they had ever trained or taken martial arts classes of any kind, including Tae Kwon Do, Judo, Karate, or one of the many other styles of martial arts? Twenty-one percent (21%) of the study respondents -- equivalent to 19.8 million adults -- cited they had taken formal martial arts classes. When asked if they were still training and taking martial arts classes, only 2.8% stated they were-equivalent to 2.7 million adult martial artists in America. We assessed the number of household members (children) who were still training and projected there to be 3.0 million youths in the martial arts. Hence, the total size of the American martial arts market (those taking formal classes/training) is 5.7 million.

At this point in time, 86% of the students who have gone into an American martial arts school have quit. We asked those who had quit training, "What one reason was the most important in your decision to quit the martial arts?" The open-ended answers we received were coded into a number of response categories. The following were the results from this nationwide study:

Reason Why Quit

Personal & Job Time Constraints
Moved Away From School
Just Lost Interest
Injury/Medical Problem
Classes Ran Their Term
Finances/Cost of Classes

% Of Quitters


So, what does this tell us? The study results prove a majority (54% conservatively) of the reasons why students quit are beyond the control of the instructor, or school owner.

The instructor cannot manage their students' personal and job schedule for them. Given how we train, and given the nature of it being necessary to train at a school, under an instructor, they either make the time or don't make the time. The instructor would not likely retain students by allowing for only individual home study via videos, etc., and this would be counter to the student/instructor paradigm. The instructor cannot control or impact the business hours or family time of his or her students-and, in my opinion, should not.

Also, how can the instructor control or impact their students' moving to accept better jobs, or moving to be with their spouses? They cannot. Yet, nearly one-quarter (23%) of those who quit training do so for this reason.

Arguably, the instructor CAN control how interesting his or her training is to the student. This 18% quit rate could be construed as a result of poor school quality-or poor quality of instruction/curriculum. One can, from these results, contend that nearly two of every ten quitters leave a martial arts school due to a learning experience that did not interest them enough to stay.

We all, as instructors and martial art school owners, hate to see our students injured in their training. Regrettably, injury is a part of martial arts training, regardless of our safety consciousness. In my first three months of training, I broke a rib and two toes. It just happened -- not due to a lack of safety consciousness, but just due to my bad luck.

However, I have attended schools that seem even to flaunt the injuries of their students as badges of tenacity and intensive training. This misplaced macho attitude is ridiculous. Think of the potential students that are lost to the arts as they pass through these meat-markets.

As instructors and school owners, we can reduce this cause for student resignation by making sure safety measures are in place and understood by all. For example, in our dojo there is no free-sparring prior to or after class unless the sensei on the floor grants permission. Also, weapons use must be permitted, verbally, by the Sensei on the floor.

There are also many other safety measures that can be taken. Use of safety equipment is pertinent to karate and taekwondo. Another method to reduce injuries is to introduce students to sparring gradually, as through practice of two man drills, one side doing a set offensive technique, the other side defending, or allowing one side be offensive (sometimes using just kicks or punches), the other defensive. Other schools do not allow sparring at all until students have achieved a certain level of expertise in both techniques and intermediary drills that teach sparring basics. These are safety policies that lessen the chance for injury to students who do not yet have control of their technique.

As to the physicality of classes, instructors and school owners must, in my opinion, consciously provide classes to their students that are variable and personalized with regard to severity. The quality instructor can push all students to their individual limits without injury. Also, it is a good school policy that all students apprise the instructor of any injury or health problem that may limit their training. With the proper safety policies in place at the school, and with quality instruction, all students, regardless of physical condition, should be able to safely train to the limits of their ability -- pushing and increasing those limits through continued training.

From the study results, it appears that roughly one-in-ten students (8%) quit because of the structure of the class. For example, some students may take a Tai Chi class at college and learn the 28 form. Then they know it, and after the class ends, they may or may not train it. They seem to have mentally "locked-in" on Tai Chi and the 28 form and when their school, class or training is no longer available they do not seek out other martial arts. They quit.

I find it encouraging that finances get in the way with such a small number of would-be martial arts students.. While school fees being unaffordable did account for the reason why 7% of the quitters quit, the instructor or school owner must keep an eye on his or her fees. In our dojo, for example, we have resisted raising dues but increased our revenues through seminars and special events. Dues and dues structuring ARE something in the control of the instructor or business manager. Yet, it appears that dues being too high is not nearly as problematic.


So, how can you, as the instructor or school owner, lessen students quitting and increase your school's financial strength? Consider these measures:

1. Conduct exit interviews of students who have quit and fix problems with the dojo quality.

2. Pursue quality of instruction and curriculum, so your students remain interested in what they are exposed to in your martial arts school.

3. Target market to martial artists who have moved into your area. Be a part of Welcome Wagon programs; work with real estate agents in offering discounts and specials to their clients, etc.

4. Have safety policies in place at the dojo and enforce them. Make sure everyone knows the policies and why they're necessary. Also prepare the student for sparring and use safety equipment.

5. Require students to report all injuries or health problems to the Sensei. This will lessen the chance of re-injury or exacerbating a health problem.

6. Have students know that if they do their best, that is all that is required of them. If they cannot physically do 100 push-ups, they should do as many as they can WITHOUT INJURY. Make sure students understand you do not want injuries. Then, design each workout keeping the individual abilities of your students first in your mind. Push students to grow, but not to the point of injury.

7. Target universities, colleges, and other schools with your marketing program. Efforts can be directed to students, teachers, and guidance counselors. These institutions often provide one-time martial arts classes to their students. Make an offer to these students to continue their martial training at your martial arts school. Teachers and guidance counselors can also refer students who they feel can be helped by martial arts instruction.

8. Keep an eye on dues increases. Consider increasing your school revenue through seminars or special events. This way, your students will truly get more for their money. Whenever a dues increase does occur, have payment conditions, terms, and alternatives ready to keep an economically-challenged student training.

9. As an early warning measure, survey your students. Ask them what changes or improvements they would like to see and what if anything would cause them to quit coming. We survey our membership regularly to keep up-to-date on our dojo's quality. This activity can help you preempt a student's decision to leave.

10. Do your best as instructor. You can't do anything about over half of your students leaving-but you can have some impact on the other 46%. So, improve yourself to improve your teaching and curriculum. Go to seminars yourself and share with your fellow martial artists, for this will improve your quality and improve your student retention.

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About The Author:

Gabelhouse is owner, Chairman and CEO of Fairfield Research, Inc., a marketing research and consulting firm in the entertainment media and technology industry. Its clients span many Fortune 500 and growth companies, such as Nintendo, Microsoft, Sega, Sony, IBM, AT&T, Bellcore, AOL and Time-Warner. Formerly he was Senior Vice President and member of the Board of Directors of what is now the Gallup Organization and was Vice President of Sales for Gallup Canada. He is also founder and CEO of Fairfield Communications, Inc. a book, magazine and newsletter publisher. As an author, he has written seven published books, is the creator of a comic book series and has been published by numerous national and international magazines and trade publications.

In the martial arts he is a student of Okinawan Goju Ryu under John Roseberry-Hanshi, and he is Director of Business for his teacher's Sho-Rei-Shobu-Kan dojo. He holds dan rank in both Okinawan Goju Ryu and Daitoryu Aikijujitsu. He has been a contributor to in the area of business.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

martial arts business, student retention ratio, student retention

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