I am on a mission, responding to a request from Grandmaster Richard Chun, my teacher and mentor, directing me to author a column focusing on the retention of black belt holders within my school. Without being presumptuous, this editorial contribution will likely appeal to school owners in particular. Often, on special occasions when in attendance, Grandmaster Chun has expressed surprise and delight at the number of advanced belts actively training at our institute. He routinely congratulates us on our ability to retain black belt students for many years of all degrees and ages.
Let me first say that the Chosun Taekwondo Academy is not what would be considered by today’s standards, a large school. Yet, we presently host classes for as many as one hundred black belts from 1st to 5th dan, with 70% being adults. Many have been with us for close to two decades. Traveling as I do to various dojangs, I have come to realize that ours is a unique situation. So, how do we do it? That is what Grandmaster Chun asked that I share with the readers of Totally TaeKwonDo online magazine.
When one visits the standard business model currently employed by many schools, retention revolves around annual membership contracts administered, in most cases, by third-party providers. These financially obligatory documents require that the student commit to training anywhere from one to three, and in some cases even more, years. Once signed, the student is compelled to meet the terms of the contract based on pain of a negative credit rating; should a student decide to terminate their training, for whatever reason, and the agreed upon tuition is either not directly deducted from a checking account or charged to a credit card in recurring payments, the matter is quickly transferred to a collection agency.
Clearly, modern society responds well to money as a prime motivator for action. Consequently, the above policy serves a number of purposes. First – in the words of a venerable grandmaster who I’ve spoken with regarding this matter – not executing contracts “helps students quit.” His comment is founded on the premise that if one is forced to make payments whether they participate in the program or not, they will ultimately choose to attend class albeit half-heartedly. Secondly, based on the system of automatic funds transfers, the school owner is assured of a secure, predetermined income. And lastly, since contacts are generally administered by outside billing companies, the school is relatively free of clerical responsibility, at least where tuition payments are concerned.
All of this appears to make good business sense…at least on the surface. Yet, I would argue that many martial artists, particularly adults and parents, consider the implementation of membership contracts onerous at best. Before consciously deciding not to exploit this financial tool years ago, I asked myself: Would a doctor, lawyer, barber or, for that matter, any professional of that type, require their client to sign a long-term contract securing their patronage before rendering services? And how would I as a consumer respond to that cunning sales tactic if they did?
I consider my skills just as beneficial to society as any of those offered by the aforementioned specialists. Why then have I deviated from what appears to be a primary financial tool of the martial arts industry in regards to securing membership, active or not? Answer: Because we have chosen a different path; one grounded in tradition, trust and honor bolstered by an unyieldingly comprehensive and challenging curriculum, ascending through high ranking black belt.
Permit me to point out that I am a devout tae kwon doist. I do not tolerate outside influences that will corrupt our pure-form curriculum. Nor do I support the current trend towards mixed martial arts. When I can truthfully say that I have “mastered” every aspect of traditional tae kwon do, then, and only then, would cross-training become an option. This is not to say that I do not investigate, academically, complimentary martial disciplines and how they relate to tae kwon do. Moreover, I sincerely feel that tae kwon do, if practiced in a traditional sense, contains most everything needed for effective self-defense and spiritual enrichment. This philosophy is reflected in our curriculum and in the culture of our school. Our students, particularly the many adult black belts enrolled, share this vision. Rather than feeling compelled to attend class largely urged on by financial commitment, they enthusiastically attend rooted in a desire to dive into the deep end of tae kwon do, taking advantage of our unlimited classes when convenient, grasping the philosophical principles of the art, and engaging in a complete martial arts program unsullied by flavor-of-the-day influences.
While I understand the necessity for many schools to rely on contractual tools to secure membership, I feel the richness of our curriculum alone is reward enough for the black belt to remain and train vigorously on a consistent basis. Accordingly, our syllabus, like many, is composed of a repeating template of requirements that increase in complexity throughout the various belt and dan levels and is predicated on proficiency in an escalating series of basics, one, two and three-step sparring, self-defense, poomsae, sparring and breaking skills. Likewise, just as color belts are encouraged to test every three months, so too are black belts who earn stripes in recognition of techniques and poomsae learned within the same timeframe; this, in addition to earning dan promotion consistent with Kukkiwon tenure and regulations. Striping of black belts between dan ranks is a crucial and unique aspect of the Chosun offering that has proven eminently effective in maintaining interest and precision of technique. But, here again, a meaningful, authentic curriculum must be in place geared towards the advanced student. Chosun members are also expected to familiarize themselves with Korean terminology and the philosophy associated with their required poomsae, hyung or tul. There is nothing haphazard about our program; every student knows exactly what is expected of them with the path to advancement clearly provided. Requirements are written out to avoid confusion and preserved as password-protected downloads on our web site to be included in a training journal each student is required to maintain throughout their membership.
Furthermore, my instructors and I highlight the self-defense, physical fitness, and self-enrichment components of the art; this is in keeping with tae kwon do as a martial way or a path to enlightenment. In addition, we amplify our practice with meditation and ki (internal energy) development exercises. As an added attraction for the mature black belt, while our school attends several tournaments a year, we do not view the classical martial arts simply as sport and, subsequently, do not focus merely on competition. Instead, we offer technical seminars and defensive courses to students, associated dojangs and civic groups at little or no charge as a community service.
And then there is the intriguing and effective assortment of poomsae or formal exercises we have at our disposal as a central pillar of our practice. As a United States Taekwondo Association affiliate school, we perform the eight Taegeuk and Palgwe set at color belt, supported by the traditional Moo Duk Kwan and required Kukkiwon Yudanja exclusive to black belts. We also practice the Kibon, Pyung-Ahn and Kuk Mu hyung in conjunction with several ITF tuls, although these are not required for promotion.
Retaining black belts, particularly adults, for the long term, without the anchor of burdensome membership contracts as a fundamental retention tool weighing them down, is a balancing act between commitment, motivation and commercial solvency. Yet, if the black belt is presented with an authentic, comprehensive and traditional tae kwon do curriculum free of confusing foreign influences, the task of retention becomes a rewarding challenge that results in a self-imposed desire to make tae kwon do an intrinsic and enduring part of life.