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Disaster Mitigation Strategies for Martial Arts Clubs

(or “Don’t Panic, It’ll Be Fine and Here’s Why”)

Lee Heycock
Mar 17 · 10 min read

Over the past week or so I have received an increasing number of calls from club owners who are very worried about the future. Under normal circumstances I only provide private advice confidentially to those clubs and governing bodies that I work with closely. These, however, are not normal circumstances and so we are publishing the advice I have been giving on how best to manage the current situation so that anyone who thinks it may be of use to their circumstances can take a look and pick out what might work for them.

Courtesy of Robert Graham Photography

Crucially, there are a number of things that are under everyone’s control — and these factors will shape the type of world we will live in once the emergency is over. How we act over the coming weeks as individuals, families, businesses and leaders will shape the society and services that we have access to once this has all settled down. If we work together and support one other through the tough times things will recover quickly. If we do not it will be a long hard slog with many businesses, services and livelihoods lost forever.

I am not a medical practitioner, and there is more than enough advice going around at the moment so I will leave that to others. With regard to small businesses, that is another matter. For small businesses and clubs, this is very much a battle for survival but a battle they can absolutely win. If you have a small business or club, below I have summarised why you can get through this, and the actions you can take (if they are appropriate to your situation) to maximise your chances.

1. Effective Communication is Your Best Tool

People are worried. Your customers are worried.

Whenever there is a problem, clear and timely communication is your best hope of getting your key stakeholders to act rationally, not to panic, and to be supportive.

Takeaway 1: Keep your members informed by communicating, at the very least, that you understand the situation and are keeping abreast of events and will act appropriately and proportionately as and when needed.

Takeaway 2: Update your communication as an when significant changes happen. Current the UK government is updating the public daily, so you may need to react to this, but do so in a measured and sober way.

Takeaway 3: The timeline (when things will happen) is uncertain but the events (what is going to happen) are not. You can prepare an action plan for each obvious step so that you are ready to go when it happens, like when schools inevitably close, public places are forced to close etc. Prepare in advance and then execute your plan when the time comes.

2. Look at your Business Differently & Find Ways to Keep Going if Your Premises Is Shut — Because You Do Have Options!

Martial arts clubs and gyms are in the service and entertainment industry. They are best carried out in person, but they don’t need to be! People pay you to be trained. They pay to learn new skills, to be part of a community, to develop on a consistent and ongoing basis and to feel a sense of accomplishment.

Almost all entertainment venues will be shut down during the crisis, so now is the time for clubs to shine and just deliver services differently. Keep people engaged and help them survive the inevitable cabin fever and boredom!

If people can’t come to the club — bring the club to the people. Live stream lessons to your members using the various video-conferencing tools that are free and readily available (zoom meeting is a good one that allows people to join in using laptops, phones, tablets etc). You will have to be a little creative with your lessons and adapt them, but you can live-stream classes into their homes, take attendance and quite simply keep things going.

Has there ever been a better time to focus on flexibility training?

You can keep attendance going so that people can stay on-track for their next gradings so there is no change there. You can give feedback. You can forge a sense of community like never before.

One further point is that you could possibly move your online classes to the daytime during the isolation period. If everyone is holed up why not give them something to do during the day rather that watch Loose Women, Cash in the Attic or whatever else is on instead of Jeremy Kyle these days.

For those members who are not keen on the idea of online group lessons, you have some other options to encourage them to keep their memberships alive:

· Offer catch up lessons for free when you reopen.

· If you have an annual shutdown over the summer or Christmas, cancel it and shift it so that it’s used for the crisis so they don’t lose any active weeks.

Takeaway 4: Prepare a communication and send it to your members to explain how you will keep teaching and providing a great service even without a physical dojo. Explain that this still counts towards grading attendance. Explain that with nothing else to do at home, these could be the most valuable and anticipated sessions ever!

Takeaway 5: Get the technology ready. You’ll need:

- a zoom meeting account (https://zoom.us/) or other videoconferencing software

- a decent laptop with a webcam;

- good broadband;

- possibly a phone so you can do some pre-recorded or “moving around” shots to share during the live session; and

- ideally (but not necessary) a decent wireless lapel microphone.

Takeaway 6: Play around with the technology so that you are good to go when the time arrives — because you will need it soon.

Takeaway 7: Prepare your member communications (how to log in, timetables etc) so that they are ready to go when you need to roll this out.

3. Don’t Profiteer in a Crisis

I’m sure I don’t really have to say this, but under no circumstances appear to benefit from this crisis. I know that some people (to be clear: not my clients or martial artists!) have thought of possible ways of trying to do so, but it will end in tears. People never forgive profiteering from other people’s misery. They may be short term gain but it will lead to long-term ruin.

On a subtler level this applies to online lessons. It could be easy to record a few things and email them out and expect to be paid regardless, but that feels, to me at least, a bit lazy, like you’re expecting people to pay while you put your feet up.

Do the lessons live so that people really understand that you are still putting the same amount of time and effort into your work. They will appreciate it.

Takaway 8: Don’t cut corners if you do virtual classes. Do them live and prepare well for them. Remember it’s all about the service and the perception of value.

4. Social Proof & Community Spirit

Most clubs I know have already had a few membership cancellations because of people self-isolating. I understand that there will be individual cases where member’s incomes may go down and so they are trying to economise. That is understandable, necessary and proportionate.

However, as a society it is vital that we support small businesses where we can — and even more so during this crisis. If we hoard everything — including money — there won’t be anything left after everything settles down to go back to. I know this is a point successfully made by several dojo owners to their members in stark terms.

Fortunately there is a proven way of encouraging positive behaviour and this comes from a psychological concept called Social Proof. Put simply, people generally copy what other people do. It’s why some restaurants deliberately create queues outside even when there are spare tables inside (here’s looking at you TGI Friday). People see these and think “that must be good — I’ll join” just because there is a queue. It sounds nuts, but these are well researched behavioural facts.

Where am I going with this? Well, I work closely with a number of clubs, and during this crisis one well-run and successful club has already communicated their plans to live-stream lessons when the time comes. They have already had some very positive messages back from members commending them for doing this, saying that it will really help with the boredom, and some simply saying that they value the club and will support them completely during these tough times.

Now, there is an argument (using the social proof principle) that if you communicate these messages to the wider membership it will engender a sense of solidarity and encourage more to support the club. You won’t want to be “that member” who was going to be selfish and cancel.

There is a risk however, that by showing people that some people are supporting the club, that you might also get people thinking “hang on, maybe I could cancel for a while and go back later — I hadn’t thought about that!” There is a precedent for this with the “Just say no” anti-drugs campaign in the 1980s. It actually increased drugs use in the USA because kids thought “hang on, is everyone else doing drugs?” It made the option to take drugs more visible and as a result drug use went up.

Takeaway 9: The decision to use social proof is a judgement call based on the nature of club’s membership base. Club owners should know the nature of their members better than anyone and should make their own minds whether to deploy this strategy. Where the option to cancel or suspend is well known you may have less risk in communicating this as people already know their options, although it might not be top of mind. If however cancellation is not on their radar, you really don’t want to put it on there! If you are unsure, play it safe and don’t communicate this!

5. The Government Have a Vested Interest in Your Economic Survival

The economy is the biggest concern of every government as it drives everything. Without a strong economy, nothing else is possible. No welfare, no defence, no health service, nothing. Whilst you individually might not matter to the government, you are part of a much bigger group that collectively do. The self-employed make up around 15% of the UK workforce and are becoming more and more important. So you, and those in a similar position to you do matter.

Takeaway 10: The government may be slow and may take their time to do the right thing, but they will probably get there in the end, because it’s in their interest to do so. Lets face it, the alternative to you making a living is you increasing the welfare bill and they really don’t want that!

6. The Government are in the best position to make medical calls, and you (and your customers) absolutely are not.

In terms of the medical impact of the coronavirus outbreak, a large number of factors are outside of everyone’s control — and that includes governments. They have all developed various strategies and models on how to deal with the situation which are all, to a degree, guesswork. Governments are, however, privy to the best data and so are in the best position to make the big calls. They have models to predict the effect of the coronavirus (and the economic impact is definitely on there and plays a large part in their plans). Now, whether their models are any good is another thing. But what is not in question is that they have absolutely got the best data and resources to make these calls. It’s down to them and their skill. Everyone outside of the loop are just guessing.

I have seen some arrogant/panicked messages from people who are saying that the government is stupid for not shutting schools and that clubs and businesses should be responsible and shut down regardless. These people might turn out to be correct, but if they are it will be because of pure chance. Put it this way, if I flip a coin 10 times and you get it right every time, that’s not because you were smart or made a clever judgement — it was chance.

Without data, without understanding all of the factors, and without luck, no one knows what is going to happen with the outbreak (spoiler alert: the weather over the next month will play a significant role in how the virus progresses — and who can predict that 4 weeks ahead with any accuracy?).

Takeaway 11: Regardless of our opinions, the government are best placed to make public health decisions. As businesses we have to defer to them unless we have a specific reason not to. Reasons might include having staff or customers in the high-risk categories, but even then, the sensible thing, I would argue, would be to recommend that only those at risk stay away and that you continue as normal, albeit with reasonable precautions under government guidelines.

Takeaway 12: Refer your customers to government advice and make it clear that you will follow this advice as you are not in a position to second-guess the experts. Follow the government advice — and put sensible and proportionate measures in place and, as we said in the first point — communicate these effectively to your members.

7. General Crisis Management Tips

Takeaway 13: Control what you can, and accept (and try not to worry about) what you can’t.

Takeaway 14: Stay abreast of government advice but don’t pay too much attention to the media. The news outlets have a vested interest in sensationalising stories and playing to people fears. Don’t get sucked in — it’s bad for your mental health.

Takeaway 15: Stay calm and grounded. People around you will appreciate it and the outcomes will be better simply because those around you will follow your lead and make more rational decisions.

As a final note, business is important, but it is not life and death. I always keep in mind immigrant families from World War 2 who literally lost everything and endured living hell. After the war many of them rebuilt their entire lives from nothing in new countries despite what had happened to them. You can and will recover if the worst happens. Just look after the most vulnerable, have confidence in yourself, and instil confidence in those around you.

You can do this.

Best wishes,

Lee.

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