Why your Kung Fu Kwoon is a Non Profit Venture

Like most Kung Fu instructors, my kung fu club is small, and never seems to grow beyond that small but dedicated base of students. In spite of many attempts, I find as many other instructors of the Chinese Martial Arts that I never seem to crack that invisible wall of twenty students.  

I wish I had more students. I am sure that if you are a teacher of TCMA (Traditional Chinese Martial Arts), you are in the same boat. I am not speaking to the Chinese Martial Arts instructors who operate a martial arts themed daycare, or have a boxing or MMA club mixed in. This is for those of us who have a TCMA club, and that is all one will find in the club.  

I am going to examine some of the lies that we tell ourselves about why our school is small, and try to open our eyes to the truth, even if it is something we do not like to think about.  

Myth #1: My Kung Fu club doesn’t make money because I do TCMA, and the training is hard. This is a favorite lie that I tell myself. It is like a security blanket, and the thought keeps me warm at night. The fact is that there are many martial arts schools which are disgustingly successful and still have training as hard (or harder) than what you do in your school, or I in mine.  

Myth #2: People cant handle how tough my TCMA is. This is an offshoot of myth #1. This is used as the excuse for those many students who walk through the door and try the free class, or free week, or whatever, and leave only to never be seen again. It seems as if they leave you class and are swallowed up by a black hole or a UFO!  

Myth #3: People don’t know about my art, so they end up in the MMA, Brazilian Jujitsu, karate or Taekwondo school. This one is the myth of the uneducated public. I cannot say how many times I have had other nonprofit school owners tell me “You have to educate the public on your martial art”. One tip – don’t listen to the advice of people who are not successful. And before you start about my credentials, the advice contained in here comes not from me, but from someone so successful it would shame anyone into an awed silence, as it did me when it was being given, so listen and learn. 

One thing that these myths all have in common; they shift the blame away from where it belongs and onto the millions and millions of people in the country who are not signed up for lessons in your school.  My kung fu club doesn’t make money because of me. Yours doesn’t make money because of you. Period.  

Instructor behavior is the reason people do not attend your classes, more than anything else. There are a few changes that can be made, and you can do better. This is advice which I received from a successful instructor, and once I began implementing the advice, things have begun to turn around. Give it a shot, what have you got to lose? 

What I will do is list why your school doesn’t make any money, and then some of the ideas which were given to me to help remedy the problem. Nothing here will turn you into a sell out, or force you to dumb down your style. You, and I found out for myself and my school, do not have to compromise your integrity at all in order to be successful.  

While there might be those who deny this, all kung fu instructors really wish we had more students. It is just not what we pictured when we first thought to open a martial arts school, to stand before a class of three, two or (gulp) one student(s).

A larger student base allows you to afford better facilities and equipment. A larger student base allows you to host large event which build student morale and advertise your school. Large student bases allow you to negotiate better deals on uniforms and equipment. I could go on, but the bottom line is that there is not much that could be viewed as negative in having a lot of students.  

The lucky TCMA Instructors have around twenty students. Many of us have fewer. The fact is, most kung fu schools don’t make any money, and I cannot see that many of us are very happy about that. No one dreams of opening a kung fu school that doesn’t make any money.

I do, however, remember taking a very masochistic pride in not making any money because it was a sign that I was not a sell out. Really, that was just an excuse I used in order to make myself feel better.  

Now, for the sake of discussion, let us say that you are not willing to water down your art, and lie to people just to recruit more students. You absolutely refuse to turn yourself into a salesman. And under no circumstances whatsoever will you ever use contracts – let us leave that for those cheesy Taekwondo schools, right? I agree with what many TCMA Instructors say, it isn’t about the money; it is about the love of the art. I have no argument with that, and in fact can honestly stick by that myself. I have a day job that pays my bills. I am not getting rich, but I am getting by. And I have no complaints about my income from my day job. I still teach TCMA because I love the Chinese Martial Arts. But it does frustrate me when I see the Taekwondo school, less than three blocks from my home, with its 8,000 square feet of floor space, and clean locker room/shower facilities, an on site pro shop, and arrrghh! I hate that guy! A TKD school owner driving a Lexus. Disgusting.  

Does that bother you? It drives me nuts! It is another example of how life is not fair!  

You, I am sure, resent these guys as much as I do. All TCMA Instructors hate the TKD people for being so successful, and we would love to share in their success if only we could do it without becoming a sell out. We cannot picture turning our kung fu school into one of those bad joke karate or TKD schools.  And that is one of the problems we place upon ourselves. We truly believe that membership in our schools are low because the training is hard. But that is not true. Hard training doesn’t mean that our school has to stay small, as I stated earlier, there are martial arts schools that have hard training and are still successful.  

So, what is the real reason then?  

As pointed out to me by a very successful TCMA school owner (who requested to remain anonymous because he normally charges a lot of money for this advice and doesn’t think people will pay him if they could just hit my blog and get the same advice for free), the reason is nothing like what we like to admit to ourselves. Nothing here would be embarrassing to the TCMA Instructor. After all, we do need to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror every day. 

The First thing you need to do is start keeping a record of the people who visit your school for a free class (I use a free week). Now, it is taking the easy way out to simply assign a reason to the students who do not return, but this is a mistake. I used to love saying, “well (insert name) didn’t come back, but I knew he wouldn’t, he couldn’t handle the tough training of a REAL martial art.” This record is to be intended to use to track the performance of the instructor (that would be you). Don’t be afraid to call a student and ask if they were planning on returning for the classes. And if they say no, be honest – tell the student that you are always looking to improve the quality of the training you offer, and ask them why they will not be returning. Many times the reason can be traced back to your behavior.  

The formula you should use is simple. Keep a record of how many people walk in and physically try a class. Out of that number, keep track of how many of those people stay for a year. The percentage of people who stay for one year is called the Annual Retention Rate.

You should read a lot on business management, or better still, sign up for some business classes in your local college. Yeah, it’ll cost you some money, but knowledge is power. And if you want to run a business, business knowledge is money. Annual Retention Rate is a business term which is very important to a martial arts school.

When I was teaching for the USTA (United States Taekwondo Alliance), they taught that for every ten students that walk in the door, one will sign the contract. And for every one contract, you needed ten more walk-ins the next day to find someone who would replace the one who signed up yesterday. Now, let’s be honest. One out of ten equals a retention rate of 10%. This is awful, but it made the USTA happy. When you have around one thousand schools, 10% is still a lot of money, but when you have one school, you will not get anywhere very fast.  

Let us look for a moment at an ordinary martial arts student. The first place they look to will be a school close to home or work. Now here is a painful truth, but one you must keep in mind – if they try your school, and sign up for lessons somewhere else, it means that your style of teaching was enough to make a longer drive worth it to them! If this happens often, you really need to sit down and reassess your teaching style.  If you can change the Annual Retention Rate from one out of ten to two out of ten, this small change can be a big difference in your school’s enrollment numbers. It is not an unrealistic goal. It is doable, but you will have to examine, adjust, reexamine, and readjust in an ongoing process of growth.  

Now, when some of this information was presented to me the first time I thought, “I am not the reason people don’t stay in my school!” (This is just a small example of how we do not realize how blind we are). Most instructors brush off the low retention to the traditional training being too much for modern lazy Americans.  This is an assumption, not a fact though. There is no study to point to and say, “See, I told you, the people are too lazy.” When you are operating a business, you cannot operate on assumption, you need fact. Just like on the old Dragnet series, “just the facts ma’am, just the facts”. And in truth, blaming the people isn’t even a pure assumption; it is really just an excuse. How can you expect your business to make money if you make up excuses for a lack of customers? Will excuses bring more people in your door? Will excuses make more people stay? No! The real reason they don’t stay – they don’t like you! We are the very reason they do not stay. We are so freaking bad that they would rather drive an extra five miles, right past our school, and sign up in a TKD school, where the instructors are taught how to make them feel appreciated.

Yes, taught. 

Well, how do we change this? How can we get our message through to them, before they leave the room never to return? How can we convince them to stay for a year?  It is not easy.  Not only is it not easy, but it is a lot of work. You are going to have to do some honest self examination. No changes to your principles are necessary. The hardest part about what you will need to do as your starting point, you will need to look at your teaching, find your shortcomings, and change your behavior. This is the most important step in changing your kung fu school from being a nonprofit enterprise into a successful business.  

Now the first question which must be addressed is why the students are leaving and not coming back. This can be the result of several different problems, or a combination of any of the reasons listed below.  

Do you treat students as if they are there to serve the school, or worse still, to serve you personally?

Do you act as if they are unpaid employees?

Do you treat adult students as children, who must follow your every whim?

Do you use only one type of teaching, and fail to address the needs of the three types of learners?

Do you spend an inordinate amount of class time criticizing other martial arts styles, schools, organizations, or instructors?

Are you a source of negativity, embarrassment, or criticism?

Do you explain everything in terms of your views on the martial arts and fail to take into account that there is more than one way of looking at things?

Do you fail to build a relationship with every student?

Do you make play the eccentric and act odd as if you are the possessor of some secret knowledge?

Do you fail to perform rank tests, or conduct them in an unprofessional way?

Do you fail to create and use lesson plans?

Do you assign homework?

Do you discuss religion, politics, or other issues which have the potential to be seen as you pressing your views onto your students?

Do you fail to compliment your students for hard work, proper attention to detail, skill progression, or just plain getting it right? 

If you answer yes to any of these, you are the biggest reason that you do not have many students. If you answered yes to more than three of these, I am surprised that you manage to stay in business at all! If you cannot grow your kung fu club, it is no doubt because of one or some combination of the above. Really take a moment and examine your answers to the above questions, as you may not really know all that you are doing to force students to look elsewhere for their martial arts training.  In my case, I teach an art that is not all that common in this part of the state. There are a percentage of students who come into my school because they want to learn Hung Gar. If they want to learn what I teach, and the only other schools which teach Hung Gar are more than forty miles away, and yet they leave my school and sign up with my competition, I am doing a really poor job of teaching. Especially with gas prices the way they currently are. If they leave here and sign up with the TKD School around the corner, then at least I can rationalize it (make excuses).  I had a student come to me looking for Southern Chinese Martial Arts, which is precisely what I teach. He stayed for one month. As much as I would like to excuse the fact that he left, and chalk it up to some failing on his part, it has to be a failing on my part. Like I said earlier, forty freaking miles to the next Southern Chinese Martial Arts studio.  Let us look at each one individually, and take a closer look at the problems.  

#1  Do you treat students as if they are there to serve the school, or worse still, to serve you personally? Do you act as if they are unpaid employees? Do you treat adult students as children, who must follow your every whim?  This is, in my experience, as well as the experience of the genius who is helping me to turn my school around, the biggest problem out there in the schools of martial arts in general. This one is not limited to the TCMA schools either. Martial arts instructors really like to hold onto that feeling of power. We make people call us absurd titles like “master” or “grandmaster”. I know people who make people call them “teacher of teachers” and one guy who titles himself as “grandmaster of grandmasters”. It is really irritating to the vast majority of people out there when someone loves to exploit personal power and authority. Do you give feedback to your students in the form of a command? This is a problem that will drive students away. When a student is giving you feedback on your class, are you listening or looking annoyed? You need this feedback to get better, so; listen and learn! I know of instructors who punish students as if they were children for idiotic things like being late for the start of class. I have witnessed instructors humiliate and embarrass students for missing a few classes. There are instructors who laugh at students when they make a mistake, or forbid discussing other martial arts. I have left training at schools because of a simple so-called traditional practice; making the beginners wash the floor even though in essence they are paying the instructor for the honor of doing so! If you do stupid things like these, you deserve to have a small and struggling school.   

#2 Do you use only one type of teaching, and fail to address the needs of the three types of learners?  If you are going to be a teacher of any discipline, from algebra to martial arts, you must understand education strategies. Buy a book on teaching. There are tons of them available. It doesn’t have to be about teaching martial arts, just teaching period. Study what makes good teachers good.  Also, you must always understand that different people learn in different ways. There are three basic types of learners in the world, visual, auditory and kinesthetic. And that part that is sad, they are so easy to identify, yet martial arts teachers tend to ignore them. The visual learner will learn from seeing something done correctly. They are identified by the questions they tend to ask, “Could you show that to us again?” They need to see it, and then they will be able to better grasp what they need to know to perform correctly. The auditory learner learns from hearing. For this type of learner, your explanation will need to be very detailed and precise. If you explain things to an auditory learner in vague terms, you have chosen to have your student understand vaguely. The auditory learner will ask “Could you explain that again?” Or will otherwise ask very detailed questions. The kinesthetic learner will learn by doing. Often they can be identified easily as the students who are mimicking your movement while you are demonstrating or explaining. Many of the more successful and effective martial arts instructors cater to all three learning styles under a “see, hear and do” methodology. They will show the technique, then explain it, then have the class perform it, and this is all well and good. But in your effort to be the most effective martial arts instructor you can be, and retain more students, you should identify what type of learner each student is. This will help you when the student asks questions or is having trouble grasping some part of your curriculum.  There are many models of teaching and different strategies, but you can find one that works for you. But, you will have to do some research on the subject. 

#3 Do you spend an inordinate amount of class time criticizing other martial arts styles, schools, organizations, or instructors? This problem can be summed up in one word – paranoia. Once a student is in your school, it shows that they are interested in training with you. Any further criticism of other martial arts styles, schools, organizations, and/or instructors is going to come across as mean, petty or paranoid. I am very guilty of this, and one need look no further than a little lower on my blog to find me ripping some instructors to shreds. (For the record, I am not paranoid; they are out to get me 😀). However, when a student is talking to you about other instructors or styles; stay professional.  

#4 Are you a source of negativity, embarrassment, or criticism? Martial arts instructors tend to never notice the way they relate to their students. Using absolutes in your discourse with them is the most common way this is done. “You never do that kick right!” or “I always have to tell you to keep your hands up!” are example of very common uses of absolutes which make the student feel ashamed, bullied or as less than valued. Over a very short period of time, these feelings will rise even before you say a single word! If you want to be a martial arts teacher, then teach! You should not continually make the student feel worthless. Help them when they do it wrong, no matter how many times it takes. That is what they are paying you for! They are there to learn, you are there to teach, if they are not doing it right, it is the fault of the teacher, and the teacher is not earning their money. Period.  

#5 Do you explain everything in terms of your views on the martial arts and fail to take into account that there are more than one way of looking at things? It is a simple fact that people see the world not as it is, but as they are (the seer). It is human nature. When we try to prove a point, we do it in the way which proves the point to us. But we fail our students when we do not take into account the fact that they may need more convincing. Is it necessary for them to agree with you 100% on everything? Only if you like keeping your school small and unsuccessful. Learn to choose your battles.  

#6 Do you fail to build a relationship with every student? This is a very important subject. Many martial arts instructors think of the student teacher relationship in terms of how they were with their Sifu, or more often, the highly distorted memories of how they think they were with their Sifu, distorted more and more with each goofy Hong Kong movie they watch.  We must remember what country we are in. We must also take into account the fact that people are coming to us to learn a martial art, not to build up our ego by kneeling and bumping their head on the floor repeatedly in their bow to us as we imagine that is how we bowed to our Sifu. You are not a God or a King, you are a teacher. If you had a math teacher who wanted you to not look them in the eyes, and bow to the floor whenever they walked in the room, or (insert any stupid behavior which you force your students to go through in order to “show respect”), you know that teacher would not have a job for long. But you do it! Ah, but you teach kung fu, that most ancient and mysterious martial art from China, so it must be okay.  The student-teacher relationship is one of mutual obligation. The student is obligated to follow instructions and practice to the best of their ability. The teacher is obligated to make every necessary effort to pass on the material which they are teaching. While most TCMA instructors are quick to point out the obligation on the part of the student, they try to ignore their own obligation in the relationship.  Find out why the student is in your school in the first place! This insight allows you to customize the training tips to best suit what they are looking for. And it will do one thing that the student will be hard pressed to find in many other TCMA schools – show that you care and are taking a personal interest in their success.  

#7 Do you make play the eccentric and act odd as if you are the possessor of some secret knowledge? This is a favorite of mine because the Chinese Martial Arts world is filled to capacity with all kinds of weirdoes! While I like to claim that Hung Gar is largely without such idiots, we still have more than our fair share of them.  The Chinese martial arts attract some very strange people. And the more the instructors inflate their own rank, the weirder they get. Everything from flying, to delayed death touches, and no-touch knock outs, someone please make it stop!  If you play the eccentric, you are driving students away. You should not act like the leader of a cult, unless that is what you want people to think of you. The stories told are almost as bad as the behavior. Even if you really did have your plane crash in the Himalayas, were rescued by the last survivors of the destruction of the Shaolin temple, and had them nurse you back to health through the awesome power of Chinese Gung Fu, never, NEVER tell anyone that story! It makes TCMA look bad, and makes you look asinine. And the part you should be most concerned about – it drives students away, into the clean, well lit and sane taekwondo schools. Why is it not enough for instructors of the TCMA to simply teach the art? Why is all of the idiotic behavior necessary?  

#8 Do you fail to perform rank tests, or conduct them in an unprofessional way? Having been a part of, and spoken with many and more TCMA schools, I know that many of them fall into one of these two categories.  There are the schools that do not perform rank tests at all. These schools will tend to have a line something like “We don’t need to do tests. That is how the TKD schools nickel and dime you to death. When you are ready you learn the new material.” The real reason these schools do not do rank tests is that rank tests are closely associated with the Japanese and Korean ways of running a martial arts school, and they do not want to do anything that allows them to be compared to the Japanese and Korean schools. Look – the Japanese and Korean schools are the ones with all of the students! You whine about not having a successful school, but you use a martial arts version of racism to keep your school from being successful.  You do not have to charge for rank testing, but testing should still be done. Then there are the TCMA schools which do have rank tests, but they are done in the most ridiculous ways. They do not prepare the students at all for how the test will be conducted, and then they require everyone to test. Then there is a long delay. Then they either pass or fail everyone without bothering to justify the testing results.  Testing is a good chance for you to measure your own effectiveness as a teacher. The average grade of all of your student’s final average is the instructor average. So, conduct a test. Be honest in your grading (and you should have long ago set up your testing requirements). How well did the students learn each section of your requirements?  Testing is a powerful motivator for the students in their short term and long term goals, but it is an irreplaceable tool for you to measure your own professional effectiveness. Do not let this one slip out of your hands!  

 #9 Do you fail to create and use lesson plans? This is one thing I am really indebted to the USTA (United States Taekwondo Alliance) for. They required all trainee instructors to create a lesson plan, which would then be reviewed by a certified instructor, and then you had to implement the plan. It was a double evaluation each time. The certified instructor would evaluate your plan in terms of how it fit into the calendar (was a tournament right around the corner, or perhaps a test, or did either of these two just happen?), as well as effective use of time. The second part of the evaluation was your implementation of the plan itself. Did you follow what you said you were going to do in the plan?  Years later, when I began to work for KICKSTART, I found myself in a public school, teaching daily martial arts classes. I immediately started drawing up lesson plans, and I create and use them every day. No teacher of any subject in any public school in America would ever dream of entering the classroom without a plan for the day’s lessons. Yet, martial arts instructors do this all across the country every single day!  Your lesson plan should have several points on it. The most basic would have at least a lesson objective (what do you hope to accomplish with this lesson), a detail paragraph which is the plan itself (how you will accomplish the objective), a list of the equipment you will need to execute this plan, and a space for evaluation of the plan (did the plan work so well that you would use it again someday?).  Failure to prepare is preparing to fail. If you are not creating and using lesson plans, start making and using them immediately!  

#10 Do you assign homework?  Especially when you have adult students, you want to avoid this type of behavior. Resist the urge to assign a book to be read and a report written. This will drive adult students right out the door, and the younger students have plenty enough homework already.  

#11 Do you discuss religion, politics, or other issues which have the potential to be seen as you pressing your views onto your students? It is human nature to disagree on subjects like religion or politics. As a professional, you really need to resist the urge to talk about these subjects. And make no mistake, the students will ask. Years and years ago, I had a kung fu student ask who I was going to vote for in the presidential election. I answered, and the next day, he came in with pamphlets and a stack of documents in support of the other candidate. This student quit when I had lied and said that the literature he provided had quite convinced me, but refuse to place his candidate’s sticker on my car. Stay professional, and stay away from these subjects.  

#12 Do you fail to compliment your students for hard work, proper attention to detail, skill progression, or just plain getting it right? Compliment your students. You should compliment every student every day. This isn’t easy, and there will be times when you have to work to find something to compliment, but find it and say it. Compliments should be specific, and should show the student that you are paying attention to them. The compliment should be real. If you continually tell a student that their technique is “great” when both you and the student know it isn’t, you are reinforcing a bad technique and putting your own integrity into doubt in the eyes of your students.  When you correct a student, keep it positive. Use the simple strategy of compliment, correct then praise. “Hey, great! Your feet are in the right spot for this stance. Now, what I need you to do is bend your knees a little more. Fantastic! That is a perfect horse stance!”  

The final point that I would like to make is pretty simple, but often overlooked. Your kung fu club is a business. Your students are customers. If your do not understand this, or worse, if you run your club like a mini Shaolin temple, you will drive people away, and continue to have success elude you. Be professional. You don’t have to be a sell out, and you do not have to water down your training. But you do have to treat your customers with respect.

These simple ideas are incredibly effective, as I stated above, if your school is already a non profit club, youreally have nothing to lose in providing better customer service and helping your kwoon to grow!