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How to deal with transfer students into your school

colored martial arts beltsAny martial arts school that has been around for a while will have encountered students that have left one or more other dojos and are now at theirs. These students may have only been in the martial arts for a few months while others may have many years of experience.

I have personally been the student that has changed schools as well as been the receiver of these students. They pose a unique experience for both the other students in the class as well as the instructor. 

I like to have them in class. They keep me fresh and on topic and the more senior they are the better questions they ask. These questions can be very valuable for other students because they will be looking for clarification in concepts and not necessarily techniques.

Any student can learn technique. It is the ones that understand concepts that will move forward the furthest.

The major difficulty most schools have is what rank or colored belt the transfer student should wear when they transfer in. I have seen several methods used and I find that the one that works the best is when the student goes belt free for a few weeks and just works out with the other students.

The beltless student is easily recognizable and other students will certainly converse with them about their background. This also let’s the transfer student get a feel for the class and the instructor and make the decision to stay or leave. Being beltless also lets the instructor move the transfer student around the class to test their understanding of their art without affecting the schools present belt hierarchy.

Ultimately any black belt that transfers should be willing to give up and start over but many times peoples egos get in the way. This is more problematic for students that are transferring same style and looking to continue building upon their foundation and testing up. When a student transfers in from a different style the difficulties tend to be less burdensome. Black belts can be fickle beast and some require their egos to be stroked while others just enjoy the learning process. The ones with the egos will tend to float away for a variety of reasons so worrying what belt color they wear is less important. Their eventual exist from the program is self solving to the question.

The mid range color belts tend to be the most difficult to absorb. They have put in a couple of years of hard work and don’t want to lose ground for their black belt goal. This is where the beltless evaluation period time can really help both sides. It lets the new prospective student have a reality check in “is my skill level good enough to be a part of the new schools program.”

In interesting fact about the beltless time is the transfer student will tend to befriend other students in the class nearer to their true level. This helps when their new peer group helps pull them to a belt level change.

In an interesting case one school I have participated in uses the white/green/brown/black level method. Several of the students have been at the white belt level for two to three years; while a brown has been in the program for six years and yet made it to black. They all show great skill and if they transferred to another school their present lower belt ranks would actually be perceived in reverse as to most transfer students. Their Sensei runs a very good program and is less concerned with belt ranks as with foundation and skills learning. These students are getting a better education than they may realize.

Ultimately it is the responsibility of the instructor or head of school to interview the transfer student before and while they are deciding to join the school to learn what they are looking for in way of training. Some students simply want a new home and a group of peers to workout with, others want to test as quickly as possible for more stripes.

Another method I have used is “I don’t care what belt you wear to class, but come testing time you will wear the belt I assign for your level and will be awarded new rank based upon my program.” This can have both good and bad consequences. The student is proud to get to wear their old earned belt but can become insulted at testing time. Some students will leave at this point while others will eventually start to wear the new tested to belt.

Whatever method is used there will be conflicts so starting the conversation early will greatly ease the transition. Also, having your guidelines written down and posted on the wall will help. This lets the student read the rules in their own space without having to make decisions or verbal justifications. They can simply choose to abide by the rules or leave.

One school from years ago had a unique solution. Every new student who enrolled received a school uniform with school patches and logo. In the package was a white belt. When a transfer student would ask what to wear the old master would say “just wear what’s in the bag” and walk off. I never saw a transfer student chase the old master across the building to discuss the matter or leave the bag on the counter and walk out. They all realized the decision had been made and they could either choose to convert to the program or find somewhere else to practice.