Dojo: Senshin Center
Location: Dojo Address: 193 Turnpike Rd. Santa Barbara, CA.
Join Date: Feb 2002
Re: Beginners Retention Rates
Hi Alec, and others, - THIS IS WAY LONG.
Thank you very much Alec for your reply -- I see that perfectly now in your previous post. Additionally, I like your practice of reframing the question. I am hoping to use that in what follows.
If I may, I see some overlap between yours and George's post. Quoting you both, this is where I see the overlap:
Alec wrote: "My response was based upon the danger of trying to ‘attract' students which can lead to commercializing, diluting and reducing Aikido to make it palatable, instead of staying focused upon doing and teaching our best Aikido."
And George wrote: "Those with the largest dojo 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 think that real Budo is not compatible with mass transmission."
Continuing onward, to tie the thread together -- to make and eventually present a new "reframing" of the issue -- here is where I think George and I have overlapped -- on the issue of commitment.
George wrote: "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."
I had written: "That's why these attempts to make the art easier are in my opinion missing the point. What is hard about commitment is commitment itself. That's why, if you were to ask all the looky-loos, the hobbyists, the 3 monthers, etc., you see that they almost have nothing in their lives where commitment is practiced. By the time they get to your dojo to quit your Aikido, they've already quit a million things."
First, on the notion of authentic training vs. mass consumption…
In terms of reframing the issue, what happens if we apply a little Aiki to this (very commonly) accepted dichotomy (i.e. between real or authentic training and small dojo populations on the one hand and watered down or commercial training and large dojo populations on the other)? What if we reframe the question of "Do you want a watered down Aikido and a large number of students, or do you want an authentic Aikido and a small number of students?" What if we first ask, "Are these really our only choices?" Or better, what if we start by asking, "Why do we feel that this dichotomy is the only thing we can have before us -- what is holding this dichotomy together -- why does it make sense to us?" I imagine if we think a little bit, we would start to see that there are many reasons for abandoning this dichotomy as the way the world works.
For me, in a way, this dichotomy is kind of like asking, "Do you want to attack or defend?" or "Do you want to initiate or respond?" It would seem that Aiki finds ways of offering "third" alternatives -- as it has in these last two cases - such that the initial question, with its apparent "obviousness," ends up making no sense at all -- being seen as a trapping of our own inability to transcend dualistic thinking. I would propose that Aiki philosophy, in helping us to reframe this issue, cannot only free us from either of these poles, but that it can also free us from attempting to manifest that ever-elusive utopian medium that is thought to exist between these two poles -- which many schools are now struggling to find. To do that, first, let us poke some holes in the assumed contrast that is thought to exist between authentic training and commercial training.
In that light, I think it is good we are talking about retention, and not, for example, attraction. Attraction, I think will make us too defensive, and thus too unwilling to do without our contrasting poles. This is even more true now since many authentic schools do the commercial tactic of offering beginner programs, free gi, free membership, free weapons, etc., when you SIGN UP NOW! Let us face it, we as Aikido folk have a lot at stake in keeping these poles -- they do a lot for us in addressing our fears and desperation. They are kind of like a god we can blame things on, that we can use to deny things that might be of our own responsibility. You know? In other words, for example, they allow us to fail at setting up a dojo, establishing a lineage, etc., but all the while being better for that failure -- "I failed because my Aikido was too authentic." Etc. It will not be easy to get beyond these poles, in other words. However, as hard as it is going to be, retention is one of the ways it can be made "easier."
I think retention is a good way into finding a third alternative -- something that transcends this dualistic thinking. Let us start by being critical of the contrast said to exist by acknowledging that commercial schools do not thrive because of their capacity to retain students. It is not true that there are schools out there that have a watered-down training, etc., and that thus do not have the same low retention rates that we face in our own dojo. Additionally, it is inaccurate to believe that commercial schools remain financially viable because they retain students. Rather, they remain financially viable because they can capitalize upon the high turnover rate that normally plagues most "authentic" martial art schools. Where they put all of their effort is in attracting new students and in continuing a cash-flow by obtaining the monies that come with the new memberships/contracts, the sale of needed (new) equipment, and the meeting of various institutional costs (e.g. testing, etc.) Quite contrary to popular belief, commercial schools do not have any more insight into the problem of retention than the average Aikido dojo. The difference between the commercial school and the Aikido dojo is this: Commercial schools do not even really bother to try to remedy retention rates. In fact, in some cases, a school might be more financial viable if old students quit at black belt/instructor level! In short, a reframing of the issue seems in order because it is not true that commercial schools do not also show the same retention rates (i.e. most folks quitting between three and six months). Thus, they also do not show that watered down training curriculums work to address retention rates. The difference in terms of retention rates between commercial schools and Aikido dojo (as we are all understanding such a phrase here) is that the former uses said rates to their advantage (i.e. using the high turnover rate to produce a constant cash flow) while the latter chooses to be victim to those rates (for admirable reasons, of course).
Sure, in commercial schools, there are limited efforts, like ranking, colored belts, uniform qualifications, advanced curriculums, etc., and commercial tactics like these do assist somewhat with retention rates. Nevertheless, these tactics are far from foolproof, and thus no successful commercial school expects much of them. The short-term goal is never as successful as one would imagine when it comes to the commercial retention of students. Successful commercial schools know this. They also know that such tactics work primarily on the immature of mind and spirit -- which is why they work better in the children's program than in the adult program. The funny part is this: We see these same things in supposedly non-commercial Aikido schools as well. For example, many Aikido schools -- schools shooting for authenticity - test. This they do this, and claim authenticity, even though failure is highly unlikely, even though constant personal "extenuating circumstances" enter into the final judgment, etc. They also rely on strangers (a person even less likely to fail someone) to judge someone else's practice, while they cap everything up with statements like, "I really enjoyed your test…" Commercial schools do this same thing. Continuing onward…
Aikido schools -- schools shooting for authenticity -- also use rank. They get some bullsh.t system in place, thought to be authentic, but that never has anyone sitting at one rank for the rest of their lives -- everyone moves up, everyone pushes everyone up (such that rank is more about attendance and duration of attendance than it is about the acquisition of skills). It is a system where no one ever gets demoted for getting out of shape, for being debilitated, or for starting to suck, etc. Additionally, though considered authentic, early ranks are considered meaningless, freebies, and later ranks are floating somewhere between the same meaningless and some abstract notion of symbolic value; etc. Finally, many authentic Aikido dojo use hakama donning and weapons training in the same exact way that a commercial school might use a blue colored gi, a school patch, or the Amercian flag belt and matching headband and the secret ninja nunchuku form.
In the end, in most cases, there is not this great contrast going on between commercialism and authenticity. When you combine this with the fact that commercial schools, water-down programs and all, show no more control over retention rates than those of us that are trying to train FOR REAL, well, it certainly does seem that a reframing of the issue is in order. The structural supports of the dichotomy simply do not exist in real life. If they seem real to us, I would suggest it is most likely because our own fears and pride are tangled up in the dichotomy itself -- just like they might be in the dichotomies "attack or defend" and "initiate or respond."
This brings me again to the issue of commitment. Like George, I believe that commitment is the main issue when it comes to the problem of retention. However, I think we differ in what we have said thus far when I suggest that the cultivation of commitment is the responsibility of the dojo. In my opinion, traditional schools, authentic training programs, make the cultivation of commitment an integrated part of the overall dojo culture. This is totally different from the commercial dojo -- whom like other Aikido dojo sees commitment as being the responsibility of the student. In short, truly authentic training is going to involve both the gaining of a capacity to train over the long haul and character development. This is because there can be no skill development without either of these things existing. The virtue of commitment is the meeting place of these two objectives.
I cannot see how anyone can claim to be part of authentic training when commitment is expected and not cultivated. Rather than comparing things to sports and/or other hobbies, I think the closest thing to authentic Budo training are the religious callings -- in terms of commitment. For example, when you want to be a monk, sure, a certain level of calling is expected, but there are technologies of the self in place to both verify that calling and/or to deepen it. Why? Because part of deepening that calling is to have it challenged. To challenge commitment without cultivating it, or to challenge commitment outside of cultivating it, is simply irresponsible. In way, to act thusly is nothing more than training folks to quit. This is exactly what is going on in all the short-term goals that both commercial dojo and many Aikido dojo share. They all work not to cultivate commitment, but rather to postpone it. So, in a way, they are training folks to quit by cultivating them to not have commitment.
Please let me offer a few elements from our own paradigm for dealing with retention rates -- for cultivating commitment. I will also speak briefly on their underlying context -- which is vital for them to function as designed. I hope that one will see that it is not only possible to have authentic training and high retention rates but that high retention rates are integral to authentic training. Most of these things are viewable to the general public on our website under "Dojo Information" -- click on "membership" and "Dojo FAQ."
Of course, we do away with all those short-term goal strategies. For example, we do not have tests, rank is one step above meaningless (not totally meaningless, because you can be demoted when skill/commitment drops, etc.), everyone wears hakama, everyone does the full curriculum (at their level), etc. The first step into the dojo for the beginner is our Trial Membership Period. This works on commitment because it marks outsider from insider. The problem with most dojo is that they let folks feel like outsiders, and thus be outsiders, even though they are in. In a way, the trial period is like when you transfer a fish from one tank to another -- leaving it in its baggy for a while. Folks are not let out of their baggy until we know they are capable of surviving the tank. It is our job to help them become capable. When it comes to the cultivation of commitment, this is a matter of how well we can have them follow the dojo's protocols regarding the Minimum Training Requirement, the Intended Training Protocol, and the Absence Courtesy. Respectfully, these things have folks learning to train at least two days a week, learning to integrate their life and training schedules, and taking responsibility for those days they cannot make but said they would.
However, these things do not happen in a vacuum of technical training. In other words, we do not expect that doing Ikkyo will cultivate a capacity for commitment. This is a big mistake the most Aikido dojo make. Rather, to support these policies, to assist them in their capacity to increase our own capacity for commitment, a whole culture works toward the same end. This, in my opinion, is where most dojo fail, even those that borrow some of our own technologies of the self. Most dojo think little beyond how to present a class topic and/or things like mat etiquette. However, a culture is made up of several factors -- all of which must work to reinforce each other. For example, we set the above-mentioned protocols in place, and they are supported by the information presented in our website and via our email list -- information that explains why they are there, how one should follow them, how one should face the difficulties that arise when following them, and even how to fail at following them, etc. This is then combined with things like true mentoring relationships, peer support, etc., which then are supported by things like how we understand the Nage/Uke dynamic, to how we design our tactical architectures, to how we develop our training drills, to how we understand Aikido, to how we practice Budo, etc. Underlying all of this is a notion of servitude that most dojo simply refuse to function at (or perhaps don't even consider possible). In the end, we have an extremely high retention rate -- one that no commercial school could ever compete with -- not even close. Additionally, of the five members that quit in the last year and half (one going to grad school, one to law school, one to college, one saying he needed a break, and one saying it's too hard for him to train and do school at the same time), four, the first four mentioned, still contribute dues on a regular to semi-regular basis (they also return to train when they can).
So, the question, in my opinion, is not "Do we train authentically and suffer low retention rates or do we train in-authentically and gain high retention rates?" Rather, the question is, "How do we make high retention rates part of an authentic practice?" The answer, "By cultivating the virtue of commitment in the dojo via some very well-designed technologies that can be supported by a equally well-designed culture." This answer is important from a dojocho's point of view -- because there are financial ramifications to low retention rates, especially if you will not participate in the commercial tactics of attraction. This answer is also important from a teacher's/practitioner's point of view since low retention rates means that one's home base will never function at high enough a level to be a true research field.