Retention Tips In The Danger Zone...

Retention is your ability to keep students training with you for as long as possible. Obviously, this is very important if you want to run a successful and profitable martial arts school. If you lose more students than you add every month, eventually you will go out of business. Keeping students is essential if you want to grow.

Think of your martial arts school as a leaky bucket. The water in your bucket is your entire student body, and students are leaking out every month for various reasons. Some of these reasons are within our control and some are not. Our job as school-owners is to plug as many holes in the bucket as possible. Retention is how many students we can keep within our bucket month by month. I like to think of retention over three distinct timelines. The first stage is the “Danger Zone”. In most schools this is typically within three months of a new student starting. This is called the danger zone for good reason. This is the time when most students quit martial arts. New students are extremely sensitive and there are a lot of things you need to do to make sure they get through the danger zone and onto the next zone.

Pre-trial education

It’s a good idea to answer any concerns a new student has before they come to their first lesson. New students should feel safe and secure about what will happen during their first session. For this reason FAQ’s about your school and classes should be available on your website. This helps reassure new students that they will be safe and looked after. If you don’t answer these doubts many prospects will be too scared to even get in contact. Make sure your website has video and written FAQ’s and short clips of classes with students smiling and having fun. This helps prospects feel safer.

Initial Greeting

A great first impression is essential if you want new students to stick around for any length of time. Remember first timers are scared and nervous. If you leave them at the door/ reception for five minutes they become intimidated which will affect their trial lesson. Make it a rule to greet anyone who walks into your school within 10 seconds. With new prospects smile and be warm. Welcome them into the club and give them something to do immediately so they don’t focus on their own negative internal dialogue. Filling in a PAR-Q form is a good thing to do at this point. Try to make them feel relaxed and comfortable as it creates a great first impression. I typically try to make them laugh as soon as possible as this helps reduce their tension.


We try and mentor new students during their first three months. We typically get a higher grade to look after beginners. We only choose people who are keen to teach, who are passionate and who want to help out. We tend not to ask the higher grades to be mentors (like the black belts), because they tend to be more interested in their own training at that point and often resent babysitting beginners. We generally look for a motivated and friendly junior grade to look after the beginners. These “helpers” who have typically been training less than a year are more motivated to help new members, because they remember what it's like to be a beginner. If possible get new students mentored by junior grades during their first month, so that they feel they've got someone there supporting, advising and motivating them during every single session.

Make sure the helpers own training doesn’t suffer. They still need to feel like they are improving themselves but maybe one day per week they could help organize and assist the new students. If you have three or four of these helpers your beginners are far more likely to make it through the danger zone.

Set their first goal.

Next we set their first belt goal. As soon as they've been training for a few sessions, we start to speak to them about grading’s. At my school our first grading is for yellow belt, which is a very simple grading. It's only got three or four techniques. It's designed to be easy to pass to allow the beginner to take the first easy step on their journey to black belt. We speak to each new student about setting the goal to earn their first belt and we tell them their grading date as well. Now they have something to aim for which helps motivate them through the tough first few months.

Track Attendance Once they've got their first grading scheduled we keep a close eye on their attendance. Ideally, we want them training between two and three times per week during the first three months. Any less than that and they won’t see or feel the benefits of training and they’ll quit. Any more than three sessions a week, we find they risk injury or burning out.

You will need some way to track your student’s attendance. You can use low technology methods like a paper register or attendance cards. Or you can use modern technology like attendance software or barcode membership cards. Whatever you choose you need to keep track of the attendance of all your members.

We all know the first sign of a student that is about to quit is spotty attendance. They are in one week and then miss a week, in again, then miss two weeks etc. Attendance tracking allows the instructor to spot these problems before it’s too late.

Missing In Action (MIA) calls

If we haven't seen our new students at training for a week, we call or text them and ask them if everything is OK. The only way you can accurately track this with a big school is to have some sort of attendance tracking system. Personally we use attendance-tracking cards, which is an idea we picked up from “Tom Callos”.

At my school if we haven't seen a student in class at least once in a week, we either call them or text them and ask them if they're all right. This usually gets a text back from them explaining that they've been busy with work or they've got stuff going on with their family. Students appreciate that you’ve noticed that they’ve not been training. They are also more motivated to get back to training because you have personally contacted them.

Over-training Over-training is the opposite of spotty attendance. You can’t get rid of this new student. They are in every single day. It's very easy for these super-keen beginners to over-train, burn out, and then quit. Two to three times per week is perfect to keep beginners training for a long time. Try to limit beginners to two to three times a week at least for the first three months (unless they are already fit and athletic).

Injury prevention

We also focus on injury prevention during the first three months. Beginner’s bodies are also more vulnerable to injury because they aren’t strong and supple yet. We tend to minimize exercises and techniques that place undue stress on beginner’s bodies.

For example, with new students we DONT let them do:

  • Plyometric Exercises

  • Jumping Exercises

  • Complex Movements

  • Extreme Stretching

  • Hard Sparring

  • Movements that require quick changes of direction

All of these activities increase the risk of injury for new students. And a new student who gets injured in their first three months is very unlikely to return.

Avoid Embarrassment

Embarrassment is a beginner’s greatest fear. New students think they will look or feel stupid when starting martial arts and will quit if they feel embarrassed or judged. To avoid this takes planning. We make sure that classes are very well structured so beginners don't feel lost at any point, or confused or embarrassed in any way.

We don't get new students out in front of the class, we don't draw attention to new students because they don't want eyes on them. We give them simple progressions that are easy to learn so they feel good about their ability to learn martial arts. We keep it very low-key, so that they can hide in the background and get a feel for the club without feeling like they are being judged. It only takes one situation where they feel like they’ve been singled out or publicly humiliated and that’s it they’re gone.

Regular Positive Communication

We also send new members text messages welcoming them to the club and regular emails, explaining how the academy works, how training will benefit them and how to best deal with common problems that beginners encounter such as muscle soreness or feeling tired after training. Over the course of the next three months we also email them tips on nutrition, healthy eating and stretching. This makes them feel supported and adds value to your program.

Listen out for complaints

Keep your ear to the ground in your club and find out through other students and assistant instructors what people are unhappy with. Because instructors are authority figures it’s very rare that a student tell you the truth to your face, especially if they're upset about something. We do try and check in with them, but it's also a good idea to keep an ear out for complaints and moaning via the grapevine.

Weekly chats

Finally we try to have an informal chat with new students once a week. This can be as simple as asking them “Hi John, how’s your training going?” Make sure you always use their name. Just taking the time to connect with a new student for 5 minutes per week will really boost your retention. If you can’t do it yourself then get your assistant instructors or mentors to do it and report back to you.

These a few of the strategies we use to get our new students through the Danger Zone (0-3 months).

We will be covering other strategies to use in the Danger Zone, and taking an in depth look at the two other zones and how to boost your schools retention at my half day seminar on Sunday 12th March.

You can find more details about the seminar here:

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