I want to own my own martial art school

So, you’re a black belt and want to open your own school. When I was about 18-19 years old I always thought that having my own dojo would be pretty cool. I had already been involved in martial arts for about 10 years and I loved it, there was no doubt that martial arts would always be part of my life. I was content at the school I belonged to so for me it wasn’t about how I could do it better than they were, I knew that I would be moving to a new city and that the opportunity could arise to do my own thing.

A couple of years past and sure enough I did move away and found myself clear across the country and with no jiu-jitsu school in the area. Without getting into a long history lesson, at the age of about 24 I did open a school. Now I had lots of experience teaching classes but I had little experience running a business. Well actually I had NO experience running a business. The school was never financially viable and eventually it was closed. I did however keep teaching in a part time basis for the next 15 years. Last year I re-opened my school somewhat full time and plan on taking it to the next level this year. So why am I writing this?

I have been doing a lot of reading about owning a small business and have discovered that most people who open their own business are really “technicians” who were tired of working for someone else or people who have a skill at doing something and want to give it a go. Just like me and jiu-jitsu. The problem is that all small business should be made up of 3 people, the entrepreneur, the manager and the technician. It is very difficult to be all 3, especially when you have another full time job.

So I am going to take this year to educate myself on small business and how I should be looking at the future of my school. After 20 years I wish I would have starting learning a long time ago.

What prompted you to start your own dojo?


What is your role as a self-defense instructor?

In the twenty years that I have been teaching self-defense I have literally come into contact with thousands of students. From children, teenagers, young adults, middle aged adults and older adults, men and women. I have had students who have been blessed with natural athletic abilities and some who have had to work really hard to move forward.

When I first started my dojo back in 1992 I was only 24 years old and was used to the crash and bang style I had grown up doing. After operating for a few years I quickly realized that the blow throw blow attitude I had about training was not going to be conducive for all students. I still remember one female student who was in her late 40s, had 2 bad knees and other aches and pain on a daily basis. She was already a black belt in karate and had devoted the past 4 years to her learning. Remember when I said some people had to work hard to learn, she worked hard. There were a couple of areas in which she excelled and hardly matched, that was her enthusiasm, dedication and heart. When I promoted her to black belt a few of the other newly promoted black belts questioned her exam. You see she had not perform to the exact same standard as they had. It should be noted that those commenting were in their mid 20s, with natural ability and limited martial arts experience.

I explained to them that indeed they had performed an above average test but that each person must also be judged on their own performance. Did she match their test, no, but did she perform to her highest abilities, indeed she did.

I currently have a potential student who has come to class and expressed that he really enjoyed what he learned and say. I received an email from him advising he wants to come back but that he doesn’t want to drag the class down. He is a little older then most students but appears to have the desire to learn.

If you want to learn, I want to teach.

You see my role as a self-defense (jiu-jitsu) instructor is to teach people to protect themselves, this means whoever walks into my dojo and expresses the right reasons for wanting to take lessons. It is not to judge them as they walk into the school and predict that this person will never be a star black belt. My job is to teach them in order for them be the best they can be. Their job is to give me all they have, enthusiasm, attention, sweat, blood, tears….what ever it takes to learn. If we tell them not to bother because they will not achieve black belt then I think we are doing a dis-service.

That being said I do have to take into account the individual’s safety in relation to the type of training we do. If the potential student is physically not able to participate and I need to modify my lessons beyond the norm then I would have to discuss with the individual other options.

If they give me what I ask for then a black belt in not out of reach, it just might take a little longer. Will it be pretty maybe not but it doesn’t need to be pretty, it needs to be effective.

How do you see your role as a self-defense instructor?

Can-Ryu Jiu-Jitsu Western Canada

Last summer during our summer camp in Sicamous BC, a few of the black belt who are dojo owners suggested that I have a meeting with all the Can-Ryu Jiu-Jitsu black belts who are in the West.  Almost all of these black belts have been graded through the Hiscoe Jiu-Jitsu Dojo.

Over the past 15 years, like many other martial arts organizations, some of my black belts have left the dojo to pursue their own journeys.   I am alright with that, I am actually very proud of some of these black belts because they have continued to train and teach and some have even applied their training to their real jobs.  Now I have been asked by those who are still around and active to try and unite the group under a common umbrella.  This of course is going to be a challenge as for many years this as not happened.  I think the timing can be right to make this happen, but obviously it cannot happen without the black belts wanting it to happen.

I need to create a vision for what this could look like, what would the benefits to the black belts be, what is there to offer, what is there appetite for this to happen.  Because it is not going to happen with them.  But if they are asking for it there must be a possibility.

Personally I am excited about the possibility of getting this group together.  I have some ideas of what might work and also what is not going to work.  This must be a collaborative effort between all of us, not a situation of control where others have no say.

I see this as a real chance to apply the leadership skills I have read about and help others to achieve their goals.  This cannot be about me but more about the black belts who all the same desire.  The desire to have a unique organization, with common goals and the ability to collaborate and share ideas for the betterment of all members.

Hiscoe Jiu-Jitsu Kids Program

I was pretty excited all day as tonight was the first kids class in our kid’s program.  I was expecting about 8 kids to attend and sure enough all eight were there.  It was a manageable number to start with as I had not given a kids class in about 10 years.  I had my assistant Kate there with me who is going to look after classes when I am available.  This will be a good learning experience for her as she approaches her black belt test.  Teaching children is a real art in itself.

I was especially interested to see how my son Matthew was going to do.  He had been asking to do jiu-jitsu for the past year and now the time has come.  He was a little distracted at times but overall did a great job.  I’m sure he did a much better job of his first class then I did with mine 34 years ago.  All the kids appeared to interested and had a good time, the ages ranged from 6-9.

I am happy to be on the mat with the kids again, if you can teach kids you can teach almost anyone.  I am especially happy because I can see the value in spending quality time with my own son, the same way my dad did with me growing up.   The Hiscoe family has been involved in jiu-jitsu since 1975.  The kids program at our dojo ran classes on Friday night and Saturday morning, so on Saturdays we would have a father and son lunch after class.  This was a tradition till the day I left Ottawa for the RCMP Academy.  Even after living in BC for several years I would find myself calling home on Saturdays at lunch time.

It has only been one night but I can envision the possible success for everyone involved.

Attitude not aptitude determines altitude

I mentioned in my last post that I have been reading the book Failing Forward by John Maxwell, I came across a quote that I really liked.  So much so that I have probably used it about thirty times in the last 3 days.  I have used it at home talking to my oldest son, I have used it at work in discussion with my colleagues and I used it at the dojo at the end of my last class.  The quote is “it is your attitude not your aptitude that will determine your altitude”.

In thinking back to the training camp Hiscoe Jiu-Jitsu held in Sicamous this summer I remember a conversation I had with Shihan Michael Seamark.  The conversation was over a black belt announcement we had seen in which a student has endured a 24 hour shodan exam.  We both thought this a little odd and commented that every class a student attends is kinda like a test.  How much attitude does a student bring to class?

I discussed with my class that not all students are created alike, not all students will be able to do perform identically to each other or to the Sensei.  That being said what is important is the student’s attitude towards learning, training hard, respect for others, attending class etc…. It is the student’s attitude that will determine how they progress through the ranks.  Personally, I would rather have a student who might not the best technician but pushes themselves and works hard every time they are on the mat.  I can forgive this student a few mistakes or lack of style at an exam.  What I cannot except is the naturally gifted student who seldom pushes their potential in class, only train for themselves rather then helping those who need help, misses classes etc… From this student mistakes are not welcome.

Not all students are created equally.  This also reminded me of a situation which occurred to me about 15 years ago.  At the time I have a few black belts who were awesome practitioners, students and black belts.  I also had another student who was a little more advanced in age than the others, had a few physical challenges but gave absolutely 110% every single class.  This student gave of themselves in helping others and was always a pleasure to have in class.  When this student performed their black belt test it was at the same technical level as the others but I can tell you the attitude certainly was there.  I was challenged by some black belts about my decision to pass this student.  I had no problem explaining my reasoning for promoting this student.  I also explained to these black belts that my goal in opening a dojo and teaching jiu-jitsu was first and foremost to teach people how to protect themselves.  It was never about creating awesome black belts.  That is a by product of diligent teaching, and students with great attitudes.  I explained that if the goal was to create great black belts only, we would not have many students.  I would have to turn potential students away at the door if I did not think they would fit the persona of a black belt.

Not all students are created equal, it is their attitude that will set them apart.   Remember, “it is your attitude not your aptitude that will determine your altitude”.  Did I see I like this quote, actually I love it.

Black Belts and Leadership

Since about 1992 I have been leading my own jiu-jitsu organization, Hiscoe Jiu-Jitsu, in British Columbia. It was somewhat easy in the early years because all the members were students.  After about 5 years some of those students moved into the black belt ranks and the relationship with these students changed.  Some were now instructors who were responsible for other classes.  I had never owned a dojo and this was my first group of black belts.   While operating the dojo I also had a full time career which involved shift work and much stress and at times travel.  The result for this dojo was that it closed it doors after a few years, I recognize that I am not a businessman but I am a jiu-jitsu teacher. (If you know what you don’t know you will be much more successful, but that is a different topic) Some of my top black belts decided to leave the dojo and open their own dojos at the time. This was acceptable but at the same time they decided to leave the organization also.  This was a little difficult to take but I had seen this happen many times in the past in other organizations and it will continue to happen.

I now operate a small dojo, although I do have other dojos which are under my direction and are lead by some excellent black belts.  Some of these dojos are facing the same situation I once faced, having black belts who decide being on their own is better than where they are.  As instructors it certainly makes you wonder if you are failing as a leader when students who you have guided and mentored through the ranks decide to leave.  I have experienced this a few times and wondered it myself.

A couple of years ago I was promoted to a supervisory position at work (not jiu-jitsu) I supervise 7 full time trainers and a couple of other full time employees in a different program.  I have had a lot learning to do over the past year, human resource issues, programming issues, and many more.  I really had to learn how to deal with people, in my last position I was a one man show responsible for many programs but without supervisory functions.  So you can imagine I have made a few mistakes over the past year in dealing with people.

During the last year I have started to read leadership books.  I have read and really like the books authored by John Maxwell, I have found his books easy to read and more importantly easy to understand.  The book I am reading now is titled Failing Forward, it basically talks about using you mistakes as stepping stones for success.  Those people who achieve have learned how to analyze a mistake and benefit from it.

One of the mistakes I see which results in black belts wanting to leave their sensei or organization is a lack of communication. I recently experienced this with one of my high ranking black belts.  In order to learn from this mistake it is important to have open and honest communication with your students.  The relationship you have with your team is very important in building a successful organization.  In the book the use the acronym REAL, Relationship, Equipping, Attitude and Leadership.

Relationship is the ability to get along with people, they will make you or break you.

Equipping, those closest to you will determine your level of success, surround yourself with a great team.

Attitude “your attitude more than you aptitude will determine your altitude” (I like that)

Leadership, everything rises and fall and your ability to lead.

As leaders of our dojos or organizations I see the same lessons which apply to leading in the corporate world applying to our martial arts.  Look at your past challenges and learn from them and determine how you would do it different next time.  This will help you become successful.

Hiscoe Jiu-Jitsu starting kids program

Starting in September Hiscoe Jiu-Jitsu (Chilliwack) will begin offering a kids program.  The classes will take place on Fridays from 5-6pm.

I see this as an important step in progression for the dojo and for my family.  My son Matthew has been expressing an interest in jiu-jitsu for some time.  I guess now is the time to get things started.  It probably is the right time as I started training when I was six also.  I see this as a good time to bond with my son and begin creating some common ground.  Growing up my dad was also involved in jiu-jitsu, we taught a kids programs at the dojo we belonged to and got to spend a lot of quality time together.  Still to this day jiu-jitsu is the common ground for all of us.

In my 33 plus years of being in the martial arts I have seen a lot of benefits to children who are involved in martial arts.  Getting a child into a routine of fitness and discipline will stay with them for a lifetime.  I was fortunate to have parents which kept me involved for the long run.  I have been able to merge my martial arts life with my professional career in policing.  I am a full time use of force trainer and supervisor, I have traveled across Canada developing other use of force instructors more specifically in the defensive tactics area.  I am frequently asked to evaluate of DT program for their effectiveness in relation to policing.  I have also made many friends and contacts in both Canada and the US.  I thank my martial arts training for the things I have been able to accomplish in life.

The time is now right for me to try and pass some of the things I have learned to my son and other kids.  My goal is to help them learn how to protect themselves, gain confidence and self esteem.  The classes will focus on basic jiu-jitsu, flexibility and coordination.

If you are interested in enrolling your child please contact me at my email address shiscoe@shaw.ca