Promoting a great training environment

The environment of an academy can make or break it.

I’ve thought a lot about this topic. Both as an instructor and as a student. And my hypothesis is that academies with a great training environment tend to do better financially and in competitions.

It’s hard to explain what makes for a great training environment. However, I do know that no matter how good your academy is there will always be someone that gets rubbed the wrong way.

You can’t please everyone. And that’s okay.

But I will touch on a few key factors that have no part of any academy. As well as things that I look for in the academies that I visit and train under.

Drama between students

A lot of the drama between students (and sometimes instructors) occurs because of their relationship outside of the academy.

I’ve seen a lot of drama ensue after two students began dating, break up, and then start dating other students within the academy.

There’s been a few instances where I’ve tried to pair students to train not knowing that they had some prior romantic relationship. One time, I had a student flat out tell me that he would not work with another student right in the middle of the class.

Not only was this an awkward situation but it really hindered the mood of the training. The environment went from fun and exciting to unpleasant and heavy.

I’ve yet to find a solution to this outside of asking students to keep their personal lives (and relationships) out of the academy but this topic definitely deserves its own post.

In school fighting

This also relates to personal issues and relationships. But instead of students, this often involves academy owners and/or instructors.

Here in Sweden, we actually have a board that decides many of the important issues that affect an academy.

But most academies have one or two owners that also instruct.

In this case, if there are differences in how they believe they should run their academy. Like which students to graduate, or who they should affiliate with. This can cause a lot of tension that students can feel even if they don’t know the details of the situation. Negatively affecting the environment for everyone.

Splits and breaks

Splits or breaks from an academy can often be seen in two different lights.

In one way, it could be seen as filtering out bad students or members that don’t follow the code of conduct.

I’ve see this a lot with some of the top academies. Often, the students will continue pushing the limit until their behavior will have to be addressed by the instructors or the owners of the academy.

I believe this is what happened fairly recently when Dillon Danis and Mansher Khera were asked to leave MGA earlier this year (2017).

On the other hand, a break or split could be the sign of a toxic training environment.

A few years ago there was a major team break off from TLI that I was a part of at the time.

I won’t got into to much detail, but I will say that a negative environment can often attract a bad element into your academy. Undoing all of your hard work and making the training unbearable.

There’s just no way to sustain an academy with a bad or toxic environment. It affects everything from the energy, moral, and motivation of students and instructors alike.

Academy culture

The best academies that I’ve had the pleasure of attending all had a strong culture.

A culture of mutual respect between: students and teachers, lower belts and higher belts, men and women, and young and old.

It’s hard to put into words what exactly an academy’s culture is. It’s more of the experience that you have when you train. It’s different shades of grey between good or bad, and differs between academies and our own individual perception.

As a some what well known black belt I (usually) get treated differently than a new white belt off of the street.

But a great academy will treat us both equally well.

As my friend Sam Yang writes in his post Lead from the Front – Don’t Boss from the Back

“In the dojo, the teacher must be egalitarian. The techniques should be libertarian. The culture should be socialistic. This is the balancing act of any sound leadership.”

Promoting a great training environment

Promoting a great training environment is no easy task. It takes a lot of time, effort, and thought.

In all honesty, it’s best to create the training environment that you want from the very start. Having it ingrained into your academy’s core. Obviously, this is the task for the academy owner/instructors.

It’s much harder to clean up a toxic environment that’s been left to fester and completely take over an entire academy. Even for the best, most experienced instructors out there.

Change has to come from the top. Down to the students.

As an instructor, you have to constantly monitor the environment at your academy.

Is it positive?

Are students motivated?

Do they have a good time?

How can I make the environment even better?

These are just a few of the questions that I ask myself on a daily basis.

As a student, you can also do your part to enhance the training environment at your academy.

Like, if you see a new student struggling with a technique. If the instructor is preoccupied, take the initiative and go help them out.

Or if there’s an event hosted by your academy. Go and give your support.

I really feel that mutual respect is also a major key behind keeping and maintaining a great environment.

There have been times when I was traveling and some of the academies didn’t have a culture of respect. It was really offputting.

It doesn’t matter how technically good an academy is if the environment is bad.

Similar to my post Building Better Relationships with your students.

I believe that the key to promoting a great training environment is like cultivating any of your other relationships.

There needs to be clear and open communication. Members have to feel and know that their thoughts and concerns are heard and valued.

Instructors and academy owners also need to keep bringing value. This could mean upgrading to better facilities, teaching newer techniques, or even bringing in instructors for seminars.

A Jiu Jitsu academy is really a little community. Made of people from all different walks of life, status, age groups, ethnicities, social class, etc. Where else could all of these people mix together?

This shared environment is definitely worth cultivating and protecting.

Build better relationships with your students

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.

From my own personal experience I’ve had the opportunity to be the janitor, the instructor, lead salesperson, staff manager, social media specialist, and much more.

Especially, in the beginning when you might be a one man show. Hopefully, adding more and more students to your program(s).

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

Their current, and loyal membership base.

Student retention

Many instructors think that by adding more students. All their financial worries will be met. To a degree, they are correct.

Your business does need students to survive. And a steady number of new prospects is a sign of a healthy academy.

But it costs a lot of time, energy, and money to find those new prospects and convert them into paying members. This is where I see a lot of academies fall short. When you need a constant influx of new students in order to replace the members that you lose each month or year. Then there is problem somewhere within your business model.

Much like an unseen hole on a boat at sea. If the problem persist then the boat might take on too much water and sink.

If your business is at risk. Don’t be a bystander or a victim. Look for solutions that will help keep your boat afloat and eventually sailing the high seas.

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 from the rest.
Retention building factors

1 Setting Boundaries

There is a time and place for you to communicate with your students 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 allow you to be more effective in communicating with your students, and 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’re 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 really 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 before saying something stupid.

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.
It’s very much a do as I do type of philosophy.

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.