Encouraging Engagement

Synopsis: What options are available to ensure we positively reinforce a child’s desire to engage? In this article, I’ll aim to provide insights into the tools I use to encourage effort and engagement within my own classes from the obvious to the not-so-obvious, each has its own merit and has been a superb motivator in growing my classes over the past 20 years.

Word Count: 2657

According to Kahn (1990), engagement refers to the state in which individuals express their entire self; physically, cognitively, and emotionally in their role.

Consider it then as a positive, fulfilling, work related state of mind that is characterized by vigour, dedication, and absorption to the task. When we are ‘engaged’ in a task, we are motivated, intrinsically to improve at that task.

In his book: “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, Daniel Pink (2009), points out three factors that form this intrinsic motivation. Three factors that increase performance, satisfaction and thus engagement: Autonomy or the desire to direct our own lives, Mastery or the desire to continually improve at something that matters, something we are engaged in and Purpose, the desire to do things in service of something larger than ourselves.

I would argue, that as we are discussing coaching children, for growing your kid’s classes, the level of Autonomy you permit as a coach will increase as age increases and as age increases so does a child’s perspective on the issue of Purpose. Mastery on the other hand, is tangible for children. Results are viewed instantly as success or failure and each feed back into the loop to increase or decrease a child’s engagement to the task at hand.

So how do we further this intrinsic motivation?
How can we reward engagement [and subsequent effort]?
What options are available to ensure we positively reinforce a child’s desire to engage?

In this article, I’ll aim to provide insights into the tools I use to encourage effort and engagement within my own classes from the obvious to the not-so-obvious, each has its own merit and has been a superb motivator in growing my classes over the past 20 years.

The Belt System: The Ultimate Engagement Tool.

Children thrive on reward, this is a well-known fact.

Whether you compare your service to alternatives (other sports and pastimes) or substitutes (other martial arts) every single one will have in place a reward system.

Individual sports such as swimming incorporate certificates and badges for distances from 10-metres to over a mile. Team sports such as rugby, football and hockey have trophies for ‘Man of the Match’ and ‘Player of the Season’, whereas, martial arts are famed for belts, sashes, grades and ranks.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is no different and although the debate is still out on developing a standardized grading system for all Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu schools, all adopt a very similar approach to progression and reward. Students are promoted based on several identifiable factors influenced by the perspective of the coach: ability, attitude, behaviour (on and off the tatami), commitment, time spent at a specific grade, character and competitive success (by no means definitive).

At a very basic level, the belt ranking system functions to encourage, a marker for denoting ability and a method of setting realistically attainable goals. Yet for children, its use in developing core values such as perseverance, patience and practice I believe there is no better alternative.

I personally regard promotions as the holy grail of encouragement. In my opinion there is no means of reward higher than awarding someone an entirely new level of attainment and recognition, this is the reason the use of rank promotions should be constrained and only used as encouragement when the individual truly deserves it.

At my academy, we take junior promotions into consideration three times per year, in part, this is since the principles and concepts that form my junior curriculum revolve three times per year and a great proportion of my coaching coincides with the three full terms associated with the academic calendar. Each time a junior is eligible for a promotion I make a huge deal out of it, celebrating the presentations in the academy as well as on every social media platform we have a presence. This observance isn’t limited to new belts, stripes play a huge role in each child’s journey and thinking about it now I offer more advice to those receiving stripes than I do when tying a new belt around a waist.

An effort is made to reaffirm the direction each child is going, emphasising more effort in one area over another and highlighting their personal growth since the last time we had the same “chat”. This is an important part of my relationship with each individual junior I coach. It’s a personal discussion on why I have rewarded their effort, why I have promoted them and why I have recognised their ‘level-up’. It enables the recipient to understand I am too engaged in the journey, understand the struggle they are embarking on each time they step into the dojo and it provides focus for the student to underline their own engagement in improving. This discussion is served aloud and in front of the whole group, including parents. In doing this, the whole group can see the two-way engagement, celebrate in the reward and be encouraged along the same path.

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Rewarding Effort – Worker of the Week.

As an aside to the ranking system, I have devised and utilised three specific incentives to reward committed effort across measurable periods from a week (microcycle), a month (mesocycle) and a year (macrocycle). You could do the same and in the process, increase engagement across your entire student base.

Oftentimes, my juniors are literally hanging on to my last word to discover who is the “Worker of the Week”.

Recognition here comes primarily from effort during the session but not necessarily in the form of blood, sweat and tears. As I have previously written, children can be very individualistic, they attend your classes all with their very own perspectives on an array of matters. Some children are very outgoing, extrovert and naturally athletic whereas, a small proportion may indeed be highly introverted, shy and anxiously conscious about demonstrating in front of the group, engaging with new people or speaking out loud.

I watch every child within my class carefully and because of this I like to think I am in tune with every ‘personality’ I am responsible for cultivating. Everything is planned meticulously to get the maximum benefit across the whole spectrum in terms of learning but also engagement. I listen, I ask questions myself and expect discussion, this kind of coaching brings out the shyest of individuals and generates dialogue that some children may not get elsewhere.

The “Worker of the Week” award can be an extremely powerful tool in encouraging engagement especially as many children attending class oftentimes fail to be recognised elsewhere. It provides a means to appreciate this and reward small wins that ultimately culminate into big achievements.

Working Example.

Out of all the methods of encouragement I utilise, the “Worker of the Week” is the simplest.

A simple trophy forms the reward in my classes, children are presented with the award at the end of the session and are required to bring it back to class by the following week, failing this, a default certificate or sticker could be produced and presented each time, however, simplicity is the key and when organisation and efficiency may be required elsewhere streamlining this issue with a simple trophy may prove more financially viability and easy to manage – kids love a trophy.

How do you reward effort in your classes?

Rewarding Effort – Student of the Month.

The next stage of motivation in use at my academy is the “Student of the Month” award and as with our weekly award, public announcement is a big part of the celebration. I award this across all age groups within the academy (tots, kids and juniors) and across all classes so it is not uncommon to have six or more children becoming “Student of the Month”. However, unlike our ‘Worker of the Week’ I tend to hold this award in slightly higher esteem, primarily because the effort is rewarded over a much longer period and any recipient must have demonstrated overtly more effort or more development than the rest of their peer group.

Competition success, the achievement of pre-determined or agreed goals (during a promotion), a significant improvement in ability or an explicit concentration of effort during the month are usually the markers for which I base my decision but once again, children want to win, they want to be rewarded and recognised for their hard work and in presenting such a prize, overall engagement is enhanced.

Working Example.

The cumulative effort across a month requires something a little different, something more meaningful. A few years back I made the mistake of refunding any child’s monthly subscription fee should they become “Student of the Month”. The problem was not that I lost revenue as a result, rather, I began to realise that the child chosen to be the recipient was not, in fact, being rewarded for their effort and parents were becoming far more concerned and competitive over the monthly result. Today I utilise the most coveted prize in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu – the red belt and each recipient wears said belt for the entire month, becoming the ‘dojo captain’ in their respective class.

What markers do you distinguish to celebrate effort?

The final official tool of recognition I use to distinguish the achievements of one student over another is the “Student of the Year”.

By the time we reach December I have identified several stand out moments across the year where juniors have excelled themselves when compared to others within their specific class or indeed themselves over a 12 month period – in some cases the transformation process is truly amazing to witness.

In the past I have presented this award to children who have amassed a huge number of competitive wins and thus should be considered technically superior than any other junior on the mats (if you chose this be aware of cultivating a success vs failure environment), as well as children that have developed exponentially in terms of social mobility – where they were once anxious about interacting with the group or hard to engage, they may now be very comfortable in the setting and have demonstrated a huge change in ability that may not be normally recognised.

Nevertheless, I utilise this award to emphasis role model characteristics and the positive values demonstrated across the year by those in receipt of the award. Not only does this increase engagement as with the other awards described, it also reinforces the strong values-based learning I am keen to extend at my academy.

Working Example.

Prestige is associated with out “Student of the Year” award and as such I’ve incorporated this into our annual awards ceremony as well as a memorial plaque with great sentimental value. This provides a platform to celebrate individual achievements and indeed many juniors do continue to train into my adult programme, becoming someone I can reference for further encouragement and engagement.

Other examples of encouragement.

Earlier in this post I referenced Daniel Pink and his findings on what motivates us.

Pink eluded to three things that intrinsically motivate: Autonomy, Purpose and Mastery. The examples of reward above are solely concerned with reinforcing the Mastery aspect of Pink’s hypothesis through rewarding effort, which subsequently increases engagement but one element of coaching and growth in your kids classes that is often over-looked when it comes to engagement, often because it is so simple, is your ability to communicate with the children under your influence.

I have already touched upon this here, but language and its use is paramount to ensuring children engage with you.

By ‘language’ I am essentially referencing the vitality of your language as apposed to its functionality, you will understanding this if you have ever tried to describe a technique or attempted to talk a child through the technical nuances of a movement, potentially something as adults we take for granted.

Functional language, whereby we are describing how to do a movement, often in a step-by-step manner can be very frustrating for children who find it very hard to comprehend and implement instructions. Engagement can be increased by actually facilitating the required movement yourself and getting down to the child’s level, instead, moving the child into position step-by-step. Obviously,this practice can be withdrawn over time and as ability increases but, the practice of “guided movement” ensures complete understanding and removes any technical advice that potentially confuses [novice level] children.

The definition of “vital” is irreplaceable or life-force, with this in mind let’s consider language or the vitality of language central to encouragement, paramount to cultivating learning and the growth of your kids classes.

Any language you use should provide a synthesis between simplicity and the eventual goal, the clarity of your communication is key as well as constant positive reinforcement for the effort you garner along the way. As you move through the techniques the communication can include more open dialogue that includes logical questions to see how the child is comprehending the movement thus increasing engagement moreover.

Consider this.

Example One.

You are sat on the opposite side of the tatami and you notice two children struggling with a technique the class is drilling…
“Okay, grab his hand with your right and with your other one, untuck the Gi so it becomes really tight.
No, use your other hand!
Yes, but grab his other hand as well…
Untuck his Gi, not yours!
Now you’ve pulled it tight around the wrong way…”

The above has done nothing to further the child’s understanding in terms of skill acquisition. You have just wasted time shouting vague, misleading, confusing instructions across the mats, the child is now confused, frustrated and possibly embarrassed that he cannot understand what you, the coach he admires, has instructed. Continue to coach in this manner and engagement in you, the material and the class will suffer.

Example Two.

You are sat on the opposite side of the tatami and you notice two children struggling with a technique  the class is drilling…

You decide to get up, walk across the mats and physically guide the child through every motion that is important when considering successful application of the movement and reinforce the whole process with positive praise:
“Yes, excellent, now we do this…”
“Don’t forget this as well or this will happen… brilliant, well done!”
“Why don’t we try this way instead?”

“I really like what you did there. You did that movement without me telling you. Awesome effort”.
“I want you to try that on your own now whilst I look to see how the others are getting along. If you have any problems just ask me again! Well done, I’m proud of how hard you are working!”

The difference is obvious and immediate.
You have engaged and garnered more trust and belief in that one child’s relationship with you as their coach.
Simple but extremely effective engagement.

How are you ensuring you develop engagement with the children you coach?

The depth of discussion for this particular subject (encouraging engagement) could go on and on and most definitely this article could extend over a number of follow-on posts, I may well consider expanding the aspect of engagement further in some later posts and share others I have used: mentor-ships, dojo captaincies, competitive success rankings and the use of assistant instructors but the above provides ample room for improvement using obvious and not so obvious examples.

Try them out and let me know how your are getting along, how they have improved your retention and any feedback you are experiencing as a result.

Do not neglect the opportunity to engage with the children in your class, the aspects of progressions and reward and how you utilise them can bolster student retention and provide a great sales magnet if used correctly.


  • Kahn, William A. Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work. Academy of Management Journal; 33, 4; ProQuest pg. 692, 1990.
  • Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2009.

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