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The path to black belt is littered with tens of thousands of kids who started karate and quit. Most of them in the first six months, but some make it all the way to brown belt, just to abandon ship just when the coveted black belt is so close.
This article is going to cover the reasons why kids quit: how it sometimes has nothing to do with karate at all, and how parents and instructors are sometimes to blame for the attrition rate in karate, and martial arts overall. We will also look at how we can keep kids in the dojo, and some of the advice applies to adult students as well.
The Reasons We Can’t Avoid
First off, let’s just get it out the way: sometimes it will be completely out of everyone’s control when a student quits the dojo. Parents lose their jobs and there just isn’t money for karate. Students move away or emigrate. If there is a severe illness or injury, or family tragedies, then it is just unfortunate circumstances. The only annoying thing about this is the ghosting (because yes, we do take it personally when we get invested in a child’s progress only for their parents to up and leave and not tell us, AT ALL.) Sometimes, karate will be one of the victims of a divorce, and it nearly ALWAYS happens to the kid who loves the dojo and needs it most.
With that out the way, let’s talk about child-originated quitting.
Every dojo parent will hear, at some point, that their child doesn’t want to go to karate. It’s boring, they cry, or its too hot, or too cold, or too hard. This is to be expected, because real karate is hard, and kids have underdeveloped pre-frontal cortexes. They literally cannot make long-term decisions and have limited executive function. In short: if there’s the option to stay at home, swim and then play Roblox, then of course they don’t want to go to the dojo in a stuffy uniform on a hot day.
Even grown-ass adults can’t make it to the gym: Americans waste $397 million a year on unused gym memberships, and 67% of the people who sign up never use their membership at all. Maybe dojos aren’t doing too badly, compared to that.
This is usually the most common reason, and also the least acceptable reason for allowing your kid to quit karate. If they’re allowed to quit any time something gets a little bit hard, or boring, or challenging, then they are going to end up being a perpetual teenager, unable to commit to anything that doesn’t immediately flood them with dopamine. If they can ask you to bail them out of commitments because they don’t feel like it, and you do it, then I wish you luck with the unemployable, uncoachable adult you will have in your house forever.
Usually, the answer to this is “get your gi on and let’s go.” We’ll discuss later when to dig into this, but 80% of the time, once they’re at the dojo they’re happy and glad to be there. You just have to get them there.
Karate is so hard, Mom!
Yes, it is. It’s like how people look at a price and it is way more than they expected: it’s called sticker shock, and with karate, there is an effort shock. Not just for kids, but adults as well – it is even worse for them, especially the older we get. Humans are terrible at gauging how much things should ‘cost’, like a degree, or a good marriage, or a black belt.
One of my favourite articles is How Karate Kid Ruined the Modern World by David Wong, and it brings up the point that Daniel should have lost that tournament to the kids who have actually been training for years. To quote the article:
In the real world, the winners of the All Valley Karate Championship in The Karate Kid would be the kids who had been at it since they were in elementary school. The kids who act like douchebags because their parents made them skip video games and days out with their friends and birthday parties so they could practice, practice, practice.David Wong
We know that the people who train all the time are never beaten by rank amateurs. Since when does doing karate for 6 months make you good at it? Or 6 months alone made you good at anything? Movie montages really do make it look effortless, and when a new kid realises how hard karate can be (especially if they aren’t talented), quitting looks attractive.
It’s not like the movies
Whenever there’s a new season of Cobra Kai, our numbers go up. A whole bunch of little ones begged their parents to join this year because of Power Rangers. Surprisingly, karate being in the Olympics had zero impact on our sign-ups. Even Ché started karate because of Karate Kid. Whether its Bruce Lee, the Ninja Turtles, Dragonball Z, Naruto or Jackie Chan, movies and tv really do make it look easy and exciting ALL the time. But then when they get to the dojo, and they realise that learning to do a spinning back kick is absolutely not on the menu for a long time, suddenly all the sheen and glitter is gone. But it is important to remember that all those great action stars also started right at the bottom. Whatever we feel about Chuck Norris, he did say something that is a testament to this. In his book The Secret of Inner Strength: My Story, he said: “Whatever luck I had, I made. I was never a natural athlete, but I paid my dues in sweat and concentration and took the time necessary to learn karate and become world champion”. This is a man who is partly responsible for making karate so big in the United States, and he openly says he did his time and put in the work.
This is probably one of the saddest, and least talked-about reasons. A child begs their parents to start karate, and they love it. They love their gi, and their classes, and Sensei sees their joy and is delighted by it.
But then, one day, out the blue, they quietly ask to quit. And it always lands as such a shock, especially when we’ve already envisaged them as being a wonderful black belt one day, the kind that brings their all to the dojo and to fellow students. They quit! But why?
What the parents and sensei don’t know is that the child overheard their parents worrying about money. “How are we going to pay for all of this? For school and food and petrol and karate?” and the child, who suddenly feels terrible that karate is a burden to the family, decides to quit.
Or, Mom and Dad constantly complain about driving them around, and they want them to be happy, so they quit. Maybe you were that kid. Maybe you have a kid that just wants everyone to be happy, a born people-pleaser. Or maybe, they just want to keep the peace and will sacrifice whatever they have to do so.
Even if it is just an off-hand comment, some kids will hear it and feel guilty, and they’ll quit. And dammit, for me that’s just unbearable. It’s not a child’s job to worry about the family finances and to give up on something they love, and that brings them so much joy and new skills, that they quit because of it.
If you can’t afford karate, then at least be honest with your child. Don’t sign them up and then once they are invested, suddenly realise its not feasible any more.
And if you were this kid, then I am so, so sorry. I hope you made it back to the dojo eventually.
I wrote about this in my article in Bugeisha magazine (sorry, it’s in a magazine and thus a sort of paywall), and discussed this at length with Sensei Les Bubka on Youtube. When girls quit, it can often be traced back to their changing bodies and confidence.
Girls undergo a whole bunch of changes, and in karate, having to adjust to wearing heavy-duty training bras (that are correctly sized) or learning to navigate menstruation, can be extremely intimidating, especially if there are no older female students or instructors to guide them through it. If a dojo is overwhelmingly male, then these changes are even more obvious and painful.
And all kids go through stages where their karate looks like spaghetti, because their limbs have grown and their kata hasn’t adjusted, and they feel self-conscious. Or their voices break and other kids laugh. These changes are so natural and yet utterly embarrassing – I am so glad I never have to be a teenager again.
This requires a great deal of sensitivity, compassion and communication, and unfortunately it is so often written off as ‘teens are lazy’, when actually they’re just scared and self-conscious.
Ah, the many forms of fear, felt so keenly by children but without adequate tools or perspective to deal with it.
The fear of failure is so profound and for most of us, it never goes away. The dojo is set up to ENCOURAGE failure: it is a safe place to learn to fail and get back up. It is a safety net for learning responsibility and resilience, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard.
Your child might be afraid they’re going to fail a grading, and so they pre-emptively quit. Or they are about to learn a new kata, and they’re afraid they won’t meet the challenge, which happens especially from blue belt and up, when the katas suddenly have massive leaps in difficulty.
Or they’re afraid of getting hurt in sparring, which of course can and will eventually happen. But they also need to learn the amazing lesson that they can take a hit and not die. That they are tougher than they realise, and that the dojo is (or at least, should be) a controlled environment. Failure is a lesson, not the end.
Burn-Out and Time Poverty
When I first started teaching 6 years ago, I was already concerned about the high demands on children’s time, and I think this is an issue our American friends can especially relate to. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, it has only gotten exponentially worse.
There are kids in the dojo who burst into tears in the middle of class because they are so, so tired, because their useless school has set them so much homework that they have to be up until 10 at night to finish. And its not even high school kids, but 9 and 10 year olds. On top of the crippling workloads, they are also expected to do sports and extra-murals because heaven forbid they don’t get a place at some prestigious university (and then have the privilege of student loans to pay off). The obsession with future-proofing is costing kids their mental health and their childhoods. What’s the point of future-proofing if your child is utterly miserable?
It used to be that our biggest competition was other dojos and sports. Now? Our biggest rival for students’ time and attention is homework, and we can’t actually compete with that. In SA, there’s this obsession with marks and testing that just breaks the kids in half, and Ché and I are ashes with it. I go from zero to furious when students break down and sob because they’re 12 and they can’t keep up and nothing they do is enough.
How can we expect them to find time and energy for karate when school, that super short time in their lives, overrides everything else? Including family time? Which leads me nicely into…
Untreated medical and mental health issues
So in my 20s, there was a time when I only made it to karate every other week, or sometimes only twice or so a month. What I thought was exhaustion was actually untreated depression. I would finish work, lie on the couch and sleep until 9pm, and then go to bed and sleep some more. If it hadn’t been for the love and support of my dojo at the time, I probably would have just faded out of karate, and I wouldn’t be where I am today. Once I started treating my depression, and this only started when I was 30, I realised that I had so much more energy and focus. It’s a damn shame that I waited so long to get help.
Your child might not have clinical depression, and I hope they don’t. But they might be anxious, or they have extremely low iron and everything is ten times harder than it has to be. I know first-hand how much anemia sucks. Maybe their eyes are bad and they’re too embarrassed to say anything.
If they want to bail out on everything, maybe there’s an underlying medical explanation. We’ve seen kids completely change when on the correct medication (and vice versa: kids being given medication they don’t need and being turned into zombies.)
Now that those reasons are covered, let’s turn to why parents are the reason kids quit.
This is genuinely annoying, and every instructor’s nightmare: the parent that used to do karate and is now trying to relive their glory days through their child. And the higher they got, the harder they are on their kids. And they, obviously, know more than you, and will interfere with your teaching. Bonus points if they also competed at a high level as well, because now they are also a PTP: pushy tournament parent. Ugh.
It is not any child’s job or mandate to be the vessel for their parents’ unrealised dreams. And in this case, it is actually better for the child to quit, because nothing they do in the dojo will be good enough for their parent.
Yes, I said it. Fight me.
Not prioritising karate
This ties back to the homework and overcommitment issue. If you don’t make karate a priority, why should they? If another sibling’s activities, or schoolwork, or your hobbies take priority, then you are sending a very clear message: their karate is unimportant to you, and so it shouldn’t be important to them.
Not to say that everything in the family must be sacrificed for karate, but do you have any idea how frustrating it is to hear that a kid can’t (won’t) make it to grading BECAUSE OF A FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY PARTY? Don’t expect the benefits of karate if you’re not willing to pay the price of admission: time on the mat. I’m not going to reward you or your kid by delaying their grading. If they can’t delay their gratification, I am not delaying my admin or punishing the kids that make the time to be at the dojo for grading.
If you’re not actively involved and invested, then that karate career is doomed. The kids can’t do it without you.
What a delightful portmanteu of sharing and parenting. Setting aside the privacy concerns of oversharing your child’s life, take a moment to look at what you post. Do you only post about your child’s karate when they are successful? Do you ever take a photo of them just in their gi and say how proud and excited you are for them? Or are you dismissive of their participation medal they are so, so proud of, and ask why they didn’t come first? (Tiger parents – I see you. I don’t always like you.)
If your child gets the idea that you only love them when they are successful, then their karate stops being something for them to enjoy, and instead a way to earn your approval. Without intrinsic motivation, they will never make it to black belt.
Letting Them Quit Because You want to be their Friend
One of the young black belts in the dojo has a mom named Yana, and I asked her why her child has stayed in karate for 15-odd years when so many have quit. He has stuck it out since he was 5, making him part of the 5% that make it to black belt. She told me, and this has been echoed by ALL the moms of the black belts, that when their kid felt lazy or tired, or didn’t want to go to the dojo for whatever short-term, arbitrary reason, they said “get your gi on and go.” It wasn’t a topic for discussion when she could tell that there was no good reason to bunk class.
For a while, I absolutely hated dragging Hunter to swimming. He cried on the way there, he cried the whole lesson. Luckily, as of the week I wrote this, he finally embraced swimming and his coach. The reason I forced him to go to swimming is because he has to learn to be water-safe because there are swimming pools in this life, and he can’t avoid them forever. Please believe me, I so badly want to quit. But it isn’t about me: it’s about his safety and health.
If every child was allowed to quit as soon as they wanted to, we would have no musicians or artists. We would have no engineers, or doctors, or star athletes. At some point, Yo Yo Ma’s dad had to force him to keep playing cello, and the world is richer for it.
Underestimating the Requirements for Progress
Karate requires just one thing for success: consistency. To quote a great ad, consistency is the only currency that matters. In the dojo, the kids that never miss class outshine the inconsistent kids. No amount of talent can make up for a lack of effort or attendance. If you cannot commit to regular training, your child will miss out on material. When they get back to class, everyone is ahead and they have no idea what’s happening because they took two or three or five weeks out. Then they feel embarrassed and overwhelmed, and that’s a recipe for disaster.
If you cannot commit to regular training, and getting your child to extra seminars when possible, then you are ultimately setting them up for failure. It’s why our highest attrition is with students who only train once a week. They miss one class, it’s two weeks out. Two classes, and it is a whole month and the momentum is completely lost. I am always surprised when a Saturday-only student makes it to a whole year. And often kids are training on Saturdays because they are over-committed during the week. (Although often its because of parents’ commuting times overlapping when our white belt classes happen.)
And, sometimes, it has everything to do with the instructor and the dojo.
Breaking the Goldilocks Rule
The Goldilocks Rule is this: if a task is not too easy or too difficult, it becomes pleasurable to do. If karate is too easy its boring, and if its too hard it is demotivating.
It may be that for that student, the class they’re in is either one of those things. Changing them to another class group may be all the change they need. Or maybe their ability is being over or under estimated. Or, the instructor’s teaching has fallen into a rut, which happens! Hopefully, they find their groove again.
When a new parent walks in and asks about tournament, we immediately manage their expectations. We are not a competing dojo: traditional karate is our focus, has been for a long time, and we stay out of competitions. We have a tournament class on Fridays taught by our young black belts, but it is there for the kids who want to see what sports karate feels like.
This way, they can make a decision as to whether our dojo is right for them. If they are pushy tournament parents, then they can head down the road, east or west, and they’ll find someone who will gladly fill that role for them. And that’s great! It saves everyone’s time and money. (You can’t throw a rock in Joburg without hitting a dojo, after all.)
Like corporate offices, dojos also have cultures, and sometimes its just not a good fit. Sometimes for very bad reasons (racism, sexism, etc) or sometimes the dojo has a high or low intensity that doesn’t match the student.
Honestly, its not worth changing your dojo culture to fit the occasional kid that doesn’t like it. But if more are quitting than staying, maybe it is time to consider what kind of atmosphere your dojo has. I quit Aikido because there was a genuine bully in the class that was never reprimanded or managed, and it was clear that my concerns would not be addressed. There were less than 10 people in that dojo (at the time).
Authoritarian vs Authoritative
A lot of instructors pride themselves on being completely unapproachable, handing their knowledge down from a great and lofty height, unquestionable and unassailable. There’s a reason its never “hug a sensei” day. It is also a generational difference: many (not all!) old-timers hold fast to the idea that Sensei cannot be questioned. It’s like the old joke: what’s the difference between God and a karate instructor?
God doesn’t think he’s a karate instructor.
So we come to the difference between authoritarian and authoritative. Both set high standards with high expectations for students, but come at completely different angles. The authoritarian sensei is cold and non-responsive, sees emotions as weaknesses and will not tolerate questions or bi-lateral communication. (If they insist on being called Master, then generally you’re in for some trouble.) An authoritative sensei seeks to inspire students through example rather than controlling them, offering reasoning as explanation as opposed to “Because I said so!”, which we all hated as kids. Why would we expect our kids to tolerate that from a stranger?
Sure, some people love that drill sergeant mentality, usually because their own parents were like that and they don’t know any other form of leadership or love. But times are changing, and the instructor that balances high standards with fairness, patience and kindness will retain students and naturally earn their loyalty.
I know: we all have moments when we snap and say “because I said so!’ because we are human, and if one more child interrupts my lesson to tell me about a dream they had, I will puke blood. But if that is your go-to response for everything, then students will quit and their parents will tell you “because I said so” too.
There’s something the kids aren’t telling you
So recently, I had two teens upset another teen in the dojo about something trivial. Luckily I was there to witness it, mediate it and use it as a teachable moment. I hope. But if I hadn’t been there, I might never know why they’re not talking to each other.
But sometimes there will be things you don’t know about that causes a student to quit. Sometimes parents won’t tell you there’s a nasty divorce happening at home, and all of a sudden the kid is lashing out. Or there’s a little crush that got crushed, and you have sad teenagers who can’t bear to see their beloved in class but don’t know how to ask you to change to another class. Luckily, you generally have eyes and ears on the kids all the time because unlike school, they don’t leave your sight for half an hour to have a break, so bullying is easier to spot and stamp out. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, and a bully can ruin an entire class. (Or that one kid that tries to monopolise your attention the whole time and ruins class for everyone.)
The Changes We Can Make
Wow, that’s a lot of reasons. It’s genuinely amazing that anyone makes it to black belt at all. Even with the best of intentions, everything from traffic to work to health issues can stop someone from getting to the dojo, even if they love it with an undying passion.
And so, finally, let’s talk about some overarching changes we can all make to help students stay committed.
Communication, as they say, is key
Yeah, cheesy, I know. But there is a great deal to be said for listening without waiting for your chance to speak. Ché and I have been asked, so many times, to talk to the kids when they want to quit. And 80% of the time, it has nothing to do with the dojo. They’re overworked, they’re exhausted, their parents obsess about their marks and they just want to make their parents proud. We have heard it all: bullying at school, anxiety, not enough time, finances. The kids hear everything their parents say, and then we hear it, and it breaks our hearts.
If they’re willing to talk to you or sensei, then they’re not committed to leaving. You’d be amazed how often the quitting has nothing to do with karate.
So talk to Sensei! We genuinely care and want your child to succeed. Its not about the money, because there are much, much easier ways to make money than being a karate instructor. I could go back to advertising and make 3 or 4 times what I’m earning now. Ché could just run a McDojo instead. We are doing this because we believe in the power of karate to improve lives.
Parents: remember why you enrolled your child
If you enrolled them so that they could learn valuable life skills like discipline, respect, humility, courage, compassion and dedication, then you have to make sure those lessons have a chance to stick by not letting your child quit for silly reasons. And you know what those silly reasons are, and you know what serious reasons are, and when you need to hold the line and get them to the dojo.
Instructors: teach earnestly with creativity. It is possible to make karate fun without losing your integrity. They have the rest of their adult lives to be 100% serious.
Fellow parents and instructors – keep trying your best. If it is meant to be, it will be. But sometimes, it just isn’t, and that’s okay. A good dojo will always leave the door open for students to come back. If you’ve done your best to bring them to the dojo, then you can do no more, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up over it.
And, finally, to fellow instructors, and especially those starting out:
Sometimes, karate wasn’t what they expected, and they just don’t like it. They’re not meant for it; maybe just for now, or maybe never. Let them go, because one day they might change their minds, but if you force them to do something they absolutely hate for years, then they’ll never come back to it. Sometimes a kid just isn’t ready – they all mature at different times. Remember, all popcorn kernels are in the same oil, but they don’t all pop at the same time.
But yeah – lots of them won’t stay, and that’s okay.
Karate is hard. If it was for everyone, it would be Netflix. We often think of our dojo as a lighthouse: people come, and they go. Some like ships in the night, some will anchor near you for a long time. If you’re lucky, they dry-dock and never leave. Your job is to provide light to guide them by, to be a place of safety for them. But you can’t hold onto them all forever, even if your dojo had infinite space. You can only be present for so many people. You can only help so many people. And your heart will get broken, over and over again. It is the price of admission to being a sensei. They will look up to you, admire you, and eventually, leave you. The best we can hope for is always parting on good terms, and leaving the door open so that they can come back.
Because some of them do, they actually do. After years and years, they come back and step in the door and ask if they can come home. And that, more than anything else, is a testament to you, the Sensei that believed in them.