The Seven Deadly Sins to Avoid when Opening or Running a Martial Arts Gym!
Although not for everyone, it is a not uncommon journey to go from training in Martial Arts to actually running a Martial Arts gym / club. Depending on who you talk to (and how honest they are being), this is either the best decision they ever made or their worst!! I have been coaching Martial Arts actively since being a teenager. I started my own classes in a small hall for hire in the early 00's and opened up my first full time gym in 2009. At one point I ran multiple full time gyms at the same time. Couple this with my long term experience of visiting gyms all across the world with the Warrior Collective and I would like to think that I have some knowledge in this arena that may be of worth.
Now, I have to be honest, I have committed pretty much every sin on here to some greater or lesser extent. I am not writing this list to act as an all knowing expert or even as any kind of sales pitch (I am not cut me own throat dibbler ha ha). I am just offering my opinion on what I see are common issues that I have either learned to deal with the hard way or seen others repeatedly struggle with in our community/industry.
Lack of Experience
If I had an analogy for opening or running a Martial Arts gym it would simply be, it is like having children! Just like children, you think you were busy before having them but the reality is, once you go down this path, your time will never be your own again ha ha!!
Now, I am not inferring that you need prior experience in running a gym in order to open or run a gym. What I mean is that before you go down the road of coaching others full time, you potentially might be wise to get more time under your belt training in whatever Martial Arts you do. You might also want to get more competitions or fights done as these also become more difficult to continue with when others require your time and attention. Another side to this, and this is something I definitely recommend, is that you should get hours under your belt coaching in a part time capacity under your own banner, or even better in my opinion, at an already existing successful gym or club.
The more experienced you are in all the areas important to the coaching of others, the higher your ceiling is for how successful you will be when running your own gym. If I had to break this down, it would be your own ability to perform in the art you are instructing, your level of experience in your art's sport, competition or community and your innate ability to translate both of these into the coaching, nurturing and development of others. Of course none of this will stop once you open a gym, it is just more difficult to spend as much time working on yourself when your primary aim from that point forward will be to help others reach and fulfil their personal goals.
This sin is probably one of the ones I committed least on this list in some respects. Although I got involved in coaching from a young age, I never really imagined myself being good enough to open or run my own gym. Thus, I was quite happy gaining experience training, competing and working at already existing academy for a long time. I kind of fell into starting my own classes as a way of developing myself. This proved successful and before I long I had over 100 regular students across all ages. Unfortunately though, because I was just hiring someone else's facilities, I was at their whim as to how much time I could have from one year to the next. This became the eventual push for me (as they did not want to continue giving me as much time as I needed) to go into opening up my own gym.
If the previous sin was about ensuring you don't miss the opportunity to develop all your Martial Arts ability, this sin is unfortunately more about the tedious aspect of running any (and I use the word tentatively) business, the planning! I am not going to lie, this aspect is where most (in my experience) people fall down. Most Martial Artists or Combat Sports athletes are usually very capable in terms of their own chosen discipline(s) but can sometimes pay less attention to the other multitude of factors that need considering when opening up/running a full time facility.
Firstly, you need to sit down and work out exactly what is it you want from this endeavour? Everyone opens a gym for different reasons and that is perfectly ok. Writing a great Business Plan is the subject of many a book and many a blog post. I am not going to go through it in-depth here (as I think there are much more credible sources out there on this matter) but from a Martial Arts perspective, I just want to point out a couple of things. Coaching Martial Arts full time and running a full time gym are two different things. If you are hiring a hall or someone else's facility, your (apart from the obvious accounting, tax, banking etc) main concerns are going to be centred around marketing i.e. bringing new students in, retention i.e. strategies to keep the students you have and growth i.e. buying new equipment etc.
If you are going to be leasing, renting or purchasing a room, unit or building for any set period of time, then you have other concerns to account for. Although coaching full time means that it is your primary job and doing it well ensures that you keep an income to support yourself, it does not come with the dangers that opening or running a full time gym does. You need to do your research and work out costings for not only what will be the ongoing running of the gym i.e. rent, utilities, rates etc but also what it will take to make the venue useable for your requirements i.e. matting, equipment, changing facilities etc. Running a full time facility may well prove too much for just one person so you may well then need to factor in staff (and all the associated costs that entails) as well as the development of websites, social media and media i.e. photos, videos etc.
I am certainly not trying to put you off, I just want to make you aware that this sort of a venture can only be successful with a lot of planning. As before, this will not stop even when you open the gym, you will always need to plan any future work as well. The plans will not stay static either, they will no doubt change multiple times from when you first put pen to paper. However, having them as a baseline will give you something to work from and a solid underpinning structure to whatever you are wanting to achieve.
Again, I would like to think that I did not commit this sin too much when I first set out opening a gym. I definitely planned for everything that I was aware of (I don't think you can possibly plan for everything as lack of experience will undoubtably show itself here) at the time. My biggest mistake in the planning stages to be fair was being too much of an optimist. I thought that everything would go my way and I would be making this amount by this stage and that amount by that. It definitely did not go like that ha ha. Be balanced when planning. Make sure your numbers are accurate, do all the research, ask successful gym owners in the industry for their advice, invest in books on relevant subjects and don't cut corners with anything important!!
Now, commitment is a word that covers a multitude of sins as far as I am concerned. When you move into the realm of opening or running a full time gym you are going to need to commit to it in order to make it work. You need to commit to the students who come through your door by consistently coaching to the best of your abilities, being stable/reliable with the classes you offer and always being there when needed. You need to commit an awful lot of time to making this work.
I think the above should be expected by most people. I am going to talk about what is by far one of my biggest personal sins and that is over committing (and I will touch on it's polar opposite by doing so as well)! Going off the end of what I wrote on the previous sin regarding planning, you may well now realise that I am one of life's optimists (or that could read naive fools ha ha). When I opened my first gym, I wanted it to be the best facility ever. It was a 4,000 sq ft unit set over two floors and I could picture it being amazing. It had it's issues, it was in a mess when I first viewed it and it had limited car parking. It was also expensive in terms of rent and rates (not to mention utilities etc).
I think you can no doubt see where this little train wreck is going to occur ha ha but let me guide you through it. I planned and thought that I could not only put a load of money into kitting it out (new mats, new equipment, reception area, renovation etc) but that I could also continue my previous growth by no doubt attracting lots of new students through the door once it had opened. I borrowed money left, right and centre to make it ready! It looked great and those that came through the doors were impressed with the facility, as was I! Unfortunately, I had well and truly over committed myself financially. On top of what was a huge burden of running costs, I also had massive repayments to cover each month just to stand still. Cue years of difficulty, stress and struggle.
Let's get back to you. You need to commit, there is absolutely no doubt about that. You are going to need to invest time, energy and money into making a full time gym work. However, I want you to be wary. Don't gamble as heavily as I did. Be sensible, be a pessimist, know that there will be good times and bad times at some point going forward. This goes hand in hand with planning. Start with what you have and build it up slowly. Don't commit yourself to leases that offer you no get out clause or tie you to crippling bills just to stay where you are. It is not a glamorous approach and you will look at existing gyms wanting to have what they have now. Be patient. Many is the gym owner tied to their mistakes who would happily go back in time and change their past choices.
The flip side of this obviously is under committing. Both financially, emotionally and from a time point of view, this is possibly more doomed to failure than an over commitment. At least someone over committing will put as much work in as necessary to get it to survive. Under committing occurs when someone is too tentative. They want no risk, they want the safe, regular salary or an easy life. These are not bad aims in life at all and if this is what you want, good for you! However, this is not going to happen if you want to open or run your own gym initially. You will need to be bold and come out of your comfort zone. It is just all about balance with regards to having the optimum chance of success!!!
I hope you can see why this post is so personal for me now as I write it. I have made some major mistakes and committed all the sins you see here. This next one is definitely going to be the one that makes or breaks you. Losing faith or sight of why we started is something that will happen at some point. Not when things are going well but when things are testing us the most. It is easy to feel overwhelmed in the early stages of opening or running a Martial Arts gym or club. You have to develop skills in a whole heap of new areas that you may have never had any prior experience with before. This then is going to mean you make mistakes and are poor at them long before you are ever competent in their execution. Kind of like training in Martial Arts eh?
This is where you are going to have to dig into the mental strengths you have developed from your time spent training. Keep a positive attitude, don't look for problems, find solutions. It sounds cliched but things can often appear bleakest before they get better. Write affirmations, read books, find yourself an experienced mentor, surround yourself with positive people and make sure you don't sink into a mire of depression. The only way to get though difficult times is forward, look to the future, plan and take each day at a time.
Invest in yourself as much as you invest in the gym. I don't just mean more Martial Arts training or reading (although these things should remain high on the list), I mean make sure you have time to relax, spend time with your family/friends, eat healthily, get lots of sleep and do the things that make you happy. All the things you would advise others to do in your gym no doubt ha ha!!
I have gone through periods when running my full time gyms where I have wondered if I had made the right choice, where I have sat wondering how am I going to make the bills next month and whether I am actually any good at it. The things that have kept me going are my unending optimism (see, it has it's uses ha ha), being surrounded by the right people, continuously working at becoming better and not giving up. What is it they say about a black belt just being a white belt that never gave up.....
Taking it personally
What is taking it personally? Well, the very nature of coaching Martial Arts for any period of time requires a significant investment of time, emotion and energy on both sides (coach and student). These connections then can make for very substantial bonds. There is nothing quite like working through adversity to make people come together (just check out the hard training in any gym or club around the world to see this in effect). What's the problem with this I hear you ask? No problem at all.... Until the student (it can obviously sometimes also be the coach) for whatever reason decides that they want to leave and stop training.
When you first start coaching you question yourself whenever anyone leaves. What did you do wrong? Were you not good enough? What could you have done better? This eases after time, especially when students have not been training that long (less bonding), they have fully stopped training (it is not for everyone) or there is a easily understood reason (they have moved etc).
Unfortunately though, this leaves us with long term students (and potentially those that become friends) leaving to train elsewhere. It can also occur where they are experienced enough to start their own schools and leave to do so (this can also happen with coaches if you are working as part of a team). Unless you have coached someone for years, you might not realise how much a coach feels for their student, athlete or fighter. It is a huge thing for an instructor on many levels. The student has had the best of their coaching, their mentoring, their kindness and their friendship. Now, dependent on the student, they may feel exactly the same towards their coach or they may view it simply as a business (where they are paying for a service, which they can leave at any point if they wish to or find a better alternative elsewhere) relationship.
If this happens, the first reaction can often be one of hurt, betrayal and anger. This is hugely exacerbated if there is no amiable communication between the student and the coach prior to leaving or if there are any negative comments made by the student (either to other students, online or to the other gym). It is also difficult when a coach or gym has developed a fighter to a high level only for them to go elsewhere if tempted by a better offer, the promise of superior training or just thinking the grass is greener.
Firstly, I need to say something to you. Don't shoot me down but it needs saying "no one is going to stay training with you forever". Read that again. "NO ONE"! Whether they eventually stop training, move away or you stop instructing, there is going to be a point in this lifetime when you are not coaching them!
You simply cannot afford to take it personally when people leave. I know it is not pleasant, especially if you see them go to train at a different gym and they start talking about how great it is over at the new place or start fighting under an alternate banner. Let it go or it will eat away at you. How you treat them is your karma, how they treat you is theirs! Don't get dragged down in to any gutter talk or negativity, it will not help you nor your gym. Wish them well and turn your focus back to the students you still have. If they are talking negatively out of turn about you or your gym, message them in private, do not have social media driven confrontations. Do not feed trolls, they always return for more. Be professional, be concise, state what you feel is important to and leave it. It will be forgotten about quickly, I guarantee it. You may not forget it but the world will move on. Anything written online though will resurface again and again should you tread that slippery slope. Act in haste, regret at leisure as the saying goes.
Obviously, on the flip side of this, having been a student at different gyms many times over the years, I now know exactly what I want from my training. If I am getting it and I am able to attend, you will see a lot of me. If not, then I will look elsewhere. No gym or coach owns a student nor really has any rights to place demands on them other than those that are the shared rules/ethos of the club. If the coach or gym is not living up to their end of the bargain i.e. poor coaching, unreliable or any other of a myriad of potential different issues, then of course any sane student is going to look elsewhere to see if something better exists and go if they find it. It also goes without saying that students can and should train at more than one gym/club if they wish to.
As a coach/gym owner I have committed this sin time and time again over the years. You would think that I would learn wouldn't you ha ha!! It is only now as I get older that I can begin to put myself in the other persons shoes more. What are their reasons for leaving? Is there anything I can do to help them stay? If they go, what can I learn from it to try and avoid the same thing happening again in the future? I know now though that these times will continue to occur. More than anything though, I want to be the proverbial black belt in being human and that means understanding without undue negativity when your paths no longer head down the same path for whatever reason. Keep positive, be the person you want to be in these matters and you won't steer far wrong!!
It comes with the job description. As a gym owner, coach or instructor, one of (if not THE) primary aims is to help others develop themselves and reach whatever goals they have set within the world of Martial Arts (and sometimes out of it). It is easy then to be so focussed on others that you forget to focus on yourself. Before you know it you have stopped training as much, no longer visit coaches yourself, don't eat as healthy as you advise others to, don't get the sleep you need and don't have any separation from the gym.
You are the leader in any of these positions so it goes without saying that people are going to look to you for guidance, mentoring and as a role model they can aspire to. That is part of the deal of course. Like Aesop's fable of the crab and it's mother (you should read this book if you have not already done so), it is not as effective for you to say one thing if you are doing entirely another. I am not saying you need to train like you did when you were competing (or younger), cut weight to what you once were or take any focus from off the people you are coaching each day. I am also aware that as an instructor you may well be in perfect shape given your consistent time in the gym, if this is you, great work, keep it up. If not, make sure you recenter yourself this year and get back to you. Train, eat healthily and do all the things you either used to do (if you have stopped for any reason) or want to do (in order to improve and develop yourself).
The other side to this is to ensure you are still learning new skills (ether to assist in your current role or for an alternate reason) or looking down different paths outside of the gym. As impossible as this might sound, you are not the gym. It is healthy to have other interests, to continue developing them and spend time on them, either for fun, relaxation or as a viable alternate revenue stream to sit alongside your gym or coaching. You have to look to the future. Martial Arts is a physical activity. Are you planning on doing it forever? Is your aim to have staff who can take over more of the coaching aspect as you get older? Are you looking to develop your gym and then sell it as a business at some point? If you have not really thought in this way, I don't blame you, this is obviously all years away. But, it is worth considering. Especially now, whilst you are still young and able, what is it you want for yourself now and in the future? Don't lose sight of it, work on it every day! You are already not like the huge amount of people who sit and work day to day in a job they hate just for the money. You are taking or have taken that step into doing something that has meaning, both for yourself and others! Just make sure you keep yourself as a fundamental part of that equation going forward!!
Have I committed this sin? Yes, again and again. I have been through periods of being able to train all the time, of feeling great and having the ability to do all the things that I want. I have also had it where I have had to focus so much on the gym (and sometimes home or other things) where I then struggled to do anything. Commitments such as marriage, children, bills and gyms all require that at times you have to focus on one for greater or less at any given time. This is perfectly ok, you just need to make sure you get all the other relevant plates back spinning as soon as you can, and that includes yourself!!
Now, this well may be the biggest cardinal sin of all. It is not just specific to those opening or running a Martial Arts Gym, it applies to pretty much anyone who has a high level career or who runs their own business! Losing the balance of what is important in their lives. If the previous sin was about not forgetting to keep yourself as a priority when opening or running a gym, this one is about not putting all your time into the world of Martial Arts if you have other priorities or things that you care about in your life.
If you have no other priorities in your life right now and you are wanting to open a gym, you are in a pretty good place to not need to focus especially on balance at this stage. However, there will still be things that you care for, maybe it is parents or possibly friends or relatives. Most of us though will have relationships and potentially even children to consider on top of these at some point in our lives.
These is where it gets difficult. Hypothetically speaking, lets imagine now that you have a solid relationship (long term partner or marriage) and children. When you first talk about opening up a gym, they are going to share your passion and enthusiasm. it is hard not to when being spoken to by someone who has it. They may be apprehensive about the risks but they want to support you on your chosen path. You plow ahead, open up the gym and you are down there all hours working on the business or coaching. You partner and children are understanding, this is what they expected at first as it is a brand new endeavour. You promise things will settle down at some point and you will be home more, earning more money or reaching whatever other goals you have set. Fast forward 5 years. You are still down at the gym all the time. The work never really stops. Now on top of coaching you have fighters and athletes to support at weekends. Maybe you go out socially with them as well. Your income rose but then capped out at some point and it has not really gone past that. Your partner feels like they do not see you any more, they feel that you don't prioritise them and the stress of running the gym has taken it's toll. Before long, arguments occur, the relationship breaks down and you both end up hating the gym to some extent for causing it.
Obviously this is just a story but I see this sort of thing going on a lot. Here then is where I touch upon aspects mentioned in other parts of this article. When you set a gym up, you have to decide what you want from it, both in regards to the short term and long term in your planning. This should include the other things that are important in your life. Making sure you keep time aside for them, making sure they feel and remain a priority in your life and how you are going to ensure the gym gets to a point where you can take time off (both for holidays and/or anything else) are all of equal importance to the financial or day to day logistical running of it. You are going to need to put a lot into opening and running a gym but just make sure you don't sacrifice the other important things in your life in order to achieve it! Find your balance. You might not have it at first but make sure you get it back whenever you can, even if it starts with just one hour a day!!
A huge sin for me this. In combination with some of the others, it is one of the ones I have been most guilty of committing. Unlike the others though, this is not only the one that I regret most, it is the one that I have categorically refused to ever allow happen again. The gym, my coaching and my other work are my passions but my family will forever be my priority!
I hope you have enjoyed reading this article on what I personally feel are the Seven Deadly Sins to Avoid when Opening or Running a Martial Arts Gym. Let me know what you think! Have I missed anything out? If you are planning on opening a Martial Arts Gym, please don't hesitate to message for advice if you feel that I may be of help! If you are already running a gym, let me know what your advice would be to other would-be owners or coaches to avoid any pitfalls you may have come across that are not already on this list!!
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