Gym culture is the number one reason for a gym's success or failure. As much as some people believe that it's important to have a world class gym taught by world class instructors and competitors, in reality the culture is far more important. If the culture is on point, supportive, and confidence building, students will ignore physical amenities and the lack of even having a Black Belt instructor let alone a world class one.
Most students are not competitors and in all honesty, couldn't care less about world titles and in some regards, even the Jiu-Jitsu lineage of an instructor. I understand that this is going to rub some people the wrong way but it's not meant as a dig at anyone. People who are interested in Jiu-Jitsu will Google schools near them. They'll visit said schools near them and ultimately sign up at a schools based on vicinity and what they can afford. They don't know any better.
Our job as gym owners and instructors is to provide the best experience possible. We are here to put students first while providing a service that is both positive, challenging, and supportive. Anything less is a disservice to them as customers and students.
Don't Make It About You
As a gym owner and instructor, you cannot make this process about you. You are not the main character in these people's lives. So as odd as it may sound, you are a supportive cast member, nothing more. Since you are not the focal point, you are not to demand anything more than what someone is willing to give you.
You don't get to demand that your students spend a certain amount of time on the mats. You don't get to demand which of the instructors they should go to. You don't get to demand that your student's limit where they train. You also don't get to demand any form of loyalty. Loyalty is earned through acts of kindness, it's never to be expected.
As an instructor and owner, self awareness is incredibly important. It's hard to make the right decisions as a leader, if you're not aware of how your actions and decisions affect those around you. One of the traits that I have to be conscious of as an instructor is my introversion. I have to remind myself to make an effort to be more social, it doesn't come second nature to me in all settings. Because of my reluctance to be as social as I should be, I understand this can be off putting for some people.
In the same way that someone might be turned off by how harshly an instructor corrects and critiques, you have to have enough self awareness as an instructor to continually correct and improve yourself.
Self awareness means nothing, if you're unwilling to make the needed improvements.
Open Door with Accountability
Students and employees need to feel comfortable enough to bring issues to your attention. As someone who's in charge of either the class or the gym itself, it genuinely sucks to hear a complaint but it's your responsibility to receive and address them appropriately. Your students have to feel comfortable enough to know that you will handle it respectfully and with the care that it deserves.
If that complaint is about you or something you're responsible for, you have to be accountable for it as well. Getting defensive or responding negatively will shut down any further communication.
Teaching and Coaching Style
Your teaching and coaching style set the foundation for the academy. Are you patient? Do you give meaningful feedback? Do you offer insight and suggestions to those students that seem to be having the hardest time learning?
These are all positive traits that elevate your academy's overall atmosphere. When you're anything but positive, it affects the mood of the gym. It crushes a student's inquisitive nature, preventing them from trying new things, or even asking questions.
The reason I don't yell or ridicule is because I came from an environment of violence as a kid. I understand that for those of us who have over overcome or are in the stages of overcoming, yelling and ridicule are deep triggers.
Additionally, students and instructors will model the behavior that you demonstrate. If you demonstrate loving and caring traits, so will the staff and students around you.
Encouraging self autonomy is huge. What I mean by this is, allow or better yet, remind your students that they have the ability to plot their course as they see fit. As instructors we do need to show and build you up so that you are fundamentally sound as a practitioner, but the rest of it is up to you. You get to be the artist of your own artistic creation. My goal isn't to make carbon copies of myself. I want to foster your growth and potential.
In that same vein, you should also encourage students to take advantage of learning opportunities no matter where they may be. That could mean cross training or attending seminars at other academies. We have such a vast community, why would anyone try to limit additional forms of learning.
This is going to sound a bit silly, one of those "duh" comments that someone might think that doesn't need to be said. Support your students. If they're competing, go or at the very least make sure they have someone to coach them. I absolutely hate seeing a teammate post on social media that they competed and finding out they went without coach. There is absolutely no reason that a student should be competing under your flag and not have coaching support from the academy.
Support can take on other forms as well. Make sure that you're reaching out to your students, checking in when you see them struggling or when you haven't seen them around. For example, during the Covid Lockdown I was checking in on people regularly. I understood how difficult being isolated could be for some people and I wanted to make sure people were doing well.
I also encourage my students to attend Jiu-Jitsu events around town. For example, Girls In Gi's was coming through San Diego so I pushed one of our ladies to go. I thought it would be a huge benefit for her growth to be around strong women with similar goals in mind. She loved it.
When I come across a seminar, a Gi sale, or even a technique video that I know would benefit a student, I share it. I understand that this isn't necessarily approved of by some, but I believe that the student comes first.
Team outings are a great way of building team comradery. They don't have to be these huge events either. Our gym started doing Open Mat Mixers that get everyone together for some rolls in and to hang out afterwards.
My morning group, the Dawnbreakers, will often get together for coffee on a Friday morning after class. A few of us have gone out to the range to get get some shooting in. We've even done a Fantasy Football League and Holiday Gift Exchange.
These events can be tailored to the groups interests and they don't need to be expensive. The act of getting the team together creates a massive upside for the overall health of the gym.
Would love to hear your thoughts and if you have anything else you'd suggest, please do so.