Karate-do used to be for adults only. Today, karate is mostly made up of children. Some of the children in my program are as young as 4 years old. Karate is about building confidence through repeated study. The practice of karate takes a great of personal study, hard work, and steady progress.
Like most martial arts, karate has a belt system. I find in my dojo that parents and children find earning new belts to be the paramount concern. A good instructor, however, does not allow this to be the focus of his dojo. Karate belts should be earned and never guaranteed.
Children look forward to their new belts like adults look forward to a vacation, bonus or pay increase. Getting promoted is incredibly important to them. In my dojo, when a student performs exceptionally during a test, they are promoted to an extra rank. This is a big deal. When parents observe this double promotion, they often ask me what they can do to help their child achieve the same honor! Who doesn’t want to see their kid at the head of the class?
As adults, we hate to be passed over for a promotion. Imagine this scenario:
- You work alongside others (including a close friend);
- You work just as hard, if not harder, than everyone else;
- You get sick and miss a few weeks of work, and when you return everyone else has received a promotion.
How would you feel? Not good, of course.
Summer is a tough time of year for karate schools. It’s even a tougher time for full-time martial arts instructors. While enrollment dips, we still have to pay the same bills. We sit and wait for summer to end and school to start, hoping that September and October bring new students.
When parents and students see an influx of new students in the fall in their white belts, they assume things are great and that the dojo is thriving. To some degree they are correct. But, what they don’t see are all the colored belts that didn’t return after taking the summer off.
From August 31st to today on November, 18 new students have joined the dojo. While that is a staggering number, I have also had 19 students quit during the same period of time. Most people don’t see the losses; they just see the new white belts. The total number of students at the dojo is down, even though the new white belts make it look like we are growing!
As you can see, this is a phenomenon that I experience every year:
- 2016 – 30 out for “summer vacation” /19 quit or did not return / 63% quit rate
- 2015 – 25 out for “summer vacation” / 18 quit or did not return / 72% quit rate
- 2014 – 25 out for “summer vacation” / 15 quit or did not return / 60% quit rate
So, what causes this huge drop off in students? Why does a “summer vacation” turn into the end of karate for so many students, when kids take the summer off from school and return in the fall without issue? The answer is that the practice of martial arts for kids is much more than just schooling. Each belt earned comes with a sense of pride and accomplishment. It can be devastating for children to watch their peers advance up the ranks while they are left behind because they have missed weeks or months of training. Many children chose not to return to the dojo in the fall to avoid feeling that they have fallen behind.
Most children also realize that after a big break in their practice they have lost some of what they previously learned. They struggle to get back into their own routine while they watch other students who have improved in their absence. I find that a lot of my students who take a “summer vacation” from karate forget their katas (forms) and get very discouraged.
Can you imagine working a job for 9 months, and then suddenly being out of work for one, two or even three months? How easy would it be for you to transition back into your work life? Very difficult, of course!
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the students that quit karate after a long summer break do not come to me to discuss their reason for leaving. As an instructor and owner, this is very frustrating because it leaves me scratching my head and asking “what did I do wrong?”
I suspect that most parents just ask their children if they want to return to karate at the end of the summer, and their kids simply reply, “no.” Parents often just take their answer at face value and move on to the next activity. Therefore, I believe it is important to educate parents prior to leaving for the summer about the underlying reasons why a child may not want to return to class. The most common are:
- Kids are returning from summer fun, and have to make the adjustment of going back to school. Adding a physical activity like karate on top of that academic requirement can seem like a burden to them.
- Children see that their peers were promoted while they were gone for the summer and they are discouraged.
- Young people have a tough time remembering what they did last week. Asking them to recall what they learned months ago can be very difficult.
- Children’s egos are very fragile and are quick to quit when their feelings are hurt.
To prevent these things from happening, parents and instructors must work together. Here are some steps that I can take as an instructor and you can take as parents to help your children return to the dojo after a summer break:
- Try to encourage the parents to keep their kids enrolled for the summer. Most people do not go on vacation for more than two weeks straight. The kids are out of schooling and regular activities and martial arts provide them with a structured activity, year-round.
- Suggest private lessons during the summer, or upon return to keep children sharp on their skills.
- Implement time-off fees. Each student is an investment. It is reasonable and fair to charge a fee to hold their spot in the program. If doing month-to-month contracts, instructors should have cancellation notices and only accept automatic payments. It is not reasonable to call days before a scheduled return to class and say “my child will not be back.”
- Minimize impact by staying busy with advertising from back to school until December. The dropouts don’t all happen right away.
Martial arts are excellent for kids. Everyone knows this. Children put in a lot of hard work to achieve their belts and are often more capable than most adults when they put the work into it. For a child, achieving a black belt and studying well beyond that is similar to the achievement of graduating college and moving on to a dream job. Nothing is better for a child than feeling a great sense of achievement while acquiring a tremendous skill.