by Perry William Kelly
The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place, and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.
Those well-known words come from the mouth of a fictional boxer named Rocky Balboa. The character, played by Sylvester Stallone, is telling his son what he needs to do to make it in life. I say that truer words have never being spoken, especially in our current times, when things are fine one day and the next, the world as we know it changes forever. Repeatedly.
Cris Rodriguez is like Balboa in that she won’t let setbacks define her future. Instead, she applies a counter to every submission attempt that life throws at her as she travels the path to success — even when one of those submission attempts involves running a martial arts school in one of the hardest-hit areas of the country during the COVID pandemic.
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, Rodriguez is co-owner of Gracie PAC MMA, a mixed-martial arts school in Tampa, Florida, that boasts more than 300 students. To tend to their needs, she draws from her 27 years of experience in the arts, 20 of which have seen her in the role of teacher.
For the past 10 years, Rodriguez also has studied internet marketing. She founded Grow Pro Agency, an advertising firm that services martial arts academies and fitness centers. From her home in Florida, which she shares with her wife Stephanie and their three sons, she dispenses her knowledge to businesses in need of guidance.
Rodriguez’s martial arts journey began in 1993 when she signed up for an introductory lesson at a Jhoon Rhee taekwondo school in Tampa. She continued to train in the Korean art throughout her childhood and competed at such prestigious tournaments as the U.S. Open. At 15, she became an assistant instructor at the TKD school, and within a year, she’d become the head instructor. In fact, she was the first female to assume such a role at the school in the 30 years it had existed. Rodriguez would eventually earn her third-degree black belt in TKD.
Although she had sharpened her striking skills to a fine edge, her martial arts worldview was about to change drastically. Her instructor at the TKD academy decided to add a self-defense component to the curriculum, and it would be based on Brazilian jiu-jitsu. At first, Rodriguez hated it because she wasn’t adept at the new skillset. But, as mentioned above, she isn’t one to let present circumstances determine the path of her life.
She vowed to get good at BJJ, and the best way to do that, she decided, was to enroll at a BJJ school. Her quest for proficiency, which began at 16, eventually led her to Rob Kahn, one of the first Americans to earn a black belt under Royce Gracie. Rodriguez earned not only her black belt in the art but also the admiration of Kahn, who asked her to manage the school and take over the kids’ program.
Rodriguez’s love of competition, which blossomed when she was ensconced in the striking arts, flourished similarly in the grappling realm. She won a spot on Team USA, and in 2008, she found herself competing in Turkey, where she won a bronze medal in BJJ. Wanting to “check another box off her bucket list,” she entered an MMA event, where she emerged victorious in the first round thanks to a BJJ triangle choke.
Over the years, she noticed that her competitive drive and her never-tap-out grit spilled over into other endeavors. Case in point: Rodriguez saw many of her martial arts accomplishments while attending the University of South Florida — on a full scholarship. After earning a degree in elementary education, she went on to become an expert in children’s martial arts training and development.
That background serves her well these days as she develops curricula for martial arts and fitness businesses. “When parents call and ask what background I have, being able to tell them that I have a degree in elementary education is definitely a checkmark in the pro side,” she said. “My educational background allows me to craft programs that allow children to learn in the best way possible for them, depending on their learning developmental stage. You see a lot of martial arts schools throw 3-year-olds and 6-year-olds in the same class, but a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old are on different planets in terms of their developmental stages.”
With that kind of knowledge base, Rodriguez opened Gracie PAC MMA on September 22, 2012. For her, the date is memorable because it was when she earned her BJJ black belt. She started with a small dojo and, after investing plenty of hard work, grew her student body to more than 100 in less than 12 months. Three years ago, she had to move to a larger location.
Any BJJ enthusiast will tell you that when you’re rolling with an opponent, the moment you’re about to secure the perfect submission is precisely when your opponent is most likely to escape and turn the tables on you. This is exactly why Rodriguez finds BJJ the perfect metaphor for life. She’s reminded of this every time she encounters what to many business owners would be a setback but to her is just another obstacle to overcome.
In that vein, she recounted three major obstacles she faced in a single year when it seemed like her business was running smoothly. The first occurred when she was audited by the IRS — “Never a fun thing to go through!” she said. After eight onerous months of unneeded stress and compounding expenses, it was determined that she owed the government a grand total of $10.50.
The second occurred when the State Department of Children and Families tried to shut down her school, claiming that her afterschool program was essentially a day-care service. Rodriguez was able to prove that her gym’s extracurricular activity was completely in line with all her county’s regulations.
The third occurred when her school was sued after an incident occurred on the premises. Although she’s unable to discuss the details, she said she prevailed in the end.
One key thing that Rodriguez took from these three incidents is the importance of having a mentor. For her, that mentor was Mike Metzger, a leading consultant for the Martial Arts Industry Association. “[He was] there for me every step of the way,” she said. “Everything I had gone through he had gone through something similar. And he was able to guide me in making the proper decisions.
“How did I overcome? I overcame by listening to what my mentor told me to do and taking action. As a business owner, you’ve got to be tenacious because there are going to be situations that occur that you never would have thought were going to happen.”
Along with having great mentors, Rodriguez said that being part of a community is crucial to success. She discovered such a community at the 2019 MAIA SuperShow, and it’s helped her deal with the ups and downs of growing her business. “Who else on the planet knows what you go through as a school owner?” she asked. “Only other school owners.”
Once school owners have linked up with their peers, Rodriguez noted, they must pay attention to innovation. If you can devise ways to provide value to your students by offering them a superior experience, you will enjoy success, she said. “At the end of the day, if your classes aren’t fun, you’re going to lose students. All school owners believe they are teaching great, fun classes, but we all can improve — even if it’s by 1 percent.”
The needed innovation, she said, often comes from being part of a group of like-minded individuals. That way, you don’t have to re-invent the wheel.
When she was forced to adapt to the changes precipitated by the coronavirus and the resulting pandemic, Rodriguez had to draw on all her knowledge and experience, not to mention her connections. Like most other schools, hers was shuttered for several months as the nation endured the lockdown. As a consultant to hundreds of other school owners, she was quizzed regularly by people in search of solutions. That upped the pressure to find fixes and be able to communicate them to her clients.
When she began noticing a drop in class attendance at the onset of the pandemic, Rodriguez became proactive and immediately went virtual. Because digital marketing is one her specialties, it proved an easy task. Her school became one of the first in the nation to offer online classes.
“We actually created the virtual martial arts blueprint for our industry,” she said. “We were the first out in the market to offer something to school owners to be able to learn how to navigate this.
“We immediately pivoted to online classes and the best possible experience. It wasn’t just an online class we were offering; it was a full online program with challenges for our members, virtual ‘kids night in’ [events] — our full class schedule online. We had over 30 Zoom classes a week. We offered virtual free community events to bring in new prospects, and we were able to sign up new people.”
Rodriguez admitted that Gracie PAC MMA did lose some students, but she said it likely was the result of normal attrition. She did not see a mass exodus during the pandemic.
Other schools, she said, reported large losses, and that likely stemmed from a number of shortcomings. Perhaps it was because school leaders failed to communicate sufficiently with their students. Maybe it was because they lacked creativity with respect to their curriculum or the delivery of it. It might have been because they were slow to create and deliver alternate products.
“Money loves speed, and those schools that were immediately able to pivot and offer not simply online classes but a full-service online program and an amazing experience were the ones that not only survived but thrived,” she said.
When I interviewed Rodriguez for this story, Florida was reporting 9,000 to 10,000 positive tests for COVID-19 every day, and that prompted me to ask if she could recommend any business strategies that had helped her not only cope but also gain the upper hand against her viral opponent.
She said that the governor of Florida had reopened all sports facilities before the spike occurred. However, she knew that not everyone would feel comfortable resuming onsite training. Therefore, she surveyed her students to learn what types of classes they would be comfortable taking. The results explain why she’s offering both online and onsite instruction.
The virtual classes will continue longer than she initially anticipated, she said, but in the same breath, she shared a brilliant marketing tool she’s developed for potential students who might feel stuck at home.
“Something we are focusing on is a Virtual At-Home Starter Kit,” Rodriguez said. “Students get eight weeks of on-demand training, a grappling dummy and a uniform — and it’s all for $199. We set up a progress check on week four for them to earn their belt with the eventual goal of converting them to becoming an onsite member.”
Her strategy led to further discussion of how she’s managing under COVID. She explained that while Florida requires people to wear masks, in her county, students are exempt from wearing one while working out. To enhance student safety, though, she checks the temperature of all students before class and mandates that her staff members wear a mask. Moreover, for the kids’ classes, instructors ensure that the youngsters practice social distancing and execute techniques only on the grappling dummies. Students from the same household are allowed grapple together, however.
Always the innovator, Rodriguez shared a strategy she believes will limit the spread of the virus at her school: She calls it “battle buddies.” The concept has small groups of students train together exclusively. The rationale is that if any member gets sick, the outbreak will be limited to one small group. That, it’s hoped, will prevent the rest of the student body from being exposed.
As our time came to an end, I asked Rodriguez if she had any final words of encouragement for the martial arts community during these tough times.
“I think you have to be very conscious of making positive deposits in your brain — Tony Robbins calls this ‘transformational vocabulary,’” she said. “Words create meanings, from the meanings, we create our emotions. Our emotions control all of our decisions, the actions and all of the results that we get. So we’ve got to be conscious of the words we attach to an experience.
“I want to ask school owners, ‘What words are you habitually using in your academies during COVID-19? Are you telling yourself no one’s going to sign up? Are you telling yourself parents are not ready to come back? What words are you using and what words are getting in the way of your progress?’ Whatever we focus on is what we fuel! My advice is to make positive deposits and ask yourself, ‘Do your results match your potential?’”
I asked Rodriguez if there was any message she wanted to convey to MASuccess readers to end the article. “I’m a school owner in the trenches just like you, and I am here for you,” she said. “If you need anything, please do not hesitate to reach out. You can go to MAIAhub.com and book a free call with me. I am free to answer any questions you might have.”
I don’t need to tell you that all martial arts school owners are in a battle right now. Fortunately, we know how to deal with a fight. The thing about conflict is that even though you may be inclined to go it alone, having an ally always helps. And you won’t find any better ally than Cris Rodriguez, the martial arts school owner who makes bad situations tap out.
Perry William Kelly has a sixth-degree black belt in jiu-jitsu and is an instructor in four other martial arts. He’s the former national coordinator for use of force for the Correctional Service of Canada. In 2017 he was a karate gold medalist at the World Police and Fire Games, and in 2018 he received the Joe Lewis Eternal Warrior Award. His website is perrywkelly.com.
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