Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Guest Post: How to Keep Adults Hooked on Your Taekwondo Class

Introduction by Ørjan: Josh Peacock is in my own opinion a great example of a Taekwondoin who does not only practise Taekwondo but also study it. I fist came into contact with him online several years ago when he co-authored some very interesting articles on the white dragon blog, and we have stayed in touch ever since. His blogs has all been featured under the "interesting blogs" list which you can see if you watch the desctop or full version of this blog on the right hand side and for good reason. A few years ago he wrote a lot on Poomsae applications which as you will know if you are a regular reader of this blog is something I am very interested in. The last two (or three?) years he has delved more into the teaching methods and training methods with a focus on developing real life skills (which I also find fascinating). Josh is one of the persons I seek out if I want to have my views challenged (in a positive constructive manner), and he has helped my own personal development and understanding of Taekwondo through our online discussions and his written articles. When he approached me and offered to do a guest post on my blog I jumped at the chance, and said yes imidiatly. I know I enjoyed reading this article and I am sure you as a reader will too :-) So read on if you'd like to see a little of what Josh is working on:

How to Keep Adults Hooked on Your Taekwondo Class

Adult Learning Requires a Different Approach

Taekwondo has a low rate of adult participation, relative to other combat sports like BJJ
and boxing. Taekwondo is most famous for benefiting children through a highly
structured class style, similar to the military. But does this approach cater to the unique
needs and motivations of adult learners?

My suggestion is no, and here’s why.

The Lessons Aren’t Immediately Valuable

Taekwondo’s military-like class structure often lends itself to a sort of “soft absolutism.”
What I mean is, instructors expect you to take their teaching at face value, with no
immediate explanation of its utility or practicality.

Not Enough Opportunities to Learn from Experience

Moreover, much of taekwondo training is very formal, such as one-step sparring and
poomsae practice. While these exercises emphasize technical perfection -- which is
a good thing -- there is no opportunity for “task failure.”

That is, while a learner might mess up a kick, the exercises don’t present an
opportunity to try and fail (or succeed) at completing a task.

Examples of tasks might be stopping a committed bull-rusher, or escaping from a wrist
grab that someone is making an honest attempt to hold you in.

The Learning Journey is Too Inflexible

The formality of taekwondo curriculum presents another problem for adult learners,
too. Sometimes, the curriculum is set in stone, and learners don’t have the opportunity
to explore what they most need or are most interested in.

Why are these things problematic for adult learners? To answer that, let’s examine 4 major
principles of adult learning science.

Knowles’ 4 Principles of Adult Learning

People often use the term pedagogy to refer to teaching in general, but it technically
refers to teaching children. In the late 20th century, an educator by the name of
Malcolm Shepherd Knowles defined adult learning by the term andragogy.

While pedagogy does see usage in a general sense, the two terms differ from each
other in significantways. Therefore, it’s important to study andragogy in particular
to develop your adult taekwondo curriculum and lesson plans.

To guide you, Knowles established 4 broad principles of andragogy:


Knowles observed that adults prefer to be involved in both the planning and evaluation
of the instructionthey receive. This differs sharply with children, who have no interest
in planning or evaluating what they are taught.

Let them take control.

As an instructor, you’re a subject matter expert. In reading the above, your first instinct
will no doubt be to think, “how can they plan their own instruction if they don’t know
what they need?”

Largely speaking, this is true. But there are ways to incorporate this principle into your
taekwondo instruction without throwing out belt requirements or strong instructor

At the beginning stages of learning, you will be leading the adult learner by the hand.
They have no concept of taekwondo, and so need strong guidance to grasp the

Now, once they have a concept of the basics, you can begin to put this principle into
greater practice. Let students sometimes choose what skills or techniques they’d like to
explore next.

The BJJ Model.

Oftentimes, adults are more interested in expanding upon and improving skills they
already have. I see this a lot in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ). Beyond white belt, BJJers start
to seek out greater amounts of free practice time -- usually an open mat -- to drill down
on the skills they’re most concerned with developing.
In fact, purple belt BJJers are notorious for skipping curriculum-style classes, and
spending the majority of their training time drilling what they’re interested in. BJJers at
this stage are competent in the fundamentals, and have become highly independent

Don’t be a dictator.

BJJ instructors who insist on rigid attendance to pre-set curriculum classes, and a focus
on the current techniques being taught, will often lose these purple belts to more
flexible BJJ programs.

A better course of action for an instructor would be to accommodate higher belts in
their journey. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek to guide them, since they will make
mistakes in developing their skill sets. But keep them involved in the planning process
as much as possible.

For taekwondo instructors, this might mean revisiting your intermediate and black belt
class curriculum. Keep a minimum “must know” techniques list, sure, but thin out your
curriculum and allow (encourage!) more self-exploration from your upper belts throughout
the year.

This is an excellent opportunity to reimagine your sparring classes. If you spend less time
on required curriculum, and more time on lightly structured sparring rounds, you afford
intermediate-to-advanced adult learners the opportunity to take ownership of their own
development during each round.

And ownership of your own development is always a good thing.

Let them rate your instruction.

As for evaluation, incorporating this into your adult program is easy. Periodically issue
surveys with rating systems, and open-ended questions, about the program and you as
an instructor.

To review, an open-ended question is a question to which you can’t simply answer yes
or no. It requires you to give it some thought, and answer with some degree of detail.

A good example of an open-ended evaluation question might be, “how do you feel
about John Smith’s instruction?” Another good example might be, “how do feel about
the value of the curriculum you’ve learned over the last year?”

Even better, and more scary, you might ask, “what would need to happen for you to
continue training with us for the next 5, 10, or 20 years?”

Don’t be offended by the suggestions offered -- this is a chance for you to improve!


Children will tolerate hours of theoretical instruction without any practical application.
Adults, however, no longer have such raw inquisitiveness or mental plasticity.

Adults learn by doing, like on-the-job training. Trying, failing, and trying again are the
fuel behind their learning and mastery of new skills.

Let them fail.

Humans also learn by making mistakes, especially adults. They need a chance to
apply a skill in real time. Failure applying that technique is an opportunity to reflect on
why it didn’t work and what needs improvement.

If learning by experience means learning by mistakes, then adults need a learning
environment that gives them ample try/fail cycles.

In the introduction, I called this process “task failure.” Task failure is when you attempt
to accomplish a goal, but fail due to inexperience and other types of mistakes. I also
call this process “try/fail cycles.”

Sure, messing up on the finer details of a poomsae or one-step are task failure in one sense.
But this type of task failure is only relevant to performing poomsae or one-steps.

Design stellar learning experiences using try/fail cycles.

When adults take martial arts, they are generally most interested in fitness and self-defense.

The task failure aspect of fitness takes care of itself -- whether it be gassing out too early
from poor breathing or diet, or repeating an exercise until your muscles give out.
Both provide valuable lessons.

However, I want to zoom in on the task failure aspect of self-defense training. There
are a lot of misconceptions about what constitutes good self-defense training, and
especially the type of training that will keep adults coming back.

First, let’s parse out the dynamics of a real-life self-defense situation. It involves,

  • An attacker committed to hurting you
  • An attacker committed to not letting you hurt him
  • Dynamic, unscripted tactics (random punches, kicks, etc.)

The type of practice that most closely mimics these dynamics is aliveness or live training.
Therefore, this type of training is the most relevant to self-defense.

Skeptical? Let’s review the underlying dynamics of sparring:

  • An opponent committed to striking or submitting you
  • An opponent committed to not letting you strike or submit him back
  • An opponent using dynamic, unscripted tactics to accomplish this

Most people think of free sparring when they see that term, but aliveness is much more
than all-out sparring.

Bring your classes to the next level with live training drills.

There’s a much safer, progressive, and more accessible form of aliveness training
called live drilling. It is also commonly referred to as “technical sparring” by kickboxers,
and “positional sparring” by Brazilian Jiu-jitsuka.

In live drilling, you set constraints that limit each drill to a certain range of combat and/or
techniques. It works similar to a game, with a defined beginning and ending point,
whereafter the drill is reset and the learners switch roles and/or gain another try/fail cycle.  
This type of training is not only safer because the technique range is limited, but
because the intensity is controlled, too. A given drill can be scaled to the needs of
the learner, involving as little as 10% resistance to 100% all-out resistance, within
the constraints of that drill.

Here is a good example of a live drill from BJJ:

Participant 1 starts on his back in a defensive position. His mission is to
recover guard or sweep his opponent.

Participant 2 starts from a dominant position, holding participant 1 in side control.
His mission is to establish full mount, or “tap” his partner with a submission hold.

The drill remains active until one or the other achieves his mission. Once the mission is
achieved, they stop, reset, and repeat the drill. Free rolling is not permitted.

Applied to taekwondo, a live drill might look like this:

Participant 1 is constrained to kicking and straight punches to the trunk.
His mission is to score at least 10 points before a 3 minute round ends.

Participant 2 is constrained to footwork, evasion, and blocking techniques.
His mission is to stop Participant 1 from scoring more than 10 points on him
over the course of a 3 minute round.

If participant 1 scores 10 points within the 3 minute round, he accomplishes
his mission. If participant 2 keeps him from scoring 10 points within that 3 minute
round, he accomplishes his mission. Sparring should be done with light to
medium contact. Free sparring is not permitted.

Using this methodology, you can devise an infinite amount of drills to work an unlimited
combination of skills. All it takes is a little bit of thought on what constraints to use.

Live drills offer the best learning experience for adults.

An attacker who wants to hurt you (but not let you hurt him) changes the nature of an
exchange. Mimicked, and made safer through live drilling, it also presents the perfect
opportunity to align the relevance principle with the practical needs of adults seeking
taekwondo for self-defense.

In other words, adult learners will be addicted to the fun, instructional experience of
live drills because it fulfills their need for experiential learning.


Adults sign-up for martial arts classes primarily to stay in shape and learn self-defense.
A good workout must be in order, then, as well as training that best prepares them to
defend themselves.

Returning to our discussion in the previous section, live training is the best type of
training to fulfill both of these needs. (Seriously, what’s a better workout than tussling
with another human being?)

The trouble here is letting adults know you fulfill their needs and interests.
So with the relevance of live training established already, let’s talk about communicating
the relevance of your program to prospective adult students.

The two stages of communicating relevance.

When it comes to hooking adults on taekwondo, an instructor has two important challenges to

  1. Attracting new students
  2. Keeping them interested

Challenge 1 requires communicating a solution to broader problems, such as a desire to
get in shape or a need to feel safe.

Challenge 2 is about maintaining interest by setting clear expectations and delivering
on them. We’ll deal with this more in the next section.

Solutions to more general problems are often what attract adults initially. However,
it’s the solutions to increasingly more specific problems that keep them coming back
month after month.

Attract new students with the right messaging.

Before we can tackle challenge 2, we must first overcome challenge 1. Adults take up
new hobbies for many reasons, but they pick up martial arts for only a few.

The biggest reasons adults end up in martial arts are for

  • A fun new way to get into or stay in shape
  • A means to learn self-defense
  • Community involvement

These motivators are general enough that communicating them can attract many new
students into your program. So a new question arises: How will you communicate that
to a lot of adults who might be interested?

I don’t mean marketing channels, like direct mail or Facebook ads. I mean what words
and offers will you use in those advertisements.

This leads me to Stage 1 of communicating the relevance of your service: the Hook.
The hook consists of clearly communicating what you offer in the context of a great deal.

I call this a hook because it lures prospective students in, and “hooks” them on your
service offering, like a fish biting a line.

So what might a hook look like? Consider this snippet of promotional copy for a make-believe
Facebook ad:

Get into the best shape of your life while learning to defend yourself from harm. Sign
up now for our 6 week Combat Fit Bootcamp and get 20% off plus a free set of gloves!

Now, it’s a bit unpolished -- but it only takes two sentences for you to get the point.
And you also have an incentive to help you act on this information, all in the same space.

Notice how it isn’t lines and lines of text explaining the superiority of taekwondo, or
arguments about combat effectiveness, or anything like that. Those sorts of things
might have other contexts, but to attract new students, you have to appeal to what
it is they’re looking for in general.

To keep them interested, however, you’ll need to get more specific. More on Stage 2
in the next section!

Problem-solving Orientation

Adults have busy lives. When they search for information, it usually revolves
around a problem they need to solve.

When adults seek to learn something new, they have the same instinct. They rarely
want a comprehensive course in XYZ. They want only what’s necessary for solving
the problem they have right now.

The pitfall of many taekwondo programs is that they’re too centered around
content rather than problem-solving.

What I mean is, taekwondo is often too concerned with the encyclopedic memorization
of a vast curriculum, rather than developing skills immediately practical for some sort of

What digital marketers can teach you about curriculum development.

Digital marketers have noticed this trend. The biggest example of this is Google.
Companies advertise their services to Google searchers through a Google platform
called AdWords.

AdWords allows you to run an ad in the Google search results page when someone
enters a search query that seems relevant to the service you offer.

When searchers look for a solution to a problem on a search engine, digital marketers
call this a “moment of need.” The most powerful and lucrative marketing campaigns
place a relevant solution to those problems in front of a searcher in that moment
of need.

This strategy doesn’t just help you with promoting your program to adults, but to
developing the program, too.

Identifying and solving specific problems to boost adult retention.

In the previous section, we discussed stage 1 of attracting customers: a hook,
consisting of a solution to more general needs, like staying in shape. In this section,
I want to talk about Stage 2: identifying and solving more specific needs.

Identifying specific needs is about context. Context will depend on the individual
needs of the person, as well as the unique demands of your taekwondo program.

So what does this look like? First, we must consider the problems your students will
have after starting taekwondo.

If an adult signs up to stay in shape, specific problems will come in the form of strength,
endurance, and other types of exercise difficiences. She might have a goal to do 10
regular pushups without a break, but her arms are too weak.

Or, for self-defense, this might look like an interest in developing strong choke
escapes or better punching defense. For sport, this might look like a desire to
develop a better back kick counter inresponse to XYZ.

To apply this principle, it’s important to design your curriculum around
problem-solving topics.

For fitness, you’ll go in cycles that develop certain attributes and/or movements.
For self-defense (or sport), you’ll go in cycles that address common scenarios in
self-defense or sport.

No matter the topic, taekwondo itself will serve (in most cases) as the springboard
from which your adults will develop the problems they need solving.

Using andragogical curriculum to build stronger student-teacher relationships.

Now, designing your curriculum around problem-solving topics is awesome.
But it’s perhaps more important to stay in tune with what your students are
struggling with and/or interested most at any given time.

Finding and solving these little challenges provides excellent value to your
students. It makes them feel great, but more importantly, it shows that you care.

This is how you build a loyal customer base. And a loyal customer base is a
customer base that sticks around for a long time. Thus, challenge 2 -- to keep
adult learners engaged in your program -- is conquered.


The taekwondo school is, as a category, characterized by low retention of
adult students. The best explanation for this problem is that the typical taekwondo
class and curriculum structure does not cater to the learning behaviors of adults.

To improve your adult program development, you should apply the 4 principles
of andragogy as outlined by noted educator Malcolm Knowles:

  • Investment
  • Experience
  • Relevance
  • Problem-solving Orientation

The principles outlined above have clear implications for how you ought to run
your adult taekwondo program. Some of those suggestions are,

  • Let students plan and evaluate the instruction they receive as often as they can.

  • Allow for more experiential learning through the implementation of live training and liberal
amounts of try/fail cycles.

  • Make sure your service offerings are relevant to the needs and wants of adults.

  • Retain adults by keeping instruction oriented toward their more specific problems related to 
practice and life.

Develop your curriculum along these lines, and be sure to test and tweak as you do so.
Like martial arts, this is a never-ending process of refinement. But it does get easier the
longer you do it!
Now, get ready to have those adult taekwondo classes buzzing.

Josh Peacock is a lifelong taekwondoin, an experienced instructor, and a 4th dan
under the AAU. He also holds an M.Ed. in Teaching & Learning from Liberty University.
Currently, he is a Trainer for AJ Self-Defense, a personal defense company that seeks to
make excellent training more approachable to regular people.

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