Is Your Martial Arts School Surviving, Thriving, or Dying?

March 10th, 2020.  That was the last day I taught a normal, restriction free martial arts class.  Over a year later, masks and socially distanced activities are still required in my area. Every area of the world is different. Despite all of this, some martial arts schools are thriving. Does this sound like your school or is your martial arts school surviving or even dying?

We are quickly approaching a year and a half since the start of the COVID19 pandemic.  While it appears we are approaching the end here in the US, it is still far from over and nothing is for certain.  

Since the start of the pandemic, I have spoken to many martial arts instructors, read a lot of articles, and seen a lot of social media activity regarding how people were handling the situation.  Some shutdown completely for long periods of time, some shifted to an online format, and some continued to operate with business as usual.  A lot has to do with the area of the country the school is in but the instructor’s philosophy on teaching also is a big contributor, which is what I will be focusing on.

How did we get here?

As I mentioned, a lot has to do with the area of the country/world you live in.  Running a studio during the pandemic in Seattle (like me) is much different than someone in Florida.  I was shut down for 8 months and am still not able to fully run classes.  I know people in other states that were shut down for 6 weeks then resumed classes as normal.  To take out geographical discrepancies, I will be focusing solely on the studios I know of on the West Coast of the US, like me.

I also need to state that I am writing in general terms and not writing about any one specific studio, style, instructor, or organization.  If you feel that I am speaking to you directly, it is purely coincidental.

Before getting to far into things, you need to understand the situation in Seattle, and most of the West Coast.  We were amongst the first in the US to shutdown completely and continue to have the most restrictive requirements.  We were shutdown completely for 8 out of the last 15 months, limited to 5 students in class at one time, then 25% capacity, and now are at 50% capacity.  “Non-contact” activities are still required, unless fully vaccinated.

I am not writing about whether these restrictions are right or wrong, too restrictive, or not restrictive enough.  What I will be writing about is how the martial arts community handled the situation that was presented to them.  From what I have witnessed, martial arts studios have fallen into one of 3 categories: thriving, surviving, or dying.

Martial Arts School Thriving

Some studios are thriving despite restrictions
Some studios are thriving despite restrictions

Believe it or not, some martial arts studios grew during the pandemic.  I know it sounds crazy, but there are a few schools out there that have thrived when most have struggled.  The schools that have thrived have fully embraced the online method of teaching and learning.  There studios turned into a movie set.  Multiple cameras, stage lighting, microphones, etc.  

They marketed specifically to a community who was afraid to go out do things.  They therefore saw a good response and their studios grew.  As a business owner I applaud their initiative and creativity.  As a martial artist, I am a bit more skeptical and curious.

I have been doing online classes now for 15 months as well although  I have not fully embraced them, to say the least.  I gave it my best effort, but I was unable to solve the following issues:

  • Timing
  • Targeting
  • Distance
  • Control
  • Leadership
  • Community
  • Energy/Intensity
  • Strong Will
  • Toughness

Most of the above are accomplished through partner training in areas such as self-defense and sparring.  It is certainly possible for families or siblings to accomplish them online, but most students train online individually. 

How is this possible?

I am not saying it is impossible to accomplish all the above online, individually.  To do so would require you to come up with an entirely new curriculum, requirements, and teaching methods.  For those that were able to do this, I commend you.  However, I am afraid most studios took a different approach.  They simply ignored these things and just focused on the approximately 50% of the curriculum that can be done individually.

I fear that business came before martial arts.  Trust me, I understand the need to make money and support your family.  Personally, I was unable to take it this far.  I got into teaching martial arts because I thoroughly enjoy all aspects of training.  Neglecting parts of it while still advancing students through the ranks is a hard pill to swallow.


Some studios are closing down due to the pandemic
Some studios are closing down due to the pandemic

On the other end of the spectrum are the studios that have died or are dying.  These studios have not embraced the socially distanced, no contact, online way of doing things.  They were unable to teach the things they wanted in the way they wanted and were forced to make the tough decision to close completely.  In my neighborhood, there are at least four martial arts studios that closed for good.  Some of them were here for over 20 years.  

It saddens me to think about not only the impact these closures had on the owners and their families but also the effect it has on the community.  I do commend and respect them for making the tough decision to choose their martial arts integrity over financial gain.

Martial Arts School Surviving

Martial Arts school surviving
Martial Arts school surviving

I feel like most studios, myself included, fall into the category of martial arts school surviving.  From the start, we have tried to balance adapting to the ever-changing restrictions while still having the integrity to teach the skills and techniques we are accustomed to.  How to keep students motivated without consistent rank testing or promotions.  Can you push students to their limits when you see 1/3 of their bodies on a tiny screen?  How to maintain their skills while learning new skills without the use of a partner.  And so on and so on.

At the beginning, it was easier.  We were just focused on maintaining skills already learned.  As time continues to go by, it is getting harder and harder as students try to learn new skills and techniques and improve upon, not just maintain, previously learned material.  Unfortunately, until this pandemic is completely over, all the studios who are in the surviving mode are getting one step closer to dying.

The Phoenix will Rise!

So, which studios are in the best position to come out the other side?  You may be thinking the thriving studios.  Yes, those studios will most likely continue to thrive and be financially successful.  However, if those instructors care greatly about the integrity of the martial arts, they will have a lot of work ahead of them.  It will take a lot of time to transition back to in-person training.  Many bad habits have been formed after a year and half or more of online only instruction.

Perhaps the studios that died will rise from the ashes better than ever.  Those studios certainly won’t have to correct many bad habits.  Or maybe those studios barely hanging on will have built enough resilience to make it back to full strength.  Only time will tell.

After surviving, will martial arts schools rise again?
After surviving, will martial arts schools rise again?

Just like with the pandemic itself, your guess is as good as mine as to what will happen next.

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