Members of different stages in the Participation Development Model

Build A member and staff pipeline using a Participation Development Model

A participation development model can help you map out your programme and how they fit together. Once you master your marketing and you can successfully get people through the door, your next priority in your martial arts club is usually to make sure you retain your members. The balance is to do all this without working yourself into an early grave. It’s often in these situations that we sacrifice our diets, exercise routines and family time. To get around this we need to make sure we not only focus on marketing and retention but efficiency too. When I started coaching full time in 2008 I thought money was the rarest resource. It wasn’t long before I realised that time is the resource we need to protect the most.

‘Focus on being productive instead of busy’

If you know my story, you will already know that I credit our children’s programme as one of the key factors in our success. While I still think this is the case, as is often the way, there are a few more moving parts to this story. Our children’s programme is the foundation for the system we have built to guide people through our various programmes. The objective of this is to limit unnecessary dropout. Retention in the programmes themselves is important but the transition between programmes is something that also requires careful planning.

Where did the idea for the Participation Development Model (PDM) Come From?

When I was studying for my undergrad degree at Leeds Met University (Now Leeds Beckett), I had to come up with a study area for my final dissertation. Anyone that has been through University studying any subject will know this is a painful process that forces you to hone in on a very specific subject area. This is where you generally experience the rabbit in the headlights feeling that you did when you were asked to choose the subjects you wanted to study back in school.

I had many ideas for my own dissertation but as is usually the case in my world, the more I investigated a subject area, the bigger the scope for the project grew. As this dissertation was the cumulation of 3 years of full time study, the lecturers were keen to push us down the route of specialisation rather than generalisation. Even to this day, I struggle with the idea of having to specialise. My way is not to become a ‘jack of all trades’ or a ‘master of one’ but just develop the skills required to be able to run a sustainable family martial arts club that is loved by its members and staff.

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During different assignments, I had referenced a large academic review paper covering Participant Development in Sport. Written by a panel of researchers headed by someone called Richard Bailey, this was an in-depth study (over 100 pages) looking at the pathways and obstacles faced by participants during their sporting careers. This led me to ask the question if it would be possible to put together a participation development model for martial arts.

The paper I ended up writing was titled ‘Taekwondo for all: A participation development model for coaching Taekwondo in the UK’. It showed how we could segment the participants based on chronological age, motivation and the different focus at each stage. Don’t be put off by the Taekwondo and UK part, this model is just as valid for any martial art in any part of the world as it is for Taekwondo in the UK.

The traditional Participation Development Model

The traditional pyramid development model starts with the general population of participants and gradually excludes people as they move up the hierarchy towards the elite level. This pyramid model is still in use in many sports today and I have even seen martial arts clubs operate like this in the past too. These are the principles of this kind of system:-

Traditional Participation Development Model
  • The focus of the model is to progress those identified as talented while possibly excluding those that may develop talent at a later date.
  • As the participants move up the pyramid, players that do not meet the ‘talent’ requirements are removed from the system and possible the sport.
  • Specific thresholds are put in place to exclude players based on anthropometric measurements or lack of representation at the previous level in the pyramid.
  • Once a player is excluded from the system, it is impossible or at least improbable that they will return.
  • There is an emphasis on early specialisation in order to progress to elite levels of participation.
  • There is an expectation that performance at lower levels of the pyramid is an indication of future success.

This traditional pyramid model often promotes early specialisation and the exclusion of members due to not being ‘good enough’. Rather than being about talent development, it is more about talent identification and then a focus on the few while sacrificing the majority. Function wise it also reminds me of a sales funnel where you throw as many new people in at the top and keep filtering until you have the ones that make it to black belt. While I do think this is partly what happens in practice to a certain extent, we need to be able to offer a pathway to anyone that wants to jump into the model at any point. The biggest difference between the traditional pyramid and our PDM is that we are not looking to only select the best students for progression but provide meaningful options for all members.

The biggest Benefit of having a documented PDM

Once your programmes are refined to the point that they have great retention and you don’t drop many members in the transition between programmes, you will mainly need to focus on attracting new students at the base of your PDM. In most cases, this will be your youngest children’s programme. For us, this means that the only paid advertising we need to do is for our youngest children’s programme. We still attract some adults and older children via pull marketing methods such as our website (people searching for us on google) but when it comes to paid marketing, it’s all about feeding the system at the bottom. That said, we only need to use paid marketing for one week per quarter (after gradings / graduations) to maintain a membership of around 500 members across two venues.

Creating flexibility in your model

Your participation development model also needs to allow people to change their path based on their changing interests. We have had students start off in our Dragons (3-6 year olds) classes, progress through to black belt and then switch their focus to coach Taekwondo only to switch to focus on self defence (through our Ju Jitsu programme) further down the line. You don’t have to go crazy with the options you offer but just make sure you have options that you are happy to deliver that also fits in with your overall development model. Our goal is not to have 20 different random programmes but a smaller number that works together to form a continuous development plan.

When you put your participation development plan together, don’t forget to add your club values and then any other values that are attached to each of your different programmes. It should be easy to see how everything fits together at a glance. Each programme will also list it’s top level emphasis. As an example, this is what I have listed in my PDM for my youngest children’s programme:-

  • Fundamentals (1 session a week)
  • Development of ABCs
  • Introduction to FMS
  • Deliberate play
Coaching children in martial arts

using your PDM to build your staff pipeline

Not only is our participation development model a map of how our members will progress but it also doubles up as my staff development programme too. In the book ‘Delivering happiness’ documenting how the online retail giant Zappos (in the US) built an exceptional culture, the author Tony Hsieh takes about building a staffing pipeline.

Rather than recruiting new staff members for the top jobs in the company, they focused on growing a pipeline of people for each of the positions in their company. They did this by providing all the training and mentorship needed to help the staff members get to the next level. This helped preserve the culture while also meaning that almost all new recruits were entry-level. Not only does this provide consistent continuing professional development to upskill staff members but it also helps staff retention by creating variety while ensuring they have a feeling of progression. If you have been teaching martial arts professionally for some time, you will understand how hard it can be to keep hold of good coaches. This is often the reason that so many club owners stick to being self-employed rather than opting to run a business.

At the entry level, the non-negotiable element was that the person had a passion for the sector they were operating in. In our martial arts clubs, we have a similar requirement. The non-negotiable in our case is that the member (all our coaches are recruited from our members) cares about the students and their welfare. There are obviously other requirements too but if someone does not care about helping others, they are not going to cut it as a coach with us.

Integrating a coach development pathway into our participation development model was one of the best things we ever did. Not only does it provide another option for members but it also provides a pipeline of new coaches coming through that already share our values and are a good fit for our culture. Our staff development stream is not finished yet and I am just about to revamp our Martial Arts Leaders programme but we already have our first student that started training with us in our Dragons programme (3-6 years) that has now joined our staff team as a full time apprentice (now 17 year old).

Getting started

It’s unlikely that your participation development model will ever be perfect but going through the process of documenting what your own version should look like will help you clarify the definition and function of each of your programmes, as well as how they fit together. I am currently up to version 3 of our participation development model for our clubs though I have already started working on version 4. If it helps, I am happy for you to use it as a template to get you started. It’s always much easier to understand how all this fits together when you have an example there in front of you. Just drop your name and email in the box below and it will be emailed over to you. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to add a message below 🙂 

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