A couple of weeks ago I posted an article entitled “Does your club need a children’s martial arts programme?” outlining the benefits of running a children’s programme specifically for younger students. This article will build on the previous one and outline the specific areas you may want to consider when constructing or purchasing a kids martial arts programme.

1. Student development aims

As the saying goes ’Start with the end in mind’. Work out what you want to achieve with the programme and then work backwards. What skills or abilities do you want these students to have when they move up to the next programme? Don’t just think of just technical but physical, social, academic and psychological skills too. Also consider the big picture. What is going to help the child’s development long term both inside and outside your martial arts classes.

2. Training syllabus and delivery

More times than i care to remember i have seen coaches sell cute Lil Dragons uniforms to their young members and then just teach their regular adult based syllabus. While you may keep some of the most committed students, but most will drop out due to the content not being age appropriate or in line with their development needs. If you have read anything from me before you will already know the number one rule of coaching children – ‘Children are not mini adults’.

The classes should include a mixture of FUNdamental movement skills (FMS), basic martial arts activities (blocking, stances, striking etc) and psychosocial skills. FMS covers locomotive, object control and stability skills. These are normally broken down in to running, jumping, striking, kicking, throwing, catching and the ABCs (Agility, Balance, Coordination and Speed).

There are a few different ways of delivering your curriculum but the most popular tends to be the traditional, teach all grades in the same class. While this seems like a logical approach for the student to work through the grades, it does pose the problem of teaching many different levels of content at the same time, in the same class. There are a few alternative approaches one of which is something called a rotating curriculum. This is where all students learn and grade using the same segment of curriculum. Using this method, the higher the students rank, the more of the curriculum they have covered.

3. Gradings, belts and certificates

We are a firm believer that at this age, the belt system should be used to model and reward effort and process (see Carol Dweck’s research on Growth Mindset). Although it makes sense to have a different techniques and exercises for different grades, due to children developing at different rates, the level to which each student can perform should be irrelevant. If you firmly believe that failing 3 year old Freddy because his high block wasn’t as good as Jonny’s, you maybe missing the point of a programme for children. While I admit there is evidence to suggest a little trauma can be helpful longer term (see “The rocky road to the top: why talent needs trauma“) it is probably a good idea to leave this until an age that they have developed their Grit (see research on Grit by Angela Duckworth).

In our programme, each student that gets up in front of their peers and performs the required curriculum passes the grading. They are then presented a professionally printed certificate and a new 140cm belt. We did start off with double wrap belts but the custom 140cm belt stay fastened longer and are easier for the student to learn how to tie.

4. Class structure

My suggestion is that classes should be no shorter than 30 minutes and no longer than 60 minutes. If in doubt, use 45 minutes. To retain the children’s attention and focus, activities in the classes should change every 5-10 minutes. Alternating between martial arts based exercises and multi skills / FMS games can usually help keep the students engaged for the duration of the session. Intentional queuing to help develop good social skills is fine but this should be removed as soon as possible. With our older children (5-6) we also start to introduce pad holding and working with partners. This is a skill like anything else and the children need time and guidance to learn how to be a good pad holder / training partner. 

5. Staffing

Teaching children can be tough. Even with a good curriculum written specifically for children. If you don’t have the necessary skills, experience and motivation to teach this age group, you are in for a steep learning curve. If you don’t want to teach this age group yourself, you are going to need to train one of your members of staff to deliver the sessions. Children’s coaches come in many different shapes, sizes and personality types. While it is great if you have someone in mind that is technically very able, the three attributes that are not up for negotiation are caring, the motivation to be a great children’s martial arts coach and buckets of patience. 

As a guideline i would suggest a maximum child to coach ratio of 7-1 for your 4-6 year olds. I wouldn’t advise teaching these classes with less than 2 instructors. I would always suggest that the parents stay on site for toilet duties and the occasional ‘ouchie’.

6. Coaching documentation and training

Everything associated with delivery of your children’s martial arts programme should be documented in some form of manual (online or offline). Even if you are delivering all the classes yourself, documenting your programme will help you deliver a consistent service. This manual can also double up as a training aid when you start to take on assistant instructors.

7. Equipment and facilities

Due to the age of the children, where possible i would suggest that the classes are delivered on a matted floor. You will obviously need access to toilets and somewhere for the parents to sit. There are a few reasons to have a separate viewing area for the parents but the main one for us that our classes contain an element of Discovery Learning. We want the children to start to build a basic level of autonomy and find their own solutions to problems.

You have a massive array of equipment to choose from but if you work from remote locations you can do with out many of them. The children love it when you introduce new equipment but don’t forget to focus on the objective of the session plan rather than just using equipment for the sake of it. Here are a few of the ones we tend to use in our full time centres:-

Equipment for children’s martial arts programme
  1. Cones
  2. Marker spots
  3. Hoops
  4. Smartie pads
  5. Kick paddles
  6. Agility ladders
  7. Crash mats
  8. Blockers
  9. Hurdles
  10. Balance beams
  11. Foam balls
  12. Bean bags
  13. Medicine balls
  14. Free standing bags

8. Programme values / mat chats

Key values should be at the heart of your children’s martial arts programme. Every key value should be accompanied with an explanation of why it is present and how the programme will promote it. These values could be created from your traditional martial arts values and/or modern theories such as Carol Dweck’s ‘Growth Mindset’ and Angela Duckworth’s ‘Grit’. Martial arts is synonymous with the skill of self control. To learn more about this, read ’The Marshmallow Test’ by Walter Mischel.

One way that martial arts clubs have made the values more accessible to the younger children is by chatting to the children about them using mat chats. This involves sitting the children down for a few minutes and chatting to them about a specific value. We have iron on badges made up that the children can earn by answering questions at the end of the chat.

9. Parent communications

It is obvious to most instructors that keeping the students engaged in your classes is important but what is often overlooked is the relationship with the parents. In the majority of cases it is the parent that seeks out new activities for their children, performs all logistic duties and pays for the activities. When the children have a little wobble about getting ready to set off to class, it’s often the parents that are our last line of defence. Building good communication channels with the parents will pay you back many times over.

10. Branding

Branding is key to the success of your children’s martial arts programme and its importance should not be underestimated. The Lil Dragons brand created by Kimber Hill has been around for almost two decades and is still very popular today. When we talk about branding, we are referring to the image created in your customers mind when they hear the unique name of your business or programme. Your brand allows you to differentiate between the other services in the market and can help you build and retain a loyal customer following.

11. Uniforms and merchandise

When a parent puts a martial arts uniform on their child for their first time it’s great to see their reaction. They usually comment on how cute their son / daughter looks while taking photos for social media before they head for the mats feeling like they now fit in with all the other children. You have several options when it comes to cladding your little ninja’s but whatever you choose, make sure it is in line with your brand.

The first option is the standard Lil Dragons uniform. This is probably the easiest choice as they have been around for a long time and manage to tick all the boxes other than carrying your personal brand. While not carrying your personal brand may only feel like a small concession, if other local clubs are using the same brand and not doing a great job, it is easy for the public to mistake you for the same club.

The second option is to use a different branded children’s uniform that’s already on the market. To be honest, there are not many good ones to choose form that combine good design while providing space for you to personalise them.

The third option is to have your own designed and imported. This is the route we are taking but even using a UK broker it can be more complicated than you think.

Not only can quality merchandise help reinforce a brand, it can also help the club develop it’s identity. There are many different items available but t-shirts and a hoodies are a good place to start. One process i can recommend is asking your customers what they would like to be able to purchase and then selling it to them. Get samples done first and then take pre orders. Having a set print run will also add some exclusivity to your items.

12. Marketing plans and materials

There are many different ways of marketing your programme. Here are 3 online and 3 offline methods that you should try if you are not already using them. If you have the time, it is also worthwhile planning out your marketing at least on a quarterly basis. If you get to the stage that you are kicking ass with these 6 methods, by all means add others to the list.

Online

  1. A page on your web site dedicated to teaching martial arts to children with Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
  2. A facebook page you use to boost non sales content and paid ads
  3. Regular emails to a list of people that have shown an interested in your programme

Offline

  1. Ask students to refer a friend when they first sign up, pass a grading, complete a challenge, are promoted to a higher level programme
  2. An annual leaflet drop via the 30 most local schools advertising a free training day
  3. Signage outside your venue (even if its a banner you take down when your class is complete)

I know some people will want more information on certain parts of the plan but i hope to expand on this on the website over time. Please feel free to send me your feedback on bits you liked and bits you wasn’t so keen on. I did feel that at certain points I was stating the obviously but I just didn’t want to assume everyone knew them.