How To Keep Students Interested

In a recent survey I asked instructors what their biggest challenge is when it comes to teaching and running a dojo. I received a wide variety of responses from needing new drills and exercises, to keeping helicopter parents from interfering, to managing student data.

But one of the more common challenges relates to student retention, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to address that issue. Wouldn’t we all like to hold on to more of our students?

One of my subscribers, Monty, wrote, “[We] struggle most with keeping new black belts and/or senior students in their teen years.”

Ah, yes. Teenagers.

To us the Generation Z teenager can be a peculiar animal: constantly on their phones, lackluster attitude, and poor communicators. To us they are completely different than what we were at that age, right?

Not really.

Sure things are faster thanks to the internet. And there is evidence for increased distraction and reduced attention spans thanks to the “instant gratification” age, but guess what? That’s affecting adults too.

At their core, teenagers today are still teenagers like we were: just figuring out this thing called LIFE. They’re growing physically, mentally, and emotionally. And they’re dealing with the associated perceived stresses. They’re making the shift from the parent / family circle to their peer group, looking for recognition, support, camaraderie, and significance. Teenagers don’t want to be lectured. They want to be understood.

And that, my friend, is where the challenge lies.

How to Increase Student Retention

If your dojo doesn’t provide the opportunity for continued growth and recognition, fails to challenge students, or doesn’t provide a culture based on camaraderie and significance within the peer group, then you’re dead in the water.

Teenagers will look for these things elsewhere and come up with excuses as to why they’re quitting karate. When you ask them “why”, they most often can’t make the distinction of what’s lacking. It will often be expressed with such things as “it’s boring”, “it’s not fun anymore”, “I don’t have time”, “I want to try something else”.

These are all surface level excuses to a deeper issue.

So how do you go about creating this environment at your dojo?

Let’s break it down into simple pieces. Here’s a quick if/then table to get you pointed in the right direction.

If… Then…
Your classes fail to challenge…

Change up the routine so that it’s not always the same format every class. Involve other instructors so your students aren’t always hearing the same point of view.

Teach classes in a more fun, relaxed way so students can approach instructors with questions or concerns.

Create fun in-house competitions during “down” months – the most classes attended over the summer, most kicks in a certain month (tallied per class), etc.

Your dojo doesn’t offer a “career path” after black belt… Create a leadership program for increased learning and growth. Help deepen their knowledge and understanding.
Your dojo doesn’t have an atmosphere of camaraderie and friendship…

Create extra social events outside of the dojo and regular training, eg. beach training days, leadership reward days, dojo BBQ, etc.Or create a competition team.

Create something that binds students together. Develop that culture.

Your dojo doesn’t provide recognition for long-time students and black belts…

Provide that recognition. Get them involved and feeling significant. Put their photos and names on the wall, or on a plaque.

Give recognition and display your gratitude for their contribution. Ask for their input on dojo events, improvements, etc.

All of these things help with student retention. And they’re all geared towards the positive. Remember, retention is a reflection. It’s a measurement of the success of your dojo, your teaching skills, and your ability to continue to grow and develop your students. Focus on that and the retention will take care of itself.

Like this article? You’ll love my Tiny Teaching Course for Instructors. Check it out here…

How to Develop Fighter Instinct

The tactical landscape of tournament fighting is forever changing. Competitors and coaches are always looking for an edge over their opponents. And with the all-too-frequent changes in rules, there is an arms race to develop the next great strategy, tactic, or method.

Thanks to the pursuit of the next nuclear fighting tactic, fundamentals have taken a back seat. It’s all too common to see kizami zuki with the back foot high off the ground, ura mawashi geri executed with a swinging leg, and mawashi geri often not recoiled, yet points are being awarded.

Competitors have become masters of 3 or 4 scoring techniques, and have learned to play the game using them. As a result, many competitors haven’t developed their fighting instinct. That is, the ability to do something instinctual outside of their usual bag of tricks.

Was it always this way?

Conversely competitors from 30 years ago weren’t as strategic as today. Fighters had their favorite techniques of course, but fought more on instinct than careful strategic analysis of their opponent.

Strategy back then was more simple. Fighter instinct was at a high.

WKF World Championship, Long Beach, USA – 1975.

But what if you could develop your competitors to utilize both STRATEGY and INSTINCT?

For that we must revisit the fundamentals of kumite, and use training methods to develop fighter instinct.

What is Fighter Instinct?

It’s the ability to do something at a subconscious level. To know what the right option is at any given time, and to execute technique without thinking. This could be a punch, a kick, a combination, a block, or movement.

Even more simply it’s an ability to subconsciously control the choice of technique, the distance, and the timing. Those who understand these fundamentals and who can manipulate these variables have a distinct advantage.

So how do you Develop Instinct?

How do you develop fighters who can break the mold of systematic robots who struggle when presented with something outside of their programming parameters?

It comes back to training methods, and a need to spend more time on those things that develop fighter instinct.

A simple training exercise that you can use to start breaking up strategic stagnation is to place restrictions on fighters during competitive sparring in the dojo.


A rudimentary example would be to have fighter #1 only allowed to punch, while fighter #2 is only allowed to kick. This restriction forces each fighter to use techniques, strategies, and tactics outside of their usual scope. It puts more options into their ‘go-to’ bag. The more they practice them, the more comfortable they are using them, the more likely they are to use them in a match.

Take a look at the table below. Here are some ideas I brainstormed for you. We use these restrictions often in class to develop fighter instinct. For each round, choose one of these restrictions for each of your fighters. Half way through each round, (on your command) fighters switch roles. Use these basic training methods to start to develop techniques and strategies that might otherwise be forgotten.

Fighter #1Fighter #2
Must kick before they can punch Must punch before they can kick
Block and Counter only Attack only
Left hand behind back Right hand behind back
Right hand behind backRight hand behind back
Must fight right leg forwardMust fight left leg forward
Can only anticipate
(sen no sen)
Can only attack
Techniques with only right side of body (either stance)Techniques with left side of body (either stance)
Can only attack headCan only attack body
Can only kickCan only punch
Limited to straight techniquesLimited to circular techniques
Single techniques onlyMultiple techniques only
Must fake before attackNo fake before attack
Must do multiple counterSingle counter only
Must attempt sweep 3 timesMust attempt clinch 3 times
Starts from laying down on backStarts standing

What else can you think of?

Placing these kinds of restrictions on your fighters gives them practice in unexpected situations and helps develop their fighter instinct. Combine that with the 3 or 4 favorite go-to-techniques and a well planned strategy, and you give your fighters the edge. A good fighting instinct helps competitors adapt and overcome, and can save them from being beaten by the unexpected.

Where to next?

Have you checked out my Tiny Teaching Course for Instructors?

If you like my stuff, you’ll love this free course. Get it here:

How to Make a Makiwara

If you’ve ever wondered how to make a makiwara, watch my video below where I take you step by step from beginning to end. This was my 5th time making a makiwara and I have learned each time. Pay attention to the details and you’ll avoid the pitfalls. You’ll be up and punching in no time!

Well, actually it’s going to take you a few hours… and some considerable effort.

However when you’re done you’ll have a traditional makiwara and the satisfaction building it yourself. Enjoy!

Materials required:

  • One 4″ x 4″x 8′ pressure treated piece of lumber (for the post)
  • One 2″ x 4″ x 8′ pressure treated piece of lumber (for the cross braces/supports)
  • Rope or grass cord
  • Straw or similar material for the “cushion”
  • Waterproof sealer or paint
  • Rocks
  • Stones
  • Sand

Equipment needed:

  • Electric skill saw
  • Impact driver / drill
  • Decking screws – 3 inch
  • Paint brush
  • Safety glasses
  • Clamps (to hold the lumber in place while you cut it)
  • A shovel
  • A wheelbarrow is helpful
  • Tape measure
  • Pencil
  • Painter’s tape

Skills required:

  • A little DIY knowledge. It’s a fairly simple process but you have to know how to cut a piece of wood and operate power tools.
  • Patience. (You’re going to make mistakes even with my awesome tutorial. Lol.)
  • 3rd grade mathematics.
  • Common sense. =)

Disclaimer! If you cut off your own fingers or do something else to cause yourself injury while attempting to build your own makiwara, it’s going to be much more difficult to use it when you’re done. Please be careful. You are responsible for your own actions. If you’re not comfortable and competent with power tools it’s probably best you purchase one online instead.

And if you have any questions, comments or suggestions I’d love to hear from you. Please use the comments section below and let me know what you think!

As always, stay safe and train hard.

how to build a makiwara