Young girl in karate uniform performing splits and smiling

Building members for life: Leveraging Self Determination Theory in your martial arts club

Ryan and Deci’s Self Determination Theory has been the subject of study in sports contexts for decades. Centred around building intrinsic motivation, it’s surprising that it hasn’t been the focus of attention for martial arts clubs and organisations looking to grow their memberships. If we can understand the motivation of our members and create a motivational environment that keeps more members for longer, we can not only get the best from the students but also reduce the amount of marketing we need to do to maintain or grow the size of our membership.

In a recent longitudinal study from Canada that followed 1000 children from the age of 10 to 17 they found that children that had dropped out of Sport by the age of 12 were 3 times more likely not to be playing sport in their adolescent years. For you and me as martial arts coaches, this confirms what you probably have already realised, getting teenagers into sport is tough. It is much easier to get them in when they are younger and provide a motivational environment that keeps them training into their teenage years. It was also found that children that participated in a wide variety of sports before the age of 12 were more likely to still be playing into their adolescent years than those that specialised in one sport.

The lesson for me is not to be too demanding of student’s time and encourage them to take part in other sports alongside their martial arts classes. I know this sounds a little crazy to many and having martial arts students that want to spend their whole lives at your full time venue may sound perfect but often this situation is setting them up for burn out.

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I would suggest that for the majority of members, two to three times a week is the optimal number of sessions between doing enough that students feel competent but challenged while also not taking up too much time that they don’t have time for other sports and physical activities. This thinking was also reflected in the article i wrote on Physical Literacy

In terms of the reasons these children take part in sport, winning does not really feature. This is in line with previous studies, though it may not be in line with why adults think children take part in sport. Ranked in order of importance, here are main reasons the children in the study participated in sport:-

  1. Enjoyment (inherent interest value of the activity itself – intrinsic motivation),
  2. Fitness/health (being active out of the desire to be healthy and strong),
  3. Competence/challenge (to improve at an activity, to meet a challenge, or to acquire new skills),
  4. Social affiliation (to be with friends and meet new people), and
  5. Appearance (being active in order to become more physically attractive, develop muscles, or control weight).

All these findings are in line with Self Determination Theory (SDT) but this should come as no surprise to those that have heard me bash on about Self Determination Theory before. If I could only give one tip on how to increase long term retention in martial arts clubs, it would be to understand Self Determination Theory and implement changes in your programmes / sessions that provide opportunities for social connection, the feeling of autonomy and skill development pitched as a level that is challenging but achievable. 


Although I have named this section ‘Mastery’, in Self Determination Theory this is labelled ‘Competence’. While I do think it is important for the children to feel some level of competence, I think it’s more important that they feel capable of what you are asking them to do. They do not need to know they can achieve something, but equally, you also don’t want to see them standing there thinking ‘that’s never going to happen’.

As Self Determination Theory is all about building intrinsic motivation (doing it for the joy of it), try to minimise the number of external rewards you give. Often praising process and effort is a great way of giving feedback on progress as long as it’s done in a genuine way. This also has the added advantage of being in line with Carol Dwecks’s Growth Mindset theory.

I know most of us use a belt system of some description and hosting the traditional types of grading where students performs specific actions and techniques to be awarded a belt. Unfortunately, this ‘if, then’ reward can sometimes lead students to focus on the belt rather than what it represents. The alternative method to this type of grading is to award the belt in class when you feel the student is ready for the next level. This method of promotion tends to get used quite a lot within Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It’s a good way of taking an ‘if, then’ reward and changing it in to an ‘now, that’ reward. Research suggests has a much smaller effect of lowering intrinsic motivation.

Martial Arts child showing the mastery part of self determination theory

Make sure the actual content you are delivering in your classes is age appropriate. I understand that in the past martial arts was used as a military form of combat, but we are not training kids to kill other humans. Everything you do teach should be based on their wants and needs and the child’s age and stage of development. For more information about what to teach in your children’s martial arts programme, check out our the MAPLE Session Planning Framework.

Many of you will have heard the phrase ‘Praise, correct praise’ before. Just in case this is a Curse of Knowledge moment for me, PCP is a practical tactic you can use in class to make small corrections while helping build a sense of progress for the children. You praise the students for their effort, make a small correction and then praise them for their effort to apply the correction. Although I have more comprehensive tools for giving feedback, this is a great place to start.

As well as delivering content that is age appropriate, it is also important to differentiate for the ability of the individual students. As the children in your classes will start training at different ages, it’s good to take into account their ‘training age’. This is the length of time each student has been training with you. Someone that has been with you since they were 3 years old may be much more developed than the children just entering your 5-6 year old programme, having not had much experience with organised physical activity previously. All this aside, we know that children develop physically, physiologically and socially at a different pace from each other. Differentiating for chronological age, training age, ability and stage of development will help you to set goals for students that they feel are achievable.


When we are talking about developing autonomy in children, we are addressing the fact that participants with some level of ownership over their activity are more likely to be intrinsically motivated. The level of autonomy you provide will probably be on a sliding scale based on chronological age. As the children’s knowledge of both their own ability and their training increases, they are in a better position to be able to contribute more to the coach-participant relationship.

Before we look at how to build a sense of autonomy in the children you coach, I want to mention a few motivation killers. I will start this by giving you something to reflect on. ‘Disciplining children does not make self-disciplined children’. Please reread this sentence once again as I can’t emphasise it enough. Punishing the children you teach with press ups, burpees, a 5 minute plank or sitting against the wall DOES NOT BUILD INTRINSIC MOTIVATION OR HELP THEM DEVELOP SELF DISCIPLINE.

One of the key points to building autonomy is ask more than you tell. If you want your students to build ownership (that leads to more intrinsic motivation), ask great questions and value their answers (regardless of how silly they may be). Create a safe environment for students to be able to make mistakes. If everyone laughs or belittles the contribution from other members, you are creating a stagnant environment that will crush autonomy and creativity. Try not to give speeches in your classes. Give small punchy explanations when delivering drills. They need to know why they are doing something, what the objective and 3 (max) coaching points. Then, just let them get on with it and please, please, please, do what you can to eradicate queuing or sitting around.

Martial Arts child demonstrating the autonomy part of self determination theory


The 3rd and final part of Self Determination Theory is relatedness. Humans are built to connect with each other and children are no exception. We are not only talking about the relationship between the coach and the student but also student to student. I would also suggest that you take the time and effort to connect with the parents of the children too. On the occasions when the child does not want to come to their martial arts class (which WILL happen at some point), the parents are your last line of defence. If you have them on board and they are totally behind what you do, they are likely to do what they can to get their children to class.

Start by onboarding all new members. If you can give them a road map and set expectations on both sides the minute they become a member, you will have a better chance of forming a connection with both the student and the parents. As the saying goes ‘You only get one chance to make a first impression’

I remember around a decade ago learning the ‘3 x 3 rule’. This is where you use someone’s name, good eye contact and appropriate touch three times with each student. While that seems like a lot if you have a class of 20 or above, I used it mostly as an aspirational model. While tactics like this still work well today, we have moved on to move comprehensive models such as ‘Teaching with CARE’ where care stands for Connection, Attentive, Recognise and Enthusiasm.

While children start training for lots of different reasons, (often the main one being the motivations of their parents), the reason they continue to train are often different. As they get a little older, it is good if your programme can introduce ways that they can contribute to the club. One good example of this is having some form of Martial Arts Leaders programme. Our students can start with us when they are 3 years old but they won’t move up to our full programme until they are 6 (at the earliest). This means they usually get a black belt around 11 years old (if they make it that far). If your club has a big focus on getting the black belt rather than being the black belt, this is a point when you can lose a chunk of students. Having a Martial Arts Leaders programme can help the students contribute to the club while also giving them something else to work towards when the time between gradings gets further apart.

Martial Arts child demonstrating the relatedness part of self determination theory

If you have quite a large club (over 250 members) it may be worth breaking the members down into more manageable chunks to help maintain a connection with the students and their parents. If you have 2 or 3 coaches, this could be as easy as making each of the instructors the point of contact for different age groups or programmes. Once you start to get above 250 and definitely 300 members, it starts to get difficult to remember all the names of the children, never mind their parent’s names too.

Have a defined mission and vision as well as a set of club values. These are your north star and should be seen throughout your club. We have posters on the walls with quotes containing the club values we promote. Have your mission on the main door all members walkthrough or on the wall in your training room and in all your print material. These three things are a big part of your club’s identity so you should take time over defining them, as they will be with you for a long time. Make sure all your coaches and staff live by these values or you may find that they will be ignored by your students too. Your club must be congruent to build trust in your community and the members you serve. 

I hope this introduction to Self Determination theory helps you develop an environment that builds intrinsic motivation in your martial arts students. Although this blog is specifically about coaching children, Self Determination Theory is applicable for anyone at your club.

You have done well to get this far. If you want to ‘go the extra mile’, click on the video to receive some wise words from Edawrd Deci, one half of the pair that formed Self Determination Theory.

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