Can you make it in Jiu Jitsu?
I know many athletes pursuing Jiu Jitsu as their career all over the world and the general consensus is that making it in Jiu Jitsu full-time is hard.
Even if you’ve made a name for yourself and established yourself as a skilled competitor and instructor. It’s still hard.
As much as I like writing about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a martial art and will continue to. It’s still a business at the end of the day and many athletes will still have to pay tuition to their academy, pay rent, tournament fees, nutritional supplements, health insurance, etc.
As Jiu Jitsu continues to grow, more and more people are going to look to make a career out of it, it’s only natural. In the U.S. we’re always told that you should follow your dreams and do what you love.
But what are the options for someone looking to make a career out of Jiu Jitsu?
The most obvious, and the one that I hear everyone say is that you should open up an academy.
Get a black belt, open an academy.
Win a world championship, open an academy.
No other skills, open up an academy.
I expect most high level Jiu Jitsu competitors have had this thought cross their mind at some point. But running an academy is a business, and just like you have to prepare your techniques before entering a tournament, you also have to prepare yourself to run a business.
Starting an academy takes preparation, patience and resources.
And if you foolishly rush into this it can be an expensive lesson.
I will save my views on opening an academy for another post. But for now I want to focus on those that are maybe not ready for this step or have yet to raise the capital to get to this point. Which I believe is where the majority of my friends and many of my readers are at in their Jiu Jitsu careers.
What can you do?
I think the best thing that you can do at this point is to learn about business in general.
If you are dead set on having an academy one day in the future then you should be learning about the business aspects of running an academy as soon as possible.
Easy test: If you had to work the front desk at your academy for one hour would you be able to handle everything without a hitch?
This could include answering the phone, dealing with unhappy clients, signing up new prospects, etc.
You would be surprised that many academy owners and instructors are completely lost when it comes to handling basic business operations. Let alone doing basic accounting, marketing, and sales. Things that make businesses successful.
All the Jiu Jitsu technique in the world won’t help you when it comes running your business.
However, you don’t have to confine yourself to just learning about martial arts businesses. Really, any business experience would be helpful and translate over well.
One summer, I was lucky enough to intern with a friend’s start up during a break in my training.
Of course, I did a lot of errand running but I was also able to develop an understanding for basic business principles by interact with clients, helping close deals, research topics, and doing whatever else that was asked if me.
I’m a big advocate of working for yourself and starting your own business but you have to start somewhere. You need a base of knowledge in some field to work with but this often takes time.
So you need a way to buy yourself time to develop valuable skills while also allowing time for you to train.
If you are serious about pursuing a career in Jiu Jitsu as a competitor or an instructor you will need a lot of mat time. I’ve seen a few people manage this while working full time jobs and raising a family. But every year it gets harder and harder.
A decade ago you could train once a day while managing a career and still be competitive, but in 2016 you have blue and purple belts training and competing full time.
So you will need to maximize your time spent on the mat while also being able to support yourself financially.
Benefits of working part time
Working part time is a smart way to make money initially while also transitioning into a Jiu Jitsu career. Depending on the part time position, not being confined to an office for many hours will allow you the flexibility you will need in order to train Jiu Jitsu and improve your skills.
Know your finances
I have to write a little bit about finances. If you’re starting to pursue a career in Jiu Jitsu and you don’t already have other streams of income or savings. You are going to need to have your finances down. There’s just no other way. Things that normal people take for granted such as going out to eat, concerts, and most activities involving money won’t help you get closer to your goals.
There are ways to subsidies these things once you reach a certain level when you have access to sponsors and other entities helping to cover these costs. But for someone starting out, with no name recognition or major tournament success. Your entire focus should be on improving your skills.
There is money in Jiu Jitsu contrary to what many blogs, social media posts, and Internet memes might suggest. But you have to have the skills either in competition or marketing to gain access to that level.
Teaching Jiu Jitsu
Getting a part time position at your academy would be the easiest place to start.
Most Jiu Jitsu writers will suggest starting with the kids program and moving on from there but I would argue that teaching kids Jiu Jitsu is harder than teaching adults Jiu Jitsu and will take longer to get good at. Kids instructors also don’t start off making a lot so you will be doing a lot of hard work for not a lot of pay.
I started off teaching kids when I was just a seventeen year old blue belt and while I’m grateful for all the experience that I gained. I believe it’s better for new instructors to start out by assisting with adult beginner classes and gaining experience before moving on to teaching kids.
Working with adults will allow you the proper environment in order to develop your teaching ability and all the other skills you will need as an instructor such as the ability to speak confidently, logically conveying techniques, and commanding respect so that you will be ready to instruct kids.
Let me tell you this.
When you’re teaching kids your skills have to be on point. They can smell weakness or inexperience and will eat you alive.
It reminds me a lot of when a substitute teacher would cover a class in grade school and the entire class would descend into chaos.
I think many academies have this backwards. They often put their least experienced instructors to teach their kids classes. When I have observed that it’s often better to have your best instructors working with those impressionable minds. But that’s a topic for another day.
Even if your plan is to teach Jiu Jitsu or to compete. I think you should spend some time working or helping out at the front desk at the academy that you train at.
If you really want to understand how a martial arts business works this is where you need to be. I know so many really talented instructors, with great techniques and knowledge of all things Jiu Jitsu but never took the time to actually learn basic business concepts.
This is okay if you decide to partner with someone with actual business experience. But most academies start off small time and are self financed.
Take a look at just about all of the top academies and you will realize the world champion instructor was just the talent in the equation. Often there is an investor with way more business experience and financial backing that handles everything outside of instruction, at least initially any way.
Examples. The Art of Jiu Jitsu academy and RVCA or Marcelo Garcia and Josh Waitzkin.
The point that I’m trying to impress upon you is that the top academies, the ones that are really grossing six figures or more per year, all have a strong business foundation.
Things that you can learn working the front desk
How to interact with clients
Converting those leads into clients
Talking to people
Responding to emails
Having uncomfortable conversations
Dealing with past dues
Dealing with special cases
Getting shit done
Even if your academy isn’t in need of a front desk manager that doesn’t mean that you can’t discuss business with them or the owner or whoever is in charge of running the business. I’ve found that most times it’s as easy a just asking, especially if the person in charge is business savvy and actually enjoys talking about their business.
I’ve also found that less knowledgeable and less business savvy academy owners are less open to talk about their businesses.
What if there are no openings at your academy?
At larger academies there might already be a large supply of instructors on hand to teach and cover most of the classes.
Even smaller academies might not be able to bring on any supplementary instructors.
I still suggest finding a way to get experience even if you have to volunteer to do it. Think of it as an internship or an apprenticeship that will pay off largely in the future.
There are a lot of part time positions available. Your biggest resource will be the network of students that attend your academy. Many of whom probably have their own businesses or are in positions to hire.
Begin promoting your brand
For higher level athletes and instructors looking to make it in Jiu Jitsu now is the time to start building your own brand. Competing and winning in major tournaments will be the easiest way to get your name out into the collective Jiu Jitsu community.
The first step is the hardest.
I will never forget during my last year as a brown belt. I was working part time for a popular yoga apparel company and still uncertain of my future as a competitor.
I was visiting my former instructors’ academy after a few years of not seeing each other and he sat me down after the training session and we just talked. We talked about my goals and what I was doing to achieve them and he gave me much of the same advice that I’m sharing with you right now.
What I took away from this conversation is that we all have doubts but when you’ve poured so much of yourself into this art. You owe it to yourself to see it through and sometimes it takes someone to just say some motivating words to help you get through those rough patches.
It seems so simple now but having someone that I looked up to, someone that I trusted, say those words to me aloud really motivated me in a way that had an instant impact.
Have you ever had a lightbulb moment when something just clicked?
Well, that’s how I felt after this conversation.
Even if you haven’t had a lot of success there are ways that you can use to differentiate yourself. Competing and winning is definitely the easiest way to do this but I can name many others that were able to find their own unique niche in which they were able to promote themselves.
Alternative sources of income for high level athletes
Instructional DVD/digital download
There are a lot of options out there if you have the skill and knowledge. Sometimes it just takes you putting yourself out there. Letting people know that you available for different opportunities and taking advantage of those opportunities when they arise.
Start small by teaching a few private lessons, even if you have to discount them. Just focus on building a clientele until people start actively seeking you for lessons.
The same concept applies to getting seminars. Offer to teach a seminar for a charity event and then leverage that into getting paid to teach.
Keep developing yourself
I think it’s important as athletes and martial artists that we continue to develop ourselves outside of just our techniques on the mat.
One day you won’t be as fast or as strong as you once were. Even if that is a few years off, one day your priorities might change so that you are not able to maintain the same level of training. Whatever the case, you will want to have other skills to fall back on.
The worst case scenario is that you become a really talented competitor that has failed to develop outside of competing. What happens when you become less relevant?
I started writing this post as a guide for many of my friends grinding out there. But I think now more than ever they need encouragement to continue on the paths that they have chosen.
So many people in Jiu Jitsu are struggling. Many of them academy owners struggling to keep their doors open while trying to make ends meet. Others trying to make it as full time competitors in Jiu Jitsu while struggling to get their names out there in the Jiu Jitsu community so that they can do seminars and private lessons.
There is so much potential in Jiu Jitsu and it’s growing every year. It’s been a slower growth relative to MMA, but compared to many of the other combat sports/martial arts there are a lot of possibilities.
Just like how I saw that there was a ray of hope out there. I want you to know that there are ways for you to make it in this industry. No one’s going to lay it all out for you and sometimes it will be hard and you will be discouraged from moving forward. But there is a way.
One of my favorite sayings in Jiu Jitsu is that each person’s journey is a marathon and not a sprint.
Sometimes it takes just hearing that you can make it to actually inspire you to take action and continue on your path.