Over the years, I’ve had many inquiries about starting a Judo club from scratch. My first impulse is to encourage coaches to start in a garage and then move into bigger facilities once membership can sustain the overhead. And that’s what SoCal Judo did in Temecula, California.
SoCal Judo is coached by Valerie Lafon Gotay and her husband Israel Hernandez. Both are Olympians, but don’t let that fact discourage you from trying to start a club the same way. Anyone with a good program who understands the nuts and bolts of running a business can succeed, Olympian or not.
After the Beijing Olympics in 2008 Valerie started a personal training company called Fitness by Val. Israel, who had stepped away from his coaching duties with USA Judo, had become a consultant to several international sports organizations.
Once the economy started tanking, many of Valerie’s clients could no longer afford the private lessons. Israel was getting tired of the travel that would take him away for weeks at a time. I suggested that while adults were curtailing their activities, parents weren’t cutting back on their children’s programs. Thus, it would make more sense to start teaching Judo as the main course, with personal training and consulting as a side dish.
Since Valerie was already working out of her garage, she got rid of some equipment, moved things around, and built a 16 x 20 ft spring-loaded platform for her mats. Fortunately, I had some used mats that I was no longer using, so start-up costs were kept to a minimum.
Through word of mouth, school flyers, and her web site, membership grew slowly but surely. It didn’t take long to figure out that many potential new members were not comfortable with the club being in someone’s house. Even some of the members intimated that they would bring in friends once the club moved to permanent facilities. After about fifteen months, it was obvious that membership would not grow any further until the club had larger, permanent facilities. So, it was time to look for a permanent site. Three months later, SoCal Judo moved into a commercial building off one of the main drags.
Besides a small kids class, most of the SoCal Judo members had been taking private lessons from Valerie and Israel. Private lessons offered good income, and Valerie and Israel Online Pokies enjoyed working one-on-one with their clients in the garage. However, privates are labor intensive and the wear and tear for uke is substantial. It finally dawned on both of them that they would need to wean their students off the privates and focus on larger group classes, which ultimately would generate more income.
As predicted, once SoCal Judo moved into permanent facilities, members brought in friends, prospective new members had better “attitudes” when they came to check the club out, and membership double in just three months.
With the permanent facilities, there is room for spectators and family members to watch. The garage offered no such thing. It’s palpable that some of the parents and non-Judo playing siblings are now showing interest in doing Judo. Parents have become more involved in the program whether they do Judo or not. They’re ready to help run tournaments, and spread the word. They’ve taken ownership of the club.
Initially, besides offering fitness classes and Judo, the schedule was going to include no-gi classes. That idea has been shelved for now. Why? Because Valerie discovered that there was a great interest in just Judo, and that she wanted to showcase straight Judo. She told me, “There’s no shame in just teaching Judo.” I couldn’t agree with her more. She did admit that perhaps down the road, she might hire a coach to teach something that complements Judo, like yoga or Olympic weightlifting. What she’s not going to be involved with is the MMA type gym.
SoCal Judo is open six days a week, and offers morning, afternoon, and evening classes. She and Israel spend more time at the club now than before, but that’s what it takes to grow the membership. The more classes you offer, the more likely someone will join.
Her future projects include training assistant coaches for private and group lessons, developing social events for SoCal Judo families, hosting in-house tournaments and inter-club workouts, and creating a youth leadership program.
If she had to do it over, she would have left the garage sooner. I’m just glad she finally pulled the trigger and moved. The survival of Judo just got a decent shot in the arm.
The Grand Opening of the club is on February 25, from 1-4pm. If you are in the neighborhood, please stop by. Let your friends in Temecula know about it.