What Gym Owners Don’t Tell You

By Al Alvir

Gyms are businesses like anything else, and there a very few gyms that put the fighters first.  The number one truth gym owners won’t tell you is that “they don’t care if you quit as long as you keep paying.”  Gym owners actually count on people paying their dues and not attending. 

One of the most common dilemmas that owners face is price planning.  Should they let members pay monthly or pay by the package (multiple months at a time)?  The problem is that people tend to quit whatever pursuits they take up, at least when it comes to martial arts.  So gym owners want to whore their gyms as much as possible – this means taking people’s money who don’t want to be there by forcing people to buy into an idea that may not be for them.  Corrupt gyms don’t offer month to month membership. Yes, I said “corrupt,” and some of the most famous establishments operate this way.  Suppose you go into a gym looking to train for two weeks because you’re in town only for that period.  Many gyms will try to suck the most money out of you by trying to convince you to sign on for a longer time frame and they’ll let you continue once you come back into town.  Or they’ll only offer private training which costs so much more ($50 an hour minimum). Other idiots will just send you off because your two weeks are too short.  Turning anyone down from minimal time in a gym is just bad business, and it does not promote martial arts.  The inner-city boxing gyms that have had the most success – in creating fighters and even in making profit, ironically – tend to allow people to pay a low and reasonable day to day membership.  Most other places, I found, will sell you on all the benefits of being there for their minimum 3-6 month plans.  Some schools require a minimum of 1 year membership.  Supposedly, this is because they don’t want quitters to join.  So why don’t they give refunds to people who decide they don’t want to be there after one month? 

School owners may swear that they only want dedicated martial artists to join, but the corruption lies in the fact that they thrive on people who are not dedicated at all.  Owners actually count on quitters to pay the overhead.  This would be okay if schools offered month to month membership – or even less (i.e. boxing gyms) – but gyms usually try to scam you into paying for months that they don’t even expect you to be attending.  If owners claim that they make contractual pricing of multiple months because they want people to dedicate themselves to a longer amount of time, they are in denial.  An allotted membership based on the long-term is NOT the way to motivate anyone into being there.  The proof is in the numbers; membership retention and turnover are consistent among gyms of all sorts from city to city.  And the most glaring irony is that most of these martial arts gyms operate with restricted schedules that bar certain members from using the gym at other times and other classes.  How the hell does that work out?  A serious fighter usually trains for 3 to 4 hours daily, and many gyms offer one or two ‘classes’ for such a fighter only every other day.  Corollary to that, the best fighters in history had always trained on their own schedules at full time clips of 8 hours daily.  Gyms that don’t recognize this population are simply non-conducive to the serious, real martial artist who wants to be the best.

What most combat gym owners don’t recognize, and that popular sports do recognize, is that the best physical activity is done with breaks.  Football players, baseball players, basketball players, each have training camps and a terminable season and schedule.  The majority of pro-fighters don’t even attend gyms year-round; they go to 8 to10 week training camps for each fight.  Power-lifters, similarly, plan around meets for their more rigorous, “not just maintenance” routines.  “Seasons,” or camps, with significant breaks are essential to avoid burnout.  That’s just the plain truth.

My advice is to sign up with gyms that allow you the freedom to come and go as you please and pay accordingly.  The tell-tale sign of a great gym is the diversity and the strong attendance at any given time.  You’ll see people coming in at odd times just to get a few rounds on a bag or to do stomach work.  You’ll see people come in just to hang out.  You’ll see trainers stop in just to see how it’s going and to give some tips.  If you can’t find a gym like this, pay to attend clinics and training camps. (For more info, read the articles on Personalized Program Training, PPT™.) 

Another gym experience that is severely underestimated by the common martial arts gym owner is a dingy ambiance where years of abuse are visible and finishing touches are only imagined, and where a ring is its centerpiece.  People tend to consciously work harder when a gym consists of used equipment and an organized mess of devices, bags, duct tape, holes in the walls, and at least one ring that makes the sound of an retarded band of bass players when it’s crowded with fighters.  Have you ever been in a martial arts school that has no ring or cage?  It’s awkward.  It can be filled with everything but a ring or cage, and it will still be depressingly empty.  Everyone wants a ring.  The late Al Gavin once said that if you can’t afford a ring [or a cage], “don’t bother opening a gym.”  He said, “Some owners lack the forethought when they presume a ring takes up too much space.”  The thing they miss is that it is space, open space, and it’s the space that everything relies.  Real fighters are drawn to work-out in and around a ring.  Newbies are drawn to learn around a ring that they can watch fighters move around in.  Workouts are enhanced and everyone has a tangible goal to workout to – stepping in the ring to fight.  And sparring is a joke without the boundaries that allow a fight to continue uninterrupted.  And for the pungent smell that separates the finest gyms from the finest havens of artist bourgeoisies, know that it is more than just novelty, and that there is merit in it whether it’s charming to you, meaningless, or just repugnant.  Always remember the saying “sweat begets sweat.”

And nothing makes a gym like its members. Gyms that allow anyone to attend indeed tend to create a more loyal following and indeed better sparring, rather than a small uniformed cult in dress and in complacency.

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