How a School Can Go From Good to GREAT, part III

They say that half of being a martial arts teacher is finding suitable students. I believe it is more than just filling up your floor with as many people as possible. Of course, doing so will add to your bottom line, giving you the income to teach without worry about financial issues. It also gives you the opportunity to provide your students a strong, stable environment to train in. I learned from teachers who did not have to worry about finances. They were old-school men who taught in back alleys (literally) and backyards. I have always said that my best friends throughout my learning career have been trees. While most students had an abundance of classmates and equipment available for their training, I trained on trees with padded trunks, banana trees (which have soft trunks), and palm and coconut trees. My teachers were able to pick and choose students, and often declined to teach many who inquired. Many of teachers of this caliber were able to produce the highest quality students, as they were able to put all of their attention and effort into a few students, and were able to train them exactly the way they needed to get the desired skill level. Sometimes, however, this practice backfired as many teachers died either unexpectedly before students’ training was complete–or they simply never found the “right” student. Ultimately, this old method of student selection ensured that no unqualified teachers came out of their stables.

Today’s teacher does not have this luxury. We have $2000 rents to pay, Yellow Pages ads, web designers–let alone mouths to feed.  Students are fickle. They wave with the wind, are impatient, and often too lazy or too fragile to train the way we did. We must balance proper training against student retention and against the acceptable training methods of the time. We no longer have the ability to direct training for possible proteges because a student’s career or love life may interfere with their training. I, personally, have found myself holding back information because I wasn’t sure if a student was going to stay long enough. I have also lightened up on students if I thought he would be afraid of the training and not return.

The question is, how can we ensure the future of our schools, our legacies and our systems, if we cannot find the right students to prepare for the next generation?

Before we answer the what, we must answer the who.

I am going to break from the book (Good to Great) by interpretation of GTG concept “First the Who, then the What”. In the book, Who then the What is referring to finding the fight person for the right job–for every job–within an organization. This is somewhat applicable for the FMA school, because we must have the right people supporting a school and a system, not just teachers. This can be advertising people, fighters, face men, writers, etc. However, for this article, we will deal with “finding” the right teachers and teaching candidates.

Finding the Right Candidates

This is actually misleading. We don’t “find” the right students. I believe it is lazy teaching to rely on luck to “find” good students. Part of our jobs as teachers is to teach. We teach more than just martial arts; we teach how to learn, how to be a student, what to expect out of their martial arts training. In other words, we teach them how to be the “right student”. Often you may take on a student who is challenged physically. He may be terribly out of shape, he may be lazy, he may be afraid of his own shadow. He might be afraid to fight. He could be very tight or uncoordinated. He could naturally be weak. We could go on, but the mission for teachers is to develop these students into good fighters, and eventually, into good teachers.

So, my message to you, Guro, is to turn every willing student into the best example you can produce.

But there is more. Students must understand their role. They are more than just cannon fodder for your fighting reputation in the martial arts community. They are ALL in training to become the next generation of teachers and fighters. The advanced students must take an older brother role in the school and help mold the junior students. I have never been fond of the hierarchy used by many martial arts schools; this isn’t the military. Most traditional FMA schools utilize a family structure, where the Master is the father, and the senior students are older brothers and older sisters, and the junior students are there to keep the older students on their toes (as they are always on their heels). In fact, our younger students (younger as in rank, not age) address the senior students as “Kuya”, which means “older brother”, and “Ati”, meaning “older sister”. This is more than just respect, as your senior students are in training to become the next generation of teachers, and assisting is practice in teaching.

Lastly, you should stress to your students their role in ensuring the future of the school and the system. They keep their skills sharp because the reputation of the school rests on their shoulders. They must also be ever-present in the community to build their own reputations for their future. Your job is the build them up and find venues for them to be seen and judged–in addition to training them properly (hopefully this shouldn’t have to be said). When they know their role and their importance, the students themselves will know what to do to play in this role.

Every student should be molded this way. Whether or not they stay long enough to become teachers, your students–ALL students–will come away with appreciation for their time with you, because they had gotten more out of association with you besides swinging sticks around. Some students will move on and become teachers at other schools, but they will still have respect for you and your organization because they know what potential your training could bring.

The student is the lifeblood of a martial arts system and legacy. It is more than just income; they are the future of your art that will outlive you and the building you occupy.  Treat your students this way, and your legacy will live on for generations.


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How a School Can Go From Good to GREAT, part II

#1:  The Level 5 Leader

An organization cannot grow without a strong and committed leader. Notice that I did not say manager, but “leader”. Look at your school/style as an organization and not a business. In order for your school to make the leap from a money-making school to an organization people will talk about for generations, you must inspire your students and instructors to build the organization. Your school, then, will outlive you as it’s owner and teacher. Therefore, as Jim Collins’ “Level 5 Leader”, you must have a combination of competency and knowledge, humility (to make the focus the school and its people, rather than yourself), and disciplined enough to stay true to the mission of the organization.

In other words, you must want the school and students to do well, with or without you.

Many schools rely too much on the charisma of its Master. Whether of any fault of the teacher himself, or just the nature of the school, this will limit the growth of the organization. The Master must be willing to develop teachers under him who are just as competent–just as respected–as he is, who will be capable of carrying the torch when he is gone. He must know the direction the school is headed, and ensure that every member knows this mission. Everything the school does must be in the same direction. If the Master allows distractions and confusion to enter the plan, the school’s progress will slow. He must be willing to share information and develop his people, and teach them to become leaders themselves. He must also be strong enough to have clear boundaries for who does what and when. The school must be able to function without him if he is ever going to have a strong school.

If that confuses you, I would advise getting the book… Told you I’m no scholar!

Back to the business of the martial arts, the main things you should focus on for being a good leader for your school are:

  1. do not look at your business as just a “business”. think of it as a movement, an organization that produces leaders
  2. you are the face of the school, but do not be the only face of the school. allow others to assume leadership positions so that each part of the school does well; not just the part you operate
  3. be fiercely committed towards the school’s mission and hedgehog. keep everyone focused on this goal
  4. be an inspiration to your students and teachers, as well as the local martial arts community. this will go a much longer way than money you’d make throwing karate birthday parties…

I would also like to suggest studying leadership, if you haven’t done much reading on this subject already. A good place to start would be John Maxwell’s 21 Laws of Leadership. There are many rules to live by in this book that “translate” perfectly to the business of the martial arts, and the philosophy of the martial arts.

Thank you for reading my blog, and please leave comments and feedback!

How a School Can Go From Good to GREAT, part I

I am not a well-educated man. Most of what I know came from reading and then trial and error. When I read a book, called Good To Great, by Jim Collins, I understood something I only partially understood through my upbringing as a young man and as a young martial artist. This idea is the idea of focus on what you do best. There are several books and seminars that influenced me and Good To Great brought it all home. I will try my best to explain it here, and make it relevant to your experience as a martial arts teacher.

First, let me say that the Good to Great concept can be applied in either the philosophy of the martial arts for martial philosophy or in business as a businessman. In this article, we will deal with this subject as businessmens.

There are 7 principles to the Good to Great concept:

  1. The level 5 leader
  2. First the who, then the what
  3. Confronting the brutal facts
  4. The Hedgehog concept
  5. A culture of discipline
  6. Using technology
  7. The flywheel concept

I am going to only talk about one concept and skip directly to #4, the Hedgehog concept, because it is the one that is most important to me. In future articles, we will look at the others in order.

The hedgehog is an animal that can only do one thing to defend itself, which is roll up into a ball. No other animal does it as well, and when this animal does this, he is well-protected from his enemies. He does not try to do what the other animals do, like fly, fight with his teeth or claws, roar, stuff like that. When danger comes he does the same thing every time, and almost everytime, his ability does not fail him.

As a business owner, we must find what we do best–in fact, what we do better than anyone else in our local industry, and it must fit into all of three areas:

  • What we can excel in
  • What makes us money
  • What we enjoy doing

What is very important is that what we choose to specialize in as a school must fit in all three areas. First, what we do must be something we do exceptionally well, and no one in our industry must be better than we are. If there are experts far better than we are in a field, it is almost pointless to pursue this industry or specialty because we will be fighting the rest of our competition for scraps left behind by the ones who are good. Basically, we are the bottom of the food chain. Secondly, what we do well must also be profitable. I am not talking about something that brings in a little money, that we have to supplement our incomes with jobs and other things, like After School Karate and Karate for 5 years old kids. I am also not saying we have to make a million dollars at it. But it should pay the bills, pay us, and allow us to live the kind of lives we want. Lastly, we must enjoy doing what we do. In the late 1990s, my partner and I began a Tae Bo class at our schools, and even opened a location that only had Tae Bo. We made good money, and we were even pretty good at it. But we certainly weren’t the best–my partner and I are fighters–and we both hated doing it. If the only purpose for going in business was to make money, that was certainly it. But our goal was to produce great fighters, and we actually lost students because we could not accomodate their schedules due to Tae Bo being offered 4 days a week. I was miserable. I did teach Tae Bo when I first moved to Sacramento for about 6 months in order to generate income for my school, then when I was open for business in a commercial location, I dropped it.

So your Hedgehog is that which is something you are good at, makes you money, AND something you are passionate about. If you are anything like me, as a martial arts teacher, I’m willing to bet, that you are wasting time and resources by offering things you don’t like, or advertising services that don’t make you much money, or doing something you hire an assistant to do because you don’t like doing. I would recommend that you look at your school, and figure out what you can drop that is slowing your school’s success down. The great thing about the martial arts business, that a great TKD master once told me (Clint Robinson), that there is enough money in the field that we don’t have to do or chase everything that has a dollar sign on it. His schools are a testament to that. His school, Robinson’s Tae Kwon Do, offers just one thing:  traditional Tae Kwon Do. They don’t have all the Krav Maga, BJJ, and other things that martial arts schools add to improve their bottom line. And although his school is the largest chain in the area, he controls the quality of his Black Belters, and his students are pretty good.  Unlike other TKD schools, his guys are on the tournament circuit, as is his brother–one of the co-owners–and believe me, they hold their own. But when you focus on one thing for so long, you have to excel at it. Spread that focus onto 6 – 7 different things, you will never see any of those efforts reach their full potential.

I would like to add one more thing. However this is not in the book. If you have competition, or you want to eliminate competition, or prevent competition, start a trend. That’s right, create a hedgehog. Look around and see if there is a segment of the market that no one is pursuing, or a skill that you have that no one out there has, and make that your hedgehog. After all, you can’t have competition if no one else is in the same industry. Back to Mr. Robinson’s, I have been located near his schools for 10 years, along with (over the years) at least 5 other schools. To this day, Robinson’s and I are the only schools still here since 1999, and we talk business as acquaintances without suspicion because there is no threat. Besides the personality match, we are also not pursuing the same students. I am after the FMA market, he is after Tae Kwon Do. For years I did not teach children; he takes them as young as 5. When I first moved here, I was told that locating near a Robinson’s location was business suicide. By focusing on a separate industry, I eliminated all competition for my Hedgehog.


Take this lesson, and see how you can apply it to your own school. If you’d like, post a question, and I’ll try to answer it as well as I can. The Good to Great concept is a great concept, and if you can harness it and use it to your advantage, you’ll see a lot of success!

Thanks for reading my blog!

Planning to Have that Baby, pt II

Right now, I am in Long Beach, California, on my way to take my 12 year old nephew, Yahya, who has just spent 4 weeks with me, back to Washington, DC. I wanted to put him on a plane alone, but 3 hours before his plane took off, he decided that he did not want to fly alone, and my ticket cost me almost 3 times what it would normally cost me to fly to DC. This is a trip I take once a month because I have started a school in Northern Virginia, and I have students there. But this month, 3 cannot make the class because two are on vacation and one is TDY (temporary duty) with the military. I have the flexibility to change my plans as I seem fit, because I work for myself and I am the boss. Isn’t that lovely? Well, as it turns out, I will be there this weekend to teach the students who still want to train, then returning in three weeks to train the others, along with whoever else would like to join us. So, in one hour I will be on a plane to DC, then tomorrow I teach my class, and a few hours after that, I will either go and visit friends or get back on a plane back to California.

When we checked in, the customer service rep told me that for $599, I can buy a ticket which will let me fly anywhere JetBlue goes (no, I am not getting paid to tell you this), any time I want, for as often as I want, for a month. So, my wife wants to go to Puerto Rico on her next day off. While I am down there I am going to visit some martial arts schools and look for opportunities to teach. No guarantee, but I think we are going to do it (I can still use the ticket to teach my class on the third weekend of Sept too).

I hope you didn’t think I am trying to rub it in anybody’s nose, but I wanted to make the point that when you work for yourself, you can globe-hop when you feel like it. Can’t do that with a job. You have to get permission first.

Back to the article.

So, many people would like to take the plunge and open a school, but they are afraid to let go of the comfort of their jobs. Yes, you can teach and work at the same time–like most people do–but you seem to get stuck there because the job pays the bills, the school enrollment does not get high enough to let you quit the job, and you can’t increase your enrollment because you can only work at your school part time. This is what is meant by “planning to have a baby” (which Yahya asked me what the title means)… that the same way young couples can never get the “time right” to plan their baby–money, time, purchase of the new home, etc.–the best thing is to just do it.

But in business, you have to plan a little better. Not just a savings account. You will need to educate yourself on business models for your school. Will you have students sign agreements? What is the difference between a “contract” and an “agreement”, anyway? How much will your tuition be? What will be your target market? What will be your specialty? Or will you cater to several segments of the martial arts market? To McDojo or not to McDojo? Will there be children? Contact sparring? What hours will you be open? What will be the name of your school?

These are important questions you should answer before you open a school. When I opened my school, I did not have a name because I was in the base gym at Bolling Air Force base. When I opened my first commercial location less than a year later, I needed a name. We had four names before I settled on the name Typhoon Philippine School of Martial Arts. That fact, the four names, was a bad thing, as each time I renamed my school, I looked like I closed and reopened, or I was trying to avoid creditors, etc.

If you have a school, you will need a plan of attack to leaving your job. It will be a combination of having a strong marketing plan that is already in the works, as well as a target enrollment (to pay the bills), and a back-up plan in case of road blocks. And as I keep saying, you will need to educate yourself. Make the time to read books on marketing, sales and operations. There are good motivational books that will help, too, because you will have a lot of people who will tell you (like Linda Lee Cadwell’s mom told Bruce Lee):  Mr. Lee, the world needs doctors, not Judo (whatever!)  and you will have to be self-sufficient with the belief that you can do it. Just like you don’t go into the ring not knowing if you will be the winner, you don’t go into business if you aren’t sure that you will be successful.

Let me recommend a book for all of you, if you are serious about being successful with your school. It is called “Good to Great”, by Jim Collins. This is the first step for your path to success. Please, get a copy, google it, begin reading it, and then check back with me. In my next article, I am going to break this down as wells as I can (with my limited education and intelligence) and guide you towards a strong business plan. Believe me, if someone like me can do it, I know you can.

Again, in order for you to be successful, you will have to be prepared. I strongly recommend that you take the path I took, and do all the steps I took, and do it as if I’ve offered you a money-back guarantee only if you followed every step (I sound like a businessman, don’t I?)  I will arrive in DC at 5 a.m. tomorrow, and teaching by 12, so I have to get to sleep. After everything is done, I will tell you all about Good to Great.