Putting Food on the Table (For the Martial Arts Master)

I’m having a dilemma right now.

I have been discussing what it takes to make a decent living as a martial arts school owner, and I am realizing that many serious martial arts teachers don’t really want to run a commercial school! Do they want to teach? Yes! But there are many things you must do to make your school successful and I’m not referring to donning a clown outfit and entertaining 6 olds, either. Most of these things really take a different kind of discipline than what it takes to work out or fight, but it seems that most of these true blue die hard martial artists aren’t willing to do them in order to put food on the table. As a result, we lose many of our best teachers to full-time day jobs, while those students looking to train in a school are stuck having to choose between Mickey Mouse Tae Kwon Do and Barney Kenpo Karate. It is sad that many serious martial artists equate success in the dojo with selling out one’s values, to the point that they sabatoge their own potential for success by believing that it just can’t be done.

Now, before I go on, let me list the basic recipe for success in the dojo:

  • You must be in good enough shape and have good enough skill that your students will be motivated to stay with you and work harder simply because you’re around
  • Classes should be designed so that they are experiencing an increase in skill and physical ability
  • Your school should look like a place where they will learn (not posh, but at least fit the image of a serious dojo)
  • You must have studied marketing and sales. It does not have to be a formal education, but at least well enough that you understand the functions of sales and marketing, how to put together and carry out a plan
  • You need a good website that paints the picture of what you do
  • A good, clear mission statement that colors everything you do
  • A reputation
  • A Unique Selling Point
  • Your Daily Business Operating Plan must be in place and adhered to
  • You must have a target market and a marketing message, as well as a Martial Philosophy
  • Your own niche in the market where you do business
  • Multiple forms of income within your martial arts

Although it may sound like a lot, it isn’t. But it does take a lot of preparation, and for some reason many martial artists seem to believe that all you need are certifications to teach and money. I started my first school in 1992 with almost nothing, and nearly two decades later, we are still here. And why is that? Because I never believed for minute that I couldn’t do it.  Many teachers out here are pessimistic, so they end up working 40 hours a week PLUS running a dojo, and that isn’t success, my friends, because I guarantee that something is lacking. And there are plenty of ostriches out there with their heads in the sand, trying to convince themselves that they really don’t want a school.

Yet, they will criticize and dislike those who have a full-time school, while sniveling “good for you” out the corner of their mouth… implying that those who have a school are either arrogant or selling out.

So, the bottom line is that some folks are just not business minded! Is there hope for them to still teach full-time without having to punch a clock elsewhere 8 hours a day?


I would like to share some of my ideas–and these are just opinions; most of them I have not tried:

  • Find ways to maximize the use of your space (for those who already have a school). Rent out the gym on days and slots you do not have classes. You can approach church groups, fitness instructors, massage therapists, dance instructors, etc. Many schools have days free that can be income-generating slots that will cover many, if not most, of your school’s bills. Several times, I have rented out my school to others needing space.
  • Sell things:  Martial Arts supplies, books and videos, exercise equipment. My good friend an older Kung Fu brother Raymond Wong had a carry out and wholesale sari sari (knick-nack) store across the street from his school. On top of that, he owned rental properties and
  • Throw martial arts tournaments. You would be surprised what kind of money you can generate from investing about $1,000 of your own money in a one-day event. But beware!  If you do not patronize other’s events, or are not well-respected in your martial arts community, this may not be a good idea. Competitors and teachers are fickle. In some martial arts communities, any tournament will draw competitors just because you advertise it. Some competitors are chasing prize money. But many, like in Northern California where I live, are social people; they only attend tournaments promoted by people they are associated with or like. Either way, between door sales, entry fees, and concessions, it is a great form of income.
  • Have a side business that supports the martial arts community:  trophies (late, great Shihand Robert Everhart did this); martial arts supply; bill collections; or write books or promote video/DVDs
  • Work for yourself! No, really! Pass out flyers full-time as a job, and you will see a nice jump in your school’s enrollment. To be honest, marketing is what drives the bus, and someone’s got to do it! However, in most martial arts schools, no one does it. So are you going to hire someone? Or do it yourself?
  • Teach on the road. I have used satellite classes almost all my adult life, and I swear by it. Having even a rec center class on the other side of town allows you to tap into a market that normally would consider your gym too far away to join. If you take a venue that is either free or low-rent, it’s a great second income! Especially if you only teach once or twice a week
  • Work seasonally. This is something I had done when I first began teaching, and have done several times when enrollment was low. Take short-term jobs, like post office “casual” postitions during Christmas. This will end after a certain date, and  you will be less likely to stay when you should be returning back to your business.
  • Compete on the open circuit. A fun, easy income…. if you are good enough. On top of that, you are building your reputation at the same time!
  • Use your martial arts as a form of personal training. Not just fitness, but offer exclusive personal training in real martial arts for those whose schedules requirement and have the income to support it. This will let you work when you want, and personal training brings you about the worth of three to four students per client. You can’t beat that with a stick!

In the old days, teachers taught small groups and supplemented income with other things. But this allowed them to focus on their art daily and fully. Of course, a full enrollment will too, but if it’s just not for you there are many ways to make your living with the martial arts–within the martial arts.

I hope this article is useful to you, and gives you a few things to think about. Thank you for visiting!