Instructor Progression

I’m currently embarking on my next adventure in Japan. Over the next next few months I’m going to be traveling. Competing and teaching seminars.

There’s a lot that goes into getting to this point and today I’m going to break down the progression that one might take to make this a career or not.

Being a full-time instructor is often not a straight path. In fact, many of the instructors that I know started in other fields. But then made their way to teaching Jiu Jitsu.

I’ve seen that as Jiu Jitsu has gotten more popular. The younger generation is looking towards this lifestyle as their future career.

Many a blue belt has told me that their dream is to have their own school one day.

They usually have no business experience and very little life experience and they want to do this for the rest of their life?

I’m not going to deter anyone from following their dreams.

But I’m also not going to sugar coat this topic.

Teaching Jiu Jitsu is a rewarding and often life changing path. But it’s not the easiest nor most stable path, especially in the beginning.

Many of the guys that own academies often run it as a side business or a hobby.

That means they might not be making any money off their academy or just breaking even.

Of course there are exceptions out there. The world champion instructors making mid – high six figures, have state of the art facilities, and drive around in Porsches.

Or the academies where the owner already has a lot of money and can pour an unlimited amount of resources into their school. Bringing in world class competitors to teach a class here and there, and whatever else they can dream of.

Does this sound like any academies that you know of?

Maybe, but they are very few in number.

If you decide to walk down this path. I applaud you.

Not only because of all the good that you could potentially do but because you will receive a lot of push back.

The people around you might not understand your decision.

Family and friends will tell you to get a normal, stable job.

Coworkers and bosses will think that you’re crazy.

I’ve been doing this for years and I still hear this from my grandparents.

But I wouldn’t change a thing.

Again, if you do decide to walk this path. I want you to be able to make an informed decision.

A lot of this stuff I had to figure out on my own through trial and error.

Of course I had mentors.

Really good ones.

But I still made a lot of mistakes and had to learn from those mistakes.

Mentors can only guide you. You still have to take action and work towards your goal.

I have a post I’m working on for those of you looking to become full-time competitors, but for now I’m going to focus more on the teaching side of the martial arts industry and lessons that I’ve learned the hard way so you won’t have to.

Apprenticeship

A lot of guys get there start apprenticing or volunteering to help their academies kids program. The major difference between apprentices and volunteers being that the apprentice will often get paid or get their academy tuition covered. While volunteers still pay dues and are not paid.

It’s been a while but most competitive schools will pay between $25-$40 per class at this level. A few times a week.

While this money is pretty good. You have other things to work on.

At this stage your focus should be on learning.

Don’t worry, no one expects you to be a good instructor yet.

You should observe the class instructor and follow his/her lead.

Observe how they interact with students, and how they deal different situations.

For example, a good friend of mine was covering a class for one of the instructors recently. While showing the technique to the class one of the students very rudely asked the instructor why he had to do whatever move he was showing. It made quite a scene.

I kept this example vague for a reason but my point is that being a professional instructor, you will often be put in uncomfortable interactions. These interactions can affect everything from how your students see you to future clients deciding to join your academy over your competitors.

I won’t lie to you, it’s not easy and you will make a lot, and I mean a lot, of mistakes. When I first started teaching kids BJJ as a newly minted seven-teen year old blue belt. I will never forget how bad I was. I didn’t have any formal teaching skills. I didn’t come off as an authority figure. I was pretty shy. Despite my shortcomings I tried my best everyday, taking all the feedback that I received from the other instructors and worked to improve little by little.

Skills to develop: Learn to be observant, listen to instruction, basic teaching fundamentals, learn how to take constructive criticism.

Full Fledged Instructor

Once you’re a full fledged instructor and have proven your teaching ability, you will have a lot more freedom than you had as a volunteer or an apprentice. Freedom to choose your own lesson plan or if your school has a structured instructor program, freedom to add your unique take on those techniques.

At this stage you should have a good understanding of the class dynamic. When you are instructing not only are you in charge of the flow of the class but you’re also responsible for teaching all the techniques that you are suppose to cover.

Time management is key! Especially for academies with classes one right after the other. Spending too much time on a technique or losing track of time during training could potentially set back all of your other classes.

Clients love when their classes start and end on time. If you do tend to go over the class time, don’t be afraid to communicate the fact. Let the clients that have to leave go without a fuss. But if you tend to show up late to your classes then you have to stop that immediately. Especially in the U.S. and most of Europe.

Learning how to communicate will also be important at this stage. Learn how to communicate with students not just about technique but about their progress. The more detail the better. So if you are able to break down moves into very detailed steps. Not only will your students learn more effectively but they will also have better recall later.

As an instructor, when I am helping a student. No matter what technique they are doing. I like to focus on one thing that they are doing really well.

From here I am able to communicate to them that I’m invested in helping them.

Now since they are more open to me. I like to make any corrections/hints that I think will improve their technique.

Then when they perform their technique again. With the added corrections of course. I like to complement their improvement.

This isn’t some secret technique.

There is no script that I’m following when I do this.

Just a genuine want to help my students get better. The students can feel this too.

At this stage, instructors at competitive academies might still be getting paid on a per class/hourly basis. This range could be any where from $40-$100 depending on the location and size of the academy. As well as the belt level of the instructor. Black belts tend to get paid higher than lower belts.

Skills to Develop: Understanding the class dynamic, becoming an authority figure, communication skills, time management

Head Instructor

Being the head instructor for a martial arts academy is something that I have heard a lot of people talk about. Usually they will say that their dream is to own and operate their own school but very few actually take the leap of faith.

The head instructor can be the owner of the academy or an employee. Usually when a full fledged instructor reaches a certain level of skill and notoriety do they reach this stage. Being a head instructor comes with even more responsibility than the previous levels. Especially when it comes to designing the lesson plan, motivating students, and the overall feel of the academy.

The head instructor is the heart of the gym. Whatever your approach on training, competing, self defense, etc will set the tone for the rest of your school and influence all of your students. For example, if the head instructor is big into competing. It is more likely that the students will be exposed to competitions early on and want to compete.

Being a head instructor is more than just having the technical know how and showing techniques.

This is the image that a lot of people have. The instructor rolls in to class five minutes before it starts. Shows two or three techniques. Rolls for a bit and then makes bank haha.

But there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes.

Deciding what techniques will benefit your students.

Figuring out how to motivate students when they begin falling off or get injured.

Structuring the beginner classes. What techniques should they learn. When should they be able to progress to more advance classes.

Should you add another nogi class to boost attendance on a slow day.

These are all off the top of my head. But these are common situations that a head instructor will have to face. All while trying to balance different personalities, skill levels, motivational levels, etc.

Outside of the technical aspects of teaching. The head instructor will also have to be able to manage other instructors as well as the students.

For students this could include designing the schedule, contacting students when they miss a few classes, designing the curriculum and all the testing requirements and graduation details.

For instructors this could include payment for classes, which instructors gets a salary versus those that are paid hourly, implementing curriculums, performing belt test, setting up seminars.

The list goes on and on. But I hope you see that this is a very involved process.

This is where that communication skill will really come in handy. Teaching students is one thing, but interacting with students on an interpersonal level and developing other instructors takes time and experience.

I’ve seen many high level instructors miss this step in that they are able to convey techniques really well but they never develop relationships with their students.

They become close to the select few that they see have “potential”. As the head instructor you will have to be available to all students.

Everyone from new prospects to even those really crazy students that every academy has.

I personally suggest a minimum of 10 years of training and teaching before you even consider becoming the head instructor of an academy. Even more time if you have plans of competing or traveling.

Head instructors can be paid per class but most have a salary at more established academies. There’s a lot that goes on to figuring out how much an instructor’s salary will be. It’s very dependent on what the academy can sustain based on the number of clients. As well as the skill and level of the instructor.

I’ve personally seen that the salary for an average black instructors starting out is around $2000 per month or $24,000 per year for a moderate to highly successful academy.

Of course, instructors with more tournament success and fame will have more room in negotiating their salaries. Along with other benefits like housing cost, transportation, tournaments costs, etc.

World champions can expect to make 2 to 4 times as much as the average black belt.

If the head instructor is also the owner then there really is no cap on how much they can make.

Skills to develop: Ability to teach at all experience levels, school wide programming, focus of the academy, providing motivation, student progression

Association Head

I haven’t seen a lot of people write about what happens after becoming a head instructor. Luckily, I trained at the headquarters of one of the top teams in the world. So I have seen first hand the ins and outs of running an association and now I’m going to share the details with you.

After you have been the head instructor for a successful school for many years (5 plus years at least). Have reached a rank where you can graduate students to the level of black belt, then you have reached the association stage.

If you have run your school well and have graduated enough students to black belt. It is only natural that a small percent of those students would have some interest in starting their own schools. Hopefully they went through all of the previous steps that I listed.

If so, and you have managed to maintain a good relationship with those students. Then many of them will want to join your association out of loyalty for all the work that you put into them.

In the martial arts, especially in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, lineage is something that we really care about. If you travel a lot and train, one of the first questions after what belt rank you hold is who is your instructor. Students take pride in their instructors and if they have the choice, would rather promote your association over a less personal big name association.

Organization will be key here.

This includes deciding who will be eligible to join your associations and any other requirements including things such as school size, revenue, location, etc.

For instance a common requirement for the larger associations is that the affiliate schools have to wear and sell only the official associations gi and accessory items.

I will probably go further in depth on associations in future posts but for now you should get a sense of the different levels that are possible for someone should they choose to make Jiu Jitsu their full-time career.

There is no limit on how much the head of an association can make. Some of the larger associations have 100 plus affiliate schools.

With many affiliate schools paying upwards of a few thousand dollars per year to be a part of a particular association.

Imagine 100 academies paying you $1000 every year. For an indefinite amount of time.

That’s a lot of revenue!

Who says you can’t make money in Jiu Jitsu?

Skills to develop: Organization, branding, leadership, marketing

Being a competitor is one thing but the world of teaching Jiu Jitsu for a living is a whole other animal.

There are lots of world champions that can’t teach and there are a lot of really great instructors that have never stepped foot on to the competition mat.

The best thing that you can do now is get as much experience as you can.

And keep learning!

I’ve been teaching Jiu Jitsu since I was seventeen and I swear I learn something new everyday.

Of course you learn from other instructors but you can also learn from your students as well.

Listen to your students questions. Don’t just blow them off or if you don’t know the answer don’t be afraid.

Sometimes when I’m teaching, a student might ask me about a situation or technique that I don’t know a lot about. That’s when I will use my experience and my pre-existing knowledge to work out a solution along with the student.

One concept that I took away from studying mathematics is that multiple brains are a lot better at solving complex problems than just one.

This same concept applies in Jiu Jitsu. Working alongside your student(s) to figure out a new position is one of the best aspects of Jiu Jitsu.

This is how you will improve as an instructor.

Getting Started

The best time to start is now. If there is an opportunity for you to volunteer or apprentice I say you should take it.

Continue reading “Instructor Progression”

Modern Sponsorships

I was recently introduced to a newer Brazilian Jiu Jitsu brand called Enois. Founded by David Telfer who trains out of Robot Fight and Fitness in Santa Monica.

I already have a long running relationship with a well know brand but I was happy to promote some athletes that I knew would be great brand ambassadors.

Between contacting all the athletes, writing recommendation letters, and trying to gauge their interest in being sponsored.

I realized that there was a lot of confusion as far as what they would get, what all they had to do, etc.

Modern sponsorships in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a confusing topic.

Everyone wants to be sponsored.

But not a lot of people know how it works. Not many athletes have written about it for whatever reasons.

When most people think of sponsorships they often relate it to the huge endorsement deals that athletes in the popular sports get.

Sports such as football, baseball, and basketball here in the U.S. Soccer(football) for my international folks.

While Jiu Jitsu sponsorships are not quite as lucrative. I can assure you that the top guys in our sport are making bank.

There are a lot of different types of sponsorships. Many that I will talk about later in this post.

I just want you to remember that the guys/girls getting sponsored are not all athletes that compete every weekend or placed at the big tournaments.

Some own schools.

Some work full-time.

Some have a large social media following and are always posting on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.

I think I will write a post detailing what I’ve done to get sponsored and maintain my relationships with my sponsors over the years but for now let’s focus on the different types of sponsors.

Types of Sponsorships

Most sponsorships can be broken down into 2 or 3 different groups with lots of overlap. Within the different types there are also different tiers. These tiers are determined by the level of the athletes.

Lower tier athletes are generally lower belts (often blue belts and purple belts) competitors or non-competitors. Not well known or only known locally.

Middle tier athletes can be any level but are generally brown belts and black belts. More well known. Probably have a highlight video or two. Somewhat known throughout the Jiu Jitsu community.

Higher tier athletes are high level competitors. Often appearing on magazines and other branding. They need no introduction. They are widely known throughout the Jiu Jitsu community.

  • Lower Tier – Gear
  • Middle Tier – Gear, Tournament Entry
  • Higher Tier – Gear, Tournament Entry, Monetary Compensation

Gear Sponsorship

This is the first level of sponsorship that most competitors will receive.

In fact my very first sponsor was exactly like this. I won’t mention the name of the brand. But they managed to supply me with the defective gear that they probably weren’t able to sale.

I didn’t stay sponsored by them for long.

Gear sponsorships generally involve the exchange of clothing or training gear in return for advertisement at local events, tournaments and online.

The biggest brands have mastered this really well. All they have to do is release a few different items every year and people will proudly purchase without much selling.

The gear package can include everything from t-shirts, rash guards, kimonos,belts, hats, etc.

Usually there is no exchange of money, especially for lower belts and lesser known athletes.

Luckily many of the popular brands don’t have a stipulation on you selling your gear once you receive it.

I know a lot of competitors that never take their sponsored gear out of the plastic wrapping. Instead choosing to sell to the highest bidder. Usually for a large profit.

While others might only wear their sponsored items for tournaments and then sell their stuff later to pay their rent or for tickets to the next competition.

The more well known you become.

The more followers you have on social media.

The more success in tournaments that you achieve. The faster you will move up on the sponsorship ladder.

I’m sure you have seen a few lower tiered athletes on Facebook. While they are technically sponsored they also have to put in more work. Usually by posting on social media a few times a week. Plugging coupon codes and notifying all their followers and friends sales.

For example many sponsors will require that you post on social media with the sponsors hashtag at least once a week. Wear their gear at all competitions. Wear their gear for certain events. And even train in their gear.

Everyone has to start somewhere.

Entry Fee Sponsorship

As you move up in sponsorship level. The more you receive from sponsors. More perks, more gear, more connections.

Once you get to the point that your sponsor is covering or reimbursing you for tournament entry fees. Then you are are already near the top of most Jiu Jitsu athletes.

I have entry fee coverage listed as a middle tier level of sponsorship for very active and successful competitors.

But it’s still a large step in the right direction.

Think about it for a second.

You are getting paid to compete. Paid!

Most people fork over their hard earned money for tournaments without the hope of prizes or rewards.

Up and coming athletes on this level can have anywhere between one or two of their tournament registration fees covered.

Again the more well known. The more popular. The more marketable you are. The more tournaments you can possibly have covered.

This is big with sponsors because you will be able to compete more frequently. Promoting their brand to even more potential new customers.

This is true now with the different video streaming companies. They are able to reach tens of thousands of customers.

This is great for sales.

Especially when their athletes do well while wearing their gear.

Most sponsorships are the same when it comes to covering the entrance fee to tournaments.

This system generally works on a reimbursement scale. So the athlete might have to pay for the tournament(s) out of pocket initially. Then later be reimbursed either a few weeks after the tournament or towards the end of their competition season.

There might be some stipulations on what tournaments and the number of tournaments that the sponsor will cover.

For instance, most of the big companies will only cover the major tournaments. Such as IBJJF, Abu Dhabi Pro, etc.

While some of the smaller companies might cover only local tournaments.

You will know before hand what types of companies that your sponsor will cover. If you sign an agreement. It will be clearly outlined for you.

Monetary Sponsor

Monetary sponsorships are the highest tier level of sponsorships in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The athletes at this level are often full-time brown belts and black belts competitors that make their living through Jiu Jitsu.

Many of the top competitors for big name brands receive monetary sponsorships. Especially if you see them on magazine ads and other marketing items all the time.

This form of sponsorships can take on many different forms depending on the success of the athlete.

Their fan base.

Their ability to draw customers.

Their story.

All of these determine how much a sponsor is willing to pay you.

This is why some sponsor brands might have one or two star athletes. They know these guys have huge followings. Which means more sales when they win.

Monetary sponsorships can include: monthly stipends, tournament fee coverage, win bonuses, kimonos, clothing, custom branding like an athlete specific design.

Monetary sponsorships can be further divided into two tiers. Higher and lower tiers.

Lower Tier

On the lower tier of monetary sponsorships is the win bonus. At this level the athletes only receive compensation if they win or place at major tournaments like pans and worlds.

The amount of compensation is predetermined but can range anywhere between a few hundred dollars to a few thousands dollars.

Outside of this, lower tiered athletes often will not receive any other form of direct compensation.

Higher Tier

Higher tiered monetary sponsorships are a whole other level. This is where you will find many of the top guys. The multiple time world champions and the most marketable athletes in our sport.

At this level athletes are getting paid relatively large sums of money just for endorsing a particular company.  Usually in the form of a monthly stipend. Sometimes including a generous win bonus option.

The monthly stipends amounts very largely.

I know of some guys that make a few hundred dollars a month from their sponsors.

I’ve heard of some top guys that make a few thousand dollars a month just from sponsors alone.

Enough to cover their living expenses so that they can dedicate themselves completely to their training.

A small part of difference could be a world title or absolute title. But I think a lot of athletes underestimate just how much their personality and their story affects how much sponsors will shell out for you.

I’ve covered a lot in this post. But this is really important stuff. Especially for newer athletes that want to make competitive Jiu Jitsu their career.

I mentioned a few times how a lot of what you get through your sponsor will be predetermined.

That’s because most serious sponsors will have you sign an agreement. As in legally binding agreement.

While there are ways around an agreement. If you do sign one you are committing your image. Your personal brand. To the use and benefit of the sponsoring company.

These agreements can often last from one year to multiple years.

If nothing else I hope this post helps inform and empower current and future athletes like you to understand what goes behind being sponsored.

Is it cool to be sponsored?

Yes. Depending on the brand.

If you like the sponsor company and everything check outs. Meaning you are happy with the terms. I say go for it!

But if you don’t believe in the brand or are just going along with them so that they will sponsor you. I say it’s better to turn down their offer. It will be in the best interest for both parties. You will leave yourself open for a company that is a better fit and you will be a lot happier.

Is 50k enough to open your own academy?

I recently had a good friend of mine, a purple belt (soon to be brown :)) ask me if $50,000 was enough to open up his own martial arts school.

My jaw just about dropped off….

A little bit about myself, I helped to start a martial arts school at the age of 23 along with a friend and business partner, with a hand full of students and modest loan from an investor. What I would have done for 50K!!!!

It was probably the hardest thing that I have ever done, but I understand that for a lot of guys this is their dream once their prime competitive years are behind them. Just make sure that you are informed and realize that blind passion won’t help you open up and run a martial arts school, and not everything about the instructing life is as it often appears.

4 Things you need in order to open up a martial arts school
Desire
Skill
Funding
Marketing

I ordered my list in terms of ease of obtaining and implementing.

Desire

Starting out, having the desire for having your own school has to take place before you even attempt the other three steps. Make sure that you really want to teach and that you have the ability to teach. If you lack experience teaching, you can always volunteer to help out a few classes where you train.

Also learn the business side of running and operating an academy. This includes learning how to run the front desk, doing introductory lessons, how to sign up new students, billing, etc. Again, if you have no clue what I’m talking about you can always volunteer your time at your academy in exchange for learning their systems.

I really push this point not to be pessimistic, but as a learning aid. I’ve personally seen a lot of people who really wanted to open up their own school because they thought it would be fun, but they did not put in the time to learning how to run a school, and they unfortunately did not stay in business long.

Skill

Along with the desire, you really need to have skill to go with it. Preferably you have a black belt and at least six months to a year of teaching experience before opening your own academy. Instructing new students, you will need a solid foundation in fundamental techniques as well as self defense since the majority of people starting martial arts do so in order to learn how to defend themselves.

Funding

If you are like my friend and plan on saving up 50k in order to open up your academy, then you will really have a good head start. If you’re smart and treat your school like a business and not a hobby then that money will give you the leverage to acquire a nice facility, hire staff to work for you, and invest in gaining/retaining students.

If you don’t have 50k to throw around, don’t worry. Many famous schools started off with a lot less. As far as getting funding, you can always save money yourself. This is the easiest route but it is also the slowest.

I personally suggest that you do not borrow money from family or friends as it can be weird and add more stress to succeed.

Many of the top schools started with private/ angel investors. Again, having an investor just like starting with 50k will allow you a lot more freedom from worrying if your school will be successful and focus on making it successful. The better your amenities and facility, the more value you will bring to your students and it will show in your pricing.

If you have 0 money, you can still start your own school it will just take more time and you will have to do a lot of the work yourself at first. With no money, your best bet is teaching out of an existing facility such as gold’s gym or local rec center. Getting paying students at first might be hard, so start by offering free classes or self defense seminars in order to get the word out about your program and if you find a few really dedicated students, let them train for free in return for helping out or referring their friends.

Marketing

This is the area that a lot of martial arts schools either hit or miss. Even schools that have been established for decades sometimes neglect the power of marketing their school. If your goal is to have a small “club” level school, then marketing will not be a major focus of yours, but if you have larger aspirations for your business then this is one area that you will really need to invest yourself in learning or paying someone well to manage for you.

Starting with little or no money, don’t worry about big marketing pushes, instead focus on generating leads and contacts from your existing students. Word of mouth is often the best way to grow your school since its grassroots and will allow you to connect with people that are already invested in your program through their relationships with your students . Once you are making money and can afford to pay yourself, that’s when you should invest in other forms of marketing like mailers, facebook/google ads, etc.

Listen, no ebook or video is going to teach you experience. It will be up to you to learn and keep learning in order to make your school a reality.