Wednesday, January 7, 2015

How To Get More Women In Your Martial Arts School

This is a topic that comes up a lot:  How can we attract more female students?  How do we retain them?
Image found here.

Here's my thoughts on the subject.


Contrary to what you may believe, the reasons women take the marital arts are as varied and complex as the reasons men do.  These include:
  • Physical fitness
  • Self Defense
  • Self Confidence
  • Discipline
  • Mental fitness
  • Fun
  • Challenge of competition
  • Overcoming bullies when young
  • Fantasies of being a ninja or action hero, just like in the movies

I've noticed, however, a preponderance of marketing in the martial arts aimed at women primarily focusing on two of these reasons:
  1. Self Defense (more specifically, rape prevention)
  2. Physical Fitness
I have seen far too many fliers, ads, etc. aimed at starting up women's martial arts courses (or the six week self defense courses many of us run) that are almost always using the message "Don't get raped by studying with us".  Often it's a woman in a poorly lit parking lot being menaced by some shady guy in a hoodie.

Now, there's a lot of problems with that message, but mainly it's just poor marketing tactics. Scaring your customers into your door probably is only going to work for a very small population.  By focusing there (and only there), you are ignoring the larger audience that might be interested for all of the reasons I listed above and are turned off by the "You'll get raped if you don't study with us" message.

To be fair, hanging out here at 2 am alone is probably unwise,
 even if you do know kung fu.

Image found here.

Instead of trying to scare your customers, why not use imagery of real-looking, average women using your real martial art to actually use self defense against a generic big scary dude in a well lit area.  Let your audience fill the blank in their own minds ("self defense against rape" "self defense against scary ex-boyfriend" "self defense against Mean Sheila, the neighborhood bully, who lives next door.")

As for physical fitness.. this is true more often than not for fitness training in general, and I find it annoying.  It almost always features a very beautiful, incredibly physically fit young woman in a tank bra and very short shorts (or skintight pants) kicking or punching a bag.

Why not use a normal looking woman, maybe in your school's t-shirt and shorts (not short-shorts - regular shorts that go no higher than mid-thigh) or gi pants, doing the same thing?  Here's a crazy thought - include at least one image of a woman over 40!

So, I recommend that you think about the other reasons women train that I listed above, and show regular women doing that stuff, along with testimonials from current students in your marketing materials and in the conversation you have with potential students.

Please feel free to emphasize the fun aspect, ok?  We all know it's a huge amount of fun!  It's okay to tell people that!

Martial arts is WAY more fun than this.
Image found here.


First off, none of us like it when our personal space is invaded by strangers. Allowing strangers you don't know very well into your personal space to touch you in intimate ways is incredibly intimidating for many women, even if they want to learn a martial art (it's also intimidating for men, but I don't think as bad as it is for women, as men spend more time culturally in contact sports than women generally do).

Howdy stranger!
 Let me put your arm between my legs.

This is a huge hurdle, because there has to be a level of trust that this touching and invasion of space will not be sexualized.  I imagine this is probably the worst for the grappling arts.

Make sure your club doesn't have any pinups or sexualized imagery of men or women, does not allow sexual jokes or horseplay or language, does not allow displays of affection such as kissing and whatnot even with couples on the floor and any inappropriate non-martial arts touching is completely unacceptable. Avoid all of that in your social media channels and advertising too (and they'll find it, believe me).

I can hear men saying, "What, we can't have fun in the dojo?"  Well, that's not fun for lots of women (including me), and if you want all those things, you won't have many women in your dojo! I certainly won't train with you.

Working on making sure your club is one in which women can trust that their personal space won't be inappropriately violated is a HUGE thing you can do, not just to attract, but to retain female students. If you're not sure if it's right or not, ask for assessments from women who are not your friends/family/students and don't have any incentive to tell you what you want to hear.

It takes a lot of work to establish that trust with new students.  Think about your training progression and curriculum and make sure you have that in mind when starting new students.


To outsiders, martial arts training consists of beating the hell out of each other on a regular basis.  While this is true for a few arts I can think of, most of us train using modern methods and we do not seek to actually hurt each other in training.  Getting hurt is far less frequent than most people think.

Most people don't want to get hurt!

The idea of having to basically survive Fight Club versus bigger, stronger, far more skilled people weekly in order to train is completely unappealing to most people!

So talk about safely training, show how control in sparring works, demonstrate safety equipment.  Emphasize your school is not about getting hurt - don't avoid the fact that we do get hurt, but talk about all the things we do to mitigate it.

Well, at least my "karate chop" will be awesome.
As I've written before, the fear of injury is worse than the reality of it, but it's very hard to help newbies past the fear.  Make sure you have in place good reactions and coping mechanism when injury DOES happen in your school, including making sure things like band-aids, wraps, and ice packs are readily available.

For Pete's sake, do not have a "suck it up buttercup" attitude to injury. It's dumb.

By the way - you should know that it's not unusual for me to get asked when I go to my doctor or dentist covered in bruises (not unusual for me) for them to ask if things are okay at home and if I need help.  Yep, they're guessing that I might be a victim of domestic abuse (and I'm glad they do this for the women that DO need help). I find it incredibly annoying, personally, and I can see it as a deal-breaker for other women.


I've written about this before, but I want to reiterate - remove any reference female stuff being lesser, weak or unworthy.


CHILD CARE: This applies to single parents of all genders, but given that the more common situation is single mom with kids at home...  See what you can do to help with child care during class. Maybe you can start a "coop" babysitting service with other people in your club to mind Junior while Mom or Dad is on the floor training, turning an office or spare room into toy room or something.  This was a major obstacle for my husband and I when our youngest was little, and it absolutely influenced our decision on where to train.

FEMININE HYGIENE: It is very possible - especially for you poor souls who have to train in white gis on a regular basis - for our periods to start unexpectedly or for it to be heavier than we are prepared for, so we'll soil our pants as a result.  This is INCREDIBLY embarrassing!  Make sure your club has tampons and pads freely available, and heck, if you can have a couple of old spare pants available, that'd be going above and beyond (or at least advise your students to buy and pack an extra pair of gi pants in their bag).

REGULAR HYGIENE: Make sure your club is strong on cleanliness - on the mats, in the bathrooms, and personally.  Do not tolerate stinky dirty gis, feet, or students!

Like most of you, I would love to see more women training in the martial arts.  I know that it can be a very empowering and supportive environment (it totally has been for me, anyway).

Did I miss anything?  I'd love to know your thoughts!