Martial Arts Curriculum Design For Maximum Retention And School Growth

martial arts rotating curriculum design

Of all the issues facing school owners these days, I believe that martial arts curriculum design is perhaps the most challenging.

I say this because curriculum is the heart of all styles and systems of martial arts. Therefore, your martial arts curriculum is likely to be the thing about your school that you are most attached to… making it more difficult for you to look at your curriculum from an unbiased and critical perspective.

Yet, if you want to grow your school, it’s imperative that you take a critical look at how you can improve your martial arts curriculum. And this is especially true if you’re struggling to grow your school, considering that students who don’t enjoy their training don’t renew their memberships.

If It Isn’t Broken… But How Do You Know If It’s Broken Or Not If You’ve Never Really Tested It?

At this point, some of you may already be asking yourselves, “But why would I want to critique my curriculum? If it was good enough for my instructor, and good enough for me, then it’s good enough for my students.”

Well, I’m all for stylistic purity. However, blindly following tradition can also lead to stylistic stagnation. And in some extreme cases, blind adherence to tradition can perpetuate the regression of practical technical knowledge within a style or system. This unfortunate video of a “ki” master getting soundly thrashed by an MMA fighter illustrates this rather effectively:

Martial Arts Curriculum Design As It Relates To Growing Your Martial Arts School

Of course, the martial arts are not all about fighting. Certainly, we all have many reasons for practicing and teaching martial arts that go beyond mere physical prowess in combat. However, I merely present this to illustrate that tradition without freedom to innovate and improve is the equivalent of intellectual incest, and it will eventually make your system obsolete.


Now, since this is a martial arts business blog, let’s regroup for a minute and look at martial arts curriculum design purely from a business perspective. I can tell you with all certainty that if I’d taught martial arts exactly the way they were taught to me, I’d never have owned a financially successful martial arts school.

In fact, I’d probably still be teaching in old run-down buildings and rec centers, boasting about stylistic purity and maintaining the traditions I was passed down… all while working two jobs and wishing that the girls in the dance class before me wouldn’t leave glitter all over my mats.

The bottom line is that the way many of us were taught was not the optimal method of delivering curriculum. We didn’t stick around to black belt because of the way we were taught; we stuck around in spite of it.

The Challenge – Designing A Curriculum That Maintains Both Retention And Program Quality

The thing is, I have been incredibly dedicated to teaching good martial arts from the very beginning of my teaching career. But after failing a few times in starting schools, I discovered firsthand that ignoring the financial realities of operating a dojo can make all other considerations a moot point.

For that reason I decided to observe what successful school owners were doing with their curricula and classroom instruction in order to attract and retain students. One thing I soon learned was that, regardless of style, there were three things that every successful school owner did to keep their students excited about coming to class:

  1. Student-Focused Instruction: Focusing on the student instead of the instructor;
  2. Results-Based Learning: Focusing on getting results instead of adhering to dogma;
  3. Highly Structured Curriculum Delivery: Rather than abandoning the structure of their system, they improved upon it –

Each of these action steps is critical if you want to develop students that succeed within the framework of a curriculum that perpetuates your art. Let’s examine what goes into good martial arts curriculum design as it relates to each of these three critical aspects for student retention and martial arts school growth.

Implementing Student-Focused Instruction

Traditionally the student/teacher relationship in the martial arts has been focused on the instructor. Certainly, you as the instructor are worthy of a degree of respect, and you’re also deserving of the position of leadership in your school.

The thing is, ego can often get in the way of turning out good students, and the traditional image of the instructor as the all-knowing master only serves to perpetuate this. Most of us have either witnessed or been involved in a situation where an instructor purposely stunted a students’ development. This typically stems from a fear that the student’s skill will eventually exceed the instructor’s own.

On the contrary, a good instructor will actually want to turn out students who are better than they are. In fact, I would posit that the mark of a great instructor is turning out a student who achieves a greater level of skill than their sensei.

In my experience, the traditional instructor-worship paradigm inherently hinders this process. Yet, by implementing student-focused instruction, you can circumvent the limiting atmosphere that the traditional student/master model perpetuates, all while actually improving your relationships with your students.

And, just because you trade a negative learning environment for a positive one, it doesn’t mean giving up all tradition and courtesy. On the contrary, you’re simply making a conscious decision to always act in the best interests of your students, and doing everything in your power to make each one feel like they can accomplish what you’ve achieved and more. This attitude is at the heart of what it means to be a good coach, and it will lead to better results from your coaching.

Why Results-Based Learning Trumps Process-Based Instruction

For the most part, the martial arts instruction industry tends to be focused on process-based instruction instead of results-based learning. And, while process-based instruction is incredibly good at turning out cookie-cutter clones of a particular stylistic template, it is not so good at helping people reach their full individual potential.

A parallel example of this can be seen when comparing the public school system approach to education versus the results that top charter school systems like KIPP achieve. When students are placed in results-based learning environments like KIPP, those students who invest themselves fully in the program are able to achieve results that are on average much greater than the results students in traditional public schools achieve (read “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell for more on this).

The reason for this is that successful charter school programs like KIPP operate outside the traditional structure, which has allowed them to break the mold and adopt teaching approaches that focus on getting results. Instead of being focused on the process as in traditional public schools, schools like KIPP focus on results exclusively (not to mention that they fire under-performing teachers, something that your students are doing every time they leave your program for another studio).

What I’m saying here is that it can be beneficial to step back from your curriculum and disentangle yourself from “the way it’s always been taught,” in order to examine alternative ways of teaching that may result in greater personal performance for your students, and enhanced retention numbers for your school.

Additionally, we have to understand and accept that we’re dealing with an entirely new generation of students who learn quite a bit differently than people my age (40-ish) and older did when we were coming up through the ranks. This new generation has been raised on technology and media, and thus they present unique challenges that must be addressed… that is, if you want to retain more students and turn out black belts who are worthy of carrying on your school name.

Enhancing The Structure Inherent In Your Style

Once I decided to focus on results instead of adhering to outdated processes, I was free to adopt the best approaches and technologies I could find to help my students succeed. And, a great many of the changes I implemented had to do with reordering and restructuring the delivery of curriculum components within the styles I teach.

Almost every traditional style is inherently structured, both in curriculum as well as in content. However, questioning the ordering and structure of technical knowledge within the style you teach can often lead to leaps in your ability to confer that knowledge on your students.

However, I want to emphasize that reordering and enhancing the structure of your style (the order and pace of curriculum delivery) is definitely not abandoning that which defines your style. Take for example the implementation of a rotating curriculum.

When I was first introduced to the idea, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I mean, how could you have every student in your class learning the same material at the same time, regardless of belt rank?

Yet, after examining how other schools and instructors were implementing the concept, and after seeing the results in the quality of their students, I could only conclude that it was a much more logical system of curriculum delivery than the system I had been using. (You can read more about this in my Kindle book on the subject, How To Teach Martial Arts Using A Rotating Curriculum In Your Karate School.)

By enhancing the structure of my style, I developed my own “system” or approach for teaching that allowed me to improve student outcomes and retention while maintaining the heart of the style of the art I teach. This is what I mean when I say that properly reordering and enhancing the structure of your style does not redefine your art, it only enhances your ability to pass it on.

Again, this goes back to student-focused instruction and results-based learning. Once I decided that my job as an instructor was to turn out the best students possible, and not enhancing and shoring up my own ego, that opened my eyes to a world of possibility in martial arts curriculum design.

Final Thoughts

I know that many of the ideas I’ve presented here on martial arts curriculum design may be seen as blasphemous by some. However, I can tell you that respectfully breaking with tradition was one of the best things I ever did for my studio.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide just how much you want to innovate new ideas and methods into the traditions of the style or system you teach. However, I urge you to consider that innovation in curriculum design does not necessarily equate to abandonment of your style or system.

Questions? Comments?

I do my best to respond to questions and comments personally, and welcome your feedback. So, feel free to post any questions or comments you have on designing a martial arts curriculum for your school.


  1. Jason on March 22, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    Hey Mike,

    Great article. I love all the effort you put into writing it with thought and ways to help us improve our schools. I realized very quickly that teaching in the “traditional” sense wasn’t working for the moderately successful schools. It seemed like the student never really got to fulfill their greatest potential because of one or all of the reasons you spoke about earlier. And, the school itself never grew nor did others talk about it or refer it to their friends.

    Now, there is only one thing that I’ve come to learn and understand recently because of the performance of my students. I knew that the reason my students were either getting bored or not performing at their best was because of my leadership and the way I and my instructors were conducting and handling the language that we were using with them. I wasn’t using foul language, just words that weren’t getting the results that I was hoping from my students. Some were getting good results, but other weren’t.

    What I came to realize, or more understand, was after reading a book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. I don’t know if you read it, but it’s very much in line probably with Outliers, but what I learned from that book about the fixed mindset and the growth mindset and how we as coaches and instructors praise and correct our students has a long lasting affect on their performance and how they will deal with challenges and growth that may lie ahead for them. It also determines if they will keep excelling or watching others pass them by. And, the only reason why a student would be left behind or be forced to watch others pass them by was because of myself and my instructors. I needed to change all that and FAST.

    The website that you included in this article “what it means to be a good coach” I would partially disagree with because of the words that this gentleman’s coach used and actually how it seems meaningful and positive to say at the time, but it doesn’t allow for him to grow to his fullest potential. The other coach in his story isn’t any better and everyone can see that clearly, but the first coach wasn’t helping him fully reach his best. If we (as instructors and coaches) studied the book I just spoke about in greater detail, we can become a great coach and ultimately help our students become the best they can become with the effort they put into their training. Now, I am in no way saying the book I spoke about is the “only” one that can help us become great coaches (there are many that I study beside this one), but with the simple changes I made to how I praise, what I praise for, and how I change the way I correct the student has made a HUGE and very significant difference in the way that my students are now performing.

    This change that I conducted was actually two weeks ago and they have been some of the best I am doing for the curriculum I am teaching. The changes are now starting to help me develop the students to the best of their potential and effort they put into training. It is wonderful to watch and see your students become something they never thought they could become with effort, perseverance, and dedication.

    Now, I am growing and working to improve upon the curriculum that is in place at my school and will use all your advice and ebook that you have for a rotating curriculum. I have always had trouble trying to figure out how to do it best, so I am hoping your book will give me the insight I need to improve and keep growing with.

    Thanks again and glad to see your post always giving something good to feed upon when I read them.


  2. Mike Massie on March 22, 2013 at 7:03 pm

    Awesome, Jason. BTW, I love that book (I linked it in your comment, in case anyone wants to check it out). And, I applaud you for stepping out of the world of martial arts and looking beyond our industry for answers to the issues facing your school and staff. Keep me posted on the results six months and a year from now. I think you’ll be surprised at the long-term positive effects it will have. Oh, and thanks for providing some excellent and thoughtful feedback on this article.

  3. Jason on March 25, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    You are welcome Mike. I will definitely report back in about six months to let you know how things are progressing.

  4. Coach David on April 3, 2013 at 10:19 pm

    I have purchased nearly all of your books, and really enjoy them all. I recently read one of your books that mentions a lesson plan template, but did not find it in the resources section. Do you have that template available to post or email? Thanks, Coach David

  5. Mike Massie on April 11, 2013 at 11:48 am

    Which book? I think I know the one – the lesson plan template is actually earlier in the book. Need to correct that. Thanks for letting me know.

  6. Jeff G. on September 10, 2015 at 10:36 pm

    I have a different situation. I don’t own a martial arts school. I am one of three instructors at a local aquatics and fitness center. I don’t really make money for teaching. I get a small salary that pays for my gas. I teach martial arts because I enjoy it. I want to pass on the skill and knowledge that I have to those who want to learn.It is my hope that all of my students become a better martial artist than myself.
    I came to this web page looking for ideas to improve my students learning experience.

  7. Mike Massie on September 11, 2015 at 6:37 am

    I hear you, Jeff. In my experience, teaching in a way that makes it easier for students to learn and grow as martial artists is the first step to improving student retention. Students who learn and improve tend to stick around longer than those who don’t. And obviously, if students aren’t sticking around, they’re not improving. So, improving curriculum delivery is killing two birds with one stone.

  8. Chris on December 15, 2017 at 1:44 am

    Hi Mike, I have experimented with the rotating curriculum and it certainly makes teaching easier. But I found that in a class that had white, yellow tip, yellow, orange tip, orange, purple tip belts in it, throwing orange belt level techniques at white belts added to confusion and disheartened the student as they could not ‘get it’ as they did not have the foundation concepts underlying it. They simply had never moved that way and thrown hands or feet ever before. I am struggling on how to overcome this and adopt the rotating curriculum. My classes are broken up by age group not by level. So in one age group I could have 4+ different levels. Obviously teaching a level 4 student how to jab is like saying suck eggs when they already have learnt how to jab over the previous 3 levels. Any advice would be very helpful as I am sure it is my traditional linear brain fighting the concept.

  9. Mike Massie on January 27, 2018 at 7:23 am

    You have to make your beginner curriculum less front-heavy to make it work. For the first year, students shouldn’t be over-challenged by what you’re teaching. I would suggest restructuring your curriculum to make it less challenging for new students.

Leave a Comment