When Martial Arts Become Mainstream…

mainstream martial arts

When Your Market Is Small, You Had Better Understand What Makes Them Tick…

The fact is, the practice of martial arts is not a mainstream practice.

At most, the market reach for the typical martial arts school is roughly between 1 and 3 percent of their local population.

And despite the fact that MMA has achieved a huge fan following amongst the mainstream, the actual practice of MMA still remains within the boundaries of these numbers.

Why Mainstreaming Only Serves To Alienate Our Market

Yet, many martial art school owners seem to want to “mainstream” their martial arts programs in an effort to increase their enrollments. Typically, this involves taking out certain elements of “traditional” martial arts practice that are often deemed to be off-putting to the mainstream market.

Unfortunately, this nearly always yields a net negative result for their studios, because by “mainstreaming” their programs, they are in fact removing those positive elements that attract our admittedly narrow market in the first place.

Let me make something clear – I am not referring to the self-defense market here. People who want self-defense training more often than not do not fall into the same category as those seeking martial arts instruction.

The reason is that people seeking self-defense are usually only looking for short-term instruction, while people seeking martial arts are looking for something that can potentially become a more permanent part of their lives.

While many instructors may disagree with this statement, I have found this to be the rule rather than the exception over two decades of teaching both martial arts and self-defense classes.

Identifying Your REAL Market

Instead, I am referring to the market that includes:

  • Persons wanting to train in a traditional martial art for recreational reasons –
  • Parents wanting to enroll their children in martial arts to learn life skills, or as a recreational activity –
  • Persons wanting to train in martial arts for fitness reasons –

In each of the above instances, we need to examine the reasons why the prospective student is seeking out martial arts instruction versus some other activity. In the case of someone seeking recreation, why are they not taking dance lessons, or joining a bowling league, or taking up golf?

In the case of the parent enrolling a child, why are they choosing martial arts instead of soccer, dance, gymnastics, cheerleading, hockey, tennis, or some other team or individual sports activity?

And in the case of the person seeking martial arts instruction as a fitness activity, why aren’t they joining a gym or seeking the services of a personal trainer?

What Really Makes Your Market Tick

It is because, in every instance, martial arts training and instruction offers the individual something those other activities do not. This “something” is what makes martial arts training unique and distinct among all the other activities I mentioned above.

In a nutshell, it is the unique culture inherent to traditional martial arts training. In traditional martial arts practice, ours is a culture that values honor, respect, courtesy, discipline, self-control, humility, courage, harmony, and civic duty. Especially in today’s modern world, ours is a culture that is unparalleled among sports and recreational activities.

In addition, ours is a culture that, for better or for worse, is greatly based on martial values. This value system is, by its very nature, based on a pragmatic power structure of the type necessary to any martial culture or organization. Just as an army is led by a chain of command, thus our studios follow a similar rank and file system or organizational power structure.

Yet, it is greatly an egalitarian system. Anyone can walk into a martial arts school and, based on their own hard work and dedication, move up through the ranks and achieve status and merit within the power structure.

Unique Cultural Aspects Of Traditional Martial Arts That Appeal To Our Market

These unique cultural aspects appeal to our market on an almost molecular level, for three very important reasons:

  1. Clear Values – In a modern culture where moral relativism and ethical ambiguity has replaced moral certitude and a common understanding of right and wrong, cultures with clearly defined values are increasingly attractive to people who share similar values.
  2. Acceptance – In a modern world where people often feel disconnected and isolated, our market wants to belong to a group of like-minded individuals who are connected by similar beliefs, values, and interests.
  3. Recognition – Let’s face it, most people feel “held back” by their careers, social groups, educational system, etc. Therefore, the very idea that anyone can walk into a martial arts studio and gain prestige and peer recognition based purely on the merits of their own hard work and skill is a highly attractive proposition.

Now, based on what I’ve pointed out in the preceding paragraphs, what do you think happens when you take out the elements of training from your traditional programs that make them unique to our culture?

That’s right – you take out the very thing that attracts our market to us in the first place.

Granted, our market may not be very big when compared to other “sports”. But, it’s a market that tends to produce fans for life. And that, my friends, is the real key to creating long-term business success for any martial arts studio owner.


  1. Richard Hackworth on June 28, 2011 at 11:33 am

    You hit that one on the head. Great article. This would be a great topic for a webinar or special report. Not understanding your market can be just as bad as not having a niche. A lot of school owners can benefit from that advice if they’ll take action. BTW, I personally own a copy of the Small Dojo Big Profits Manual and all I can say is if you don’t have it… get it now. Before your competitor does.

  2. Javier Lozano Jr on June 29, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Great article Mike!

    I definitely agree with your statements and points you made about running a traditional Martial Arts school.

    I have been training in the Martial Arts for over 20 years and it’s been very traditional from the beginning, and then slightly influenced by “American” culture, and then back to traditional Japanese teachings.

    From my experience, staying with your “true” roots really is what stands us apart.

    Here’s my reasoning.

    There are several martial arts schools around us. And a BJJ school across the street from me. They tend to cater to the MMA type fan. I’ve looked at their programs, and it’s very combat based. Nothing against… just not us.

    Others are just a belt factory. Nothing against it either, I just don’t agree with it.

    However, ours (and yes, I’m a bit biased) is very traditional. White uniforms for ALL students. Bowing rituals before and after classes. Japanese terminology used during EVERY training sessions, and sometimes the entire class for higher ranking students. Higher ranking students taking responsibility of the lower ranking students. Explanation about our particular style (Wadokai) and how it is different from the others and what we are trying to do when we defend ourselves. Teaching that no one in the school is higher then the art, including the instructor. Understanding the essence of a Warriors Spirit and how that plays a roll in life. Respecting your peers and seniors in the dojo.

    The list goes on…

    Anyways, I see my students, and granted I think they have a lot to work on, I believe they are better martial artists then some of our competitors who award Black Belts in about 2 years or so…

    My students actually fail belt tests.

    But, the ones that get held back, the ones that have to WORK to obtain their belts, the one’s that understand that all I’m looking for is perfection are the one’s that actually take great pride in their accomplishments.

    Their smiles on their faces is priceless. :-)

    They know that when they passed their test, or move to a higher level of training, that they are achieving goals and getting better. The one’s that fall behind… they either end up leaving or getting their behinds in gear.

    I’m fine with that.

    The culture we’ve created in our school, 95% of the parents ALL agree with it.

    I get compliments about how they like the discipline and structure. How I’m not afraid to say that students looked horrible today. How they need to show pride in their training.

    Yet, I compliment their great efforts and achievements. I make sure it’s a balance…

    Parent’s LOVE this because the culture in our school is upfront. Nothing is hidden. And, they know their child is getting the necessary life skills that everyone should learn at a young age.

    Anyways… there’s my tangent.

    I do not plan on EVER changing our culture. That’s what makes us competitive. 3 years ago we had ZERO students. Today… we have over 120 martial arts and fitness students… and growing.

    I stand behind my product.

    Javier Lozano, Jr.
    Owner/Head Instructor
    World Champion Fighter

    The Dojo of Karate
    12910 Zuni St. #200
    Westminster, CO 80234

  3. Mike Massie on June 29, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    Thanks Richard – glad you liked it. I’ve had this post bouncing around in my head for weeks, and finally decided to hammer it out. I hope more instructors will read it, then read it again and internalize this. I’ve seen it play out time and again, and now more than ever we need more instructors doing things the old way.

  4. Mike Massie on June 29, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    It’s funny Javier – I decided to finally put this down to digital pen and paper after a discussion I had with my wife last weekend. A co-worker of hers had taken his kids to a martial arts school to learn discipline and respect, but he was complaining to her that all the instructor did in class was let the kids run wild.

    That’s not what parents are bringing their kids to us for. They want us to be strict yet fair, to teach their kids to be respectful and have integrity. Letting them play all class doesn’t teach that; they can get that anywhere. Giving them belts they don’t deserve doesn’t teach that; they get “empty awards” all the time at school.

    All you have to do to have a sterling reputation in your community (and start a referral machine for your school) is to consistently deliver exactly those things that parents expect their children to get from taking martial arts: discipline, respect, etc.

    Pretty simple concept – yet, instructors are still getting caught up in chasing the latest shiny object and forget to tend to their bread and butter, which is teaching traditional programs.

  5. Mike D on July 15, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    Great article Mike! Seems like one of those situations where a school owner thinks they know what they want. You hear it all the time, the complaint– “Only one to two percent of people take martial arts.” The truth is only a small percentage of people patronize any business – unless we are talking commodities or a business like walmart.

    I also hope your readers will re-read this article and pay close attention to what you say about “reason why.” Very powerful –nice work!!

  6. Craig Long on August 14, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    Great article, here in the UK MMA is growing at a huge rate but does MMA training serve your community as well as a traditional school that offers the values you mentioned? More and more schools here are jumping on the MMA bandwagon because of the current trend but the fact is they are simply stripping revenue away from their schools. Although we do have a MMA program (two classes per week) I firmly believe that the life skills, leadership and all other benefits I offer in the “Bread and Butter” programs hugely outweigh this trend.

    Each person I know who has crossed over to MMA has seen a massive reduction in their turnover. The MMA target market is normally reduced to men 18 – 30 years old. Here in the UK this age group is the worst possible market. Lack of funds, lack of commitment not to mention injuries picked up in regular hard core beasting sessions, results in terrible retention and reduced school growth. Although we hear day in day out that MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world, I’m sticking to help making a difference in my community. To me this is far more rewarding, financially and morally.

  7. Jason Stanley on August 24, 2011 at 12:38 am

    Great article Mike.

    I think you’ve articulated some great points that many of us know on some level, but perhaps would not have been able to break down and put into words so clearly or as well structured.

    Nice one.

  8. Mike Massie on August 24, 2011 at 8:51 am

    Thanks Mike – glad you enjoyed the article.

  9. Mike Massie on August 24, 2011 at 8:55 am

    Agreed, Craig. Glad you enjoyed the article.

  10. Mike Massie on August 24, 2011 at 8:58 am

    Thanks Jason – I’ve left this post up for a while because I think the message needs to be spread. I speak with martial arts instructors regularly who are doing well by focusing on the traditional martial arts, and using that as a point of differentiation for their schools.

  11. Sempai Marc on October 28, 2011 at 7:43 am

    Thank you for this article. I teach traditional Kyokushin. And started in Okinawan Shorin-ryu. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one with this philosphy. There are several schools around me that may make more money. But my dojo’s reputation surpasses them because we don’t play.
    Matter of fact, my own son failed his first brown belt test. And everyone saw how he just worked harder to make it the second time.
    The biggest reward is the kid that was getting bullied. Did a simple move that he just learned, showing the bully he can take care of himself. And it ending there.
    Tradition is the foundation. I stress to my students you are not working for the belt. You’re working to be a great martial artist and person. You make the belt. Not the other way.


  12. Sean Russell on November 27, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    Hi Mr. Massie,

    Great article! I teach a very aggressive art (non-stylistic) called Kung Fu San Soo. I noticed that the tougher I am on the children during drills the happier the parents become. Not to mention,the response from the students becomes more respectful. Afrer the drills I lighten up slightly for the technique part of the class. San Soo is generally taugh semi-formal to adults but my children’s classes thrive on tradition.

Leave a Comment