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…

Subscriber Q & A

Keith writes…

“I have just started a new class for 4-7 year olds. To say they are bundles of energy is an understatement. I seem to spend the lesson with one or more of them hanging off one of my arms while another hugs one of my legs. I’m loving teaching them and getting some great things out of them and the parents tell me that they love coming to the lessons and practise what they have learnt at home. I was wondering if you had any new tips for guiding that energy and enthusiasm into direct focus and the actual karate!



Hi Keith (name has been changed to protect the innocent),

It appears you’re doing a great job “bonding” with your students and families. This is great! Every instructor should strive to create an environment that is uplifting and positive for all students. It shows you care and that you are more than just another karate instructor. It’s one of the keys to a creating and maintaining a successful dojo. Nicely done.

The flip side of becoming friendly with your students is controlling it within the context of what you do. Otherwise it makes it very challenging to do your job.  Here’s a few things to get in place so you can teach more effectively.

  • Set Boundaries

It’s great to have students who love you as their sensei but you don’t want them “loving on you” for a couple of reasons. First, as you pointed out it makes it impossible to teach the class, so you’re not really serving them in any constructive way.

Second, you don’t ever want anything being misinterpreted or misconstrued by a parent or child for that matter. As instructors it’s very important for us to establish a professional sensei-student relationship where we should only be physically making contact with a student when correcting technique.

Of course high-5s and fist-bumps are ok, but hugs or touching a student unnecessarily or in a way that might look suspect when correcting technique should be avoided.

  • Friendly Power

One of the core concepts I teach my instructors is that of Friendly Power. It means be friendly yet assertive. Set boundaries and don’t allow people (students, parents or anyone else for that matter) to overstep the mark. That means as soon as they do, you must remind them of the boundaries and enforce the rules.

I make sure my students understand this right from the beginning, and occasionally if I have a student who oversteps the boundaries, I tell them “Hey, let go of my leg! Don’t make me mess you up! Next time just give me high-5, ok?”

I do it with a smile of course, but it gets the message across.

Also you might like to create and enforce a disciplinary policy for your dojo. I wrote about this year’s ago here.

  • Structure

Once you have  points 1 and 2 above all squared away, you’ll find it much easier to teach, as students will respect you more. Then it’s time to add structure to your classes. The Golden Rule of Karate Class Structure is this..

“The less mature or the less experienced the class, the more need there is for structure.”

So for 4 year old, you best break your class up into 3-4 segments of 7-10 minutes each. Anything longer than that and they’ll lose focus. In between those sections have them do some pushups, situps or something else physical before commencing on the new section. This gives them a chance to reset their brains before having to concentrate again.

Of course there is a lot more to all this and not enough room or time for me to write a hundred pages of detailed explanation, but these three things should get you pointed in the right direction.

Hope this helps, Keith!

For anyone else who has questions that you’d like me to answer, use the contact form here to email me and I’ll do my best to feature your question on the blog. I’ll start a “subscriber Q&A” category especially for this purpose.