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.

Should your academy have a uniform policy?

Over the last few years I’ve observed more and more academies enacting a uniform policy for their members.

It’s nothing new in martial arts.

In traditional martial arts, they’ve had it for years.

The world’s largest Jiu Jitsu association, Gracie Barra, has always enforced a strict gi policy. Simply put, if you train at a Gracie Barra academy then you have to wear a Gracie Barra gi.

There’s different forms of uniform policy that I’m going to introduce today.

But I also want to touch on a few ways to make the transition easier for you and your students since a lot of academies seem to drop the ball at that step.

First, let’s look at some of the pros of a uniform policy.

1 Revenue source

The best reason to have a uniform is that it can serve as another source of revenue for your academy.

Gi’s, t-shirts, belts, hoodies, etc don’t seem like they will add to much to your academies coffers. But imagine students purchasing multiple items or a new student not having to shop around since you have everything they need.

2 More professional

No question here. When all of you students wear the same uniform it looks more professional and shows any visitors and new students that your academy is a well run business and not just a hobby or hodge podge.

3 Social media

This plays off my last point but in this age of social media it’s important how you present your business to the outside world. Matching uniforms look great in photos and videos.

Cons

Depending on how you set up your uniform and the time table you implement. It’s possible that some of your members will push back against this change.

In my old academy in Atlanta, we had a very similar situation occur. I won’t lie a few members complained and I knew of a a couple that decided to leave because of this change in policy.

As an instructor, a business owner, and a person you simply cannot please everyone.

If you make a decision you have to stick by it.

Implementing

I’ve observed two ways of implementing a uniform dress policy.

The easiest one to set into motion is to pick a color scheme for your academy. This means that you decide which color uniforms are allowed and which ones are not allowed.

Examples of this include the Art of Jiu Jitsu academy white gi policy, all black no gi, and Cobrinha’s white and blue gi policy.

With this policy, your students will be able to wear their favorite uniform. It will just have to conform.

The next step is a little bit harder so expect some push back from a few members. But could possibly generate even more revenue for your martial business if done properly.

At many of the top academies, there is a strict uniform policy where you have to wear the official academy uniform. Often this will be sourced in house. Meaning that the academy itself produces its own uniform or it goes through a third party gi manufacturer. These could be well known companies that many of you know and live, or some random startup out of Pakistan lol.

The uniform will usually contains patches with the academies logo on the pants and top as well as the manufactures logo.

Maybe I will go more into detail about gi production in a later post but for now I just wanted to introduce the topic of uniforms in Jiu Jitsu academies.

Ultimately, it is up to the owner/instructors on whether or not to set a uniform.

Of course, it looks great when an academy has a uniform. It’s no different than a sports team wearing the same uniform and looks great on social media. But implementing it can be tough. Old Members and students can become too accustomed to the way things have always been done that enacting change will ruffle some feathers.

My advice if you want to implement a uniform policy in your academy is to start slow. Offer your own academy branded apparel, gi, shorts, and rashguard. Don’t make it mandatory at first but just another option that your members can select.

Start slow, offer your gear to your beginning students and newer members and then on to the old members.

If you can, try to not go through any third parties manufacturers because that will cut into your profit and will often affect the pricing.

Maybe adding a uniform policy could be the right step to take your martial arts business to the next level.

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.