An open letter on Primal's training culture.
To our Primal people.
What is a good training culture?
I believe, that underlying every gym training culture is a consensus. A commonly shared set of beliefs, expectations, ideals and behaviors. It is a vibe that should be apparent nearly immediately when someone enters the environment.
It need not be and should not be cultish, coerced, or artificial. Rather it should be an implicit understanding among the participants, that the environment affords each individual to be free, safe, and supported.
Having a 'safe' training environment for training martial arts may seem absurd. It is, after all, a contact sport, and accidents will and do happen. 'Safety' in this context means trust. Trust that we can exercise appropriate control and respect for our training partners and teammates.
It is only within a culture of trust and respect that we can truly thrive and develop the skills and mastery that we all aspire toward.
Even the strongest cultures will be challenged from time to time. But through proactiveness, vigilance, and leadership, threats can be managed early before materializing into something more damaging.
Talking about control in such a chaotic sport is complicated. While it is indeed a sport, we are effectively fighting. Also, control is generally developed over time. As coaches and longtime practitioners of the sport, we recognize that lack of control is rarely a malevolent trait. Rather it is a result of inexperience and very often anxiety-driven. Again, this is normal and natural. The flight or fight response is innate in us all, and it is only through repeated exposure to a perceived threat that we can begin to temper this.
This required, repeated, and sustained exposure to pressure and chaos is a guiding principle of our training philosophy at Primal. Our endeavor is to speed the process up. Unfortunately, this can backfire when rather than speed up, we get ahead of ourselves.
While lack of control can be expected early on in development, I repeatedly remind our athletes that even in our advanced programs at Primal, participation requirements have less to do technique and skill. Rather, it is both 'control' and 'discipline' which facilitate effective learning and practice. Experience matters of course. Hitting too hard is often just the consequence of poor distance management, while injuries in grappling are often a result of a lack of kinesthetic awareness.
I want to be clear. With all the talk of safety and control, our training should not be misinterpreted as soft or inauthentic. On the contrary, it is only with such temperament and physical control that we can truly optimize the training experience and get near to the authentic movements required to be high-level performers of this sport.
Being impressed with how hard someone hits is akin to being impressed with how much crank and torque one can apply to a heel hook. Control is a far better metric for fighting skills than power or aggression will ever be. *Please note, I was never known for being an exemplar of light handedness myself, but l guess wisdom ain’t squandered on the youth.
This brings us back to the training culture we are working hard to foster at Primal. Coach Ben and I are committed to creating an authentic and effective environment while minimizing the risk of injury. That’s not easy, but there are some obvious strategies and principles we employ to help us. They include; Consistently cultivating an environment where learning is more important than winning or performance; Promoting ‘psychological safety’, (though fluffy sounding), is in fact crucial to promoting creativity, autonomy, and trust within the group; And lastly, leading and clearly communicating our values and expectations. None of these strategies are particularly easy, less so given we are constantly battling with our own egos.
We are also taking a risk in trying to expedite development through our training philosophies and methods, which rely heavily on live and chaotic practice. As the inherent risk of injury increases, so too does the responsibility of ourselves and our team. We must fashion a culture and curriculum that appropriately challenges our students to train effectively and safely. While we recognize there may be a trade-off at play, effective training and safety are not mutually exclusive. Both can be achieved, and we have seen tremendous early success. It does however require constant realignment, and as classes grow more popular and we attract new participants into the sport, it is especially vital we get it right.
This post has been more of a reminder to ourselves not to be complacent. While we are delighted with the culture that has developed, thanks largely to the support we receive from our team, Ben and I are ultimately responsible for maintaining and improving it. Also, if we blather ad nauseam about our training culture in class, you'll know it's coming from a good place. We want you to return day after day in better shape than you left.
To our team, Hamssah, Mo, Jimmy, Aaron, Tanner, J, Lynn, Kevin, Funkyburd, Lucy, and Curtis. And to all our customers, students, and teammates. Thank you for making Primal MKE a rewarding and exciting place (culture) to be part of.