We are almost a month into our soft opening of the new Jiu Jitsu training academy here in Nashville, TN. We have already reached our first membership goals and are able to cover the basic expenses. Marketing and advertisement has so far just been word of mouth but every person who has come to visit has commented on the vibe of the new place and how it just draws you in. I figured now would be a good time to talk about how we go about achieving that good vibe feel amidst the sweat and hard work.
The ultimate authority in the academy is where the vibe starts, and it is not always the most obvious person. It could be an instructor, manager, owner, or even some mentor who influences others from a distance. If the base authority is healthy, the gym is healthy. In the case of my academy, it is my head professor who is the academy owner and authority figure.
So, what does healthy leadership look like? It varies stylistically from individual to individual, but the results will yield committed instructors, enthusiastic students, and a low turnover rate for staffing. I’ll just use our leadership as an example and expound on a few fictional contrasts.
Cares About Students
First and foremost, if the leadership does not care about their students – you might as well write them off right out of the gate. My professor has been accused of caring too much, to the point where his other black belt students have to pull him away from trying to coach someone at a tournament who was actively trying to undermine his business. Each student is important, as are their goals. I find it rare to meet individuals who genuinely care, and I’m thankful that my professor is one of them.
Most people go into teaching Jiu Jitsu because they love the art and passing it on – there are very few people who are able to get rich teaching BJJ or running an academy. If leadership is focused all on the numbers, the students will suffer as they become just part of an assembly line.
Of course, that is not to say you can’t be an amazing leader who cares about students AND makes money, what I’m talking about is balance. When you’re dealing with people’s health and safety, you can’t be a cold machine focused on churning out numbers. Jiu Jitsu is a very personal activity, and that warmth is needed in order to keep people invested for the long term.
Everyone comes to their first Jiu Jitsu class with a goal. I myself got into training because I wanted a hard physical challenge to help me get into shape. Other common goals are
- Self-Defense (as a result of a traumatic event, or in anticipation of one)
- Confidence Building
- Trying the Unknown
There are as many goals as there are people who walk in the door. If my professor knows someone has a goal to learn self-defense because they work at a high-risk LEO job, he will give them a different perspective than someone who is into it as a sport. For example: if you’re a purple belt with the desire to compete, he will work with you until you develop the confidence to represent your belt level at the tournament you want to enter. He wouldn’t promote you before you could develop that confidence – because he would take the time to understand your individual goals. Having more high ranked students in the academy would, at a glance, look better for him as a professor but promoting students earlier than their personal goals dictate is selfish.
Willing to Have the Hard Conversations
Strong leadership is not afraid to talk openly about an issue and then take action if needed. For example: if a male black belt has a habit of sexually harassing female students, it is oftentimes brushed under the rug with the ladies made to feel they need to either suck it up or leave and never get a chance to really feel like a real part of the community. My professor had a case like this, and he took the time to gather information, various testimonies, and gave due process… and EVERYBODY deserves due process. The women should feel free to train and know they will be safe, and the men should also feel free to train and not worry that a misspoken word might get them in the hot seat.
Jiu Jitsu brings a lot of different people together under one roof. Leadership needs to be prepared for this and ready to step in when (not if) issues of harassment, discrimination, and racism pop up. Jiu Jitsu puts you in a lot of vulnerable positions as it is, so we don’t want to be worrying about these sorts of things while we are trying to focus on learning.
Takes Care of Those Invested
We love seeing new white belts come into the gym! They are our legacy and the continuation of our Jiu Jitsu heritage – but taking care of the students who are invested for the long term is key! If the focus becomes just on getting new numbers through the door without any appreciation or care for those already present, it will lead to students feeling unappreciated. I have seen so many cases of long-term loyalty being taken for granted, and that loyalty can only be pushed so far before it finally breaks.
The invested upper rank students are necessary to help keep the quality of the room high, as well as to be good examples to the new white belts when they come in for training. In a full class the instructor can’t see all of the students at once, so the upper level belts step in to help while the professor is answering questions on the other side of the mat. They also teach by example how to treat your training partners and safely execute techniques during live sparring.
I could continue on as this is a topic of particular personal interest to me. Over the past decade plus of training I have personally seen a lot of shitty situations. Harassment of minorities, sexual coercion, abuse of power, racism, disrespect, embezzlement, and some 9th circle of hell level betrayals. However, through all of this the BJJ community always impresses me with how it keeps shining through and working to be better. It feels so good to have a place to train where it feels like family again. My personal goal is to make the path a bit less rough for those who follow after me, that’s a big part of why I write things like this (when really I prefer all sunshine and rainbows). Talking about things is the first step to making things better – if it stays in the dark, it will continue growing unchecked until the day it destroys us all.