Growing a Dojo

When we first moved our dojo from the YMCA to our new location, one of my biggest concerns was getting enought students so that the dojo would at least break even. My motiviation for this was not for financial gain (that still hasn’t happened yet); rather, it was to ensure that I could continue to fulfill a promise to my students as their dojo leader: to ensure that they had a place in which they could practice their skills in Kokikai Aikido.

My goals were, I thought, pretty reasonable. At the YMCA, we had about 15 students. I expected to lose about a third of them due to the fact that we were moving to the other side of the freeway and that not be inconvenient for some people. I figured that if, by the end of our first year, we had grown to about 25 students, we’d be doing pretty well. Turns out we exceeded our expectations: now, 18 months later, we are at over 50 students, with more joining all the time.

Dealing with this kind of growth was not on my list of concerns. In fact, I remember someone asking me (an optimistic direct-mail salesman, to be exact): what will you do if you get a ton of students? My answer: “That’d be a nice problem to have.” And the truth is, it is a nice problem to have. But it’s a problem regardless, and it’s been interesting dealing with it.

One challenge that’s come about from our growth is that the dynamic of the dojo changes dramatically. Each person who steps onto the mat, each sibling who plays in our waiting area, each parent or significant other who spends time within the dojo, has an impact on our community. Maintaining some consistency within that community can be a daunting task. We’ve had incidents in the past where a few of the senior students were annoyed or having difficulties with a newer student. The issues eventually boiled down to personality conflicts that the senior students hadn’t needed to deal with before. One responsibility that quickly fell under my jurisdication was to remind everyone that we all start somewhere. It doesn’t matter who someone is, or how much “progress” someone else perceives they need to make. What matters is that they train with respect for themselves and others, and that they do their best to make consistent progress. I’m glad to say that almost everyone now has become much more adept at welcoming new students onto the mat.

Another challenge with increased growth is dealing with different expectations. Althought it’s been rare, we’ve had a few students (or parents) who expected that, as chief instructor, I would teach all the classes. We’ve also had a few folks assume that, so long as they paid their dues, their promotions and rise through the ranks were inevitable. In these situations, I’ve learned to stand firm by my decisions while simultaneously be understanding as to why these people have these opinions. In most cases, some simple understanding has gone a long way.

I wonder how many of us, as students, thought about what it meant to manage the growth of a dojo? I know that most of my experiences were along the lines of “We-need-to-get-more-students-or-else!” variety. It’s certainly interesting to be on the other end of the spectrum!

2 thoughts on “Growing a Dojo

  1. I can say for myself that I wasn’t really good at seeing the situation from the perspective of the teacher, many times I could find myself resenting the changes in the groups, so I found your post really interesting

  2. It is so refreshing to hear about the healthy way to grow a dojo. I am a member of a school that meets in a community center. They have been doing so for over 30 years. Very respectable. But I have a friend who has a child in a McDojo and the stories I could tell you about the guy that runs this place would curl your hair. He is a piece…of work. Again, so glad to hear you & your school are one of the “good guys”. Congrats – and keep up the great work!

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