Thursday, March 20, 2014

Good business or Good Martial Arts? The Passion vs. Profit Debate

I’ve heard it said often that you can’t make money at the martial arts unless you’re ripping your students off.  I don’t totally agree but there are truly two sides to teaching martial arts. 

 1. A passion for teaching martial arts
     2. The business side of things

There are fantastic martial artists and teachers who fail at running a school or dojo and there are so-so ones that succeed and make a fair amount of money in the process. 

Is it ok to make enough money to teach martial arts full-time?  I’ve always been around people who had full-time jobs and taught on the side.  They often criticized anyone who ran a big school.  I originally agreed, shunning the bigger, flashier schools with lots of merchandise, fees for stripes, strips, stickers etc.  It seemed wrong somehow.

Now I’m not so sure.  Running a club (for profit) is a business.  A business must have a plan.  When we compare what we pay for other services, it’s surprising how little we want to pay for martial arts training.  Many people wouldn’t hesitate to pay much more for yoga, exercise classes in the park, spinning etc.  These are all great pursuits by the way, but to many, $100.00 a month for 1 and ½ to 2 hour classes, 3 times a week seems on the high end.  That’s 12 classes a month minimum if you went to all of them.   That’s $8.33 per class, or a little over $4 bucks and hour.  Your average yoga/meditation/mindfulness class will run you much higher, often 3 to 4 times as much (per hour).

Still, you aren’t going to get a lot of people signing up for a martial arts club willing to pay $200-$300 a month.  So you’ve got to do other things.

Merchandise is one way.  Most uniforms, pads etc. can have a decent markup.  Kids are good money makers.  Parents tend to be willing to pay lots more for their kids to be in martial arts than they are for themselves.  Compare other children’s activities, sports, clubs etc. and martial arts are a bargain.

If you could make a living teaching martial arts, is there anything wrong with that?  If you continued to improve your own skills to give your students the best possible training you can provide, isn’t that a good thing?

I’ve revisited this topic due to some recent visits I’ve made to some clubs in hopes of supplementing my current training regimen.

I watched a class, and was struck by…how shall I put this…poor the instruction was.  There was clearly no real knowledge base about how an attack might come in, or how a defense could be applied.  The people were, in my estimation, well intentioned.  I just felt they lacked the depth of knowledge surrounding the realities of violence.  They had clearly learned the techniques and were doing their best to pass them on, but I’m not sure they really understood them.  

And the students were serious about their training (which is good) but I felt they were getting technique that might not translate to the real world.  And they clearly didn’t know this.  I may sound overly harsh and don’t mean to be, but that’s what I saw.  Well intentioned instructors, hardworking respectful students, and positive energy.  The only thing lacking was consistent street worthy technique.  I should mention that some was decent.

The original point of all this was that this business was successful, with charts for grading fees, schedules, merchandise, t-shirts, gym bags, jackets, books, magazines etc.  This particular club has been successfully running for well over a decade.

There are (in my opinion), better qualified people to teach in the area, but few know how to make money in the arts.

Is it ok to make a living at the martial arts?  Does doing so mean an inferior training experience for students? 

Can you still find the depth of knowledge in the arts in a commercially successful martial arts school? 

It would be the dream of many to make a decent living in the martial arts.  Is it possible to do so without ‘selling out’?



  1. In my experience, it is most certainly possible for someone to run a commercial school and still teach good martial arts. The key thing to keep in mind is that the majority of people (and children) who join martial arts classes are doing it for reasons other than to learn effective self defense/fighting methods. To run a commercial school, you will have to accommodate those other reasons and keep training fun. You can do that and still teach quality material, but you will have to customize your approach based on the students' goals. I do think that it's easy to go overboard with this accommodation, which leads to watering down the material, but just because it's possible doesn't mean it is inevitable.

  2. Poor training, and poor training methods have nothing at all to do with how much money one is making.

    I have witnessed poor training in dojos that were making lots of money, and ones that were not.

    This is mostly because people want to say there martial artists without actually being one.

    Because actually being one, is hard.

    So people make time for those that have "other reasons" for learning martial arts as mentioned above.

    As such, the martial arts themselves suffer, and eventually become nothing more than a form of aerobic exercise disguised as martial arts.

    Money though, is not the factor in my opinion.

  3. Noah,

    Thanks for commenting. You make some very good points. Perhaps it is possible to accommodate those other reasons and still provide quality self defines/fighting methods. The concern, of course, is that people would naturally assume they are learning how to defend themselves, regardless of their initial reasons for joining. As a teacher, you certainly don't want your students being overconfident. As a business person, though, you do need to provide your customers with a degree of what they want. I guess it's about managing expectations, yours and theirs. You've given me some stuff to think about. Thanks again.


    You hit on one of my majors concerns regarding the martial arts in general. This 'watering down' happens rapidly. One or two generations, and a great deal of the original art is lost. The deeper understanding of technique, intent, counters etc, are tough to get back once lost. I have seen my fair share of "a form of aerobic exercise disguised as martial arts" as you describe it.

    At the same time, to a certain degree, the customer is always right. If they don't get what they want from you, they'll go elsewhere. This doesn't really matter if you don't care about the money, you're more likely to have fewer students, but the ones you do have are more likely to preserve the art. And yes, actually being a martial artist is hard, on many levels. Thanks for commenting, I'll need to ponder all this some more.

  4. To develop a high level of proficiency in any martial art, you have to invest time, effort, and money. It's a skill set that is not easily transferred so it has value, and it should be possible to make sharing that art your career.

    The problem is that you require other skills in addition to martial knowledge to run a business. Personally, I'm trying to gain those skills now because I have a vision I want to make reality, and I would hate to have to water it down just to survive.