Recently I saw a guy post (from Texas) blaming his martial arts school closing on the local town. He was very paranoid in this post going so far as to attack the integrity of people that live in said town. I have had some run ins in forums on Facebook with the said individual too, as many of my martial arts buddies have also with this same individual. His school closing was not a result of the town being against him. It was a result of his lies. Lies about rank, training experience, skill levels, posting videos that clearly shows he has no idea what he is doing and not being able to take criticism, along with even stating he has “video” trained and earned rank.
While it is true that it “takes a village” very rarely do I see a town being responsible for a martial arts school closing. Here are the reasons that most schools fail based on my 26 years teaching and observing them open and close around me:
1. The instructor sucks. Yes you read that right. The instructor doesn’t have good training, bought a black belt, earned a black belt at a mcdojo, doesn’t train or is just simply a fraud. Sadly there are many of them out there like this. If you can’t stand with your peers then you should seriously reconsider opening a school. Your students will see through your BS eventually and word will, and always does, spread.
2. The instructor is an asshole. They care more about how great they are than how great they will make their students. It is all about them and their need for ego boosting. They often yell, scream and are just down right bullying towards students.
3. Location, location, location! Y programs fail all the time. Opening a school in an off beaten path because the building is cheap is a big mistake. Teaching in a garage or basement is fine but, personally as someone who trained in both types, I wouldn’t enroll my child in one unless the instructor was great and the building was very nice (which is why I have a building). If people can’t find your school or don’t see it all the time they will go to the one that they do when they are interested in classes.
4. Failing to lead by example. I have heard many horror stories from parents about how certain instructors would take “smoke” breaks during classes, show up smelling like alcohol or be out drinking and getting in fights in the community, not to mention being in the paper for being arrested in fights, DUI or drugs. I have personally witnessed this with a couple of schools in my area. Sure they may have some students but I can assure you those “types” that train with them are not anyone that I would ever want to train around or put my child in a class with, ever.
5. Proclaiming to be some sort of grand master, pooh bah, the best their is in the world and so forth. In short, lack of humility. Eventually students see through this type of idiocy and leave. They get sick of hearing about how great someone is and being “forced” to call them Grand Master and such. Buying rank in an organization just to make yourself sound great means nothing when you can’t back it up with quality abilities as a martial artist your own self.
6. Not being opened minded to other arts. I love martial arts. I love to learn. I teach Shorin Ryu Shorinkan in my dojo but anything that makes me a better teacher and martial artist I am game for. Sadly some types of schools are very hard core about not letting their students train at other places, attend seminars or go to tournaments / events outside of their own school / organization. In my personal opinion it is because they a) don’t want their students to see they actually suck b) are controlling the students to keep making money off them or c) are a cult in mentality (like the video I posted on Facebook the other day).
7. The instructor loses interest in teaching, gets burned out and stops showing up on time, teaching classes or even fails to open their dojo on certain days. If you are going to be a martial arts teacher you definitely better learn to deal with burnout. Regardless of what is going on with you your students deserve the best so buck up little camper and deal with it. I have taught sick, injured, tired, beat up with broken bones and more. You are there to teach so you must have the discipline to do so.
8. Always hitting students up for money. I had a person come into my dojo to sign up because they got sick of walking through the door and being hit up to “upgrade”, “buy this or that”…always something to make a buck at their old school. While I agree that a quality martial arts teacher should be able to make a decent living they should never be nickle and diming their students. It becomes clear that money over quality of the art being taught is more important and people that love the martial arts will leave and find schools that don’t do that sort of thing.
9. People opening schools before they are ready to teach. It seems that the common train of thought today is “get a black belt and you can teach”. NOTHING is further from the truth. A black belt is just a beginning level of understanding the basics. While you may be quality enough to help with beginner classes you are in no way qualified to open a school. I have seen a lot of young, low rank black belts, closed down their schools in a year because they were not ready to be teaching…even though they believed they were able to do so. Also must mention that most AUTHENTIC and legitimate martial arts require a student to earn a minimum of a 4th or 5th degree black belt to begin teaching others.
10. Being a control freak. I have seen instructors from area schools threaten students and even stalk them on Facebook when they quit training at their schools. Word on this will spread quickly and no one wants to train with this type of person. Sure, if a student is struggling, you need to help them through that using your own experience so they don’t quit and see through the tough times but you should never threaten a student who wants to quit. I have had students, even black belts, of mine leave my school, spread lies and, well basically, be dishonorable towards my dojo but I just let it go. They are worthless anyway if they want to be like that so it’s not worth losing sleep over when you have a lot of other students you need to help and teach.
There are many more reasons why schools do fail but these are just some of the things I have witnessed in my own area with people who open schools. The truth about running a quality martial arts school is this:
1. Be educated on business…it takes marketing, PR and budgeting to keep a school open. You will work a lot of hours and if it isn’t your primary job it will wear you down so be ready for it.
2. Keep TRAINING. Too many people open schools and stop training. How can you offer the best to your students if you stop learning…you can’t. That is why I make every effort to hit up seminars and drive to my Sensei’s dojo to train (2 hours away). You must keep improving your own skills or you won’t be able to improve those that you teach.
3. Remember the students are the important ones. Regardless of your rank, training, quality, competitive career and accomplishments it is your students that truly matter. Train them right, give them your best and watch them grow. That is what being a teacher is about.
4. Build a program that helps people learn, improve and grow. No matter how tough you want your students to be or great at earning trophies, fighting in the ring / cage, if you don’t have a simple curriculum and procedures for learning in place they will fail. When they fail they will quit. Build a quality curriculum and stick to a game plan on teaching classes. Don’t do anything in a fly by night type of attitude.
5. Be active in the martial arts yourself. If all you do is hide in your school then you are not improving. Get out, get to seminars, go train and be active so you can witness things, learn things and improve your own self, teaching ability and school. By being around your peers you can learn a lot about your own self, where you need to improve and what you do that is great versus what you just think is great. Getting out there you will see where you stand as an instructor and that, in itself, will help you grow and improve.
6. Realize that, once you become a Sensei, life is going to be different. Many people fail to understand that the students are the most important thing in the dojo. They think being a teacher is all about how great they are. It isn’t and never will be. It is about how great you can make others and help them through teaching them martial arts.
7. Understand that you are not going to be doing this part time, even if it isn’t your only job. Sure your school may be open only a few nights a week but it takes an 8 hour (or longer) day to run a good martial arts school. You will spend hours marketing, doing public relations, managing your books / funds, fixing up your dojo, painting and more to have a good school. Just showing up, teaching and going home never happens with a good teacher. You also need to understand that you will spend a lot of time talking with students outside of class hours. Sometimes it is just so they have an ear to listen, other times they really need guidance and help. You have to be there for them, that is part of being a Sensei.
8. Be active in your community. Get involved. Go beyond just donating to local causes / charities. Get out, help out and be a leader.
9. Understand that being a leader / role model as a Sensei must be taken with all seriousness. Going out to bars, getting in trouble and that sort of thing is over (if you used be one of them). Everything you do will be in the public eye so you have to manage it effectively and that requires a lot of self discipline (in some cases). You have to lead by example because your words will be meaningless if you don’t live up to what you are teaching. Words like integrity, honor, discipline are staples of a good Sensei so you have to understand them beyond their mere definitions.
10. BUDGET, budget, budget. Running a business requires that you live within the means of the business. Never put your school at risk just so you can have what you want. The ones that suffer because of selfish gain actions are the students. Budget your month in advanced and stick to it. In my dojo I budget three months in advance and never alter it. I also have a savings account that has two months worth of bills in it just in case we have a bad month, an emergency happens or I get injured / sick. It is important to know this. Never count on money you don’t have only on what you do have.
Anyway, just wanted to share some of the things I have learned, both the hard way and through experience, when it comes to running a school and what causes them to close down. Don’t be like that guy in Texas and think blaming your community had anything to do with your school closing. My main dojo is in a very small, rural community of about 8,200 people and I maintain around 65 students there. We have been larger (over 100) and smaller (around 40) but they are not responsible for the success of my school…I AM…and so are you.
Steven Franz, Shihan
Shorin Ryu Shorinkan Rokudan