Black Belt Eyes are natural and good. I have them to this day. It’s just important that we be aware of when they might be getting in the way of what we are trying to accomplish, which is to attract and keep students. 

In the early months of MATA, my art director Scott Kelby and I created a black-and-white ad of a student throwing a perfect jump sidekick under a great headline, “Kids Don’t Seem to Mind Our Summer School.” The ad was a big hit. Schools reported 40 to 60 phone calls, more than they had ever received. Some members, though, wanted to cancel because they didn’t do that technique. Others complained because they wore white uniforms, but the kid in the ad was in a white gi. This is a classic example of Black Belt Eyes.

Black Belt Eyes illustrate how the Core Dynamics are reflected in what we do. In most cases, Black Belt Eyes are based upon false assumptions. For instance, with the jump sidekick ad, the guys who canceled may have feared that a mom would bring the ad in and say, “I want to enroll my child, but first show me this kick.” Or, “Do you have that uniform in white, like this ad?” Of course, that never happens, but we are so deeply connected to our systems that our Black Belt Eyes often get in the way of our more useful Market Eyes. Black Belt Eyes assumed people would see they wore a different color uniform or wouldn’t recognize the technique. Market Eyes are the eyes of your potential students, who don’t know a jump sidekick from a jumping jack.

When Black Belt Eyes see an ad with a jump sidekick, they are drawn to the most important aspect of the ad for black belts. It’s not the headline, the copy, or the offer. Black Belt Eyes will check to make sure the kid has his foot bladed and the other foot is tucked. That’s not a bad thing. It reflects your standards as a black belt. But if you choose not to run that ad because you don’t do jump kicks, then your Black Belt Eyes may have cost you 40 to 60 phone calls which should have converted to 20 to 30 new students.

Black Belt Eyes work against you when you assume that a person with little or no martial arts experience will feel the same about it as you do.

A Black Belt Eyes ad will have someone getting kicked in the head. The owner knows that one of life’s simple pleasures is wrapping your foot around someone’s head with a hook kick or round kick. The readers, however, with their Market Eyes, may translate that image into what will happen to them at that school. They can’t even imagine getting their leg up that high, so they are not identifying with the kicker.

Black Belt Eyes tell the market what it needs, rather than listening to the market and giving it what it wants. Black Belt Eyes show that we care about what we do. They are not bad, but you have to be aware of them. Most of all, recognize when they get in your way.

Has a spouse or significant other made a suggestion about your school or how you teach? What was your reaction? I know mine was essentially ‘Who the heck are you to tell me, the black belt, about martial arts?’ The key, though, is they don’t care about martial arts; they care about you. They usually represent Market Eyes, and they are almost always right.

Other examples of Black Belt Eyes are:

Using your style name as a headline, or worse, a school name. This is a huge assumption that the reader knows how your style translates to benefits for them.

Using a logo that looks like martial arts hieroglyphics. If your logo contains a fist, a yin/yang, a circle, a triangle, Asian lettering, or a bug, you may have Black Belt Eyes. As quickly as you can, seek professional help with the MATA Logo Design service at

Listing techniques in your marketing, rather than benefits. This may disappoint you, but the odds are miniscule that someone seeing an ad that touts Hun Gar 3 Step Waza will exclaim to his wife, “Honey! Hun Gar 3 Step Waza! Just what I’ve always wanted!” Only your Black Belt Eyes will know what that means.

Listing your tournament wins, hall of fame inductions, or that you trained the military police. Black Belt Eyes assume people want to know that you are an accomplished black belt. No one cares. Truthfully. Mike Tyson is a great boxer, but I don’t want him teaching my kids. Study the ads for private schools. They don’t list the teachers’ résumés. Market Eyes want to know what you can do for them or their children.

Having long classes. The assumption is that more is better. The truth is that better is better. If more were better, a four-hour class would be better than a two-hour class. People are busy, and it’s presumptuous to assume that your class is so important it has to take two hours of their day. Most people have 16 waking hours per day. Two hours is over 10 percent of that day. Good instructors can teach a great class and produce outstanding black belts using one-hour classes. If your classes are longer than, reduce them to one hour. Your students will not complain. They will thank you.

Keeping archaic exam requirements that are important to you, not the student. When I was a student, you had to break two boards with a reverse punch, round kick two boards, and running jump side kick over two people to break three boards. This was for the blue belt to 4th degree (kyu or kup) brown belt and usually occurred about a year into training. 

I opened my school with the same requirements. I have great video of my black belts like Kathy Marlor breaking and bouncing off boards during these marathon exams. When the children’s invasion began in the mid-1980s, those requirements became a real problem. Eight- and ten-year-olds have no business doing those types of breaks. So I dropped board breaking as a requirement and added board-breaking seminars that the students could pay to attend. I turned a negative element of the exam process into a fun profit center. To do that, I had to overcome my Black Belt Eyes.

Conducting marathon exams. During the days of my marathon Saturday exams, it seemed as though we measured the quality of an exam by the number of ambulance calls. I thought it was important for students to deal with the stress of the high-pressure, marathon exams, because it would help them deal with the stress of self-defense—which is just dumb. I also waited until enough people were ready before I held the exam. This is classic Black Belt Eyes combined with the Control Factor.

In time, I switched to monthly exams (stripes and belts) that were held in class. This greatly increased retention and student progress, and reduced stress.

Displaying weapons on the wall or in the office. You may love weapons, but to the market, a wall full of knives, swords, and spears looks like a weapons cache. Mothers, in particular, do not respond well to the prospects of their darling child being exposed to these instruments of death.

Displaying photos of yourself hitting, getting hit, or breaking. One school had a photo of the instructor being front kicked, full power, in the groin. His Black Belt Eyes felt that the photo showed he could withstand any blow. My Market Eyes made me wince and turn away. There is nothing interesting, appealing, or tasteful about such a photo. Take down the 1989 photos of you, and replace them with pictures of your happy students. It’s OK to have a shot of yourself; just make sure it’s tasteful and professionally shot.

Media coverage, such as magazine covers or newspaper articles, are also fine. Tip: If you are on a TV show, have someone take a photo that includes the cameras. This is a good way to get mileage out of a TV appearance. You can’t post a video on your wall, but this type of photo shows you were on a TV show. Media appearances build confidence in students and prospects. Photos of you breaking flaming bricks don’t.

Having a smelly school. This could be called Black Belt Nose. When prospects walked into my school, their eyes watered and their faces contorted from the sweaty stench soaked into our carpet. I used to tell them with pride, “We earned that smell . . .” Not good.

Sparring too soon. Black Belt Eyes say, “Sparring prepares you for self-defense.” Market Eyes say, “That’s scary, and it hurts.” Few things lead to high dropouts faster than sparring. Sparring is important, and I love it. But the smartest curriculum adjustment I ever made was to push back the time when students had to spar. Rather than after three months, which was how I was raised, it became eight months. During those eight months, we work on limited sparring drills and defense and prepare the students how to spar before they are thrown in the ring.

I made the change after years of having the following scenario played out too often. Typically, a female student would enroll and soon become an A student. She was in every class. She was at every function. She volunteered to help. She changed her work hours or made changes in her life to make sure she could do karate.

This lasted for three months until she reached the rank where sparring was required. Then I wouldn’t see her again until running into her at the mall or a restaurant. “Sally! Great to see you. We sure miss you in class.” “Oh, um, hi, Mr. Graden . . . Yeah, I’ve been really busy lately. Gotta go.”

If I had a Truth Translator the real message would be, “I trusted you. I really trusted you and embraced your school into my life. Then you put me up against that guy, and I had no idea what to do. He hit me on my nose, and it hurt. I will not trust you again.” When I tell this story in seminars, the classic Black Belt Eyes vs Market Eyes exchange reveals itself, as the owners’ wives and girlfriends elbow them in the ribs. “I told you!”

Some guys argue that sparring is important. I agree. However, how can you teach sparring to someone who drops out?

Today people, especially women, are taught never to hit someone. We have to be patient and help them get comfortable with the idea of hitting and getting hit. We have to give them strategies to get out of the way of a bigger, faster opponent and, most of all, we have to drill them over and over so they are ready to spar when they reach that level.

Setting heavy traditional requirements in the first year. If your white-belt class consists of traditional stances, blocks, and forms, you are going to have a tough time keeping students. Give your students material they can use right away.

We pushed all of our traditional tae kwon do techniques back to green belt. White, gold, and orange belt were spent on working on pad drills, practical self-defense, sparring, and footwork drills. The students loved it. They felt a sense of competence right away.  As important as they are, the traditional martial arts are very hard to learn. By front-loading your curriculum with your core traditional material, you put some of the most difficult techniques to learn with your most inexperienced students.

This is especially true for children. Forms were created by highly disciplined adults to be taught to other highly disciplined adults. They were not designed to be taught to eight-year-olds with ADHD.

Teaching a new student a front stance and then trying to layer on a down block-lunge punch is not only hard, but you almost have to apologize for the lack of practicality. We say things like, “You would never really block this way, but this is a block against a kick to the groin.” That, my friend, are Black Belt Eyes in action.

Having too many “shoulds” in your curriculum. It’s natural for a new school owner to have dreams of creating a great martial arts school. He dreams that his black belts will be the best, and people will flock to his school. When this enterprising black belt sits down to design the ultimate curriculum, he thinks to himself, “Hmmm. My students should learn the traditional basics. They should be able to do a form or two each belt. They should know the basic traditional stances and blocks. They should be able to do all the kicks and punches. They should learn some self-defense. They should be able to do one-steps and spar as well.”

There are two consequences to this line of thinking.

a. Each requirement will have to be covered in class to prepare students for their exams. 

b. With so many requirements, students will have less time to work on each, so quality will be difficult to obtain and maintain.

When you have too many requirements for each belt, you are strapping yourself to covering those techniques in each class. If you don’t cover them, students will not be ready for exams, and it won’t be their fault. If you have 20 requirements for an orange-belt exam, you have to spend a large amount of class covering these 20 techniques. With that many requirements being covered each class, your creativity is hindered. Your classes will tend to be the same. This level of repetition is good only to the degree you don’t lose students to boredom.

The key is to require only the base skills on exams. You’ll have to decide what those base skills are. You can still teach the other 100 techniques you think students “should” learn, but you don’t box yourself in as a teacher. For instance, I can teach spin hook kick to a class of blue belts but not require it on an exam. It’s not a core technique, but it is fun.

Self-defense escapes can also fall into this category, though it depends. Self-defense is at the core of most programs, but typically, it’s not taught very well, and it’s hard to practice. There is a lot of speculation, “I do this, which will make him do that . . .” in self-defense that is style based. Realistically, a headlock escape practiced at 50 percent speed and power works 100 percent of the time. A headlock escape practiced at 75 percent speed and power works less. But how well does it work when both students are going at it 100 percent? Most of us never do that, so who knows?

Students have a finite amount of time to practice your curriculum. If they have 20 techniques to master in order to pass your orange-belt exam, they will spend half the amount of time on each technique than if they only had 10 techniques. For example, in a 12-week testing cycle you expect students to attend class twice a week. This is a total of 24 hours in class. In each class, you devote 20 minutes to requirements. That is total of 8 hours working on test requirements. Some requirements, like forms, take much more time to master, while others, like a ridge hand, take less time.

It only makes sense that a student who has 10 requirements to learn in 8 hours will spend twice as much time on each one as a student who has 20 to learn. Conversely, an instructor will have twice as much time on each of 10 requirements in 8 hours than one who has to cover 20. Odds are, the students with 10 requirements will have a higher competence level than those with 20.

Our Black Belt Eyes lead us to believe that our students will be good because they know more, but again, more is not better. Better is better. Fewer requirements make better students and aid retention, because students who feel they are doing well are happy students and stay in the school. Competence leads to confidence.

Just remember that Market Eyes pay the bills. The next time your spouse or significant other makes the suggestion that tying students together with a belt and having them spar may not be a good move, take a deep breath, listen, and say, “Thank you.”