Know When to Walk Away

Not for the first time, I found myself visiting the web site,, as I find the author to have some really keen insights regarding martial arts training. Of course, most of his writings pertain to Karate, but in most cases you could substitute the martial art of your choice wherever you read “Karate” and odds are the basic message still applies.

Today, I came across this post, which discusses how to go about quitting a martial arts school. It’s a well-written article, and I highly recommend checking it out. But for the impatient, here’s a summary: If you feel, in your gut, that it is time for you to stop training, then it is time for you to stop training. Once you make that decision, the method of quitting is simple: just stop going to class. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.

Believe it or not, it was hard for me to write that, because I don’t like talking about quitting the dojo. Simply put: I don’t want people to quit. This is much less an issue of fiscal need than it is an issue about how much I love Kokikai Aikido. I have found my training to be so transformative, so challenging, and so much fun that I strive to help others feel the same way. Given the fact that our dojo has had both tremendous growth and a very high retention rate, and given that those who have left the dojo have done so with a positive impression of our dojo and, more importantly, of Kokikai Aikido, I feel comfortable saying that our dojo has been successful in helping people find real value in their training. It is a success built on the collective efforts of everyone–students and teachers alike–and it is a success I hope continues for a long, long time.

Much as I don’t want people to quit, however, I also know that life is what it is. Sometimes the art isn’t right, sometimes it’s the instructor, sometimes it’s just something… undefinable. There is nothing wrong with this! Joining a dojo is not joining some sort of ancient society based upon the tenets of feudal Japan. Your teacher is not your lord–they are your teacher. We’ve all had to drop a class or change directions once in awhile. A dojo, really, is no different. It is out of respect for this fact that our dojo refuses to use contracts, nor do we imply that joining the dojo is a yearly (or more) commitment. Just as you can join the dojo at any time, so you can quit at any time. My job is to ensure you get the highest quality instruction possible, in the most safe, enjoyable, and productive environment as possible. It is not my job to try to convince you to stay when, in your heart, you’ve already left. Of course I want you to stay, but it’s not my place to make you stay.

As the article I’ve linked to suggests, trying to explain your departure to your instructor rarely leads to a positive result; nor does having an instructor attempt to influence someone to stay when they clearly no longer want to be on the mat. Instructors are human, after all. Any announcement that you’re leaving might result in a very human reaction of hurt and disappointment. A good instructor does his or her best to rise above those reactions, or at least keep them under control. But that’s not guaranteed to happen. For example, I recall a story someone told me in which they wanted to leave the dojo in which they trained. They could not figure out a way to tell the instructor in person (which should have been a warning sign in and of itself) so they opted to write a letter explaining that their work schedule no longer permitted them to train and that they would be leaving at the end of the month. Apparently, when this student next saw the instructor, he was met with a cold shoulder and the statement: “What are you doing here? You quit!” The negative feeling was so potent that the student left mid-month, and with a very poor opinion of the dojo. In hindsight, this person told me, they would have been better off not saying anything at all, even though they certainly could have expected a more gracious response from their instructor.

Quitting versus Leaving

So far, I’ve been talking about quitting a dojo; but quitting is not always the most appropriate term. I generally classify someone’s departure as either quitting or leaving. Quitting, as we’ve established so far, denotes a situation in which you do not want to return to the dojo. Leaving, on the other hand, denotes a situation where you want to return, but you can’t. A person who can no longer train because of the demands of a new job hasn’t really quit; they’ve left. A person who has found themselves dealing with a major life change, such as school, marriage, or a baby, is not really quitting the dojo. And, just as people quit all the time, I’m comfortable in saying that most people leave instead. In fact, I can list the reasons why the students who no longer train at our dojo quite easily:

  • A previously undiscovered injury–typically a joint injury, that existed prior to training
  • A change in work schedule
  • A decision to return to school
  • A change in needs from a family member
  • A move to another state

Hm. That’s it. We haven’t had a lot of people leave the dojo and, as you can see in this list, most of the departures had nothing to do with training and just about everything to do with Life in General. I bring this up because, while I don’t need to know why people quit, I do like to know when people leave. You have committed a chunk of your time–whether it be a month, a year, or a decade–to studying aikido with me. When you leave, I’d like to know, so I can wish you well. Just as you’d tell a friend or coworker. You have been a part of the dojo community, and you continue to remain a part of it for as long as you wish. Several times, I have seen students leave due to a move or a return to school. When the dojo knows about it ahead of time, it’s been gratifying to see the dojo come together to thank the person for their efforts and presence on the mat. The good feeling that is generated from such experiences is beyond description.

Any martial arts instructor wants students to stay and train for a long, long time. We love what we do, after all. But I also think it is good to remind ourselves that not everyone stays on the same path for the same length of time. Whether you choose to quit a dojo because it is no longer right for you, or whether you leave a dojo because your schedule no longer permits it, you should feel that your decision is respected and that you need not justify (nor advertise) your announcements to anyone.

2 thoughts on “Know When to Walk Away

  1. I like your distinction between quitting and leaving. As a former freelance teacher who was dependent on the extra income, I actually appreciated the courtesy of the student (or the parent) to tell me they would no longer be coming for lessons. I would not look favorably upon the student who just doesn’t show up– it seems passive-aggressive to me. I would end up calling him/her, thinking s/he forgot or was sick. That’s not fair to me when I have allotted time for the lesson and no one was there. I realize it’s a slightly different circumstance for classes.

    Turnover (“churn” sounds slightly gross to me in this context) is inevitable, and the best thing to do, as you have said, is to thank the student for letting the teacher know s/he will be leaving, and respect his/her decision without demanding a reason. Simple enough.

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