Re: Beginners Retention Rates
Retention rate at a dojo is very much dependent on the ability of the students to identify with the teacher. The average person walking through that door is not particularly hard core. Aikido attracts a disproportionate share of folks who, if they weren't doing Aikido, wouldn't be doing martial arts at all.
So these nice, usually middle class, pretty well educated folks come through the door and if they don't encounter someone at the helm who they can identify with, they won't stay. It has almost nothing to do with the quality of the instruction. When Saotome Sensei's DC dojo opened back in '76, he had around thirty students for the first couple of years. That dojo didn't grow until he had plugged in a bunch of yudansha to teach the lower level classes. Over the years the dojo grew as more hard core people moved there to train with Sensei and the small retention rate eventually still managed to fill the dojo.
I find the same thing. My take on Aikido is very committed and very serious. I don't do this as a hobby. But as my good friend, John Messores Sensei, has often said, most people doing the art are hobbyists. They don't see themselves as becoming Rokudan or opening their own schools. A big goal is to simply get a Black Belt (and most don't stay to do that). As far as my own experience goes, the best instructors I have encountered do not have the largest dojos. Those with the largest dojos have accomplished the goal of making the largest number of students comfortable being there. That has little to do with turning out good martial artists or transmitting the art on some deep level. In fact I think the two goals are somewhat incompatible.
I don't think this is just in Aikido either. Every activity has this. Look at women's gymnastics, which can hardly be called "women's" as the top performers are all young girls. Most of them started in some local gymnastics program which was geared to mass transmission of the basics. A smaller number stayed to go into the advanced class. Eventually the weeding out process left a small group that was perhaps capable of performing at world class levels. In the end, the ones that want to really hit the top level of skill enroll in a program which only accepts the top people and they train ar a level and with a severity that the majority never would or could have done. Every individual sport has this. Look at tennis... Most folks do it as a game which is fun to do. It is strictly recreation for them. What the professionals do has almost nothing to do with what the average person is doing. They couldn't even be on the same court together.
So the teachers of Aikido position themselves in this hierarchy very much based on their own skill and experience. If they are happy where they are, generally content with their own progress, enjoy sharing what they know with their students, and have the basic personal skills to communicate with others well, they will have a successful dojo.
If the teacher is not content, is always looking for a better way to develop himself and his students, confuses his students by changing his approach periodically, seems to be trying to transmit a level of the art that requires too much commitment to achieve for the average person, that teacher's dojo may have excellent training and the students may function at a high level when compared to their experience levels but the dojo will also be relatively small. This is certainly the case with my own school. The Aikido that I am interested in pursuing and in turn transmitting simply requires too much effort for most people. They leave, all the while telling you haw great it was, all the while saying they'll be back when they have more time and their schedules change. They are still saying that eight years later when you run into them on the street... They still talk about coming back but they won't (or if they do, and I have had a couple folks leave and return three or four times, it is just a replay of the first experience).
Saotome Sensei once gave me some pointers on how to grow the dojo. I replied that my "model" for my own school was his dojo in DC in which I had trained. I wanted to achieve that level of training at my own school. he replied "You can't do that and survive, especially on the West Coast". He was, of course, talking about my being a professional instructor. But I didn't open a dojo in order to make a lot of money. I started teaching full time so I could spend more time focusing on my Aikido. I have no interest in creating a dumbed-down version of the art which will make large numbers of people feel comfortable. Consequently, I have only a relatively small number of students. Most people who come through the door leave. It's not even that we are too severe. People almost never get injured training at our school... it's just that the picture of Aikido that I present is too overwhelming for most people and they leave. I couldn't figure out how to teach what I know without doing that so I stopped worrying about it. I simply focus on training the higher level folks who have stuck out the process. I have people travel across the country at great expense to train with me. Most of the folks that travel to my place or invite me to their own places are long term, fairly high ranked folks who appreciate what I have to offer. That's clearly where I do the best job, not working with beginner people.
I see this a lot. There are folks who are great Beginner teachers, who attract large numbers of students and make them feel excited, welcome, supported, etc. Then there are people who are much better suited to training people who have already passed through that early stage or who come in with serious intent right out of the shoot. Very seldom do I see these people being the same people.
I think that real Budo is not compatible with mass transmission. A certain experimentation can be always be done to see if you can do a better job of bringing beginners along... but in the end it still comes down to commitment and most people are only willing to give it so much. So the choice becomes, do we shrink the art to the requirements of the majority of the students, or do we present the art to the very best of our abilities and simply wait for the folks that really care as much as we did to find us? My way is clearly the second way. Given the direction I see Aikido taking both in the States and in Japan it certainly seems to me that many folks have chosen the former option.
Last edited by George S. Ledyard : 03-29-2006 at 09:05 AM.