Learning How to Operate a Martial Arts School - Ricardo Almeida (E25)

Aug 19, 2021

Passionate martial arts instructors sometimes struggle with the idea of running their school like a business--doesn't that make the passion less pure? In this episode, Ricardo Almeida explains why it's crucial to look at your martial arts school as business, and how to do so without sacrificing the quality of the martial arts being taught.

 

Ricardo Almeida is a fourth-degree black belt under Renzo Gracie, an ADCC medalist, a veteran of the UFC, PRIDE FC, and other major promotions. He is the owner and head instructor at Ricardo Almeida BJJ

Episode Transcript:

Eliot Marshall:

Ricardo, thanks for coming on, man. How are you?

Ricardo Almeida:

Pleasure to be here, man. Thank you so much for having me.

Eliot:

I've been looking forward to talking to you about this stuff. Because I know when... I can remember the day [Amal 00:00:13] came back from your school, which is where he started to get more focused on this business side of our schools. I remember he had a life-changing experience. So I've been very excited to talk to you about it.

Ricardo:

No way, man. I learned so much from Amal. I think there was one time all you guys came down, you, [Finny 00:00:35], a bunch of the guys, and... One of the brothers that had a really good, Nick, I think it was. He a really [crosstalk 00:00:41]

Eliot:

Nick Flynn.

Ricardo:

Had a couple of you guys came down, and then I've always learned so much from, Amal. He's always been so sharp on the back end, or sharp on the mats too, but also sharp on the back end of what happens at the school. I learned from him probably as much as he would tell you that he saw [inaudible 00:01:02]

Eliot:

I think sometimes people hear this word, the business end of your school, and they start to get like uh(negative), like I don't run a business. Where do you think that idea comes from especially in the jiu-jitsu field, that idea that "running your business" is not good? Don't run a business.

Ricardo:

To be honest when someone would say something like that I think that they're a white belt, or no belt as far as running your school. Because there's always the idea that if you really love jiu-jitsu you'll teach it out of your garage, or your basement, and then you won't charge students, and you do it out of your goodwill, and that's fine. Some people can think that way, but I think that if you really love to jiu-jitsu, and if you want to serve as many people as possible, when you're really good at what you do, and you have a plan of continue to get better at serving people and bringing people in, and serving as many people as possible, then you have your name on the lease, or you have a name on a mortgage, and you have a big name on the sign, and there's deadlines to be met, and there's rent to be paid, and there's all sorts of things going on. It's the same thing with anyone. Who makes a better car, the guy who's building cars out of his garage, or Tesla, or BMW, or any of these companies?

Ricardo:

And that's not to say there is no space for the guy in the garage. That's a custom, one person collector edition, that's okay. But my goal has always been to serve as many people as possible. And to be honest, man, it's a selfish goal, because I know that the best way to get better at jiu-jitsu is to train with as many people as possible. And my best way to get better instructors is to teach as many people as possible. So in some ways I'm selfish, but in some ways it's a symbiotic relationship between the amount of people you serve, the amount of change corners that you're going to have, the amount of problems that you're going to have to solve, and that makes you better at providing a great experience for everyone.

Eliot:

I think there's always, if you don't have that duality existing, I think you're blowing it. I do everything I do for myself, first of all, but then everything I do seems to happen. I do it for other people, but it fills my cup up so much, it makes me so happy. So is it just altruism? No. And is it just the opposite of altruism, and just giving away? No. You got to find that middle ground, which is what I think our schools need to be as well.

Ricardo:

1000%.

Eliot:

So when you started your school, well, first of all, when did you start your school?

Ricardo:

So my school started by accident, man. I moved here to teach at the hands of Gracie Academy. He was opening a school in Philadelphia, and he had a scumbag pawner that he found out that this guy was taking stuff that wasn't his, and he ended up breaking up with pawner. And he closed his Philadelphia school down, and I had no where to teach. The New York positions were all filled, so one of the guys that was a former student at this Philly school said, hey Ricardo, I have a friend who has a gym. You want to start a racquetball court? Just how we all started.

Ricardo:

I started at this racquetball court, and I was there for a while, while I was still fighting. And then I moved the school to a legitimate location, and that's I think around the time that... I knew Amal back from Brazil, but once the school started growing, and I had my name on the lease, and I was more serious then some owners serious as Amal, wanted to come and see what we were doing, and we just exchanged ideas.

Ricardo:

And at the time also [Feitosa 00:05:00] came down a lot too, and we exchanged a lot of ideas, and it was a pretty cool time to be a jiu-jitsu then. It is really cool time now, but we're all just trying to figure out what the traditional martial arts guys have figured out a long time ago, how to serve more people? And I think that for sure a lot of how we see the landscape of Brazilian jiu-jitsu nowadays has to do with our mindset changing from the fight club mentality, to I think as we got older having schools that our own kids and families will want to feel like they want to be in, and people, students, families wanting to come in. And it was no longer that place that people went to, nobody knew what happened. It was just like a really cool place as if... Some of the people that go to the yoga practice decided to do a fight club, that's what the jiu-jitsu schools became.

Eliot:

As they should be, right? Because, we don't need that anymore, that fight club mentality. Even the mentality, I feel like it's very important that jiu-jitsu schools lose the mentality of, when a visitor comes to the school it's unnecessary to feed them to the monsters. I want them to have skillful training. I want them to have good training, a good time, and not be like, oh my God, they beat the fuck out of me, or something like that. Those times are gone. We proved jiu-jitsu already, fight club's gone. We hopefully are moving past those days.

Ricardo:

But always be ready to dish all the beating if it's [inaudible 00:06:35].

Eliot:

If it's necessary, yes.

Ricardo:

I feel bad because sometimes guys will come from other schools, and my school is mostly recreational guys. The girls they train in a completely separate class. And sometimes I'll get guys that come in and bro, these guys look like they trying to get ready for a tournament, train with a mom, you know what I mean? Or some recreational girl that trains at my school. And then if somebody shows up, and they're not sensitive enough to understand that at the end of the recreational practice, and they want to act like a fool, then one of the fools will take care of that.

Eliot:

Yes, [crosstalk 00:07:11].

Ricardo:

I'm open arms when people come into my school. We do have uniforms. Everyone in my school wears all uniforms. But if a visitor comes, wear your own uniform, and wear are your armor? You know what I mean? You a samurai too, just like we are. You wear your armor in our school. I don't make people wear my uniform if they just coming in for a visit. Then if they [inaudible 00:07:31] that's just my perspective. But if they become members, then you have them wear the uniform just like any private school.

Eliot:

When you think about some of the greatest obstacles that you've had in running your school, first of all, what were they?

Ricardo:

I think the hardest thing man, it's getting people through the door. I think most jiu-jitsu schools would find that if you can get people through the door, and you could give them a positive experience on the mats, then they go from, oh, maybe I can do this, or I know I could do this, it's amazing. I've never felt anything like it, I want to do this. It's just, we still have a stigma. People watch the UFC and they have a remote in one hand, and maybe a beer in the other hand, and man, that looks really cool, it's awesome, but I don't want to do that. So a lot of people think that what we do at the jiu-jitsu school, even if you take away the punches, it's still pretty intense for most people.

Ricardo:

So I think every martial arts school would love to have more people coming in through the door. I think that's the first, top of the funnel, for lack of a better way to describe it. And then the other huge bottleneck man is white to blue belt. I think that the schools that are thriving are the schools that have gotten very good at getting someone from white belt to blue belt. And because, from day one man, they're off to the races, they're on their own. The schools that have a difficult time is the schools that people are getting hurt, or people are getting skin infections, or it's dirty, or there's a bunch of people, or the environment is not super strong and nurturing to facilitate growth for someone that's just getting started. It's a little bit too intense perhaps. Something like a basic thing of having a beginner's class, and an advanced class, and a kid's class, and an adult class, so throwing everyone in the mix, maybe that's what it is, but [crosstalk 00:09:48]

Eliot:

How'd you overcome that obstacle? The going from white to blue? Because I think that's a huge one for a lot of people because, it's like, oh, they're here, and now they train. So what were some of the things that you've done with your school to help people get from white to blue?

Ricardo:

My mentor who taught me a lot about running a professional martial arts school, and all you guys might've visited his school together, it's Thomas Clifford. So Ricardo, all right, you have in jiu-jitsu there's this performance mindset that everyone that gets to a blue belt needs to be able to go defend their blue belt in a tournament and look okay. Let's just start off of that. You would like every one of your blue belts, that just got their blue belts to go to a blue belt tournament, at their age, and-

Eliot:

Weight.

Ricardo:

Weight, to be able to do okay, hold their own. It's like a measure. And Tom Clifford Kyoshi, he would just say, Ricardo, how about if 10 people were joining a school, 10 are going to become blue belts. One is going to be the best, one is going to be the worst. And maybe one or two of them can go to a tournament and just hold their own. And the rest of them are just recreational practitioners, that their goals are different. They want to maybe just learn enough self-defense so that they feel confident, or maybe that you want to get to a certain level of fitness that they couldn't achieve participating in other group activities. I've truly embraced that man. I looked at certain students that I've promoted to maybe a blue belt, or purple belt, the brown belt, and even black belt. I know that their performance level when we talk about an IBJJF competition, they'd be able to go out and hold their own in a bracket, the age and weight, they would not be able to hold their own, and I'm perfectly fine with that.

Ricardo:

There's a lot of times when instructors are younger. They hold that in their head, and hold students in belts too long. I know that my guys they're supposed to be competitors, and they going to be solid. And I know my guys they are not supposed to be competitors. I've got to be solid for their own potential. And I love having them on the mat, and I consider it being a privilege to teach them. And they've brought me other students who were champions, they brought me other students who were not champions. And they brought their family members to the school, and they are a big part of the academy just as much as the guys that compete, if that answers your question.

Eliot:

That 100% answers the question in the sense of just the mentality shift that you have to have first of all. So second of all, are there some specific things that you did? How did you go about, and I know you're big on the stripe system. We got the belt stripe thing from you, you showed that to us. So that was one of the things that you did promoting people along the way of white to blue belt. How did you, when did that start for you?

Ricardo:

And man we've had this conversation before privately, and you had asked me, Ricardo, do you guys still do that? And I was like, man, it's like on the mat sometimes we get so good at doing something that we forget how to do it. I wish that I was still using the color belt in between white and blue, and I know that's not 100% in line with perhaps necessarily the entire jiu-jitsu community, which I don't really care about that. I know where my guys stand, and where our teaching stands in the realm of things. I just want people to practice jiu-jitsu, but for sure, I think recognizing people for their effort and not just their performance, it's super important. Whether we do that through stripes, or formally through stripes and belts, or we do it just one day, just pulling someone aside and say, hey, man, I just want to tell you man, I know the jiu-jitsu has been hard for you at first, but you've come a long way. And man, I'm so proud of everything that you've accomplished on the mat.

Ricardo:

Sometimes people need that as well, depending on the person. But for sure, having a clear system to reward people for their effort and their progress, there is progress with effort, it's within everyone's potential. So I think that's instrumental, separating beginners from more experienced practitioners as much as we can. Definitely having a class where we're focusing mostly on what the foundation of jiu-jitsu is. And then the recognition, whether you do it through stripes or belts, I think it's very important.

Eliot:

This is one of those topics where I don't know, I feel personally, look, what's the goal? The goal is for people to train jiu-jitsu longer. So what are some of the hangups? One of the biggest hangups is in that, like you said, white to blue belt. They have no clue if they're getting any better, because they're still, if they roll with somebody for the most part, they're getting smashed, so they see no progress. If you take a two Stripe white belt and you put them, or somebody who would be equivalent of two striped white belt, and you put them with one of your blue belts, most likely that blue belt is going to smash them. So seeing that they don't see any progress, so how do you show them progress? You give it to them.

Eliot:

Look, okay, you're progressing. Are you that good yet? No, but you'll get there. Look, you're on your way. Look, you're two steps in, you're three steps in, four steps in. And then that can keep them training longer, so that they might even have the potential of becoming... For those instructors that are still worried about producing champions, they might have the potential of becoming a champion. They just haven't realized that yet, and that can happen. That happens for a lot of people actually. You hear about, I think Boucher, actually just put something out the other day. He lost his first eight tournaments in a row. So he wasn't... Alberto Crane lost for a year. He went to a tournament every month for 14 months straight and never won a match. So if you look at it, it's like those guys "were terrible" But are they?

Ricardo:

Time and effort, or effort over time will always yield results man, it's inevitable.

Eliot:

I think one of the, moving on from the white to blue belt subjects, one of the things that I think instructors or academy owners really struggle with is this idea that they need to grow their school. We need to grow our schools, and you can't do every job. You can't teach every class, and you can't run the front desk, and you can't sell the memberships, and you can't clean the school. I think this is a big roadblock for a lot of people when it comes down to growing their schools. How did you first see that roadblock? And then how did you get through that roadblock?

Ricardo:

You mean the instructor should be able to know how to do everything, is that what you mean?

Eliot:

No, you're the owner, but you don't do all of it. You're not there right now. You're not there, do you still sell the memberships? I doubt it. You have somebody there that runs your desk. So how did you realize to go from, I do everything between, I teach, and I sell, and I make the phone calls, and this too. I need to manage. I need to start managing other people, and training other people how to do this.

Ricardo:

I think that a great book for someone that's seeking to learn a little bit more about that is the E-Myth. It's [inaudible 00:17:49] entrepreneurial myth, where whether someone's going to open a jiu-jitsu school, or a CrossFit studio, or this studio, or bakery, it's the bakery in the book. So it talks about us as entrepreneurs, and as small business owners not doing every task, and slowly building a team, and handing off some of the tasks so we could focus on less urgent, more important tasks for the of running of the business, so we could steer the ship a little bit more.

Ricardo:

I think that for me quickly, I realized that where I wanted to go, I couldn't go on my own. As soon as we moved from racquetball court into a bigger location, and classes were packed, we had to have more classes, and I'm teaching a class and five people show through the door, and you have to welcome those in and schedule a time for them to come and take a class. You realize, hey, I'm going to need help. I'm going to need to get organized. I'm going to need systems in place. And I'm going to need some standard operating procedures for each of the things that are happening at the school. And then people were going to need to understand how to do those. And then we'll have some metrics to measure how we're doing on all those things. And then from there you start to get a more stable business.

Ricardo:

It goes up and it goes down. December it goes down, and then it comes up in the, and we back to school. Then December, it goes down a little bit again, but now all of a sudden you have this living and breathing thing that's on its own, and it's not as much trading your time for money, which it becomes very hard. If you just teaching the class and you're charging people 20 bucks, or 15 bucks, or however much people charge per class, it's hard to have your name on a lease, or a mortgage. You've got to build some recovery [crosstalk 00:19:51], and just go from there.

Eliot:

I think one of the things that people struggle with in this is that, you have a staff member, and you're training them or teaching them, and they do it wrong. How did you get over this part of watching your staff member do something wrong, make a mistake, cost you money? And then not yell at them, and not be like, yo, what the hell? What the hell are you doing? What was that process like for you? Of training the staff, and almost in the sense of you have a student and you send them out to the competition, and they go do the arm bar, and they just totally blow the arm bar. And for some reason we don't scream and yell at them. We're like, we just try to help them do the arm-bar better. But when it comes to our business, sometimes you'll be like, yo, what the fuck did you just do that for? We've gone over this a 100 times, and now you just cost us 200 bucks. How did you do that with your staff, like you do with your students?

Ricardo:

We learned it on the mats. The first way that we learn as teachers is just, if you reprimand someone and you just curse at them, or you shit them on the mats, man, that just undermines your position as an instructor, I feel. Some people have an iron fist style of teaching. I'm not that way. And as far as dealing with people my style is more like public praise, and private reprimand. I'll call them in at a time that's just the last, or perhaps after the students left, or just before [inaudible 00:21:35] like, hey, come here, look, look at this mess over here on the floor.

Ricardo:

We can't have a school that's completely dirty like this. I clean, you clean, everybody cleans, but it's like, look, see, do. If it's dirty, we don't wait for somebody else to do it. Sometimes you're walking down the street, you see a piece of trash, you don't walk over it, you pick it up and you throw it in the trash. Why wouldn't we do it if it's inside the academy. And I've had times that I've been soft, and I've had times when I've gone too heavy on certain situations. But for the most part, I think that having someone at the school is really conducive to having a really good one-on-one. All the people that I have, most of the people that I've had, any of the instructors I've had, they've always been my students.

Ricardo:

I've never brought someone that wasn't my student first, but I've seen other people do that and not have any problems. And most of the staff that I've had trained are students at the school. So I've had a teacher, student relationship with them. So I've never had to manage a relationship with someone from the outside, it's like inside the business side of things at the academy and all. So perhaps other people that have bigger operations or multiple schools and things like that have had more experience with that. But as far as with me, any interaction I have with the world, I see through the lens of being on the mats. I try to treat people how I like to be treated, and maybe that's not even on the mats. It's just the right way to be no matter where you are. And I tread softly, and I try to leave every room that I walk in better than you the look when I got in. And for sure when I'm at the academy, I'm paying more attention to everything and being more on top of things, but that's just how I am.

Eliot:

I really liked what you said at the very beginning of that answer, public praise, private criticism. When you have to talk to somebody, you bring them to the side, it's not in front of everybody. And obviously we've all made that mistake before of doing it the other way, and we've paid the repercussions for it. When you talk about your staff, and I think this is one of the things that people are very scared of with their staff. Sometimes is, okay, I teach this person to be a great instructor, and then all I'm doing is I'm going to teach them and they're going to go open right down the road from me and become my competitor.

Eliot:

I don't feel that way. I don't have much concern with that. How did you get over that? How did you get everyone to jump on board in the sense of, we're all in this together, and no one's leaving. If somebody leaves, then they have such an amazing opportunity in front of them. How could I even think about saying no to them? How did you get your staff to jump on board? And how did you get over that fear of, oh my God, I'm going to show them what to do, and then they're just going to open and be my competitor.

Ricardo:

Everyone can, there is like the non-compete and things like that, and depending on the state, that's like not very enforceable. As the teacher student relationship, and having someone teach at your school, it's pretty hard, man in other businesses where you dealing with intellectual property and things like that. In jiu-jitsu, jiu-jitsu is alive, it's all theory. It's not our on property, but we do piece it together and chew it up and serve it on a platter in a way that people, it's a recipe that's unique to each school. If you go to the supermarket and you could buy all these ingredients on their own, but the way exactly you do things, and there are more of those things, and perhaps how we do things will have a lot of similarities just from our lineage, but there will be own twists, certain-

Eliot:

Flair.

Ricardo:

They're unique, and that attracts your students, and maybe the way I do things will not be attractive to your students. But if someone wants to leave now, I really don't, well, I want that person in my school, you know what I mean? Before I even think about where they're going to open up, if it's going to be five minutes or 50 miles, hopefully I've had enough of an impression on them so that they're like, you know what? cool. I'm going to go do my own thing, but let me really do my own thing and not just try to go dig or [inaudible 00:25:59] student. Let me not try to take students from the place where I came up.

Ricardo:

Forget about, Ricardo. How about the place that brought me up into the sport? They gave me what I'm going to teach to other people. I think that's just how I think. But when I think about someone that's acting in certain way that's detrimental to the team, and you get to that point of should they stay, or should they go? I think that I rarely want someone that is causing a ton of problems, and going behind people's back and saying things. We've had very few through the years, but every environment is going to have those. And I try [inaudible 00:26:47] to be as far away as possible, even if it means they're like. I want them outside my four walls, man. If they are out on street, it's better off than they were in there.

Eliot:

I agree.

Ricardo:

[inaudible 00:26:58] people. There's always going to be people they're going to leave, when someone like that leaves, and that's okay, maybe [inaudible 00:27:07].

Eliot:

For sure. As we wrap it up here, a couple of last questions. First, when you're dreaming big for your school, if you had, in the business world they call them big, hairy, audacious goals. What would it be? When you dream big, what do you think of?

Ricardo:

Man, to be honest, my school, I think we could always get more students, and I've learned that there's a limit to how many people you can have in an environment. Maybe I think I need to visit you guys, because I know that you guys have jiu-jitsu, you have striking, you have a bunch of stuff under the same roof, and we're still pretty much only jiu-jitsu. We have a small kickboxing program, but I think for sure to just serve more people. Especially because of COVID, I don't know if it's the same thing with you guys, but we haven't had the kids come back yet. You know what I mean? We haven't had that wave of kids coming in or coming back, and for sure a wave of new kids coming in yet, there's been some, but not as much as the adults.

Eliot:

I think that hard thing is the summertime, because the kids always fall off in the summer time too.

Ricardo:

Depending on where people are with vaccines, it's not available to kids yet, the vaccination and depending on people's household and their own choice I think, kids haven't been back. But I like to get the kids back in the program, but as far as number of students, we're pretty good, man. I like to see some of my guys grow up and open their own schools, you know what I mean? I've facilitated for a lot of my black girls that have gone on and opened their own schools.

Ricardo:

It doesn't necessarily have to be with me as a [inaudible 00:28:52] or under me in any way, shape or form, but I just like to see, I still think there's more people that need to learn jiu-jitsu. There are people that know how to teach it well, so I'd love for my guys to go and open their own place, and bring it to an area where jiu-jitsu is not available, if there's [inaudible 00:29:08] that are trying to compete for somebody else's students. But just keep doing that, man. I want to be, 30 years from now when doing what I did today. Wake up, go teach a class, come home, relax a little bit, and get ready for nighttime.

Eliot:

I liked what you said, teach it well, though. I agree with you. I think there's more jiu-jitsu schools out there than jiu-jitsu schools that teach it well. And I think it's very important to be able to teach it well. Last question, of all the things that you could tell someone when opening or running their school, what would be the number one?

Ricardo:

Find a teacher, man. You had a jiu-jitsu instructor, or a mentor, find a mentor. Find someone that's done it well, that's done it effectively, that's going to guide you through the process. And someone that could, when things go wrong, because things are going to go wrong. You could bounce ideas off their head. They could quickly pick out what's going wrong, you know what I mean? I had the privilege of having a couple of guys, when I had those guys, Jim Dunn was a big karate guy. He opened a bunch of schools. So I think we all learned a lot from him, and-

Eliot:

Everyone learned a lot from Jim Dunn.

Ricardo:

He brought me to Thomas Clifford. Thomas Clifford was a fricking genius, I learned so much from him. And then watching [inaudible 00:30:24] school grow for sure, my times with Amal, or just exchanging ideas, what you guys were doing, and having conversations with Amal, Amal saying, [inaudible 00:30:34] sitting in his car, looking at the karate school and seeing bunch of little kids going in and at the time, none of us had kids programs. And it's like, man, how do these guys do it man? And I'm going to figure it out. I think before many of us here in the United States, and exchanging ideas with [inaudible 00:30:52] too. At the time they were just starting Gracie Barra here in the United States and Gracie Barra is huge. So I've had the privilege of great teachers, great mentors, but also great peers that I've exchanged ideas. And you need that man, and you need to be in a community where you have both the mentors and the peers.

Eliot:

Just like you learn jujitsu, right? You had to have people, you had to have your teacher, you have to train with people that are better than you. You have to train with people that are at your same level and you have to train with people that you're better than so that you can practice, right. You, you need all of this, but that comes with community, right. Join a community. That was a great answer. I agree with you.

Ricardo:

So I'm not too in depth with what you guys are building, but I'm sure that you guys are leaving no stone unturned, that there will be a lot of some incredible information that will sort of have people bypass a lot of other problems that we've had and, and just get to, to the level that some of the successful schools have been able to get like a lot quicker.

Eliot:

That's what our teachers in jujitsu did for us. Right? Like their, their struggle didn't have to be our struggle. We had to have a different struggle, but we all need the struggle, but it doesn't ha, but if we're repeating the same struggles, that's where the problem comes. So man, thanks, Ricardo. Thanks for so much for coming on. Tell everyone if they are listening where they can reach out to you. I know you're on social media, your website, your school, all that stuff. So tell everyone where they can reach, find you.

Ricardo:

I think if you just go to Google, Ricardo, the BJJ master. Instagram's calling me BJJ, so that's going to pop up. [inaudible 00:32:29] I think my Facebook is Ricardo BJJ too. And my academy might pop up, but you guys are probably too far, but yeah, I'm around. You'll find me. Yeah.

Eliot:

You'll find him. All right, Ricardo. Thanks so much for jumping on. Thanks for giving everyone some tips and tricks that have, I don't even know if they're tips and tricks. I think they're long tests that ideas that you've been using to skillfully maneuver and grow your school. So thanks so much, Ricardo. Have a great day, man.

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