A new year and a new look for Martial Arts on Rails

Since launching in 2016, one of our major selling points has been the ease-of-use and simplicity of our user interface. User feedback has always been very positive in that regard and we’re looking to build and improve and on that.

In the four years since we originally designed the look and feel of our software. Many new features and whole sections of the software have been added, adding additional complexity and pushing the limits of what our original user interface was designed for.

User interface design trends and user expectations have also continued to evolve. To keep our software ahead of the curve and to address user feedback we’ve been collecting, we have been working on a refreshed look for our UI, which also includes some changes to core features.

Continue reading below to see what has changed and how to try out the new look.

Mobile first design

We’ve always made sure all of our features worked just as well on mobile devices as they do on desktop machines. However, the desktop layout was distinctly different to the mobile layout, which led to different user flows on each device on occasion.

One example is the main navigation menu – on desktop the main menu items would show sub-menus when you move your mouse cursor over it, yet that is not possible on mobile devices as there is no mouse cursor. To accommodate that, most sections of the software had secondary navigation bars that had the same links as the main menu’s dropdown feature, leading to redundancy.

The new design, featured below, places the main menu on the left, an instead of a dropdown menu, each section now has a dedicated sub-menu that is shown the same way on both the desktop and mobile versions.

The navigation menu for our member management section
Mobile version of the same menu

Other examples include consistent treatment of data tables and filters for lists of members, member check-ins, payments and so forth. Handling data tables on different screen sizes is always tricky, but we’re happy with the solution we settle on. As for the list filters, we’ve added many over time based on user feedback, and it became somewhat unwieldy to use. We will have a more consistent experience across devices going forward that will organize those interface elements better.

Example of the list interface on mobile

Revamped Attendance Tracking

One of the key elements we wanted to address was our member check-in flow. Based on user feedback we have been receiving and considering common questions we get on how to handle different scenarios, we restructured the way members check-in into training sessions to reduce friction and potential issues.

There are different factors that determine if a member can check-in to a session –

  • Do they have a membership? (if the membership requirement is turned on)
  • Does that membership provide access to the program / session they want to check-in to?
  • Do they have remaining sessions to use? (in case the membership limits the amount of sessions available per day / week / purchase)
  • Are they overdue on their membership payment?

Apart from having an overdue payment, most of the check-in failure scenarios would previously show the dreaded “No active membership” error message.

Failed check-in attempt – Previous UI

The problem with this message is that it wasn’t clear why there is no active membership for the selected session. Sometimes the member would have an active membership, but ran out of sessions, their membership expired or it does not provide access to that specific session, among other reasons.

In the redesign, we’ve reversed the order of operations for checking-in – instead of the member first picking the session they want to check-in to and then entering their check-in code, they will now enter their check-in code first and then see their active memberships, remaining acccess and what sessions they can check-in to.

Member information shown during check-in

After entering their code, members see their active memberships and remaining sessions, and are able to pick only sessions that they have access to. Sessions that they cannot check-in to are disabled and cannot be selected, and sessions that have already been checked in to are indicated as such and disabled as well, to prevent double check-in to the same session.

This change in the check-in flow should also reduce mistakes where members forget to select their session, and they end up checking-in to the session selected by a previous member. We’ve also improved the failed check-in notifications to provide more detail on the reason a member was not able to check-in to a session.

Redesigned Dashboards

All of the main sections of the dashboard have a new dashboard design, with additional options for displaying data. We’ve added additional graphs and statistics, while retiring older ones that weren’t very useful.

The new marketing dashboard

The redesigned dashboards include:

  • The main dashboard, with a set of new notifications and the option to quickly view who has checked-in to sessions.
  • The billing dashboard, which has additional controls for the revenue graph and our new graph design.
  • The marketing dashboard, which now allows to track leads generated over time.

Improved Family Account Flows

We identified a couple of friction points with family accounts that we wanted to address with this update.

Since we use Email addresses as the username for our member portals, members cannot have the same Email address as other members, even if they are in the same family account.

In practice, it is not necessary for all family members to have Email addresses or the same address multiple times, since the primary family member will receive all Email communications on behalf of the family account members, if they don’t have a separate Email address.

This is a common point of confusion, as it’s not obvious that it would happen, and often managers and members try to add their Email address again for family members only to fail doing so.

To address this, and to streamline the process of creating a family account, we’ve added a few improvements to the process.

Adding family members from the post signup screen

Post sign-up options

We’ve added the option to add a family member directly from the post signup screen, seen above. This will create the family account and add the 2nd family member to it directly, while previously you will have needed to do those actions separately. This action is also available post sign-up in the front desk mode.

You can now also sign-up a family member and add them directly to a family account in one step from the family management screen.

The family management screen now has a “Register family member” button

Those new options for adding members to a family account should streamline the process of setting up a family account. When setting up a family member using those two options, the sign-up form will default to using the primary family member’s Email address, with an option to add a separate Email address if needed –

The sign-up form for a family member uses the family account Email address by default

We Look Forward To Your Feedback

There are countless other improvements we made – The redesign gave us the opportunity to thoroughly go over every aspect of the system and improve consistency.

We did our best to make sure everything works perfectly, however it is the nature of software that with such a big changes there could be some hiccups here and there. For that reason, you will be able to keep using the old design until all the issues have been ironed out and we addressed any feedback you may have.

Please let us know if you encounter any issues or have comments and ideas for improvement. Positive feedback is also welcome 🙂

How to switch to the new design

You can switch to the new design and back to the old design at any time from your account settings. Go to your account settings from the account menu in top-right corner, pick the “New and improved” option in the “UI Version” section, and save your settings.

To go back to the original design, go to your account settings, and this time pick “Original” under the UI version option.

What about the gym website and member portal?

Designing a new, modern template for the gym website is also on our priority list. As part of the UI redesign, we updated the style of the sign-up form in the manager account to match the rest of the aesthetics. For now, your website sign-up form will keep the original design until everyone migrates to the new design, and we address any issues that might arise.

Similarly, the member portal will continue showing the original design until we do the final switch for everyone to the new design. Since most members use it exclusively on mobile devices, we’re certain they’d appreciate the new layout.

Coming up next

We have many new improvements lined up for you in 2020. Here are a few things that we intend to release in the coming months –

  • Improved lead management flows, with categorization, automatic Email campaigns and Email templates, better notifications and alerts and visualization of the lead conversion funnel.
  • Event management for seminars, gatherings and similar events at the gym
  • Multiple instructors per training session
  • A new gym website template, and a pricing page for the gym website
  • Private class scheduling (with an option to schedule directly from the gym website)
  • A front desk user that goes directly into front-desk mode when used to log-in (and cannot exit that mode)
  • And much more!

Please send us any feedback you have on the new design! We appreciate your continued support, and look forward to continue improving our product for your needs in 2020 and beyond.

The Martial Arts Marketing Secret that Builds 6-Figure Schools

…without selling out, watering down, or becoming a McDojo

Effectively marketing your school doesn’t mean you have to sell out like a McDojo or burn through tons of capital you don’t have. 

Unfortunately, dojo owners tend to shy away from professional marketing techniques because they perceive them to be shady, dishonest, and manipulative. 

This was true in decades past, but the marketing world has changed for the better, and the best marketing practices available now can explode your business without hurting your conscience or polluting your reputation. 

But there’s more good news: these marketing methods also help lower the amount of money you have to spend to acquire new students. 

So what’s the best marketing method for martial arts studios? Well, there’s one particular method that stands out above the rest, a tried-and-true system that has worked regardless of technology changes for decades and decades. 

A system that, with modern technology, can be 100% automated…

That system is known as direct response marketing. And in this article, I’ll show you how you can design and implement your own direct response campaign. 

Direct Response Marketing: The Little-Known Secret to Building a 6-Figure Dojo and an Endless Stream of Eager New Students

Building a direct response marketing system isn’t hard. It does take a little effort up front, but once you have it built and tested, it’s an effective system that works for you as long as you need it to, with no extra effort.

I’ve broken it down into a simple 4 step process:

  1. Build a lead magnet
  2. Set up an email-gathering page
  3. Follow up with emails
  4. Ask for a signup

It sounds unimpressive, but the magic is in the content itself: the lead magnet, the email writing, and the ask. And the best part? It’s all totally automated

That’s right. Once you’ve developed and implemented it, you can almost set it and forget it — only checking in once or twice a week to make sure your ads are doing alright.

Step 1: Build a Mouth-Watering “Lead Magnet”

This step is fun. It’s where you get to flex your creativity and talk about the benefits that your martial arts training can provide to clients. Lead magnets, sometimes called content assets, can come in any of these forms:

  • Reports
  • Whitepapers
  • eBooks
  • Case Studies
  • Checklists
  • Webinars
  • Audio/video courses
  • and more

In his book, The No B.S. Guide to Direct Marketing, direct response titan Dan Kennedy explains how this approach to marketing turns the traditional approach on its head:

The karate school doesn’t advertise itself, its lessons, or a free lesson. Instead, it advertises a free report by its owner: The Parents’ Guide to Cyber-Bullying and Bullying: Raising Emotionally Strong Kids. (p. 19)

The report Dan mentioned is an example of how you might get the attention of parents so they’ll sign their children up. You also might consider writing a resource on building confident, socially-adept children. Both are incredibly important to parents. 

But for adults, you might put together a basic self-defense resources or a guide to managing stress through martial arts-related skills like physical fitness and breathing exercises.

The trick is understanding what your target market’s main pain point is and then showing how your service (martial arts training) alleviates or resolves those pain points.

Here’s a pro tip: video courses are huge. A lead magnet that might have done okay as an ebook could do great as a video course. Even better…why not take the script for your video course, make it into an ebook, and give away both?

Step 2: Set Up a Landing Page that Gathers Emails in Exchange for the Lead Magnet

This step is the glue and duct tape that makes the whole system work. If you can get leads to give you their email in exchange for your lead magnet, marketing your services to them gets remarkably easier (and cheaper).

Known as a “landing page,” the email-gathering page provides information about the lead magnet in a way that entices potential clients to give you their email in exchange for it. You do this by speaking to the reader in terms of the benefits it offers them. 

It’s important to know that this page has one, single mission: get the email optin. Therefore, the page should not have any elements that distract from that goal. 

Here are common webpage elements that should not be on a landing page:

  • Navigation bar
  • Hyperlinks
  • Other actions items, such as seasonal deals or a phone number

Removing these elements gives your potential clients no choice but to input their emails for your content asset or else simply leave. If they landed on that page because they were interested in the headline, then chances are they’ll put their email in.

Step 3: Write a Sequence of Emails to Build a Relationship with Your Leads (and Prove the Value of Your Program)

This is where that mystical transformation happens. This is the process by which a lead gradually “converts” into a paying customer before you’ve even met them face-to-face and without interaction or effort from you at all.

But it’s easy to mess this part up. If you ask for a trial or membership sign up too soon, you’ll lose them. You don’t propose marriage on the first date; so with direct response marketing, you don’t propose a buy on the first email you send. 

Instead, you build a relationship with your new leads before asking them to invest in your services. By serving them valuable information in a friendly manner, they will know, like, and trust you by time you ask them to sign up. 

The best way to do that is to write an email sequence like this:

  1. Deliver the lead magnet and welcome the new lead to the email list
  2. Send more helpful content that also demonstrates why the lead should want your service
  3. Send an incredible offer to sign up that they can’t pass up on

And then put together an autoresponder series using a service like MailChimp or Klaviyo so that they send automatically when a new member subscribes to your email list. 

Step 4: Ask Leads to Sign-up to Your School with an Offer So Good, They Can’t Pass it Up

At the end of your email sequence, you send one more email to your prospects with a strong call-to-action (CTA).

Essentially, you present them with an awesome, limited-time deal, and then ask them to sign up. Mechanically, that means grabbing their attention with the email and directing them to a second landing page that unpacks the deal and asks for the buy.

There’s a few more important tips to make sure the landing page is as effective as it can be:

  • Give a time limit (“the deal ends October 1st”)
  • Limit capacity (“only 10 spots left”)
  • Unpack everything they get, no matter how small
  • Remove all risk (“if you don’t love it, I’ll give you a 100% refund, no questions asked”)

Why are these important? People have great intentions, but they’ll take any excuse not to act. Even if they want to sign up, failing to give them an immediate reason to do so could result in them walking away from the page and eventually forgetting about it. 

These factors create urgency in the minds of prospective members because they’re afraid they’ll miss out on the great deal if they don’t act. It isn’t bullying or dishonest — you should set a real time limit and a real cap on any trial or membership you sell. It works. 

Remember that just because you’ve reached the end of your sequence doesn’t mean you have reached the end of your email marketing. As long as prospects remain subscribed to your email list, you can continue to provide them value and periodically ask for a sign-up. You’ll be surprised how many prospective members become students months after first signing up to your list. 

How Do I Drive Traffic to My Landing Page?

Easy — run Facebook and Instagram ads!

This is a separate skill from building a direct response funnel, but it’s critical to making it work. Since pay-per-click (PPC) advertising is outside of the scope of this article, I’ll leave you with some helpful tips to make sure your ads work cohesively with your direct marketing system:

  • Make sure the headline on your email landing page matches the messaging in your ad’s headline
  • Target individuals within a 5 mile radius around your school between the ages of 25 and 45 (parents) or 20 to 50 (adult students)
  • Use ad images of happy faces, preferably of your own students instead of stock images

You can also put the URL of the landing page on a business card and hand it out at events and when you’re out around town. 

Or, go really old school, and send out direct mail campaigns straight to the mail boxes in the neighborhoods around your dojo, prompting them to visit your landing page. (Direct mail actually has a stronger response rate than digital ads!)


Marketing doesn’t have to turn you into a dishonest McDojo owner, nor does it have to be an expensive waste of time. Of all the effective marketing methods available now, direct response marketing stands out above the rest. 

How does direct response work? It’s a sort of “funnel” that provides free valuable information to potential clients, fosters a relationship with them, and only then asks them to sign up for a membership or trial. 

You can build this system in 4 easy-to-follow steps:

  1. Build a lead magnet
  2. Set up an email-gathering page
  3. Follow up with emails
  4. Ask for a signup

And with modern marketing technology like MailChimp and Klaviyo, you can even automate the system so that you don’t do any work until a member shows up to your school.

How “Variable Practice” Builds Better Martial Arts Skills, Faster

Can curriculums and lesson plans be too structured?

The question might seem absurd. In the old days, instructors would teach random techniques without rhyme or reason, making it difficult to learn a system and dramatically slowing progress toward mastery. So when structured curriculums came along, martial arts instruction was revolutionized and learners unquestionably benefited. 

But with structure comes another danger. Jia Yi Chow, et al. (2016) pose an interesting question to martial arts instructors:

[C]oaches have a responsibility to ensure that their performers are prepared for anything that the environment or the task can throw at them. For example…[h]ow would a tae kwon do performer cope if a new opponent appeared on the scene who was taller, stronger and faster? (Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition, p. 153)

A typical response to this problem would be to script drills in response to anticipated attacks. But the flaw in this method quickly presents itself: since a real, live opponent is unpredictable, it’s impossible to account for all potential attacks this way.

If you can’t memorize individual responses to every conceivable attack that might come your way, how then do you prepare for fighting unknown, unpredictable opponents?

The answer is a concept known as variable practice.

How Variable Practice Works

Variability boils down to unpredictable changes in the practice environment and tasks you perform during practice. The goal of variability in practice is to build a learner’s ability to adapt to unstable circumstances, like a fight. 

Practice variability exists at more than one level. At the activity level, opponents kick, punch, and grapple in unscripted sequences that are hard to predict. At the session level, variability would be changing partners every round of sparring or shifting between different learning activities within the same class.

Most of you are familiar with these exercises, but hear me out. I’m not arguing that you should include them (since you already have most likely) but that you should use them more often. As in, a part of every class. 

In fact, I want to suggest something many of you might find controversial:

Both activity- and session-level variability should dictate nearly every aspect of your classes.

That means any drills or exercises that are scripted or cooperative should be minimized, and unscripted, uncooperative exercises should be emphasized. Yes, that even means spending more time in “live” drills than putting in technique reps.

I know this is contentious — even among “functional” martial artists like jiu-jitsu instructors — but hear me out again…

Variability Is Superior to Repetition, Research Says

Our human tendency to organize our endeavors into neat sequences feels like it’s always better than a less structured approach to teaching (it’s certainly better than no structure). But the science of motor learning tells a very different story.

Herbert, Landin, and Fairweather (1993) conducted a research study on basketball training methods. Study participants were placed into two separate groups: one where they engaged in blocked practice and one where they engaged in random practice.

Blocked practice involves repeating the same techniques over and over again from the same position and angle every repetition. In this case, shooting free throws from the same position with the same movement pattern. Random practice involves changes to the position, angle, and task every repetition. In this case, shooting at different positions and distances from the hoop.

The results of the study were counterintuitive:

Although the blocked training group showed greater improvement during practice, the retention of those skills at later practices was poor. Conversely, the random practice group showed little improvement during practice but greater skill at later practice as well as much stronger retention of those skills.

Herbert, et al. conclude:

The results indicate that performance on initial trials of a retention test was better following variable rather than specific practice. This suggests that a variable practice schedule, which includes criterion skill, may be better than blocked practice. (The effects of variable practice on the performance of a basketball skill, p. 336) 

Traditionally, coaches in the martial arts and sports in general rely heavily on trying to perfect technique through blocked practice. They shy away from random practice until mastery is consistently demonstrated through blocked methods.

There’s a seductive temptation here — another reason why coaches tend to shy away from variable practice methods. Because traditional blocked practice shows improvements that instructors can observe during practice, it seems like it’s working better than a randomized or variable lesson approach (even though retention is terrible). 

In contrast, variable practice looks messier and often shows no observable improvements during immediate practice. But it pays off in later practices with dramatically increased retention and overall better-developed skills. It takes longer to see results, but it’s significantly more effective training for your students. 

Variable Practice Builds a Greater Ability to Handle Any Situation

In their study, Variability of practice and implicit motor learning (1997), Gabriele Wulf and Richard Schmidt found that in an exercise where participants had to visually track targets on a screen,

increasing the variability (in terms of the absolute amplitude or time scaling) of the middle segment during acquisition facilitated performance on the repeated segment, relative to constant practice, and the beneficial effects of practice variability were independent of the type of variability (i.e., whether this variability was in the absolute movement amplitudes or in overall movement durations). These effects were seen during the acquisition, retention, and transfer phases, and even during the random test. Of importance, the variable groups outperformed the constant groups in the retention test, even though the constant groups had a specificity advantage over the variable groups in the retention test…Also, in transfer, errors on the repeated segment were smaller for the variable groups than for the constant subgroups that had practiced scalings of the repeated segment closest to those required in transfer, whereas the variable groups had experienced these scalings only on one third of their practice trials. The important point is that the advantages from the repeated segment do not simply arise from having identical experiences from the repetitions that somehow accumulate over the acquisition trials.

Variability not only facilitated performance on the repeated segments, but it facilitated the learning of the tracking task generally. Again, these effects were independent of the type of practice variability. (emphasis added)

In other words, variable practice doesn’t just help you with the skill at hand — it helps train a more general skill to handle novel situations more effectively. Obviously, this is invaluable to martial artists, whether they’re ring fighters or just want to defend themselves, because they cannot anticipate the unique threats each opponent poses them.


Structure has raised the effectiveness of martial arts training but has also led to practice designs that hinder the natural human learning process. Though logical, well-structured lesson plans feel most effective, motor learning research indicates that a lack of randomness or variability is less effective for building motor skills.

Researchers have found that, while blocked practice methods yield noticeable improvements during practice, variable practice methods yield far greater skill gains and retention overall. Unfortunately, because variable practices don’t produce immediate, visible improvements in learners, coaches are traditionally more likely to avoid it for blocked practice methods. 

However, since martial arts largely deals with unpredictable opponents in both sport and self-defense contexts, instructors should prepare their students to meet these threats by embracing a variable practice design in all of their lesson plans.

How to Motivate Students to Keep on Training

As instructors, we want our students to show up consistently, try their best, and put the work in.

But there’s the problem: 

Students sign up for classes and then drop like flies.

With student attrition rates so high, how do you motivate students to stay and put the work in?

During my time studying Teaching and Learning in graduate school, I discovered that a concept known as motivation is one of the biggest factors in learning. Moreover, intrinsic motivation is the most lasting and meaningful type of motivation for learning.

If you’re unsure what it means to be intrinsically or, conversely, extrinsically motivated, no worries.

Extrinsic motivation is a motivation based on something outside of yourself. For example, a parent promises you ice cream for passing a math test.

Intrinsic motivation is a desire to do something based on your own internal interests — one might say, based on internal rewards.

Do you find yourself often reading about subjects you enjoy, simply to learn more about them? That’s intrinsic motivation.

How Some Martial Arts Instructors Have Destroyed Proper Motivation

In martial arts, there are plenty of extrinsic motivators. Everyone knows the belt system…but certificates and titles often play a much bigger role.

Despite preaching self-discipline, the martial arts community has used extrinsic motivators as a crutch.

Masters worry that students who can’t see their progress in a system, and don’t also later gain fancy titles, will quit training or leave for greater clout at another organization.

Consequently, belt systems expand and every other instructor becomes a grandmaster guro and big graduations happen monthly. Students sign up in droves, and gyms rake in the money.

But for all that, students still leave soon after starting.

In fact, most students quit before they’ve even finished their first year of training.

So, while it seems extrinsic motivational strategies help get people through the door of the gym, it doesn’t help keep them there for very long.

Another approach is needed, then, and many instructors have responded to this problem with various compromises in how they structure their programs and teaching strategies.

Other instructors prefer a default to the “old school” ways of doing things, claiming that the old is better than the new.

But do these approaches reliably encourage students to keep training?

I don’t think so, and here’s why.

Compromise doesn’t work, but neither does the “old school” approach

Good instructors know that potential long term students have to desire more out of training than getting belts or certificates. They know the extrinsic-heavy “McDojo” model doesn’t work.

On the other hand, they know extrinsic motivators are useful to a point, so they strike a compromise between the two, thinking that it will prove to be a more balanced approach.

But because instructors don’t tend to have a background in educational psychology, they rely on their instincts to determine how they inculcate good training values into their students. And most often, those instincts are informed by how their instructors’ coaching styles and their own intuitions.

What results is a good idea that goes without proper support, for reasons we’ll explore in the next section. For now, we’ll address the “old school” approach to motivation.

The old school approach is to penalize mistakes and romanticize the brutal grind of hard training. You’re either tough enough to “deal with it,” or you quit.

Accidentally dropped your staff? That’s 20 pushups, clutz.

Some people respond well to this. But from the viewpoint of educational psychology, it is poor practice and unlikely to help most of the students who pass through your programs.

Toughness is a good thing, but you aren’t born with it; and glorifying the grind of hard training itself shifts the focus off the real virtues underlying hard training: integrity and self-discipline.

Penalizing honest mistakes is just silly. Some think it “teaches” individuals to be more careful; but in reality, it teaches individuals to avoid taking risks, or leaving their comfort zones, for the sake of learning.

Praising Only Success Hurts Student Motivation in the Long Run

It’s natural to praise success. As instructors, we give our students endless feedback, hoping that each try will yield the correct execution of a given technique. And when a student finally gets it right, we feel a rush of joy and a sense of accomplishment.

The instructors I mentioned in the previous section, who strike compromises between extrinsic and intrinsic motivational strategies, tend to coach this way. But in reality, most people coach this way regardless of overall approach, because it’s natural.

But there’s a significant downside to this. When we withhold praise until we see successful output, we eventually neglect the less able, or the slower learners — those who less often see improvement and struggle with proper execution.

With an overload of criticism and sparse affirmation, these students soon become discouraged. Eventually, they leave.

It’s a vicious cycle: and it can affect your best students, too. If all you do is criticize a student’s output, even the most technically proficient can become discouraged. And that discouragement can snowball until it turns into self-sabotage of all areas of performance.

Let’s examine what you’re doing, in effect. You only (or mostly only) praise success, and criticize everything else (even if politely). Therefore, students never learn to associate working hard, trying their best, or commitment, with praiseworthiness.

Basically, you train them to believe that only success is worth praise. Success, then, is the only virtue in training and competition.

But there’s a better way — a way that both builds the coveted intrinsic motivation and leaves no student behind.

Praise the process instead

An extrinsic-heavy approach to teaching martial arts transforms it into an end-based activity.

If the chief motivator for training is to get a black belt, then most students will quit there once they reach it. If they even make it that far, most do.

However, any veteran martial artist knows that martial arts is about an endless process of personal development. It doesn’t stop at black belt — truly, it begins there.

The better way to motivate students to train is to praise the process of hard work and commitment. To help engender delight in the learning experience itself rather than just the tangible results.

But simply teaching values like hard work and commitment doesn’t necessarily reinforce these values in your students. In other words, telling people they should aspire to these things doesn’t always make them behave that way.

Like it or not, your relationship with your students is a powerful influence on them. This is especially so with children, but it applies to adults as well.

Yes, you must encourage your students to value commitment and hard work and to enjoy the learning process. But the real behavioral changes take place when you “catch” them embodying those traits, and praise them for it.

This is called positive reinforcement, and researchers have found that it’s exponentially more powerful at shaping behavior than negative reinforcements (such as making a student do pushups for messing up).

Recognizing and praising commitment and hard work is easier said than done, however. We know exactly what to look for when we praise successful outputs. After all, you’re just looking for a technique or exercise to be done “right.”

With attitudes or values like commitment and hard work, it’s less straightforward. The best way to gauge this, I think, is to look for signs of genuine effort.

Recognizing genuine effort

What does genuine effort look like? There are several good indicators:

  • Focus
  • Determination
  • Faithful attendance
  • Questions
  • Concern with improvement
  • Consistent practice, at home as well as in class

These are all things worth encouraging, recognizing, and praising in your students. They show that the student is intentional, committed to, and reflective about his or her own training.

It doesn’t matter how often they produce a successful output. It’s about putting in the work, commitment to the process.

It doesn’t matter how fast these students improve, because personal ownership of their training means that successes will eventually result from their efforts.

By praising the work and commitment students put into their training, you reorient them from a success-based mindset to a process-based mindset.

Students with a process-based mindset are less likely to become discouraged at mistakes, and more likely to relish the learning experience moreso than achievements and accolades.

And it goes without saying that students committed to learning are students much, much more likely to stick around in the gym.

So make yourself a good finder of these qualities, and make a habit of giving positive reinforcement.

But there’s one major pitfall that can destroy this approach:

Praise must be genuine, and genuine means specific.

Children and adults alike will easily see through generic, uninspired praise of their efforts.

Phrases like, “good job on your hard work today, guys” don’t usually exude genuine praise, because they’re not specific.

Specific praise shows you noticed something particular about an individual’s performance. It shows you care, that you approve, and that you’re impressed.

Consider this phrase instead:

“Johnny, I saw your focus today during positional sparring! The fact you made it through without resting while also trying your hardest was awesome.”

Specific praise is more advantageous because it also directs the student’s attention to exactly what qualities you think are praiseworthy.

In this case, the praise is tied specifically to the fact the student stayed determined and consistent throughout a collection of drills. Praising this fact suggests hard work and discipline are good qualities to embody.

Supporting intrinsic motivation among adults

Now, the exact phrase above is more relevant to how you’d encourage a child student to foster intrinsic motivation.

With adults, you can use phrases like the above, but you run the risk of sounding condescending or childish.

The trick to fostering intrinsic motivation in adults lies in designing activities and programs that associate positive outcomes with intrinsic qualities.

The truth is, adults are in your classes because of intrinsic motivators already. They’re most likely spending their valuable time and money on martial arts because there’s something they desire out of it other than belts and titles.

Therefore, it’s best to be up front about what qualities you expect from a student (commitment to learning, consistency, trying hard, etc.), and seek to enrich the learning experience in a way that sustains that intrinsic motivation rather than spoils it.

Because, as any instructor can attest, students absolutely can and will become motivated by belts, titles, certificates, or clout if you aren’t careful — even if their initial reasons for training were more intrinsic.

Creating opportunities to foster intrinsic motivation using extrinsic motivators.

I’ve been ragging on extrinsic motivation a lot, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a proper use for it.

In fact, instructors who strike compromises between the two types of motivation have the right idea, just usually the wrong execution.

If you know that praising effort rather than success is the proper way to support intrinsic motivation, a whole new application opens up for extrinsic motivators.

This is helpful for sustainably motivating difficult children; but it is especially helpful with adults, who might not take well to being lectured about their work ethic.

To illustrate my point, consider a typical attendance reward program:

A student who attends class for a set amount of time is entitled to a particular privilege or award. These rewards increase in perceived value the longer and more consistent a student’s attendance is.

While this is definitely an extrinsic motivator on the surface, it also draws a positive association with commitment through the rewarding of consistent attendance.

This sort of motivation also allows a student to see the sort of skill gains only a student with a consistent attendance record over a long period of time can see.

This triggers a much powerful intrinsic motivator: belief in the process. The thought now being, “If showing up for X hours every week means I will improve at this sport that I like, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

This in turn ripples into a collection of other strong motivators, such as the desire for approval and respect from both one’s instructors and peers.


Student motivation is a major factor in student retention and success. Of the two major types of motivation, extrinsic and intrinsic, the latter is the most powerful, meaningful, and lasting at motivating students to work hard, remain committed to, and attain skillfulness in martial arts.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the broader martial arts community has destroyed intrinsic motivation in their students by emphasizing achievement of belts, certificates, and titles.

Good instructors, on the other hand, seek to compromise between extrinsic and intrinsic motivators, knowing that both have their place. While it’s a good idea, it’s often poorly executed and ultimately not much more effective than an extrinsic-dependent approach.

The main pitfall to the extrinsic/intrinsic hybrid approach is to praise successful output, but neglect praise of commitment to the training process. It’s good to celebrate successes, but deferring positive feedback until students produce successful output is damaging to their overall motivation.

The better approach is to praise students for working hard, staying committed, and having the right attitude.

How an Ancient Greek Philosopher Can Help You Make Killers on the Mat

What makes a good instructor?

Charisma and character aside, most people will say a good instructor is very detail-oriented or is a detailed communicator or doesn’t let you get away with poor form. Students appreciate the high standards, and instructors pride themselves.

And, after all, detailed instruction intuitively feels like high-value instruction…

But what if that’s just an illusion?

What if our ideas about good instruction are based less in the reality of how humans learn and more in a bias toward traditional teaching strategies?

The Best-Kept Secret of Building Powerful Martial Artists

Since the 1960s or earlier, a group of researchers in the science of learning movements, known as motor learning, have been slowly but steadily dismantling traditional ideas about physical education.

Like most practitioners, I used to think your ability to teach a technique clearly and in extensive detail was what made you a good instructor. I even took pride in my own ability to break down techniques and articulate the smallest technical minutiae.

But while clear instruction is important, motor learning research suggests that too much instruction — and too much detail — can hurt your students in the long run. 

In their landmark work, Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition (2016), professors Jia Yi Chow, et al. explain why:

[O]verly prescriptive instructions…could disrupt the exploitation of inherent…processes that support movement control. This will inadvertently result in poorer performance.

The natural mindset for teachers is to want to help and, therefore, when they see learners struggling, they think they have to provide lots of information to help.

However, by interjecting early, practitioners [instructors] are actually hindering the natural processes of learning from taking place. 

To that end, errors should be reframed as exploration in the search to discover functional movement solutions. (pg. 129-130)

So if very detailed instruction is not as helpful to students as we think, what can we do instead?

The Ingenious Method of Socrates

In the days leading to his fateful trial in Athens, Greece, Socrates met with a man named Euthyphro to discuss the charges that had been raised against him. 

Socrates was accused of “corrupting the youth” — infecting them with “impious” ideas about the gods. He hoped Euthyphro had insight into what it meant to be pious and why it was worth being so…

Euthyphro tried to explain: “What is dear to the gods is pious. What is not important to the gods is impious.”

“We have also established that the gods are inconsistent with one another, Euthyphro,” said Socrates, “and that they dislike each other. Isn’t that true?”

Euthyphro stroked his chin. “That’s true.”

“So some values are hated by one god and loved by others?” Socrates said. 

“Yes, very likely.”

Socrates sat up straight, a spark in his eyes. “Then according to your argument, some things are both pious and impious at the same time?”

Euthyphro tried to redefine pious several times but never gave Socrates a satisfying answer. What the philosopher’s carefully designed questions did was draw out the inconsistency of Euthyphro’s definition of “piety.”

More importantly, Socrates seemed to have blown a hole in the validity of the charges leveled against him by the government of Athens. How could he be accused of impiousness — of not valuing something the gods valued — if the gods did not each share the same values?

Well, that’s an interesting discussion best left to philosophers and theologians…

Today, you might know this tactic as the Socratic method. It’s used in different ways by prosecutors, defense attorneys, philosophers, and teachers. 

To lawyers, it’s a way to persuade; but for philosophers and teachers, it’s a way to provoke self-examination and critical thought.

And in the hands of an able teacher, it’s a powerful tool.

Applying the Socratic Method to Martial Arts Instruction

As martial arts instructors, we don’t just want our students to be well-equipped. We want them to become self-sufficient martial artists who can troubleshoot any problems that arise during combat.

The Socratic method is powerful because it acts as a way to help students find answers for themselves, to not just learn the right answers but how to find the right answers. This type of learning is sometimes called exploratory learning or discovery learning

Researchers have discovered that discovery learning is much more impactful than learning from direct, traditional classroom instruction. One of its main benefits is increased retention of techniques learned this way. 

Asking the right questions is an art unto itself and will require a lot of trial and error, however.

If questions are too broad, students are unlikely to find the answers themselves. But if the question is too narrow, you’ve basically handed them a conclusion the same as direct instruction. In that case, they will likely still improve, but the extra impact of discovery learning is lost

In other words, your questions set the boundary for your student’s personal exploration. It focuses the attention of a student to the right area without giving away what he or she should be looking for.

The Method in Action: BJJ

Imagine this scenario:

A fresh blue belt is partnered with a crusty old brown belt for positional drills. The goal for our blue belt here is, starting in side-control, make the brown belt start to turn away and chair sit him into back control. Doing so successfully resets the drill. 

The blue belt does well forcing the brown belt to turn away to expose his back, but as he starts the back take the brown belt easily puts his back on the mat, foiling the attempt. After a few runs, our blue belt is visibly upset. 

You know what he can do to stop this from happening…but you also know if you simply tell him, he won’t have thought it through himself and he’ll be less likely to retain the solution.

Instead, you ask a simple question:

“Where are you losing control of him?”

The blue belt thinks for a second, then gets the brown belt to walk through the motions with him, pinpointing the moment where things go wrong. 

You follow up: “How is he escaping from there?”

Again, the blue belt breaks it down. The brown belt chimes in to clarify a few things he missed.

Finally, you ask your final and most important question:

“Now that we’ve slowed it down some, what do you think you can do to prevent this from happening?”

The blue belt stares for a moment, pensive. Then he demonstrates a few options. 

“Great,” you say. “Let’s do the drill again, and now I want to see you test those out.”

After a few interations and refinements, the blue belt is able to stop the escape and successfully transition to back control.

Discovery Learning Isn’t the Only Reason to Adopt this Method…

The power of discovery learning aside, simply telling your students what to do for every problem they find makes them psychologically dependent on you for all their solutions. 

Here’s the problem with that: 

Your students don’t get a chance to practice problem solving by themselves.

Being an instructor is like being a parent. Like a parent, your chest swells with pride whenever your disciples experience a success. 

But the sad part about being a parent is that eventually your little guys grow up — they learn to make their own decisions, carve out their own paths.

Parent or not, I’m confident you can resonate with this:

One of the chief roles of parents is to prepare their children to survive and succeed in the real world.

At some point, parents have to expose their children to rougher aspects of the world, let them make decisions and deal with the consequences.

A good parent will work in the background, making sure that, while the situation is sufficiently instructive, their child is not without a lifeline.

But parents often goof this up. They love their children so much that they shelter them too long. They don’t afford them real opportunities to grow their decision-making skills.

Their children stay in a bubble until college, where they find their decision-making skills are severely underdeveloped.

As instructors, we likewise tend to think we should control our students’ decision-making longer than we ought. 

We do this by limiting them to one or two solutions to a problem — and by confining them to compliant drills, robbing them of the chance to practice decision-making in real time.

So here’s the key take-away: 

Make yourself uncomfortable. Let your students start practicing their decision-making skills earlier than usual. Use your questions to nudge them along the way. You might be surprised with the result…


Instructors traditionally believe that more and detailed instruction is what makes them good teachers. 

However, motor learning research continues to show that students do better when they’re allowed to explore and discover things on their own. That is, too much feedback can overwhelm the brain and disrupts the natural human learning process. 

Instead, instructors can harness the power of discovery learning by guiding their students through the use of carefully constructed questions, modeled after the Socratic method.

This way, instructors can set boundaries around their students’ personal exploration of martial arts practice, allowing room to grow through discovery learning while also mitigating common pitfalls.

Why You Should Be Tracking Attendance At Your Martial Arts School

Checking-in with a code or a membership card is a very common practice at fitness gyms, and is becoming common place in martial arts schools as well.

While it sometimes seems like a needless hassle, there are significant benefits to tracking attendance, for both the instructors and the students. Continue reading “Why You Should Be Tracking Attendance At Your Martial Arts School”

The Underbelly of Gym And Martial Arts Sales

When building your gym’s marketing, there’s a basic conflict for every gym owner. On one hand, they opened a gym or martial arts school because they love the sport and art they train in, and would like to make it as accessible as possible to people in their community. On the other hand, they are now running a business with their livelihood on the line.

From a business perspective, gym owners are worried about their bottom line. From the sports-fan and instructor perspective (which not every gym owner is), the goal is to provide the best experience and value to gym members.

Those two concerns are often at odds with each other, and addressing one often comes at the expense of the other. The balancing act of selling and making a profit with providing the best product and value to members is the core dilemma for gym owners, and there are many different takes on how to go about it.
Continue reading “The Underbelly of Gym And Martial Arts Sales”

Most Gym Websites Suck, But They Don’t Have To

As someone who moved a lot and likes to travel, I find myself searching for gyms in new places quite often. My first contact with a gym is typically through their website, and thus I’ve already seen a lot of variety in gym website design. Granted, it’s mostly BJJ schools websites, as that is the sport I train (with a few MMA gyms thrown in the mix).

Your school website being the first point of contact with many potential visitors is something we already covered before, when we polled 250+ people on how they found their current gym. And yet, too many gym websites do not do a good job representing their owners.

The vast majority of gym and martial arts websites suck

As I was looking for inspiration for our designer when we were working on our gym website feature, I got to see many types of gym websites from different sports.

As someone who’s been in the web development industry for many years now, and has a passion for good design and user experience (even though I’m not an actual designer), it pained me to see so many websites doing their owners a disservice.

As a potential visitor / customer, when I search for a gym I’m looking to find the following information:
Continue reading “Most Gym Websites Suck, But They Don’t Have To”

Why We Use Stripe For Payments

A story recently broke out about National Fitness Financial non-payment to gym owners. National Fitness is a gym management software, not unlike our own, but one big difference is that they handle billing and collections directly, as it would appear from the article.

I cannot comment on the exact situation at National Fitness as they haven’t released a formal response yet, however it brings up a point that we often discuss with our customers – how we handle billing on behalf of gyms using our system.

Why You Should Always Use A Dedicated Payment Processor

Processing card payments – offline or online – is serious business. There is a ton of legal and technical obstacles to overcome to do it correctly and according to regulations.

A company that builds gym management software, should not be building its own payment processing as a side feature. There is a big difference between using a merchant account for your own business, and becoming a payment aggregator for other businesses.

This is why a dedicated payment processor is almost always the best option. A company that is built around the single focus of processing payments, and proves it can do it at scale.

Continue reading “Why We Use Stripe For Payments”

5 Reasons you should be using social media for your gym

Social media has pervaded our daily lives to the degree that you’ll be hard pressed to find a member of your gym who doesn’t use it at all. Over 90% of young adults (18-29) and 2/3 of all Americans, use social media in some way.

Sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram provide you with a great opportunity to reach and interact with your gym members and potential visitors, for a relatively small investment of time and effort.

Most gym managers are aware that they can benefit from using social media, though it might not be clear to them what exactly they should be getting out of it. Let’s go over the main reasons you should be using social media for your gym:
Continue reading “5 Reasons you should be using social media for your gym”


Get Our Best Content In Your Inbox

Insights on how to build and grow your gym

Subscribe Now


Get our latest articles on the business of managing gyms and martial arts schools.

* Unsubscribe at any time