When you taught your first martial arts class, I am guessing that you didn’t know if coaching would become a lifestyle martial arts business or just stay a hobby. This article gives you some starting points to help you balance the demands of your business, your health and your family.
While some martial arts coaches are happy teaching as a hobby, others want to combine earning a reasonable living with doing what they love. You usually also have a few who want to take over the world and have a super centre franchise in every town and city. If you are looking for information on how to franchise your business, this article probably isn’t for you. If you are happy running a club twice a week and you have no interest in making a living teaching martial arts, it probably isn’t for you either.
I have a friend that built his membership to over 700 members in a single venue. His journey ended up going down a path he didn’t expect. He started out with a small club but just kept growing. You can read more about him and his roller coast work-life balance a little further on in this article.
My own search for balance
While I operate more than one venue myself, I do so as a lifestyle martial arts business. My version of this is earning a reasonable living in a role i enjoy while helping my staff provide a great service for our students. Although it sounds a little cliché, I am chasing the win-win-win (students/staff/self).
I still teach 6 classes a week between the two venues (out of around 50) and although we have a manager in each centre running things day to day, I am still involved on a week to week basis. I am only at one of the centres once a week and the other i am in for an hour twice a week and for two hours on another day. Although I run gradings every quarter at both venues, I generally don’t teach at weekends.
When I am working on the business side of the club and not coaching, I try to work from my car a few hours at a time. While this does not sound great, in the area I live we are surrounded by beautiful scenery. The views in combination with the piece and quiet provide a great backdrop for me to get stuff done.
Could I take a step back and stop teaching? Yes, and to be honest I would probably only be missed by the members that have been with us the longest. As the other instructors deliver most of the classes, most students only really see me on grading days or if they join one in one my classes. Over the last few years this freedom has also given me the opportunity to work on other projects such as MAPLE.
Running my lifestyle martial arts business from a car with a view
Still teaching some classes and working on the business rather than in it is my Goldilocks Zone (not too much, not too little, just right). It frees up my time to focus on programme development and the business side of the club.
What does success look like for you?
If you want your lifestyle martial arts business to be sustainable, it needs to provide you with the life you want. You didn’t come this far to end up with a ‘job’ with worse pay, no holidays, antisocial hours and a boss that does not listen to you (in case you’re wondering, that’s you!).
If you had a ‘regular’ job you would have paid holidays, set hours, job security and if you had been in your role for a long time, a good income. The main two problems of a 9-5 is that they usually fail to tick the autonomy and purpose boxes. Although these two attributes are something you can build into your lifestyle martial arts business, they will not be there by default, you have to design them in.
As you start to employ staff you will be able to reduce your role from doing everything yourself to doing the work you most enjoy. Be patient though as this stage takes time and you may have a few false starts. Once you have the right staff in the right positions, you will have a better chance at creating the work life balance you crave.
As i mentioned in my introduction, I have a friend that took on a full time venue around the time I took on my first. While I went for a smaller unit in a great area, he went for a large hall in a not as great area. Both these set ups can work and scale but each has its own drawbacks.
The smaller venue obviously has the problem of lack of physical space where as in the less desirable area, you may hit the problem of the local residents not being able to afford to pay for your service. The smaller venues are also generally easier to manage, especially if at some point you are going to train someone up to manage day to day operations.
It wasn’t long before my friend was killing it on the business side and had created more than a good income for himself and his family. The problem was he was working 7 days a week and on weekends, that included 7-8 hours a day coaching. Just in case you are wondering, this is not really sustainable long term.
My friend is one of these coaches that pours all his energy in to his coaching and with the number of hours he was putting in, he was on the road to burnout city. He had not been on holiday for years and he hardly saw his partner and child unless they called by the training centre. He wasn’t living the life he wanted and if he was to become ill, who would fill in for him with those crazy hours?
After comparing notes on how we both run our clubs and me voicing my concerns about his health, he knew something had to change. He managed to train some staff up and off loaded some of his workload. Not only did this allow him to see his family a little more, he also managed to start getting away on holiday a few times a year. I would like to say that he now runs his club as a true lifestyle business with balance between looking after his health, carving out time for his family and enjoying his work but some people actually love working under pressure.
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Once my friend developed his club to the stage that he didn’t have to do everything, he went out and opened another two businesses! Yes, that’s right, he didn’t just add one more business but two. When the pandemic started in 2020 one of these other businesses took off and now he is back to 12-16 hour days again. I hope for his own health things settle down and he is able to recruit enough staff to find some kind of equilibrium again.
Now, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that I too take on too much at a time. While it is true, I like to keep myself busy, these days I try not to throw my health under the bus to get there. I also reserve time for my family and friends. You can always earn more money but once time passes, it’s gone forever.
Just like the professor that shows that you need to prioritise the important things in life with his rocks (health, family, friends) and then pebbles (work, home, car) and finally sand (everything else), if you don’t make room for the important stuff first, the ‘everything else’ will leave you little room for your important rocks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPgMeKfQFq8
Here are the 8 areas I suggest you pay close attention to if you want to build your dream lifestyle martial arts business. They will not only provide for you, your members and your staff but also help you and your team build a lasting legacy for your community too.
1. Look after your health and fitness
To quote someone that I found late on in my martial arts career ‘The world needs you at your best’- Dave Kovar. If you are not firing on all cylinders, it is going to be difficult to help others. To be at your best and serve your students you need to be in reasonable physical condition and good health. Even if you are not physically active running your classes, fit in some form of cardio and weight-bearing exercise at least 3 days a week. Eat right and make sure you get enough sleep. You won’t get it right all the time but strive to be the example you want for your students.
2. Plan your personal finances and investments
Making sure your finances are in order will help you build a sustainable life and give you the freedom you deserve. Pay off your debt, build an emergency fund, stop spending money on ‘stuff’ you don’t need and pay into tax-efficient investment schemes on a monthly basis (in the UK that would be your pension and stocks & shares ISA). If you are based in the UK, check out my article on Financial Independence for Martial Arts coaches that I wrote for Martial Arts Coach website. My top tip here is to please resist buying that sports car on credit (or any other depreciating asset). If you really want it, save for it and buy it outright. If you can’t see a day you can do that, sorry to be the bearer of bad news but the car is too expensive for you!
It is less about the ‘things’ that money can buy and more about the freedom it can provide you with
3. Choose your partners for your journey wisely
When I say your partners, in this scenario I am talking about the staff you employ. While skills are important, I personally hire based on eagerness to learn, if they demonstrate the values of the club and their motivation to help others. That last one (being motivated to help others) is a deal-breaker for me. Hiring and managing staff is one of the most difficult aspects of running a business and your choices can make your life heaven or hell. Give them a job description, train them to do the job, pay them an amount that they are not disadvantaged taking the job but not so much that it’s the main reason they want it, let them take ownership of the role and then get the hell out of their way.
4. Make time for family and time out of the business
I have heard too many martial arts instructors miss out on seeing their children grow up because they spend all their time at their centre. When you first start your martial arts business, you may think that money is a scarce resource but it’s not long before you work out that time is what you need to value the most. The first thing you should sacrifice is the $10 tasks. Time with your family and friends is worth more than $10 an hour. Just because you can do a task, it does not mean that you should. I know building a business takes more time in the beginning but you need to recognise when you have passed the beginning so you can start freeing up your time for the tasks others can’t do.
5. Spent time with people that inspire you
‘You’re The Average Of The Five People You Spend The Most Time With’ – Jim Rohn. If this is true, who are your five people? Did you know that if you have a close friend that is obese, your chances of also being obese increase by 57%? If your friends are smokers, you are more than five times more likely to be a smoker yourself?
My advice would be to use this knowledge to pick people who on the same journey as you to build a sustainable lifestyle martial arts business. If they are a little ahead of you, even better. Don’t pick 5 people who already look successful but still work every hour available.
Jim Rohn, one of the best entrepreneurs from the past
6. Continue to learn and implement
I have already commented on the how precious time is but spending some of it on your continuing education is something that cannot be taken away from you. If something extreme happened to your business and you lost everything, you would still have your education and knowledge. Read or listen to business books, work through online courses, join quality informational membership sites, subscribe to research-based blogs and if you are so inclined, study for formal qualifications through your local college or university part-time. You don’t have time to study everything so pick carefully and where possible get personal recommendations from colleagues and mentors.
7. Focus on your niche
Martial arts instructors are famous for answering the question ‘Who are your classes a perfect fit for?’ with ‘Everyone’. The problem with this premise is that if you try and appeal to everyone, you end up pleasing nobody. If you want to wow your customers, you need to provide a solution to their problem. If your customer is everyone, are you going to try and solve ‘all’ the problems?
Your ideal customers should be people you enjoy working with. Don’t make the mistake of choosing an audience based on how much disposable income they have. Yes, they need to be able to afford your service but beyond that, the closer you stick to your ideal customer the fewer problems you will have and the less stressful your life will be. Build your Participation Development Model around your niche so you retain them at the club long term. It is much easier retaining students that you know are already in your target market than marketing for new ones.
8. Plan your direction
Let me start this section by saying that although SMART goals are useful, not having everything documented should not stop you from building the lifestyle martial arts business of your dreams. What you can’t do without is a direction. Just something that will give you an idea of what you want your future to look like will really help you make it happen.
If you are a little geeky like me, get yourself a notebook and then once a week (for me this is a Monday morning), find somewhere quiet and write out (or rewrite) your personal values (I have 20), your long term goals and some bullet points or a flow chart describing how you plan to get there.
If you can create equilibrium (great film by the way) between your needs, the needs of your students and the needs of your staff, you will be well on your way to building a sustainable lifestyle martial arts business. There is no blueprint for this and the journey will be different for everyone. One thing that should be common to everyone looking to achieve this work-life balance is sustainability. I know this phrase seems a little out of fashion at the moment but this is key to benefit from the 8th wonder of the world (Compounding).
If you can think of anything I have missed from this list, please drop a comment below. This list is obviously based on my own experiences and as such, you may want to modify it a little. My original plan was to open 5 venues in total. While I may still open more venues, I am not in any hurry and will only do so when if I have motivated staff that want to support more venues. By all means, follow your dreams and ‘go big’ if that what you really want but I would encourage you to ask yourself why? before you signing multiple leases. You might just find that the lifestyle martial arts business is the right fit for you too.