Martial Arts Contracts 101: A Complete SECRET Parent’s Guide

The number one question parents have asked me over these many years has to be: “What am I getting into when signing my kid up for classes at this (insert martial art style here) school in my area?” My answer is a simple question in return, “Have you ever bought a used car?”

Here are some major issues that need to be considered concerning martial arts contracts:

  • Most martial arts schools are heavily reliant on contracts.
  • Heavy reliance on contracts gives rise to high pressure up-front sales tactics.
  • School owners ignore the ethical dilemma of binding small children legally through parents sometimes for multi-year terms.
  • Martial arts contracts incentivize school owner complacent behaviors toward instruction.

I am not trying to bash small business owners here. There is a huge element of risk in starting a martial arts school location. But what comes in the rest of this article will sound harsh, because these are our kids.

That is not to discount the struggle good instructors have. For the record, try in any major market to find a professional martial arts studio that doesn’t run an after-school program and you are likely to come up empty handed.

This is the way many of them even out their costs in order to make a living. I can tell you from lots of experience, they don’t do it because they have always wanted to own a daycare. Preschools and daycares are hard to run and these martial arts school owners usually search continually for people to help them run these programs for low wages.

One more thing. I am going to be speaking in generalities here, but that term by definition means that this can be applied in most usual situations. One rule I like to live by is…

You are not the exception.

You are the rule.


Contracts as the Foundation of a Martial Arts School

With rent, equipment, mats, insurance, advertising, etc. it is a wonder that most martial arts schools turn a profit. Or is it? It is true in minor market areas like smaller communities, these commercial dojos have a hard time justifying the instructor being full time much less anyone else connected with the studio. Sometimes they are profitable, but mostly not.

Though some of the well run ones near major suburbs surrounding medium to large cities, these businesses can systematize and franchise their way into huge annual budgets. This is in no way saying that businesses should be judged for turning a profit.

What I am saying is that these particular ones are usually collecting said profit out of the pockets of unsuspecting parents of children who aren’t even sure if this something they will enjoy a couple months down the road. This is due to the ‘student contract’.

These contracts are used to project monthly earnings, taking into account those that refuse to pay, or choose payout options to terminate if they exist. This is the base unit of measurement of many of these businesses.

The income from these in recent years has become much more usable profit due to after-school pickup programs which tend to pay most of the operating costs of the dojo. Find a school without a pickup program and you are usually looking at a struggling small business. Not always, but usually.

One Month (One Week/Two Week) Trial Programs as a Foot in the Door Technique

Have you ever walked onto a car lot thinking you are gonna get the best deal for that car you have been trolling on the lot’s website? Then as you drive away with that odd burning guile building in your stomach, you realize you were just put through a choreographed, scripted mill. I laugh when I hear someone say, “I am going to shop around until I get a good deal on my next car.”

You can shop until you are blue and you still won’t get that ‘good’ deal. I am not saying you are going to totally get ripped off. You have to remember, it is their job to make sure you don’t get the deal you have in your head. If they are not able to get you to sign on to a deal that is good for them and bad for you, they will be working somewhere else soon.

This is sadly true in martial arts schools. Unless you are a training partner to the owner or his lifelong best friends kid, you are more than likely going to be fed tried and true, high conversion one liners one after another. To them this is like sparring. They are trying to win. In their minds, they truly believe that if they want to keep their business they will, and there are huge networks teaching them just what to say, what to offer, and when to do all of it.

Martial Arts Business Trade Associations

Here is a resource that no martial arts school owner will ever want you to see. These are a couple of the billing and professional associations for martial arts schools. You will not believe the stuff at least the overconfident associations will sometimes stick online for everyone to see, knowing you will not know what to look for.

  • MAIA (Martial Arts Industry Association)
  • EFC (Educational Funding Company)

Associations like these have massive script based sales outlines and pre-packaged curriculum for school owners, in depth marketing strategies, and psychologically backed pressure sales tactics. Yes, you read right. Professional associations even drive much of the curriculum taught at these professional schools, down to how things are presented and said in a class and communicated to parents. Let’s focus here on the sales pitch first.

School owners are taught to promise weeks or even months in order to ease a parent’s hesitation in signing a contract involving their young children. These instructions come with highly detailed responses to objections and timed pitches crafted over decades and backed by high percentage industry research.

Martial Arts School Owner Scripted Sales Pitches Exposed

I will give you just one example from the publicly available MAIA website and trade magazine. This openly available online. So, just think what they are not showing you.

In the 2020 January – February issue of the MA Success Magazine on page 88 appears an article entitled “4 Magic Questions to Convert Your Trials Into Students“. The byline reads, “Having a system is the key to conversions.” Here are the four questions quoted directly from just this one article (parenthesis are my summation of their reasons for each script), publicly available mind you:

  1. How are you enjoying the program? (This is to get the parent to verbally extol the benefits of their school fed to them in the trial. It’s insane, but many parents will recite them out loud.)
  2. How is your child enjoying the class? (A much more powerful verbal affirmation about the child’s happiness with the classes is extracted. Again, they are making the parent say it.)
  3. Can you see how our program teaches (insert benefits parent gave at first class as a goal) and will help your child over time? (If the answer is no, ramp up the personal attention in the next class and ‘Life Lesson – Mat Chat’ intensity and try again after.)
  4. Would you like me to show you how you can save money on our program? (This leads into a contract sales pitch before the trail period is past a few classes to give time for extra tries if the parent is hesitant.)

Before you speak to any instructor in a professional martial arts school, you should definitely read MAIA’s blog and go through all the pages of these publicly viewable trade magazines they post there.

The blog posts will be hit and miss on revealing tactics, but inside the trade magazine MA Success, there is usually one to two articles with secret gold in them. They are betting you won’t look. They even give social media share links to them. They know you won’t.

Not Just Scripted Sales Pitches, But Scripted Curricula From a Corporate Marketing Department

This is maybe as or more disturbing than parents being fooled into signing a contract that is bad for them and their child. Here we have proof that the foundation of some of these contracts are based on lies.

These trade associations contract with personalities that help them peddle pre-packaged curriculum that they market as ‘all inclusive’ solutions. “Solutions to what?” you might ask. Solutions to the problem of offering classes that these instructors don’t know how to and are not qualified to teach.

Who are the most vulnerable in our societies? The young and the old. These organizations know that the old usually are on fixed incomes and won’t spend on themselves. The young on the other hand, parents and even the grandparents will fork over big bucks for them. That is where misleading pre-packaged toddler programs come in.

You don’t have to just take my experienced opinion on this, I will give you MAIA’s own website for their pre-packaged program just as it is marketed to school owners. This is not just a set of tools for a qualified teacher like in public schools or preschools. These are pre-arranged drills, classroom scripts, detailed parent communications, class lesson plans, marketing ad copy, and empty and meaningless ‘life skills mat chat’ training.

The ‘mat chat’ is where some young, usually childless, underpaid, and under trained instructor (who is almost never the owner or head instructor) now gets to ‘teach’ your child ‘life skills and lessons’ from scripted corporate marketing ad copy.

Let me just say, I have seen tons of these curriculum packages over the years. They are all the same. A face attached to the program, pushing scripts devised by marketers and not actually following any real martial art. Take a look for yourself.

  • One of MAIA’s pre-packaged program’s Ad Page aimed at Martial Arts School Owners targeting toddlers (18 months and up).
  • Next is a public youtube video showing what an instructor uses to mimic classes and marketing evaluations masquerading as helpful psych evals, in every tiny detail with only one goal, to get the parent to pay between $150 and $300 on a multi-year contract each month.

Here you may think, “Hey, they are doing something good here right? They are evaluating?” Nope, they are making you feel as if you have to pre-qualify in order to take their classes. This is straight up sales trickery. They may even give you ‘homework’ to help your child do better in their corporately designed curriculum. Don’t be fooled, their conversions go up almost double because they do this. You don’t know you are being played. If you dig into the links, it is all spelled out publicly.

  • The Pre-packaged Program’s own webiste. Oh there’s so much more. Most of these pre-packaged programs are like this. This one expands on this website to encompass entire business plans in an all inclusive, turn key system designed by marketing and business execs. I am showing you their website with all of the promises on how they are going to trick you into forking over huge sums and can’t resist signing contracts with school owners.
  • Here is just one quote, “A revolutionary sales approach converts 90%+ of prospects into students.” These are your kids she is talking about! It’s that EVALUATION from the video above that is this revolutionary sales approach. There is a lot on this site so take your time and get a feel for what this woman is saying. She is teaching these instructors to be good ‘salesmen’ in order to sell you contrived moral ethical systems and skills they don’t actually know how to teach. She even boasts that they can all now claim to offer CHILD DEVELOPMENT COURSES, with no actual training in that field.

BELIEVE me. This is not their only pre-packaged program. They have TONS. Some of them are made by former friends of mine. There are fitness martial arts programs, weapons programs, age based ones, programs for women, grappling ones and the list goes on.

You literally can pay for all of these curricula programs, start a school, and never have had an actual martial arts class in your life. Do most schools start like this? No. But many schools do have portions of what people like these teach.

These instructors buying into this are looking to make money in a hard industry to survive in, I understand. But that is no excuse. Find another job if you can’t do it ethically. That is why I got out of that industry circle and began to do it right. I don’t use any of this material or their methods.

Disclaimer: Not all use these methods. I am making no claim to the education or background of any person depicted in any of the above linked videos, articles, or highlighted programs. All of this information is publicly available and I am commenting on the publicly available advertising information.

The Morality of Contracts Imposed on Children Through Parents

Here we will have to get into a bit of philosophy, but I will try to keep it lite. We have to look at

  1. Who children are and their roles
  2. Who parents are and their roles
  3. How some of these martial arts school owners are exploiting these in order to make profits.

The Child

Children are our top priority in society. They are to be given a protected environment with definite boundaries. On the other hand, they need room to explore in a way that helps them develop without coming into contact with those who wish to exploit them.

A child has one main goal that they should be aimed toward by their parents. They are to grow and develop into a physically and psychologically well adjusted adult. Anything that stunts this development or slows it for any reason needs to be avoided by the parents for the child who is not able to make those levels of rational decisions

For this reason, children cannot enter into a contract agreement on their own. They do not have the mental capacity or reasoning ability to defend themselves from exploitation. We all know this, but when a child wants to join an activity we forget that they don’t even have the capacity to choose the best group or leader to follow when engaging in it.

We are willing to sacrifice time, money, and in the case of these contracts our freedom in select ways to help our children attain something they want. In our defense, we are sold by slick marketing scripts on the idea that it is what is best for them as well.

Martial arts has some amazing things to offer from instructors who are masters at their craft. There is a lot of nutrition in the meals they serve to their students. What mainly is offered at a good portion of these schools is highly processed food substitutes.

This is what some martial arts instructors exploit. They use fad terminology and language they know parents will want to hear. They level tons of personalized attention on the child which is what children crave. Then they use manipulative sales tactics on the parents to bind them into a contract that they are left to enforce on their own child.

This is what you would call an ‘end around’ in football. They have gotten around the law meant to protect children and around the parents looking to do the same and bound these children to student contract agreements. It’s right there in the name on the paper, STUDENT – CONTRACT – agreement. This is not a parent agreement about their training. It is about binding the child.

Have you ever tricked a child? I have, in fun. I do it all the time and then tell them what I did. It becomes a game. Try this one and you will understand how much you need to make the decision for your child and not go on their reactions.

I have done this time and again with my kids and their toys. Sometimes I would talk up this new, shiny, amazing toy (99 cents from the dollar store). It came all the way from China. It can make you invisible (I pretend to not see them whenever they have it.) We have a special place to put it in their room etc. You get the picture. It is called pre-framing.

Do you know where I first heard that term, pre-framing? At one of those huge martial arts business conferences like the one you can read about on several association blogs. That is exactly what instructors and school owners are doing to your child and to you in the trial phase of the contract sell.

All of this is not okay. Just because it has become acceptable in our society, it is not okay. There is nothing wrong, and it is even commendable to add entertainment to what an instructor does to get the kids to engage.

But pouring on temporary, fake, individualized engagement on attention seeking children, using highly successful and researched fad parenting jargon on parents, and timing one liner script based sales copy to bind children to sometimes three year contracts… that is just immoral.

The Parent

The parent is not only the one who is responsible for the protection of our society’s most valuable commodity (the children, they are the commodity, just seeing if you are still with me). The parents are not only obligated to have their child’s best interest in mind, but are the primary ones that get the most satisfaction and joy out of seeing them succeed and find happiness.

This is exactly what is exploited when some, but not all, professional martial arts studio owners go through these highly market driven and scripted trial programs. The culmination of which is the contract conversion phase. This is where all of the terminology, staging, and yes, pre-framing has led to. This is where they bind a parent under penalty of law to force their child to attend classes.

Now, let’s address the elephant in the room right here, parent to parent. If these classes are soooo good, and these benefits they make you say out loud are so exceptionally present, then why in the world are you being asked to give up your right to reconsider for the next three years. Children don’t know what they want from one hour to the next and as they develop you will undoubtedly change your mind on what the best course for them is.

The answer is simple. They are not interested. Your child is the ever present drainage hole in movie and novel fortresses and strongholds. Drainage holes like in Helm’s Deep of Tolkien’s classic Lord of The Rings, The Two Towers are the weak spots in your defenses. It is their way in to your castle. They sneak into your checkbook through your love for your child.

I am not talking about exciting classes filled with great exploration opportunities for children. I am talking about copies of those without the intent or ability to actually help your child, designed in corporate boardrooms by marketing experts using decades of psychological data.

What is going on here is emotional blackmail into the end around bait and switch. You are enticed to suspend your natural rational abilities due to your emotional desire to help and please your child.

Then you are coerced into thinking the only way to get this rotten carrot painted to look shiny and new is to go against your natural instincts. You give up your freedom of choice for years only to find an old man behind the curtain with a loud speaker.

The Contract Scheme: How They Plan to Funnel You

So let’s put this plan in simple terms so it is easy to follow. Though it morphs from year to year and this is only a slimmed down outline, it is essentially the same plan.

The Martial Arts School Owner’s Plan (Written as if you are the school owner for effect.)

  1. Do community service to get your martial arts school’s name in the news if at all possible. (Free advertising, not for the purpose of helping the community. Bonus: It makes for good ad copy and ways to tout yourself to parents and prospective parents as well. Win, win, win.)
  2. Join community organizations as advertising opportunities and be active in their networks. (Better Business Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, Church Organizations, etc.)
  3. Get into your local schools and give 3-6 week trial programs to ‘help’ the children. This may even be a recurring thing to channel students from the schools to your business (This has nothing to do with helping and everything to do with advertising. You have no intention of actually basing a program in the school. The plan is to draw kids to your location. If you have to, even loose money a bit on giveaways here, it is worth it, just like any other advertising dollar spent.)
  4. Along with other advertising, aggressively promote ‘martial arts events’ where families are asked to bring others from school or work circles to try out the parties or parade walks in order to schedule the all important TRIAL.
  5. The TRIAL. Now it’s show time. The trial period is spoken of many times as a FREE trial period or with the ‘new and innovative’ approach, the holy grail, the ‘Paid Trial’ (to add perceived value, of course). This trial period can be weeks or a month. The key is, it really is only a dedicated time to ramp up predetermined patterns of attention aimed at the child, scripted highly effective language about goals and benefits toward the parent, and many opportunities to ‘sit down and share money saving strategies’ (On your own program, which you set the prices on!).
  6. The contract conversion sale. Here is where you try to use the child as an emotional pawn to get into the parent’s monthly budget. Your goal is to get them to agree to the highest monthly payment for the longest term possible. If you are not confident in your salesmanship or your previous efforts to cause the parent to suspend their reasoning abilities, you might have to settle for six months to a year. But make no mistake, your main goal is 2 to 3 years of payments ranging from $150 per month to $300 per month depending on your area and your own self confidence. (Notice I didn’t say anything about ability as a martial artist or teacher? Your ultimate goal is to get some underpaid teen or college student to read the scripts or parrot video lessons they learned the night before in your kids classes.)

Okay enough role playing. You are no longer the school owner. But it does help you get into the mindset doesn’t it?

There are a lot of other layers of coersion at play here to differing degrees at different studios. And no one instructor will apply it in exactly the same way. But this is the industry standard. Unless you personally know the school owner, and sometimes even if you do, this will be the road they take you down.

Those businesses that are good at the scripts, will more than likely get you to sign. Those that aren’t may accept other options, but ultimately will attempt to get you as close to this norm as possible.

What Incentives Are You Giving These Instructors If You Sign These Multi-Year Contracts?

One reason that those pre-packaged systems work is that we are used to getting a side of fries with everything we order. We have been conditioned by media and advertising to want shallow slogans and surface meanings rather than deeper mysteries.

We have been primed and readied, and these martial arts business execs know it. They sell the plan to eager martial arts instructors with delusions of sitting in offices with their names on the door as others run their classes. These execs feed these desires with motivational speeches, videos, books, and their yearly grand, emotionally explosive martial arts national trade conference. These are usually held somewhere like Las Vegas.

Now, if you add the long term forced attendance of children, with no-content scripted classes that a teen can run, you have the makings of a sit in your office and let the dough roll in scenario. They won’t admit it, but that is the goal of many of these school owners. There are some out there that try to offer a good service, but many of them are co-opted by portions, and even by large portions of this business model.

It is a very rare occasion to have the owner of the school teach even a quarter of the classes in a school, no matter the size. If you see one, take a picture of that unicorn. It could be worth something. I am not talking about other employees that are trained instructors teaching. I am talking about students of the school who have been there long enough that the owner can recruit to do his or her job.

I can’t count the times parents have complained to me about teens or college kids teaching a class that they thought was going to be taught by a full-time professional adult. Why wouldn’t they think this? The trial program is was shown this way. That is the bait and switch.

These schools don’t pay enough to have someone who wants an actual career, so they get teens that have stuck around or college kids that have moved into the area from other similar martial arts schools. This is happening so that the owner can feel as if he or she is running a ‘real business’.

One way to stop this cycle is to not play the game. Don’t go to these schools. Your child will many times realize it was a farce in their teen years and regret ever attending. They will have quit a long time before this though. They will just feel embarrassed when others find out.

The Martial Arts Contract Takeaway…

What are your options? You can go ahead and do it. Sign the contract. If you have a large disposable income, there will be some enjoyment in these classes for sure. Every kid loves McDonald’s right?

Or, you could just not. This system has grown into what it is because many people have taken the ‘just do it’ option. It is effort to find a good school that will allow you short term up front payments for 3 to 6 months at a time. It is a constant evaluation process. It is effort to convince good instructors to take on one more class in their personal teaching schedule just for your kids or together with groups of their friends.

It is effort to then take your child somewhere else if the instructor is suddenly changed. But if all parents do this school owners will have to start teaching their own classes and parents won’t have to resort to it so often.

Holding these martial arts school owners accountable to what children actually need is unfortunately up the the individual parents. These instructors have gotten away with doing whatever they wanted to for too long because parents just weren’t in the know.

Strap on your gear and get in the fight, for your child. Your future self, child, and wallet will thank you.

Mathew Booe

Mathew Booe is a father of four, husband to Jackie since 1994, retired international competitor with over 50 wins, an international seminar instructor, a master instructor of hundreds of Little Ninjas each week, and the one bringing you the great content like you just read. Sign up for the newsletter to hear about his upcoming books before they are released to the public.

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