In the martial arts world, the ATA is well known as a very successful organization that has been instrumental in learning how to market martial arts to a large number of people successfully. I have been heavily involved with it for nearly a decade, with my wife and Matt, and am intimately familiar with its workings at both the school level and the tournament level. Here is a summary of what they do and some inserts on possible parallels to paintball.
To start, the martial arts world some 20 to 30 years ago was large but disorganized and starting to fracture. It got into the Olympics (one of my masters, Grand Master Kim (not in ATA but a similar organization), was an instrumental part of this and could provide some follow-up information). There used to be many tournaments, but from in-fighting, lack of unity and consistency, the tournaments started to become fewer and fewer. ATA came in and created an association with fairly strict rules that it took to get out of this. Today it has hundreds of thousands of members around the world, and provides a very specific marketing plan to all its member schools and hosts many successful tournaments. Even schools that did not join the association borrow a lot from what they see.
Let me first start with how the tournaments work. This has a great parallel to paintball scenario games or even speedball or other types of games. The ATA officially puts on the tournaments with a small paid staff. They ensure that the rules are followed, and also that there is a large, competent volunteer staff that in the end runs the tournament from a judging perspective. Anything that is not volunteer becomes too expensive for the participants, so the idea is that if you want to compete, you are also expected to help. Adults who are very experienced (there is the belt ranking that determines this) are expected to judge, while experienced kids are expected to score-keep and watch the judging so that they are learning how for when they are old enough. It is also kind of an honor to be a judge or even a score keeper. Participants are expected to and do act very respectfully and politely to the judges, and parents like and encourage their kids to start down the path by score keeping. Lower-ranked adults and kids are not expected to do anything but participate and have a good experience that keeps them wanting to come back and continue their training. And then when they do get to be more experienced, ie black belts, they are then expected to “give back” by continuing to compete, but now also to judge. I can tell you first hand that it works. My family (me, wife, Matt) has been doing this for over 8 years with ATA, competing about 15 times a year. We get to the tournament for a judges meeting at about 7am or so on the tournament day, get our judging assignments, and judge all day long, typically till about 5 or 6pm. We also are replaced as judges during the day so we can compete. Matt works as a scorekeeper for the judges, or in the staging area helping get kids out to their assigned rings.
At the tournaments are a group of higher-ranked “masters”. These masters are volunteering their time as guides, celebrities and arbitrators of issues. ATA has a zero-tolerance type philosophy on behavior – you act properly or you will be asked to leave and not return. This goes for participants and spectators alike. There is no bad behavior as you might see with parents arguing with umpires or referees in other sports. It is not allowed to happen. Any judge that gets some situation happening is immediately supported and backed up by one of the masters, and the participant or spectator is taken to the side and it is the responsibility of the master to deal with it. Never the judge. And I can tell you that this takes a load off the issue of judging and making calls that sometimes you mess up or are debatable or simply just not liked. The masters back us up 100% and we can count on that.
There are usually very high ranked masters or guest celebrities also at the tournaments. There is always someone special for the kids to meet, get autographs and pictures with. Sometimes it is a grand master, or a very high ranked master who may have a specialty on weapons or sparring. Sometimes it is a guest like a movie star who participates in ATA. For example, Noah Ringer, star of the last Air Bender film, is also a black belt in ATA. The kids love this. They want to meet and get pictures of these people. Parents are also proud of this and like the notion that their kid could also be at this level.
Every part of an event is choreographed as to how it is run. How a judge starts up a competition, what they say, in what order. These are all designed to get kids and adults alike comfortable. The first time you compete can be pretty scary. You are performing in front of people, you are fighting other people (in a safe way). ATA has figured out how to take the fear out, make everyone confidence and ready to go, and how to get the participants to have fun so they want to come back. Even though there is a first, second and third place, there is a lot placed on the notion that to compete is to win, and that it is all a learning experience. And the judges will do final words that very explicitly thank the participants for coming, hope to see them at the next tournament or event, and tell them (if kids) that the last thing they need to do is to go and hug their parents or whomever brought them and say thank you, as otherwise you could not have gotten here today. The kids by the end have had a lot of fun, made it through some scary stuff, typically no injuries (although it does happen), and have smiles a mile wide.
Tournaments can be a bit difficult to watch as well. You have to know where to be and when. But ata thinks through all of this, and gets tournaments or events set up so that they enable the spectators to be close to the event, know where things happen and when, and have people who are available all over (basically any black belt) who can help direct a spectator on where the best place is to go to to see someone. The events are usually organized where the younger, newer kids are in one area, older, newer kids in another, experienced kids in another, adults in another. Basic groupings that are then broken down into more detailed areas as needed based on how the tournament has been set up to make sure that age divisions and skill levels are appropriate (inexperienced kids don’t compete, kids don’t compete with adults or other kids that are too much older).
At the beginning and end of a tournament there are formalities, presentations and announcements that are done in a way to make it very appropriate for kids and spectators, and as always that is also a selling time and done in a particular way to best represent the event, get people comfortable, confident, and prepared to participate if not this time then next time. Everything is done with the knowledge that the kids are in focus and must be appropriate. Adults are expected to be the role models at all times, and every aspect of an event is built with this in mind.
ATA has all schools and participants at the schools and tournaments registered in a database. It tracks your rank, accomplishments, and good-standing (dues paid). you are not allowed to participate without being part of the association. While there are costs for this, it is obvious, from its success, that it drives a significant amount of business to warrant the costs. This is a total no-brainer. The schools and association flourish.
I hear a lot from parents about why they have their kids in ata (or martial arts in general). Their response inevitably is around the notion of character that it brings, where they know it is not run by a bunch of overbearing other parents (soccer moms…), and this was their last hope for a proper environment for their child to get the character aspects properly. But they like the zero-tolerance attitudes of the schools and overall organization. They know what their kids are getting taught, and that this cannot be externally influenced by others. And they like the self-defense of course, and also the bully-prevention and intolerance to that, and also the idea that the kids don’t have to be some sports superstar, cool kid in school, the smartest in the class, whatever. Everyone can do this and learn and grow from it. And parents can do it right along with their kids (and ATA works this constantly by always trying to get the family involved).
Ata also offers a marketing plan. This plan is extremely comprehensive – how to get new students, how to get students into more programs, sell them various packages of equipment or other training, and how to deal with ALL situations to sell. What do you say when someone walks in and just asks for some information. How do you follow up. What do you say when a parent says it is too expensive, or they don’t like the fact that they ‘fight’ (spar) and don’t want the kids to get hurt, or don’t have enough time… no matter what the situation, the marketing plan has a complete guideline for handling it. Or the same for putting on a tournament, or a seminar, or how to approach schools to get presentations done to the school body, or how to get pamphlets to put on the windshields of cars, or how to be present at other events (not martial arts) but do demonstrations to promote their school. How to do ‘parents-nigh-out’ events, where the kids are brought together to a special seminar that teaches them something, but also has fun, like watching a martial arts moving and telling the kids how something in the movie was done. While at the same time giving the parents a night out for much less cost than a babysitter. Or how to run a summer camp. Everything has been thought through and documented. Nothing is left to chance. That is a marketing plan. It also sets expectations properly for all the participants of tournaments and events, so that if you attend you are not surprised by something. like if you are new you are not in some event that may have only been intended for much more experienced people.
The ATA also places restrictions and specifications on weapons and gear. This is to make sure that everything is within a tolerance that has been tested and accepted, and that even the appearance of the uniforms or sparring gear is appropriate and consistent, always has a nice appearance… this is to always show parents that there is an organization that cares about our appearances and safety, once again with a zero tolerance about it. If you do not have the correct weapons or safety gear or uniforms… you will not be able to compete or attend the event. If you are caught otherwise (like showing one weapon and then substituting a different one) you will be escorted out.
ATA has dealt with the issue of liability as well. They have a strong organization that deals with the legal and insurance issues as part of their fees. Martial arts has the potential for injury, even serious injury. They use a volunteer organization for tournaments and events. Ata has figured out how to deal with this, in liability waivers and other ways that must be done for extreme sports.
Now to the schools – the schools are where you train and become proficient at martial arts. It is based on a rank concept, where there are stages and belts you get to indicate your rank. There is a curriculum that assures you will not ‘top out’. There is always something more to learn and how to be better. But kids and adults alike work well with the notion of ranks. It gives them a target for where they should be able to get to by when, and a way for them to test their abilities in a friendly, safe manner in the competitions. At first the ranks are easier to attain, and as they go along become progressively more difficult and take longer. At the same time as you are learning, you are also expected (not required but encouraged as part of your proficiency overall) to help train others. This is expected to help really hone your skills when you have to demonstrate and train others. And otherwise there is just lots of practice. How to do what things in what situations (like self-defense scenarios), how to get better at certain things, like jump kicks or combinations of things, how to work with others in a team to do some choreographed performance, how to learn to create your own form that shows how a certain weapon or technique and be used in different ways… the schools divide classes into adults vs kids vs families, and depending on the size of the school then by rank (experience). But they are always also capable or combining everything together when the school is small. Curriculum is done using ‘block teaching’ methods, meaning that the same topic is being taught much of the time, but with different levels of proficiency expected. That keeps there from being too many different topics and different levels needing instruction at the same time.
Article and photos courtesy of Kelly and Matt Wical