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:
- Faithful attendance
- 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.