You work really hard to build your martial arts academy.
Finding the right location.
Marketing your programs.
It’s a lot of work. Especially in the beginning when you might have to fill in for a lot of roles.
However, many academy owners put so much time and effort in trying to grow their academies that they often forget about maintaining one of their biggest resources and best assets.
Their current membership base.
There’s no quick fix or hack that will increase your retention overnight. Each academy is a unique business with it’s own set of challenges.
But there are a few commonalities that I’ve found with academies that have great student retention versus academies with low student retention.
Retention building factors
1 Setting Boundaries
There is a time and place for you to communicate with your instructor or the staff.
I was originally going to start off with communication, but in retrospect, setting healthy boundaries between yourself as an instructor and your students is what will support all the other factors in determining your student retention.
How can setting boundaries possibly help you retain more students you’re wondering?
Well, setting boundaries is the foundation of every relationship. Even the relationship between students and instructors.
By having clearly defined boundaries it will not only allow you to be more effective in communicating with your students, but I assure you that both parties will feel more positive about the experience.
Boundaries like not dating students.
This one should be self explanatory. Don’t date your students. It almost always leads to drama and is not good for business.
Boundaries like not taking part in vices (in the presence of your students at least).
This should be self explanatory too but your interactions with students should lean more towards appropriate and safe and less toward inappropriate and dangerous.
Boundaries like having specific times and days in which your students have you full and undivided attention.
It’s easy to believe that you will have unlimited time and energy with which to teach multiple classes per day, coach, lesson plan, teach private lessons, train, and mentor.
But the reality of it is far different.
I know outside looking in it seems like an easy profession being able to train and roll all day.
But when you teach for a living, especially in the beginning when you are always at your academy. It’s not productive for you to always be at the beck and call of your students. No matter how much you want to be.
I’m not saying that you should ignore your students but you should have a system in place for yourself and your students.
I’m real big on email and messenger whenever students have questions. Since it’s easier for me to communicate that way and I have time to think.
While other instructors might set aside time either before or after class specifically to interact with students.
From Impressionable students
Having the title of instructor or even being a senior student will indubitably have an effect on the character, development, and behavior of lower belt students. While having this influence can be alluring, it also comes with shouldering a lot of responsibility. Students will constantly be looking at you to set a good example both on and off of the mats. When my school first brought a well-known competitor to teach at our academy, most students only trained 3-4 times a week, even during tournament season. Our world champion instructor started training with us 5-6 times a week, often twice a day. As students, we learned very quickly that if we wanted to reach the next level and win at major tournaments like our instructor, we would also need to dedicate more time and effort to our training.
As an instructor, your views and actions have a lot of influence over your students. So in order for your students to respect your boundaries it’s important that you are worthy of that respect.
I think this is one reason why many instructors are very disciplined. Eat healthy, train hard, and are respectful on and off the mats.
Experts always talk about communication being the key to successful relationships and at the risk of sounding cliche. I believe this is true.
How do you communicate with your students?
I don’t believe that a lot of instructors/academy owners really think about the ways in which they communicate with their students and whether or not it’s constructive communication.
It’s easy as an instructor to get so used to the hierarchy that is built in to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
You bow to your instructors.
You line up behind the more senior students.
There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, I believe that it does instill a sense of discipline and accountability that is missing in a lot of social interactions.
But it can be taken too far, especially when off of the mats and outside of the academy.
I’ve seen many instructors abuse the authority that they had by taking advantage of their students in asking for one sided favors, getting free or below cost labor, not treating students with respect, and talking down to students because they weren’t as good at Jiu Jitsu.
This isn’t conducive to creating an environment of open communication and instead breeds more blind compliance and yes man(ing) that is more characteristic of a cult than a martial arts academy.
Constructive, open communication comes from a level playing field.
In hierarchies it’s really hard to voice one’s opinion when you’ve only been taught to defer to the more experienced, higher ranking party.
As an instructor you have to create an environment in which your students have a proper outlet in order to communicate with you. One where you are not your rank but a fellow person taking part in a fun and interactive activity.
One thing that I like to do whenever I teach is to set aside time right before the end of my classes. Where I invite all of the students to ask me any questions they may have. Whether it concerns any of the moves that I covered or any general Jiu Jitsu questions.
It doesn’t take much time but you will be surprised by how many questions that arise during a class or even after a hard training session.
Instructors get so caught up in their classes and trying to stay within the allotted time slot or covering a certain amount of techniques that they often hurry from one thing to the next. Until, the class is over and they have to move on to another class or they become too exhausted or busy to give the student(s) their full attention.
I know that I’ve been guilty of this. That’s why if I’m really busy or short on energy. I will suggest that a student hit me up through other means of communication when I can devote more time to them.
Being the instructor, you have to lead the way by creating (multiple) opportunities for your students to interact with you. Show your students that they can come to you, and that you’re willing to hear them out and help them out.
3 Keep bringing value
Complacency in relationships is a big problem.
When you become complacent in running your academy the same way that you’ve always ran it. You open yourself up to stagnation.
Bring value to your programs by continually updating techniques and movements.
You would be surprised by the number of academies that still show how to pass on the knees and other outdated movements that have been improved upon by modern Jiu Jitsu.
Bring value by adding classes and programs that your students want.
If your students have been pushing for a conditioning class or more no gi classes. Instead of sticking to your current schedule. Try to fit in the new class(es) even on a trial basis and see how it does. Worst case scenario, the class doesn’t do well so you move back to the regular schedule.
Revamping your curriculum is an easy, low investment way to bring new energy into your academy. Making students want to attend. Happy to attend in fact. That’s what retention is all about.
Bring value to your academy by adding small touches and amenities like changing the color scheme, adding new furniture to your reception area, free wifi, or newer mats. Even small changes will be well received.
There is no limit to what you can do. Just by showing that you are willing to continue improving your academy you demonstrate to your students that you value their support and they will reward you in turn with their loyalty.
Motivate your students.
It’s as simple as that. When they’re doing well and making progress help them to reach new levels in their techniques, conditioning, etc.
When they are feeling burned out and don’t think that they’re improving. Motivate them to continue training and help them get through those tough times.
Some of the most successful academies aren’t successful just because of the techniques that they show, or because they have a really good instructor or even top notch facilities. They’re successful because the environment of the school helped pushed the students, no matter their level or ability, to reach their goals.
5 Keep it fun
Don’t take yourself nor your position too seriously.
At the end of the day, Jiu Jitsu should be fun and students should look forward to attending classes and training with their friends.
An easy way to build fun is by doing activities outside of the academy with your students. Going out to eat, movies, and other types of events.
6 Positive environment
Having a fun and positive environment is what keeps students training.
Many people see Jiu Jitsu and academies as an oasis from the burden of everyday life. One that often involves long hours at work and busy family lives.
Make the environment at your academy one that students will look forward to throughout their day. A safe space.
If your environment is off you could be unintentionally letting students fall through the cracks. The complete opposite of retention.
Signs of a bad environment
Lots of drama
Lots of injuries
Exodus of students
The list goes on and on but the old saying, “where there is smoke, there is fire”, rings true. If left uncontrolled, could lead to much bigger problems.
As the instructor it is your responsibility to ensure that there is a positive environment for your students since you ultimately set the standard for your academy.
Retention, Retention, Retention
Building positive relationships and retaining students goes hand and hand.
As instructors, we like to focus on how hard we have it and all of the sacrifices that we’ve made to get to the point where we could run an entire academy, but in what way does that help your students?
When you decided to open your own academy, you made a conscious decision to put the training and progression of your students above your own.
It’s hard for many instructors to understand this, but it’s the truth.
You have to develop clear boundaries and systems so that you and your students are able to communicate effectively.
You have to make it easy and convenient for your students to interact with you. Especially, when they’re having a tough time.
You have to make the environment of the academy fun and positive. And keep bringing value.
Being an instructor isn’t easy. No one said it would be. But it is fulfilling and never boring.