Joining a Jiu Jitsu Association

In my post instructor progression I talked a little bit about what an association head was and some of their duties.

So now I want to touch more on Jiu Jitsu associations because it is a big topic that affects all levels of academies. From the little academies starting out all the way to the bigger ones that have produced multiple world champions.

This article is going to be a little bit heavier on definitions and describing exactly what associations are since there aren’t many sources on them so I want to develop a base of knowledge and terms first before tackling associations more in depth in future posts.

As far as elevating the level of knowledge about Jiu Jitsu, it’s important that we study topics like this because it affects everyone in the Jiu Jitsu community. Many writers and blogs will post about the technical part of Jiu Jitsu but neglect the business aspect. Or when they do talk about the business part of Jiu Jitsu, it’s often a fluff piece designed to get the maximum amount of clicks and email sign ups.

The more I write, the more I come into contact with academy owners, students and others in the Jiu Jitsu community and there is a large need for discussion on many subjects like this one that involve each and everyone of us.

But back on topic.

Most academies are under some type of association or have their own association. Some major ones that come to mind are:

  • Alliance Association
  • Gracie Barra Association
  • Gracie Humaita Association
  • Pedro Sauer Association
  • Royce Gracie Association
  • Checkmat Association
  • Atos Association
  • Rilion Gracie Association
  • SBG

I missed a lot of associations too but that just shows you how widespread  association are within the Jiu Jitsu community.

Many martial arts academies have ties to their head academy or the academy of their instructor and it is the same in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with a few key differences that I hope to cover in this article.

What is a Jiu Jitsu association?

There really is no set definition for what exactly a Jiu Jitsu association is but I will do my best to describe my observations from being a part of one of the largest Jiu Jitsu associations in the world and interacting with several other associations and affiliated academies.

This is a topic that is really important if you decide to have your own academy one day but we will get to that later.

A Jiu Jitsu association is the head or governing organization of a group of closely connected or affiliated academies.

How closely these academies are depends solely on the leadership of the association. Some associations are deeply involved in the affiliated academies in its organization. Giving strict guidelines over everything from how academies structure their business and graduate their students. While others are more informal and leave all the decisions to the individual academies.

Informal Associations

Informal associations are what I would describe as the traditional model found in most martial arts. Usually serving as a way of honoring one’s instructor and their lineage. Often there is no form of payment or dues paid to the head academy or association. Instead relying on the sacred relationship between student and teacher.

Think Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-san from the Karate Kid movies.

A few academies still operate in this manner and I really respect that. I write this all the time but Jiu Jitsu is more than just a business. No matter how hard many instructors try. You just can’t force it into that mold because you’re dealing with people in a very intimate and nurturing environment.

Of course there will be a McDojo here and there or even a fake black belt or two. But they never last, because Jiu Jitsu weeds them out in the way that it’s structured. You can’t fake Jiu Jitsu.

I’m all for academies making money and being profitable. Their success means that there will be more opportunities for instructors and competitors to teach and make a living. But when schools begin to put profit above the martial art and even their students, something is wrong and something often goes wrong.

This isn’t an attack on associations by any means. Associations are very important and ingrained in the fabric of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. But Jiu Jitsu is all about accountability and we have to keep any governing body accountable for its actions.

Formal Associations

Formal Jiu Jitsu associations have a far more hands on approach. I mentioned earlier that the leadership of the association or the head academy can involve itself in how it’s affiliated schools run their individual businesses.

This is very true.

Association can and often do set policies that academies affiliated underneath them have to follow. My favorite and the easiest example is the official uniform that many associated academies often implement. You know the ones where you can only wear the official association’s gi. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, I find it makes most academies look more professional than the old school hodgepodge of people wearing mix matched gis.

I used to rock a red gi back in the day so I know a thing or two about mixing it up.

While cool, its better for academies to have an official uniform to keep their business looking professional.
While cool, its better for academies to have an official uniform to keep their business looking professional.

But this just goes to show the power that the association leadership has over the academies in its associations. Outside of its ability to effect the policies of individual martial art businesses. There are many upsides which include giving academies  access to top level athletes that they normally might not have access to. As well as usage of marketing tools, training, and certifications.

Common Benefits of Associations

  • Training programs
  • Certifications
  • Marketing tools
  • Mentorship
  • Access to instructors
  • Networking
  • Wholesale product pricing
  • Belt testing
  • Competition training

What is an affiliate?

An affiliate academy is an individual martial arts academy that chooses to associate itself under another academy or organization or individual.

Affiliate schools often have to pay a membership fee to the association that can range in the $$,$$$ per year.

In exchange, the affiliated academy gets access to the resources of the association which often includes it’s staple of instructors and competitors, business management training, and wholesale access to products and gear leveraged by the size of the association.

When to join?

This isn’t a simple question. Each academy is a unique and individual business.

I suggest that all academies take their time in deciding on when and with which organization that they decide to affiliate themselves with.

Of course, many academy owners and head instructors will want to affiliate with their instructor but more often than you think this is not a viable option.

Regardless, do your research!

Talk to others academy owners that are members of the associations that you are looking to join.

Find out the association’s policies. Are they very hands on or will they allow you the autonomy to operate your business the way you want?

There comes a time when it makes sense to affiliate your academy. Especially when it’s time to graduate your students to higher belts or if you decide to compete in major tournaments.

If you are a lower belt operating an academy or a black belt without two stripes. You will be really limited in your ability to promote students without the backing of a more seasoned instructor.

Reasons:

  • As a lower belt instructor you need a higher belt instructor to graduate your students.
  • You have students that want to compete. Often, you will need to be registered underneath a team.
  • Affiliating lends credibility to your program. Many people know Alliance and Gracie Barra. While they might not necessarily know who you are as an individual.

Even if you have access to unlimited funds and the association is offering a completely turnkey solution to operating your academy. Still take your time.

If you think jumping teams is frowned upon. Changing affiliations is even worse since there is a lot more money involved.

When not to Affiliate?

If you’re starting out and you’re bootstrapping it, or short on resources.

Don’t affiliate!

Instead focus on building your academy and your business.

Differences in affiliations

There are lots of differences between the associations. The larger associations have more systems in place and resources. While smaller associations can be more personal and easier to communicate with.

It’s a preference really. Do your research, see what the association offers you in exchange for membership, and most importantly if their values and vision fits with your business. Many instructors and academy owners can let their loyalty to their instructor or association blind their judgement, but ultimately you need to insure that joining will be in you and your students best interest.

P.S. – If you would like to learn more about topics that involve owning and operating a Jiu Jitsu academy please join my newsletter for more knowledge bombs.

Knowing your financials

A few months ago I wrote Is 50k enough to open your own academy? And I was really surprised by the amount of comments and feedback that I received.

Short answer: Yes, you can open your academy with $50,000. In fact many people have done it with far less.

Having this much money or more will not only afford you better facilities in a better location but also access to highly skilled instructors.

Being able to bypass a lot of the physical hands on work that many martial arts academies with less resources go through initially. Letting you focus on developing systems and people.

But there is a catch.

With more resources there is a tendency to think that most problems can be solved by throwing money at them.

In fact, sometimes too much money can be a bigger problem than not having enough money if you can believe it.

I wish I had 50k when I cofounded my first martial arts school. It would have made a lot of things easier.

But because we didn’t have a lot of money. That forced my business partner and I to keep track of where every dollar went. Keeping costs as low as possible

I’m going to ask that you take the same diligence and self discipline that you use everyday in your martial arts training and try to apply it to your business.

No easy task.

We are going to go over a few technical terms but stay with me.

My friend Charles brought up some important topics that I did not mention in my first post that I am going to address in this post. Charles writes:

I’d add financials: knowing the numbers. How many students to break even? Churn rate. How many students in Marketing gets people in the door, sales is what turns them into students. What other ways can you monetize besides the $100’ish a month?

Breaking Even

Breaking even is an accounting term that means that your martial arts business is able to meet all of its financial obligations and total costs including: rent, utilities, payroll, insurance etc.

This means that you are not losing money in your business but also not making money.

But that’s okay!

You would be surprised by the number of companies that haven’t made any profits. A number of tech companies come to mind.

Instead focus on knowing your finances.

It’s important that you have your finances down because when you decide to open up your martial arts business you are no longer just responsible for yourself and your family’s well being.

You are also on the line for those that you employ and their families, as well as all of your clients and their families.

I’m not saying that you will have to be a math wiz or a CPA, but you will need to know some basic accounting and little bit of financial literacy too.

Of course being a business owner, profiting is the next step once you break even. But your profit will be determined by your expenses.

For academies starting out, keep your expenses as low as possible. This might mean that you will have to do a lot of the hands on work yourself at first, but that’s okay.

Find the best, most efficient way to go about running and operating your program and then use this experience to create systems for your future employees.

I put together a sample of a small martial arts academy’s monthly financials. Just to see the how the cost of operating a school can easily add up.

Everything is pretty self explanatory but for now I just want you to focus on the part that says net profit. This is where you will see if your business is making money, losing money or breaking even. In this sample plan the net profit is zero, so that means that the monthly income that this fictional business was bringing in was enough to cover all of its expenses for that month which is great!

Do you know the financial details of your martial arts Business?
Do you know the financial details of your martial arts
Business?

Even if you have a lot of resources and cash saved up, keep your expenses small.

You will thank me in the long run.

New Students In

Bringing in new students will always be the lifeblood of a martial arts business.

For newer schools, your initial income will come from acquiring new students (marketing) but as Charles brought up earlier. It’s what you do when you get them through the door that really matters.

Knowing your breakeven point will allow you to calculate the amount of students you will need to obtain, and retain in order to keep your business running.

Once you have that figured out then any number over that will be pure profit for you to invest back into your business systems (marketing and sales) so that you will be able to make even more money and make your service better (premium equipment and amenities).

The important link here is your sales system. Sales is the process of turning those new prospects into paying students.

I will go into more detail in a later post but for now just know that you will need a system.

Have a system for when prospects walk into your academy.

Have a system when prospects check out your website.

Have a system for your existing members to refer their friends.

If you don’t learn anything else from me, the importance of having systems is key.

Churn Rate

Churn rate is the percent of students that no longer pay for your service.

This also includes employees leaving as well.

No one likes to talk about this in the martial arts industry but most students will fall off of training at some point. Only a few will stick with it all the way to black belt.

Of course some students do find their way back. I have a friend that completely stopped training in 2008. Right before getting his purple belt.

Only to find his way back to Jiu Jitsu in 2015.

That’s a seven year lay off!

But it’s not the norm.

If you have your own academy you will become really sensitive to this.

You will notice when certain people begin attending classes less frequently.

That’s when you will need to motivate them to keep training.

I know that life happens.

But Jiu Jitsu is capable of so many positive life changes. That to let people quit. Only to regret leaving and to take years to get back into, seems like a big mistake.

Once you know your churn rate you will have a better picture of your business.

Use the churn rate to see where people are falling off in your business pipeline.

For instance, many students drop off at or before blue belt.

Can you develop systems to help you identify this drop off?

Can you develop systems to help you retain those students?

And for the students that you aren’t able to motivate to keep training, will you be able to replace them with new students and through other means.

Monetization

When you first start a martial arts academy. Your students will be your livelihood.

Through acquiring new students you will begin to break even and hopefully become profitable.

As you gain more students it’s unavoidable that a few of those students will drop off (churn rate). But as long as you are able to replace those students with new students at a rate higher than the churn rate. Then you are in business.

Once you have a client base of over twenty students you are ready to monetize your martial arts business in other ways.

Producing your own brand of gear.

Adding additional classes such as kickboxing and conditioning classes.

Instructor training programs.

If you can dream it, you can do it.

Most businesses fight tooth and nail for the level of brand loyalty that is built in to martial arts.

But it does come at a price.

The price of having integrity and building, and developing relationships.

Don’t underestimate the power of relationships.

Especially in this industry. Relationships are everything.

If you try to monetize before you have grown a loyal client base then you may risk alienating your existing clients. Many of which could be among your first students that believed in you enough to entrust their martial arts study to your hands.

Know your students.

Know your finances.

Grow your school.

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”