Your Students Shouldn’t Feel Punished If They Can’t Pay Their Dues During A Pandemic

I’m a big believer in paying your academy dues even while your gym is closed due to COVID-19 because, quite simply, I like the idea of having a BJJ gym to go back to once we’re allowed to return to the mats. Many academies are doing their best to give their students the most value for their money possible while they pay for membership to a closed gym, providing Zoom classes, offering private lessons, sharing solo drill or workout videos, or even just keeping them up-to-date with social media posts or email newsletters.

Of course, not everyone can afford to pay an extra $100-250 a month for a service they’re not receiving. Layoffs — both temporary and permanent — and heavily reduced hours have left tens of millions of Americans filing for unemployment. Some people have had to allocate more money toward childcare following the closure of schools, and others have simply decided to put their money into other hobbies or necessities since all of this began.

Tensions are running high for just about everyone. Academy owners are wondering how they’re going to maintain their business while doing their social duty to keep people safe, students are missing jiu-jitsu and wanting to be able to eventually return to classes while still making sure food gets put on the table and the rent is paid. People are concerned about the economy and the ever-changing information they’re reading and hearing while also being concerned for their loved ones and strangers who could suffer devastating symptoms if they contract the coronavirus. There’s a line somewhere between selflessness and self-care, and while many of us are trying our hardest to walk it, it feels impossible to even see where that line is.

This is why it is baffling to read stories about academy owners and coaches who are punishing their students who aren’t paying their membership fees during this time. From social media posts shaming students who have frozen their memberships, to ignoring members’ requests to reduce or pause their monthly payments, to, apparently, sending members to collections for unpaid dues, some academy owners seem to believe that jiu-jitsu is the most important expense coming out of people’s bank accounts. I doubt that the goal of these tactics is to drive students away, but I assure you that that’s exactly what will happen.

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If you want your students to treat your academy like a “family,” then you’d better treat them the same way. No one will fault you for asking your students to pay if they can even if the gym is closed because, hey, we’re living in a very tough time. But your students are also going through a tough time, and even if they usually train six days a week, it’s unfair to expect them to prioritize jiu-jitsu above all their other needs. It’s okay to be frustrated about it, but if you think your gym is struggling now, just wait and see how long it’ll take for even more members to permanently stop paying and search for another gym if you start shaming or penalizing them.

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By all means, reward the students who are continuing to pay. They’ll notice the effort, and it provides extra incentive for those who are debating between paying membership dues and saving their money for other nonessential expenses. Try to avoid placing blame on students who can’t or won’t, though. The vast majority of businesses out there don’t have clients that will fork over significant chunks of cash every month for a service they physically can’t receive, and rather than expecting that kind of generosity from BJJ students, we should appreciate that we’re a part of an industry in which that kind of generosity exists at all and count ourselves lucky when we’re on the receiving end of it.

It sucks that jiu-jitsu is the most not-social-distancing activity we can do that doesn’t have an X-rating. It sucks that the government has been failing to protect individuals and small businesses during this time of crisis. None of this, however, is your students’ fault. Be kind to them, and most of them will do their best to support their second home.

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