Because you stop caring for even a serious hobby when it stops being fun
My old friend and teacher Christian Malgeri was in town last week and I was reminded of not only what excellence, but the pursuit of excellence looks like. It was humbling, motivating, and fun, and—all respect to my local martial arts brothers, I haven’t had access to that level of teaching in a while, so it was energizing in many ways.
But as excited as I was to get better, what was really putting a smile on my face? Seeing old friends and playing with them. In the time when I was training hard, the joy of getting better wasn’t to go smash your training partners, but to play at a higher level and help everyone improve.
I do believe in excellence for its own sake: my Instagram feed is kind of a vlog of that pursuit within my current conditions, and the seminar refocused me to get more out of that time. But as I thought about why I’m not better, I realized that at some point, from a combination of what was happening in my life, my training partners’ lives, and changes at the gym, I wasn’t able to make training enjoyable, so I stopped caring if I was getting better. I wasn’t excited to come back with an improved submission, combo, or pick up the pace of sumbrada. So you go to autopilot, which is just a decline you don’t notice (or lie to yourself about).
So I came to the conclusion that without fun or enjoyment, your training is going to sputter eventually. You have to take responsibility for your own training, so me not having fun is not the gym’s fault, but I think my greatest error was not making some time to bring it up and look for solutions. The brand I now run is very much about that—how to get the most on your own terms.
Martial arts is a hobby. For those who hail from better run countries, we shouldn’t statistically need it outside of law enforcement and military. (For those who don’t understand this concept let me ask: do you carry flood insurance if you live in Arizona?) To continue my counter-example, I also respect if you feel you indeed need it for more than a hobby, whether that’s to protect your family, compete for money, or make cool movies.
However it’s easy to convince ourselves what we love is some sort of higher calling, but as my friend put it after Rich Franklin brushed me off, “You’re punching people in the face to entertain the bored masses; what about that matters?” Losing sight of that can distort our attitudes to our own training and how we train others.
People develop as they move through life and get better. At some point, an adult program is going to be mainly those who want to forget the day, get a sweat in, and have some fun. Getting better is fun, exercise is fun, socializing is fun. Without all three elements, at some point, they may find training is not satisfying enough needs, and applying JKD principles, will throw away what’s no longer useful.
To touch on socializing, that doesn’t mean wasting time (which gets in the way of getting better). Sometimes it’s just having a smiling, family feel. Sometimes a convenient outlet to gab after class. For those who work and have children, it may be their only social outlet. These days, if I don’t feel I’m able to grab a scotch or pancakes with anyone in the place, I’m probably not that interested in regular attendance.
To touch on getting better: it’s not about declining standards, the first lament of those losing clients to the McDojo handing out colored ribbons every 2 months—happy students are happy to work their ass off. If party favors make them happy, just give them the goddamn ribbons. If you’re demanding they do their homework while holding horse stance, how much easier is it to buy some stickers and explain what they mean and don’t mean?
It’s a lot of work coming up with that magic mix that does it for people AND suits the teachers’ and school’s personality, but martial artists don’t stop just because something is hard, right?
Here’s some food for thought from a business perspective: let’s say I’m in the top what, 25% of some combination of talent, discipline, and love of martial arts? When I was working you can throw budget in there too. So if you run a program that I would have a hard time sticking with, you’re turning over at least 75% of the 25% of leads you closed (of the total addressable market of ~8% of population), or keeping only about 6 of every 100 people who walk through your door for longer than a year or two. Of those, probably half are more loyal than good. Remember member retention is WAY cheaper and productive than member acquisition. (Shout out to Joey at Kombat Arts. He’ll have some real metrics for you)
Your current cash cow students will turn into me eventually, whatever their level. So what am I looking for?
- Some level of technical and teaching mastery. As long as your teaching style can leverage whatever that level happens to be, it’s okay as long as it’s enough to keep things interesting
- Variation in drills and workouts
- Improvement & challenge
- Motivation to work hard
- A fun, respectful environment and group
- A safe training group with a range of sparring intensity
- A group I can hang out with. That may mean I or so-and-so is not your target market since you don’t like people like me or so-and-so. That’s okay, but you should know and be financially comfortable with that
- A clean, reliable place to go (minimal cancellations and running out of toilet paper)
- Convenient schedule and location (and parking since I live in Michigan)
- A feeling I can jump in and out (take breaks for travel, injury, etc…) without being left behind, embarrassed, or intimidated
- Non culty-ness. Enough cultishness can cancel out any amount of the above.
- Non creepiness. See above.
- Minimal cliques
- Honesty about functionality, whether that’s for sport, self defense, or whether I should go to Hollywood
It all adds up to a fun overall experience, which in my mind, is how most people get longevity from the art AND long-term improvement.