Retention

You work really hard to build your martial arts academy.

Finding the right location.

Training staff.

Teaching classes.

Marketing your programs.

It’s a lot of work. Especially in the beginning when you might have to fill in for a lot of roles.

However, many academy owners put so much time and effort in trying to grow their academies that they often forget about maintaining one of their biggest resources and best assets.

Their current membership base.

Student retention

There’s no quick fix or hack that will increase your retention overnight. Each academy is a unique business with it’s own set of challenges.

But there are a few commonalities that I’ve found with academies that have great student retention versus academies with low student retention.

Retention building factors

Set boundaries
Communication
Value
Motivation
Fun
Positive environment

1 Setting Boundaries

There is a time and place for you to communicate with your instructor or the staff.

I was originally going to start off with communication, but in retrospect, setting healthy boundaries between yourself as an instructor and your students is what will support all the other factors in determining your student retention.

How can setting boundaries possibly help you retain more students you’re wondering?

Well, setting boundaries is the foundation of every relationship. Even the relationship between students and instructors.

By having clearly defined boundaries it will not only allow you to be more effective in communicating with your students, but I assure you that both parties will feel more positive about the experience.

Boundaries like not dating students.

This one should be self explanatory. Don’t date your students. It almost always leads to drama and is not good for business.

Boundaries like not taking part in vices (in the presence of your students at least).

This should be self explanatory too but your interactions with students should lean more towards appropriate and safe and less toward inappropriate and dangerous.

Boundaries like having specific times and days in which your students have you full and undivided attention.

It’s easy to believe that you will have unlimited time and energy with which to teach multiple classes per day, coach, lesson plan, teach private lessons, train, and mentor.

But the reality of it is far different.

I know outside looking in it seems like an easy profession being able to train and roll all day.

But when you teach for a living, especially in the beginning when you are always at your academy. It’s not productive for you to always be at the beck and call of your students. No matter how much you want to be.

I’m not saying that you should ignore your students but you should have a system in place for yourself and your students.

I’m real big on email and messenger whenever students have questions. Since it’s easier for me to communicate that way and I have time to think.

While other instructors might set aside time either before or after class specifically to interact with students.

From Impressionable students

Having the title of instructor or even being a senior student will indubitably have an effect on the character, development, and behavior of lower belt students. While having this influence can be alluring, it also comes with shouldering a lot of responsibility. Students will constantly be looking at you to set a good example both on and off of the mats. When my school first brought a well-known competitor to teach at our academy, most students only trained 3-4 times a week, even during tournament season. Our world champion instructor started training with us 5-6 times a week, often twice a day. As students, we learned very quickly that if we wanted to reach the next level and win at major tournaments like our instructor, we would also need to dedicate more time and effort to our training.

As an instructor, your views and actions have a lot of influence over your students. So in order for your students to respect your boundaries it’s important that you are worthy of that respect.

I think this is one reason why many instructors are very disciplined. Eat healthy, train hard, and are respectful on and off the mats.

2 Communication

Experts always talk about communication being the key to successful relationships and at the risk of sounding cliche. I believe this is true.

How do you communicate with your students?

I don’t believe that a lot of instructors/academy owners really think about the ways in which they communicate with their students and whether or not it’s constructive communication.

It’s easy as an instructor to get so used to the hierarchy that is built in to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

You bow to your instructors.

You line up behind the more senior students.

There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, I believe that it does instill a sense of discipline and accountability that is missing in a lot of social interactions.

But it can be taken too far, especially when off of the mats and outside of the academy.

I’ve seen many instructors abuse the authority that they had by taking advantage of their students in asking for one sided favors, getting free or below cost labor, not treating students with respect, and talking down to students because they weren’t as good at Jiu Jitsu.

This isn’t conducive to creating an environment of open communication and instead breeds more blind compliance and yes man(ing) that is more characteristic of a cult than a martial arts academy.

Equal Ground

Constructive, open communication comes from a level playing field.

In hierarchies it’s really hard to voice one’s opinion when you’ve only been taught to defer to the more experienced, higher ranking party.

As an instructor you have to create an environment in which your students have a proper outlet in order to communicate with you. One where you are not your rank but a fellow person taking part in a fun and interactive activity.

Prescriptive

One thing that I like to do whenever I teach is to set aside time right before the end of my classes. Where I invite all of the students to ask me any questions they may have. Whether it concerns any of the moves that I covered or any general Jiu Jitsu questions.

It doesn’t take much time but you will be surprised by how many questions that arise during a class or even after a hard training session.

Instructors get so caught up in their classes and trying to stay within the allotted time slot or covering a certain amount of techniques that they often hurry from one thing to the next. Until, the class is over and they have to move on to another class or they become too exhausted or busy to give the student(s) their full attention.

I know that I’ve been guilty of this. That’s why if I’m really busy or short on energy. I will suggest that a student hit me up through other means of communication when I can devote more time to them.

Being the instructor, you have to lead the way by creating (multiple) opportunities for your students to interact with you. Show your students that they can come to you, and that you’re willing to hear them out and help them out.

3 Keep bringing value

Complacency in relationships is a big problem.

When you become complacent in running your academy the same way that you’ve always ran it. You open yourself up to stagnation.

Bring value to your programs by continually updating techniques and movements.

You would be surprised by the number of academies that still show how to pass on the knees and other outdated movements that have been improved upon by modern Jiu Jitsu.

Bring value by adding classes and programs that your students want.

If your students have been pushing for a conditioning class or more no gi classes. Instead of sticking to your current schedule. Try to fit in the new class(es) even on a trial basis and see how it does. Worst case scenario, the class doesn’t do well so you move back to the regular schedule.

Revamping your curriculum is an easy, low investment way to bring new energy into your academy. Making students want to attend. Happy to attend in fact. That’s what retention is all about.

Bring value to your academy by adding small touches and amenities like changing the color scheme, adding new furniture to your reception area, free wifi, or newer mats. Even small changes will be well received.

There is no limit to what you can do. Just by showing that you are willing to continue improving your academy you demonstrate to your students that you value their support and they will reward you in turn with their loyalty.

4 Motivate

Motivate your students.

It’s as simple as that. When they’re doing well and making progress help them to reach new levels in their techniques, conditioning, etc.

When they are feeling burned out and don’t think that they’re improving. Motivate them to continue training and help them get through those tough times.

Some of the most successful academies aren’t successful just because of the techniques that they show, or because they have a really good instructor or even top notch facilities. They’re successful because the environment of the school helped pushed the students, no matter their level or ability, to reach their goals.

5 Keep it fun

Don’t take yourself nor your position too seriously.

At the end of the day, Jiu Jitsu should be fun and students should look forward to attending classes and training with their friends.

An easy way to build fun is by doing activities outside of the academy with your students. Going out to eat, movies, and other types of events.

6 Positive environment

Having a fun and positive environment is what keeps students training.

Many people see Jiu Jitsu and academies as an oasis from the burden of everyday life. One that often involves long hours at work and busy family lives.

Make the environment at your academy one that students will look forward to throughout their day. A safe space.

If your environment is off you could be unintentionally letting students fall through the cracks. The complete opposite of retention.

Signs of a bad environment
Lots of drama
Lots of injuries
Fighting
Arguments
Exodus of students

The list goes on and on but the old saying, “where there is smoke, there is fire”, rings true. If left uncontrolled, could lead to much bigger problems.

As the instructor it is your responsibility to ensure that there is a positive environment for your students since you ultimately set the standard for your academy.

Retention, Retention, Retention

Building positive relationships and retaining students goes hand and hand.

As instructors, we like to focus on how hard we have it and all of the sacrifices that we’ve made to get to the point where we could run an entire academy, but in what way does that help your students?

When you decided to open your own academy, you made a conscious decision to put the training and progression of your students above your own.

It’s hard for many instructors to understand this, but it’s the truth.

You have to develop clear boundaries and systems so that you and your students are able to communicate effectively.

You have to make it easy and convenient for your students to interact with you. Especially, when they’re having a tough time.

You have to make the environment of the academy fun and positive. And keep bringing value.

Being an instructor isn’t easy. No one said it would be. But it is fulfilling and never boring.

Networking in Jiu Jitsu

Networking in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is one of the most underutilized benefits of training with such a diverse group.

The normal clientele of a Jiu Jitsu academy can consists of: doctors, lawyers, businessmen, etc. All willing to lend you a hand.

Looking for a new job? Hit up your Jiu Jitsu network to see if anyone is hiring.

Need a good accountant? Ask around the academy to see if someone has a great one on speed dial.

The same can be said about acquiring a sponsorship.

Often, your best bet will be your immediate circle of instructor(s) and training partners. If you’re lucky, someone that you know might be in contact with the owner of company looking to sponsor.

Having an “in” is a big advantage in getting sponsored.

Knowing someone who is already sponsored by a company that you are interested in can make a big difference.

Even if you haven’t quite made a name for yourself or you haven’t been picked up by major Jiu Jitsu news networks and streaming sites like flowgrappling.

Having someone vouch for you as a reference for your skill and ability. Can be a game changer.

Many of the sponsorships that I’ve landed have been through my relationship with a third party. Either an instructor that was already sponsored or a friend that put me in contact with someone of influence with a sponsoring company.

But what if you’re in a position where you don’t know anyone?

Then you’ll have to hustle.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

One lesson that Jiu Jitsu teaches us all is how to persevere through tough times and situations.

If you want something bad enough. You will find a way.

Step outside of your comfort zone

I know the average Jiu Jitsu athlete believes that winning on the mat is all they need to do In order to be successful. Sure there are some outliers that do exactly this.

However, you have to realize that they are the exception, and not the rule.

If you look at many of the top competitors and athletes in our sport.

Yes, their techniques are great, and they win big tournaments.

But they’re also more than that.

They are people that you look up to.

They are people you want to emulate.

They are people that you want to hangout with outside of the academy.

They have that “it” factor and that is exactly what sponsors, professional grappling events, and academies are looking for.

Even if you aren’t where you want to be now in your Jiu jitsu career. You should always be looking ahead and have an idea of what goals you want to achieve.

Personality

I’ve talked a lot about personality before but it’s so important that I have to keep bringing it up.

You need to have some personality if you want people to follow you and companies to sponsor you. Your personality is what keeps people interested in you and wanting more. As much as you want the support of a brand. You need to realize that you are your own brand.

Style of Jiu Jitsu

I hate to say this but your style is important.

No, not the way you dress off of the mats.

But the actual techniques that you use. Your style of Jiu Jitsu.

Winning is important. But also how you win is important.

If your game is to win on advantages or by stalling. There’s a good chance that most sponsors will overlook you and I’m sure most academies will pass on hosting you for a seminar.

I’m not saying that you should change your style to be more marketable.

But realize that a lot of success is based on how people perceive you and your style of Jiu Jitsu.

Is your style super reliant on physical attributes like power and conditioning or is it more based on technique and timing?

Do you have a style that others would like to emulate?

Networking

Networking in Jiu Jitsu is no different than networking in any other type of business or community.

It can mean forming new (business) relationships or strengthening old ones.

Sharing information on techniques, business opportunities.

And everything in between.

It’s what you make of it that counts.

If you want to stay ahead of the new cutting edge techniques.

Or if you want to learn about a new event looking for athletes.

Or you’re interested in academies looking for instructors.

You’re going to have to network and make those connections so that you can get access to that inside knowledge

Reaching out

Make an effort to network not only with the people and companies that you want to sponsor you but everyone else as well.

Tournaments
Seminars
Fundraisers
Open mats
Belt graduations

Are all great opportunities to expand your Jiu Jitsu network.

Network with other athletes.

Network with the tournament staff.

Network with academy owners

Network with fans.

Hell, even network with your haters.

The Jiu Jitsu community is so small and intimate that you never know when an opportunity will reveal itself. That’s why you have to continually keep putting yourself out there. Keep competing. Keep posting on social media. Keep networking and building relationships.

Martial Arts Business Blunders

I had a really cool article about guard development that I was really excited to post.

But sometimes things happen or events occur that warrant me addressing them.

If you guys know me in real life. I make it a point to talk to and to keep in contact with the owners of the academies that I meet.

Even if it’s just in passing. You can learn a lot about the martial arts business from the ones that are savvy.

It’s no secret why they are successful. You can see it in their mindset and how they approach challenges.

So when they’re excited about another year of member growth or they expanded into a new location. It’s really no surprise.

But I’ve come into contact with a few academies that seem to be making blunder after blunder.

Even more well established academies that have been open for decades are making blunders that are mainly due to a lack of basic business principles.

Making mistakes isn’t bad. It’s not learning from them and continuing to do same things that is the problem.

When you’re in the martial arts business or any business really, you can’t afford to make blunders.

I’ve recently taken up playing chess. I completely suck (right now) but it’s crazy how you can relate that game back to the business aspects of Jiu Jitsu.

For those of you not avid players. In the chess world a blunder is considered:

“a very bad move. It is usually caused by some tactical oversight, whether from time trouble, overconfidence or carelessness.”

And I really want to emphasize the overconfidence and carelessness parts.

In a game like chess mistakes are expected. Especially during the beginning stages.

However, when you decide to enter into the martial arts business world. It’s very much like entering the black belt division.

If you have any major (or minor) holes in your game. They will be exposed for all to see.

And everyone is out to beat you. Even if it means hurting you to do so.

The same goes for the business side of Jiu Jitsu.

If you don’t have the right training.

You will suffer.

If you don’t have the right experience.

You will struggle.

When you’re the head of an academy you have a lot of people counting on your success.

Your family.

Your students.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen many martial arts academies not make it.

Not only does the owner feel like they let their family and their students down. But they often internalize those feelings which can lead to anxiety, depression, and a whole host of other bad stuff.

Common Blunders

Listen, you’re going to make mistakes over the course of managing your business.

Mistakes happen.

But you can’t afford to make mistake after mistake and hope to stay in business.

There’s just too much competition out there.

Pick the right location – it’s better to outgrow a location than it is to have a big academy right off the back.

Avoid the wrong instructor(s) – Find instructors that are a good fit and will represent your academy well.

Avoid joining the wrong associations – Join associations that make your business better and bring value.

Have the right credentials – If you don’t have the right credentials. You’re not a black belt (or soon to be promoted) or you haven’t differentiated yourself enough yet through tournaments, social media, etc. Then maybe you should hold off opening an academy until you have more experience. Otherwise you might do a disservice to yourself and actually limit your progression.

Investing back into your business – This is where I see a lot of academies drop the ball. You have to invest back into your academy.

Keep your academy looking good. Update your equipment and mats every few years.

Invest back into your students by bringing the right instructors.

Invest in your staff by making sure they get the right training that they need to be successful.

Academies are the center of the Jiu Jitsu community

The academy is the foundation of the Jiu Jitsu community.

It’s where student go to practice their techniques.

Where competitors go to sharpen their skills.

And where instructors go to master their craft.

Without successful academies their would be no Jiu Jitsu. It’s only through the success of academies, both small and large, that Jiu Jitsu will continue to grow.

Advice overload

I’ve spent a lot of time with the owners of academies throughout my career and I’ve seen that the ones that tend to struggle the most are often the same ones to turn down good advice or wise council.

It’s funny that in Jiu Jitsu we promote having no ego and being open minded.

But often these same people are less willing to take their own advice when it comes to business matters.

I’m not saying that you have to take every piece of advice to heart and that you have to implement right away.

That would be a terrible idea.

But you should keep an open mind when someone more experienced than yourself reaches out to you or when one of your students voice a good suggestion.

Feedback and how to filter

From Giving feedback:

Being receptive to feedback is an important part of Jiu Jitsu (business) because it is the only way that you will be able to improve.

Receiving Feedback
Actively listen. Respond and remember what is being said.
Say thanks. Regardless of whether the feedback is useful or not.
Evaluate feedback. Think about how you can effectively apply the feedback to grow your Jiu Jitsu (business).

These same steps can be used in receiving advice (aka feedback) on your marital arts business.

It’s telling that many of the best competitors and instructors are also some of the most receptive to feedback.

Jiu Jitsu and entrepreneurs

I’ve found that many of the business owners and entrepreneurs that I know love talking about their businesses and actively seek feedback and advice about their business.

That’s one way that I know that an academy owner will be successful.

It’s when I come across owners that still operate their business like it’s 1980’s Brazil or ones that consistently seem to struggle that I begin to worry.

Not everyone is cut out for it

I’ve said this before but just because you’re good at Jiu Jitsu doesn’t mean that you will be good at running a Jiu Jitsu business.

You could be a world champion.

Or the best instructor in the world.

And that alone would not be enough to ensure that your martial arts business will be a success.

That’s the hard, uncomfortable truth.

The most successful academies weren’t started by Jiu Jitsu practitioners alone.

In fact they started off as a partnership between a high level competitor or well known instructor and someone with a background in business and ample resources.

The Mendez brothers and RVCA founder PM Tenore.

Marcelo Garcia and chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin.

And many more well known academies that you have probably heard of.

Get help

It’s hard asking for help but if your martial arts business is struggling. You have to look at the big picture.

It’s better to get help now and save your business than to not get help and slowly let your business fail.

This might seem so illogical to many of my readers but I’ve witnessed first hand the decline of an academy.

It wasn’t pretty and completely avoidable.

Don’t be another statistic.

Even if your academy is doing well. Is there a way to take it to the next level?

By having the right people looking out for you like mentors, other business owners, and even knowledgeable students, you already have a competitive advantage.

But you will also need to be receptive to what they say. Even if it’s not what you want to hear.

No ego.