Disputed Ground

On Martial Arts, Politics, and Culture.

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The case against Private lessons, Part 1.

Like most people in the jiu-jitsu community, you’ve probably never taken a private lesson, will never take one, and think they’re too expensive even if you wanted to take one. You’re not interested in private lessons. Unfortunately private lessons are interested in you. In fact, there’s nothing private about them. Let me explain how private lessons ruin things for the rest of us:

I. Your Jiu-Jitsu gym is just bait.

Unless you’re a celebrity grappler, or an expert marketer (with all the shadiness that entails), you most likely don’t have hundreds of students and dozens of affiliates. Indeed, most schools are far more modest, with contracts somewhere in the dozens, and active members just a fraction of the contracts.

As things are currently set up, most jiu-jitsu gyms aren’t that profitable, and many lose money.

Why then, do rational people keep opening these gyms?

Simple. The quest to score private lesson gold.

Think of your BJJ gym as bait. What’s the prey…? Well, you’re hunting two types of animals:

1) The common blue (collar) fish:

These are the guys¬† that fill up most of your group classes. Seemingly a diverse bunch, some old, some young, some workers, some students, some hobbyists, and some with dreams of being a world champion. What they have in common though is a cap on their disposable income. Jiu-Jitsu is already a bit expensive for them, and none of them really shell out for private lessons. In fact, many of them don’t even want to, as they prefer the social aspect of hanging out with their friends in class.

2) The great white (collar) whale:

These are the folks that compose your private lesson base. Less diverse, these people tend to be either upper-middle class or outright rich. They get personal trainers at the gym, maybe do some bikram yoga, and generally pay for a premium experience. Getting in with the instructor for them is more important than getting in with the classmates. They pay for private lessons, because life has taught them that money can buy them the good stuff that is kept secluded from the masses.

“Ok, so what?”

It’s the position of this blog that private lessons are mostly worthless (though that’s a discussion for another time). However, tempting as it may be to just let wealthy people waste their money, the end result is bad for the martial art.

Here’s the key: Because time is limited, your instructor doesn’t have the ability to dedicate the same amount of time to a blue fish as he does to a white whale. They logically figure: Easier to catch a few whales, than it is to catch dozens of fish. While this thinking has sound short-term logic, in practice it ends up corrupting the curriculum, effecting the class schedule, thus hurting diversity, and ultimately suffocating the martial art in the long term by transforming it into something it shouldn’t be.

II. Time is money, and other people’s private lessons take up your time.

A hard balance to strike.

When people want to hire the top poker players in the world for personal coaching, the price is always equal to or greater than that player’s win rate at the table. If the poker player will on average make $500 per hour playing poker, then coaching from that player will cost at least $500 per hour, otherwise it makes no sense for that player to waste an hour that he could’ve spent playing poker.

The same is true for BJJ instructors. Let’s run the math:

A person that pays a “standard” contract of $150 a month (yes I know it’s higher in a lot of places), and comes around 2-3 times per week, give or take, is paying about $15 per class which is translates to $15 per hour of instruction.

In contrast, the standard private lesson rate for non-celebrity black belt private lessons can range from $100-$150 dollars per hour of instruction.

Which student would you pay more attention to? The one paying $15 an hour for group classes, or the one paying $150 an hour for private lessons?

This conflict explodes when faced with the dilemma of limited mat time:

People work. A lot of them work at the same times. Which means for us that Most people can only train between 6pm-9pm on weekdays. The blue collar students taking group classes, and the white collar whales are both competing for space on the mat during this window.

If you’re teaching 2-3 private lessons per week during a certain time slot, then it doesn’t make sense to have a class during that time slot unless it would net you the same or more value per hour.

It’s that simple. For a growing number of instructors, they simply won’t expand the schedule unless they believe it would consistently net them 2-3 new contracts per week (to match the value of the private lessons). Since no new class could realistically guarantee that, the net result is that they never expand the schedule past the bare minimum!

It also means they never expand the school, since they have no incentive to. For many instructors, the school should just pay for itself, so as to provide a location for private lessons. Since private lessons are usually cash, and the contracts are electronic (EFC) and thus taxed, break-even is probably better than a slight profit from a tax perspective. Thus a massive school that does $12,000 a month in contracts, and pays $10,000 a month in rent, is no different for them than a school that does $5,000 a month in contracts and pays $3000 in rent. In fact, the smaller school is probably preferred due to easier logistical issues, such as mat cleaning. All this despite the fact that most of us would prefer the larger school with bigger mat space and more training partners.

Finally, it kills diversity. Let me give you the real life example that inspired this article. I was speaking with an instructor, let’s call him X.

Me: “No one wants to be the first woman in an academy. It would be a friendlier environment to do it in a group. Why don’t you start a women’s only bjj class at 6 pm, and do a month long promotion to get women to try it out. You already have a big call list from the cardio kickboxing stuff.”

X: “It’s hard to get women to stick around. While a couple might, I teach private lessons around that time. I’m already turning some privates down. I wouldn’t do a class at 6 pm unless I thought I could get at least 10 new contracts out of it.”

Behold how any realistic chance of growing and diversifying our martial art is strangled in its crib by the presence of private lessons, and the elitist mindset it represents!

There’s plenty more to say about the evils of private lessons, but this article is already over 1000 words, so I’ll just end part 1 with a few final thoughts:

The first step in fixing jiu-jitsu is realizing that not all students share the same common interest. There’s a segment of the community that is actively trying to make the sport more friendly to the rich. Time is limited. So the time they take for them is time we lose for the rest of us. While the media seems to be providing bored rich people and celebrity dilettantes platforms with which to shape the community in their image (helicopters to attend my private lessons!!1!), we must fight back, so that the art of David doesn’t become just another overpriced luxury good for Goliath.

Next time we’ll discuss how private lessons actually water Jiu-Jitsu down and make it a worse martial art.

Feed back welcome!