3 Steps to Increased Black Belt Student Retention

increasing black belt student retention

How To Keep Students To Black Belt And Beyond

Black belt student retention

Struggling with how to keep these folks in your school? Read on and find out how to keep them training long after black belt…

Black belt student retention requires a lot more than just enrolling your brown belts on a six-year contract (I’m joking, but I’d bet dimes to doughnuts that there are schools that actually do this).

If you want to keep your students to black belt, and long after black belt, there are three things you need to focus on to increase your long-term retention.

  1. Purpose
  2. Passion
  3. Goals

I’m going to explain each of these in this article, and hopefully by the time you’ve finished reading this post you’ll have a better understanding of why students drop out at black belt, and what to do to correct it.

Why Students Drop Out At Black Belt

Many instructors seem to have a misguided attitude toward black belt student retention. In their mind, they’ve invested all this time and effort into producing a black belt, so now it’s time for that student to pay them back by sticking around and helping them produce more black belts.

If you want to retain students to black belt and beyond, you need to eliminate this sort of thinking from your mind. True, in Eastern cultures this may be the case, but we are dealing with Westerners who have a western mindset. Generally speaking, Westerners tend to think of self before community, whereas eastern cultures tend to think of community before self. So, we have to look at things from a Westerner’s perspective when we approach this topic of retaining black belt students.

The main reasons why students from Western cultures drop out at black belt are:

  • They either don’t feel like they have a purpose in their school,
  • They lose their passion for training,
  • Or, they feel as though they’ve reached a goal, but they haven’t created a new goal to replace it.

If you want to improve your black belt student retention, then you need to address these three issues long before they occur. Believe me, trying to address them after the fact is often a dollar short and a day late when it come to keeping a student around.

Now, let’s look at each of these three reasons, and examine what we can do to prevent this from occurring with our students so they stick around long after reaching black belt.

Giving Black Belt Students A Sense of Purpose

When I refer to purpose, I don’t mean individual purpose, but purpose in the overall scheme of the school. Think about it – as a black belt, you’ve gone through years (hopefully) of hard training and dedicated effort. You take your test, get your black belt, and then…

You show up for class the following Tuesday night, and nothing has changed. You’re still doing the same old workouts, performing the same old function in the school, and following the same old routines. Ho hum.

Black belt should not just be a ceremony and a piece of cloth. It should instead become a doorway to a new beginning in training and responsibility. Trust me, your black belts want to be given more responsibility, because they want to use what they’ve learned to help others grow and develop.

Now, this doesn’t give you license to use your black belts as a free labor force, but it should make you think about how you can provide your black belt students with opportunities to lead others in your studio. This could mean mentoring other students one-on-one or in small groups before and after class, or helping with organizing school events, or teaching a segment at your annual training camp.

It can also mean being “on staff” at gradings and promotion ceremonies. This doesn’t mean that a new black belt should get to sit on a grading board, it just means they might appreciate being included in the planning and execution of such events. In other words, let them behind the curtain so they feel like they have a purpose in your school as a black belt.

I’ve always felt like earning a black belt should be like gaining membership into the VIP area of a club. To a black belt student, it should feel like they’ve just entered through a door where they get to enjoy benefits that other students don’t have the privilege of enjoying, and they get to learn things other students don’t have the privilege of knowing. Make your black belt students feel like they now belong to special exclusive club reserved specifically for active training black belts in your school, and it will go a long way toward keeping them around after they reach first dan.

Continuation of Goal-Setting After Black Belt

Have you framed the idea in your students’ minds that there is a whole realm of possibility for advancement beyond black belt? This is related to the issue I have with those “Black Belt Is My Goal!” banners I see on the walls of commercial schools. That’s great and all, but if black belt is the ultimate goal, what happens after that?

Instead of focusing on black belt as being the beat-all, end-all goal for your students, how about talking about martial arts practice as being a life-long endeavor? How about discussing how getting to black belt is just the first step in learning? How about sharing how continuing martial arts practice beyond black belt has enhanced and enriched your life?

Also, let’s not forget about setting concrete goals beyond black belt. This could be second degree or third degree, or it could be competition goals, or it could be earning an instructor’s credential. Whatever it may be, make sure your students are aware of what achievements and accolades await them beyond black belt, so they can start thinking about setting goals that are beyond just earning the first degree rank.

Helping Your Students Maintain Their Passion for Training Beyond Black Belt

Do you even have a curriculum beyond black belt that is more than just learning another form? Because trust me, no student ever said to themselves, “I can’t wait until I get my first degree black belt so I can learn that second degree black belt form!”

No, instead they want to enter the hidden door and be introduced to advanced training and techniques. And, if you don’t have something in place to introduce your black belt students to some advanced training and instruction after black belt, you’d better get on the stick and get it in place fast.

Maybe your instructor never had anything like that in place, either. This is typically what happens when folks are rushed to black belt, or when new black belts rush off to start their own schools and they stop training with advanced level instructors. Whatever the reason, I suggest you immediately plug in to someone who has that level of training in place, and get it for yourself so you can then pass it on to your own students.

Only by being introduced to new material and new challenges in training will your students retain their passion after black belt. And, it’s up to you as their instructor to have this sort of training in place, long before they ever reach first dan.

Closing Thoughts On Black Belt Student Retention

Again, black belt student retention is about more than enrolling students on lengthy contracts. It’s about helping your students reach their full potential, and it’s about recognizing them for their hard work and sacrifice. So, by making sure your students have a sense of place, that they have set goals beyond black belt, and by helping them retain their passion for training, you’ll ensure that you keep students in your school long after black belt.


  1. Danny on November 27, 2018 at 7:04 am

    Great article. I have a question please.
    Should I create a new schedule a special class only for black belts? or keep them on the same group class but teach them different curriculum?

  2. Mike Massie on January 6, 2019 at 9:13 am

    You should have a separate class for black belts that meets at least once a month, if not more often. The goal is to keep them interested with new material, and that’s hard to do when they’re training with the less-experienced students.

  3. JP on April 24, 2019 at 2:50 pm

    How do I compete with high school sports? I lost my best black belt student to her high school water polo team. When she started at 5 years old she was quiet and timid. By 15 she was fierce focused, confident and outspoken. She won many tournaments, many by KO, and was always eager to learn more. She made the varsity Water Polo team as a sophomore and even said she knows its because of what she gained in the martial arts. Even with acknowledging the benefits she gained in martial arts she still left for high school sports. Any advice on how to prevent this?

  4. Mike Massie on June 20, 2019 at 6:20 am

    Students move on. That’s just the way things go. Sometimes they come back, sometimes not. This is why you have to continually fill your lead hopper with new prospects.

    And from another perspective, you should be happy when your students excel at school and life. If you’re bitter because your student reached their goals through martial arts and then moved on to other things, you should probably ask yourself if you’re in the right profession. Be thankful you had that time with that student, wish them well, and start helping the next student.

  5. David Neighbors on August 22, 2021 at 8:53 am

    Agree with all of the above. I stayed on with my instructor for tn years because I loved teaching and working with the kids. Since I was teaching many of the classes, I was not taught any on the higher level form and was never asked to test after my black belt. I was able to teach because my class mates all left because they did not want to teach. The program allowed junior black belts to transfer to adult black belts at the same level even though they did not learn the same things as an adult. Suddenly, students that I had worked with for 6 years were suddenly senior in rank to me just because they turned 18. The kids that went to college was allowed to return years later without attending a class and rank up to the next black belt level. I finaly left and strated on my own two cities away. I went from making $10 an hour to $75 net. I have a seperate prpgram for the seniors students and spend time with them.

  6. Paul on August 25, 2021 at 10:17 pm

    What are some examples of “advanced training and instruction after black belt.” My style just keeps going with forms and combinations and that gets stale.

  7. Mike Massie on August 26, 2021 at 9:01 am

    “Advanced material” is going to be style-specific, and also dictated by the instructor’s personal interests as it relates to their own martial arts practice. Back when I taught TMA, we focused on empty hands (TKD and karate) before black belt, and weaponry after 1st dan. It’s something you have to figure out on your own. A good place to start is asking your advanced students and black belts, “What would you like to learn that we don’t cover in the white to black curriculum?”

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