I’ve had quite a few private message from people asking me about advice recently and it has got me thinking about what it takes to teach Ninjutsu (Bujinkan or Genbukan).
Let me start by saying I don’t have all the answers, my journey isn’t necessarily yours, we all have to walk our own paths and i’m about 10% of the way down mine.
It’s certainly not easy! You spend years studying and training to develop your technique to then open your own dojo and realise you know nothing about how to actually run a dojo. I don’t mean you don’t know how to teach but more that you don’t know how to run a martial arts school.
When we first started, I thought the best course of action was to get the financial backing of a government organisation (The Princes Trust) to give us a step up in the market we needed to get out there and get students in the dojo. The problem is even after compiling a comprehensive business plan and obtaining the finances needed to stock up on equipment and set up shop, I still had next to no idea what i was doing.
This is the weird thing about it, you can have the best intentions, have everything planned out and be a very capable teacher but, you don’t know what you don’t know, so its easy to fail fast!
The first issue we encountered was commercial premises, EVERYBODY wants a full time martial arts school that is completely kitted out but that costs a lot of money! We couldn’t even afford the repairs on the premises we were looking at initially with the money obtained from the Princes Trust. There is also an fixed term lease to consider, change of license, repairs, business rates, decoration, fittings, security, etc. This gets expensive QUICKLY!
When you first start it’s best to find a decent venue to rent and this need to be in a central location in your area. Renting a hall for a few hours a week is far more affordable than £1900 a month in rent. Some halls can be rented for under £10 an hour! This is important as when you first start you want to keep costs down as much as possible until you start to develop a student base in your area.
The reality is when you first start you’ll be lucky to get a single student in if you haven’t consistently marketed the launch of your lessons. When we first opened we had 2 students, just 2 and i knew them both. We overlooked the fact that nobody cares when a new dojo opens if they don’t know you exist!
So what can you do to assist with launching your lessons?
I think the first mistake I made was keeping things ultra traditional, I opened a Bujinkan dojo in an area that has never previously had a Bujinkan Dojo in it and expected people to know what it was. We were called the Bujinkan Rugby Dojo for ages and recruited one student via word of mouth.
People just don’t understand complex Japanese names so if you call your dojo something like the “Bujinkan Kage No Shinobi No Mono Dojo” people have switched off before they even finish reading the name. You have to keep it simple! Ninjutsu lessons for adults would be far more effective purely because they understand that it’s martial arts lessons for adults even if they don’t know what Ninjutsu is.
I see it a lot in the Bujinkan we all use the Bujin Kanji symbol and call the dojo the Bujinkan (Location) Dojo or a Japanese Bugo that mean nothing to the general public and then wonder why students aren’t lining up at the door for lessons.
Identifying your “brand” is important as it makes you identifiable as a unique entity whilst being part of something much bigger i.e. the Bujinkan.
We did this by simply calling the dojo “Rugby Ninjutsu”, It’s Ninjutsu in Rugby, Having a bright colour which catches the eye (Red Shield) and a Ninja with a sword (Most people know what a Ninja looks like even if they don’t know their name). It’s simple but effective! Then we added the tagline “Master all arts, be limited by none” which explains our ethos in the dojo.
Politics is a big problem in martial arts and i know exactly what it’s like! There is this tremendous pressure (especially in the Bujinkan) to fall in line and do what your told according to the organisation, This is most often due to promoting the overall brand of the organisation whilst being masked as “Traditional” or “The way it should be run”. I remember a saying about watching the ones who stand above the tall grass as they are the first to get cut down, which basically means fall in line and don’t be individual in your dojo. It’s hard to explain as i’m not trying to rip into the Bujinkan just simply using it as an example as i know what rhetoric i have heard over the years and its important to point out that it’s not Sokes doing but a control mechanism put in place in the organisation by Shihan past and present. It’s a sad fact that often people just don’t really want you to succeed unless it benefits them in some way, when the reality is that collaboration is far better than competition.
You have to learn to go your own way whilst still respecting the art you teach, We are called Rugby Ninjutsu but we are the Bujinkan Rugby Dojo and still process all of our gradings with the honbu dojo in Japan. What people think about that isn’t my problem personally as we have a very justified reason to use that name as I previously explained. If it’s well thought out and means your dojo will be more successful then do it! Tell the people with an issue to concentrate on what they are doing rather than wasting your time!
There is also an arguement that times have changed, what used to work 20 years ago to grow a successful dojo no longer works today, you have to adapt with the times its quite literally modern henka of old methods. Social media is a powerful tool but we have had the most success growing things organically, get out there and do the leg work.
Get to know other martial artists in the industry, train together, attend events, contact local schools, host free seminars and events, nothing ever changes when you are sat planning your next move in your living room.
Think about where you post flyers and marketing material, putting a flyer on your local community notice board is pretty pointless in comparison to putting a flyer up in a busy Costa Coffee or Fish & Chip shop that has lots of footfall each day. You have to be strategic in your approach to marketing the dojo! You can spend loads of money on flyers and distribution and realise you are appealing to the wrong demographic of people in your area after significant investment into the marketing. I have found flyers to be pretty much useless unless they are given out in person or by the students, going door to door just doesn’t yield significant results for us.
It’s really important to maintain the integrity on your dojo! This is one that really annoys me personally! I have met so many multiple world champions that it’s ridiculous and even saw one saying that they are a weapons specialist who wouldn’t know a real Nihonto if it slapped them in the face. There is so much bullshit in the marketing of martial arts that when you see it for what it is, it makes you sick! Surely if your a world champion then you would be the champion for that year of one or two umbrella organisations, being a world champion of your own made up internal competition doesn’t count! Thats like me taking a couple of my students and calling it a world chapionship tournament hosted in Rugby and then proceeding to beat them all in duels and claiming to be the best in the world, thats not an achievment thats a farce! The first thing we teach our students is to always check the source of whatever it is you are learning as you don’t want to waste time being led down the garden path. I wouldn’t even bother training with half of the so called world champions out there as its all fabricated for marketing purposes, they don’t have any real knowledge to impart other that how much their current black belt package costs.
I have always considered myself to be a student, when you think your a master its a delusion of grandeur, this keeps us honest in our pursuit or perfection of technique. When you lose your integrity it’s game over, you should constantly be training, constantly teaching like that lesson is the last one you will ever teach, it takes passion to teach properly and if the end game is simply the impact on your bank balance then your focused on the wrong aspect of being a teacher. Yes a teacher not an instructor.
I hate it when i see people talking about students in terms of annual student value as it’s about more that that!
Running a dojo should be about quality of service, integrity and continuity of technique, you need to invest into it, get more equipment to engage the students whilst making it accessible for all.
You can run a dojo with integrity whilst using modern marketing strategies, After all it’s an important part of running a dojo, having students to teach in it.
Find out what your strengths are and market them whilst developing your weakest areas in the dojo. I see this a lot its like instructors just give up when they open a dojo, it becomes more about business and figures than training, they stick to what they know and avoid the things they aren’t good at because it damages their ego and may potentially change peoples impressions of them so that they see they are actually a human being the same as everyone else. It’s important to maintain integrity and an exceptional standard of technique but there is no shame in making mistakes now and then, it happens and you have to learn to just crack on with what your doing rather than being embarrassed. The worst thing you can do is become complacent as there is almost always more work to do when running a dojo.
You have to learn to effectively manage and delagate tasks, you physically can’t do everything yourself it’s impossible! You can’t be the instructor, graphics designer, the marketing team, social media manager, events coordinator, etc. You have to build a team to work together to push the dojo forwards! This is something that we have only recently put in place ourselves but you need to put peoples individual skills to good use and you’d be surprised how big a difference a few dedicated students helping out in their spare time really makes to the overall success of the dojo. After all everyone benefits from the dojo growing! We have this term in Ninjutsu called “Buyu” like a martial brotherhood so we inherently help each other out in the dojo anyway but my point is don’t be affraid to ask your students to help out as they are often more than willing to do so.
Incentivising the students to help out with recruitment is another way but I think this has to be a careful balance between the incentive and the lesson. Some people offer games consoles and similar as incentives but we think this is somewhat counter productive so offer Japanese sweets and custom equipment, This way the student is still incentivised to get their friends into the dojo to train but also are kept focusing on the right thing, Improving their technique and knowledge with the sweets as an added bonus.
The important thing is to get yourself out there, teach with integrity and use modern marketing strategies to recruit students whilst not viewing them as nothing more than an annual student value. The more students you get into the dojo the better as regardless of whether its adults, children, ladies only or diversifications, students will often bring friends and family into the lessons helping you with organic marketing.
The point is to make sure you move with the times whilst maintaining the integrity of the art you teach! The most common comment we get is that people love the lessons as they can tell we love teaching and really care about the students individual progression, which definitely isn’t bad feedback at all!
There is a lot more to this than can be written in a single post but this is the best place to start. Rant over!