When I first started this blog in 2013, I wrote an article called Gym Hoppers and the Importance of Loyalty in Muay Thai. It was an extended rant about people who go from gym to gym without paying respect to the people who train them.
Now, parts of it make me cringe to read.
Looking back, it’s clear that much of that post was influenced by the fact that I was in a toxic gym at the time. Rereading it reveals the cult-like mentality I had back then. The idea of others choosing not to stay loyal to one gym was offensive to me, because it had been constantly drummed into me that this was wrong.
The fact that I even cared where or how other people trained was a symptom of the environment I was in. There, loyalty came first, above all else. It would take years for me to realise that this wasn’t healthy.
In 2016, I wrote Breaking Up with My Gym after a string of negative experiences at that same gym forced me to finally tear myself away. I’d realized that my gym had become toxic. In the years since then, I’ve been unpacking the experience further.
Signs of a Toxic Gym
Here are some red flags to look out for. Some are taken from my own personal experience in Muay Thai (at gyms both in Thailand and elsewhere), while others are observations of other training environments, and stories from other fighters and martial arts practitioners.
Some of these points may not individually be cause for concern, especially in more traditional gyms, where there are unspoken cultural and hierarchical norms to navigate. But when they add up, they can allow serious abuses of power to take place.
Love Bombing When You First Join
Love bombing is a technique used by abusers whereby they lavish people with affection in order to create the trust required to manipulate them. Toxic gym owners often use this same technique to win over new members or fighters.
In the beginning, you’re drawn in by an immediate rush of positivity, love and acceptance. Your trainer might tell you that they’ll ‘make you a star’ or ‘a champion’. You feel a huge sense of belonging, which seduces you into obedience and loyalty.
At this stage, you’re given copious amounts of attention, praise or even special treatment in training, and may even feel like ‘the favourite’ of the gym. This lays the foundation for mistreatment and even manipulation, and when you fall out of favour, you’ll later see this same pattern repeated with other new members.
An Overly Charming and Charismatic Leader
Every cult is organised around a charismatic leader, and toxic gyms can follow this same blueprint.
Charisma alone isn’t a red flag, but it is something that toxic leaders have by the bucket load, and this enables them to easily manipulate others. They quickly draw people in with dazzling charm, and that’s their greatest strength.
A toxic trainer of mine had what seemed like an incredible ability to read people, connecting with their emotions and identifying their deepest desires, fears and insecurities that they hadn’t verbally expressed to him. He’d offer solutions to these personal issues, promising to make their dreams come true. His charm was almost hypnotic, and he could make students feel like the most important person in the gym. This is a common technique to build trust.
Louis Martin wrote The True Believers about his experience of training in a cult-like ‘Seibukan Jujustu’ gym, founded by Julio Toribio, whom students referred to as ‘Kancho’. According to Martin, Kancho had that same charm.
“He was a great communicator”, he wrote. “In fact, his lessons about the art of speaking and relating stuck with me more than the techniques over the years. He always knew what to say, he had wisdom”.
Tradition Used to Instil a Strong Sense of Dependency and Obedience
The traditions of many martial arts, including Muay Thai, are often romanticised, and instructors can instil obedience under the guise of these traditions. After all, rules that are attributed to tradition can’t be questioned.
We want to immerse ourselves in the culture, traditions, history and identity of our sport. For many, it’s a huge part of the attraction. That was certainly the case for me with Muay Thai. We become seduced by these beautiful aspects of martial arts, and in toxic trainers can use this to their advantage.
Ryan Hall wrote about this in his 2013 open letter to the martial arts community, which came in response to revelations about his former BJJ gym, Team Lloyd Irvin.
“The phrase, ‘martial arts’ evokes an interesting mix of images in the mind’s eye of the uninitiated: warriors training, students listening intently to the secrets dispensed by a wizened sensei who holds the secret to inner and outer strength. Certain words come to mind as well; words like respect, honor, humility, strength. What the uninitiated do not see through the too-often artificial veneer of piety and positivity is that underneath can lurk a world of manipulation, opportunism, and ego gratification. They do not know that these words and the feelings that they engender in us are, frequently, simple fodder for empty platitudes that are used to gain influence over us and generate blind trust.”– Ryan Hall, An Open Letter to the Martial Arts Community
Martial arts can be transformative. In the ring or on the mat, you can evolve into something you’d never thought you could be. A fighter. A champion. Instructors can redefine themselves in the same way, becoming leaders, parental figures, and life coaches. Sometimes, they’re even elevated to hero status.
Louis Martin described the hero worship of his gym’s leader.
“I can’t tell you how many people cried at the end of their promotions when thanking Kancho, how many people said he was their father figure”, he wrote. “Hell, one guy told Kancho he was like a father to him, while his actual father was in the crowd. Ouch”.
When an instructor is revered in this way, they’re protected against criticism. To loyal students, speaking ill of them can even be seen as sacrilege.
Controlling the Way You Dress
Are gym goers criticised for wearing Muay Thai shorts or gear bought from elsewhere? Are they badgered every day or even refused entry until they buy new gear from the gym? This is painted as a matter of loyalty and business, but sometimes, it’s more than that.
In my post on gym hoppers, I expressed my wholehearted belief in this concept. At the time, I thought that wearing another brand to the gym was ‘disrespectful’ because that’s the way I’d been taught. At the time, I knew it was about business, but only years later did I realise that it could also be used as a form of control.
This is used to quash any criticism. Any complaints are brushed off, and anyone who dares to speak out is told that they’re being too negative. They just have to change their mindset (so they’re constantly told). If they don’t blindly accept things as they are, they’re deemed to be unteachable and subsequently snubbed or isolated.
Toward the end of my time at a toxic gym, I had a fight that no one from the gym showed up to corner me for. It was an upsetting and disappointing experience, which upended my relationship with the gym. The next time I went there, my trainer put his arm around me and told me to “just let it go”. I knew that if I couldn’t do that, I would be labelled ‘negative’.
Gaslighting can come hand-in-hand with toxic positivity. When you ask questions or raise concerns, you might be told that they aren’t legitimate. For example, members may be routinely ridiculed for asking ‘stupid questions’. If you politely express concerns that you aren’t getting enough sparring in the leadup to a fight, you may be told that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
This can be complicated, especially if you’re training somewhere with a culture or social hierarchy that doesn’t allow leaders to be questioned. If you’re unsure, pay attention to how your trainer’s feedback makes you feel. If it’s consistently negative and dismissive, it may not be the right place for you.
Constantly Disparaging Other Gyms
A toxic trainer will tell you that their way is the best way, and all other ways of teaching are inferior. They may reinforce this by frequently criticizing or ridiculing their competitors. This creates dependency, because if your gym is the best, you can’t possibly leave, no matter what negative experiences you might have there.
Everyone Who Leaves is Deemed a Traitor and a Failure
If all other gyms are bad, leaving to train somewhere else is the ultimate insult.
A toxic gym owner or trainer constantly disparages old members or fighters who’ve moved on to other gyms. No one has ever left on good terms, and all of them are seen to have wronged the gym in some way. The leader is unable to maintain positive relationships with any of their previous fighters, and scoffs at the mention of their names. Fighters who leave are shunned, and may even receive threats of being blocked from fighting on certain promotions or in certain areas.
At my gym, the owner would sometimes even go as far as to claim that he could use his connections to get people kicked out of the country.
Your Entire Social Circle is Only People from the Gym
This isn’t always a red flag in itself, but can exacerbate the problems that a toxic gym creates.
When you don’t get any outside perspective, the cult mentality is constantly reinforced. If your gym emphasises the idea that anything outside of the group is a threat, you become more and more closed off to the outside world. Then, when people outside the gym can see its toxic traits and are critical of it, that feeling is only intensified. This, in turn, makes you even more fiercely loyal.
In 2021, MMA fighter Diego Sanchez described how he’d had to ‘disown some family members’ in order to stay loyal to his then coach, Joshua Fabia. He later severed ties with Fabia, saying he’d been manipulated.
A toxic trainer might reinforce the idea that they’re the only one who understands or supports you. This increaseses your dependency on them, and you grow to constantly look to them as your only source of validation. Eventually, it becomes second nature for you to defer to your trainer.
If you’re encouraged to distance yourself from any relationships or connections outside the gym, alarm bells should start to ring. While a fighter’s lifestyle can often have a negative impact on their personal lives or relationships, these choices should be driven by them alone, not by pressure or manipulation from a gym or trainer.
Your Behaviour Outside the Gym is Controlled
Is your trainer controlling parts of your life outside the gym? Do they make unreasonable demands for your attention or time even outside training hours? They may exert power over you by forcing you to complete certain tasks or change certain aspects of your life under the guise of loyalty or discipline. If your boundaries aren’t being respected, it’s a major red flag.
Jake Rossen wrote of such demands being made in The Cult of Lloyd Irvin. “Irvin would rouse students out of bed at any hour, demanding they run errands — anything from 3 a.m. calls for cheeseburgers to raking leaves or picking up dog waste at his home”, he wrote.
In the same article, previous member Frank Camacho described his experience of these demands. “It was about calling me at 1 a.m. saying that he needed some video”, he said. “Or that someone is coming in from the airport, and you’d pick him up at 3 a.m. No questions asked. We were in Lloyd Irvin’s world”.
People are Always ‘Working’ for the Gym for Free
It’s reasonable that a student would want to help out their gym by doing favours or donating their time, but some trainers will abuse this goodwill by routinely convincing students to work for free, having them teach classes, run the office or even do manual labour and construction work.
Sometimes, ‘voluntary’ labour is demanded, but this isn’t always a matter of force. Often, students are so indoctrinated that they genuinely want to do it, and will happily put the trainer’s needs before their own. They may do so in order to please or become closer to the leader.
You Can’t Visit Other Gyms Without Asking for Permission or Keeping it a Secret
Going to another gym is seen as a betrayal, even if you’re just going to get some much-needed sparring with a new partner. If you do go, you have to humbly request permission. You may feel extremely anxious about broaching this topic with your trainer, knowing they’ll respond negatively.
When you’re a fighter, and certainly if you’re sponsored by your gym, you do have an obligation of commitment to your gym. However, this shouldn’t be something that makes you feel trapped or unable to simply drop in at another gym for a day.
You Must Conform to their Fighting Style
A controlling instructor loves a fighter that they can easily mould, both in terms of style and subservience. For this reason, they might focus mostly on teaching beginners, or certain personality types that are easier for them to manipulate.
Any techniques you’ve learned from other instructors are ‘wrong’ and you’re berated for performing them. The leader sees the act of performing these techniques as an insult to their ‘superior’ style. You have to change your style to theirs alone, regardless of your individual skill set.
Louis Martin described his instructor, Kancho, as having this mindset. “He said he liked students who had no prior experience, almost making it sound like they would have been spoiled if they had any”, he wrote.
The Leader has an Inflated and Fragile Ego that Demands Attention
The leader, whether a gym owner or trainer, is always the most important person in the room, and any failure to acknowledge this is frowned upon. Anyone who fails to give them the attention they feel they deserve or address them in the way they prefer risks being called out for it.
They may have delusions of grandeur, expressing that they’re more knowledgeable or powerful than anyone else in the industry. This can often be weaponized against anyone who gets on their bad side, in the form of threats against them.
If their mood is unpredictable, you may feel as though you have to walk on eggshells. For trainers with a volatile nature, any form of perceived disrespect can trigger an overreaction, an explosion of anger, or even a child-like tantrum.
Shaming and Constant Negative Feedback
In 2013, a trainer told me to give up after I’d lost a fight.
“You should be a champion by now”, he said with frustration. I’d had 11 fights and had been training Muay Thai for just 2 years. But to him, it was already clear that I wasn’t cut out for fighting.
It was incredibly hurtful and demoralizing, and made me question my place in the sport. However, I could see clearly enough to know that it was my connection to that trainer, not the sport itself, that needed to be severed. In 2015, Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu wrote The Toxicity of Talk in Thailand about how she was forced to part ways with a gym by a barrage of negative feedback and shaming from her trainer, which drove their relationship to a breaking point.
Sylvie described how hurtful this kind of negative talk from an instructor can be. “You want to please your trainers”, she wrote. “You want to give face and honor the name of the gym. It’s very much like a family and wanting your trainers and the nakmuay ‘siblings’ to be proud of you is a sincere drive. And so, it cuts the same way when your trainer/parent is disappointed because you let them down”.
Infractions are Punished
Any breach of the instructor’s unwritten rules is cause for punishment, and those who step out of line are sometimes made examples of in front of the whole class. Some gym members may be openly put down or scolded in training to make sure they ‘know their place’.
I once witnessed a Muay Thai trainer ordering a fighter to slap himself for not executing a technique properly. When the fighter refused, the entire gym became tense. The trainer wasn’t used to being told ‘no’, and this made him furious.
At that same gym, I was subjected to a 6-month punishment for unknowingly causing offence.
I didn’t know it was happening at the time, only that my instructor’s attitude toward me had totally changed. Suddenly, I found myself constantly bombarded with negative feedback during training. If I made any mistakes, I’d be given reminders like “this is why you always lose”. Sometimes, I was reduced to tears, and it felt intentional. My training partners were praised, while I was left wondering why I couldn’t do anything right. I almost wanted to ask what I’d done to deserve it, but standing up and talking back would have been a serious infraction in itself.
It was only months later that a training partner revealed that the instructor had told her that I was being deliberately punished. She’d been let in on it, but was instructed not to tell me.
I’d shared a Facebook video of one of my favourite fighters, an hour-long compilation of her fight footage. During that video, one of my trainer’s previous, long-retired fighters was shown being knocked out. It was a few seconds of decades-old footage buried in a long video, and was never mentioned in the post. So I thought nothing of it. But when I showed up to training the day after the post was published, I was met with a scowl. “You’re supposed to make us look good, not bad”, he said. At the time, I thought that was the extent of it. But instead, this perceived shaming of the gym was used to justify a systematic attempt to break me down.
There are Cliques, Favourites, or Hidden Hierarchies
The leader’s favourites are showered with praise, while those who have displeased them are ignored or punished. In some toxic gyms, members can pay more for a certain level of training and closeness with the leader.
Louis Martin described his experience with such a group at his gym. There, he says students could pay extra to be part of an inner group named ‘uchideshi’.
“Uchideshi meant ‘live-in student’ and referred to students who had agreed to train full-time under Kancho. It was an apprenticeship program reserved for those who were serious about doing martial arts as a career. Uchideshi had to attend every class, plus special uchideshi classes. They also had to help Kancho run the day-to-day operations…They were the rock stars of the dojo, and they had a big upside to the program: they could be promoted even faster than the year minimum. An uchideshi could be a black belt in six months”.– Louis Martin, The True Believers
According to Martin, Uchideshi members were encouraged to rely on “each other and only each other”, considering themselves family and referring to each other as brother and sister. This idea of an ingroup and outgroup, he says, grew to be much larger over time. While this may be an extreme example, this same dynamic can also play out in more subtle ways.
Members Exert Toxic Behaviour
Are members constantly gossiping about each other? Does anyone who doesn’t conform to the group become a target of criticism or insult when they’re not around? If the atmosphere is starting to feel very ‘high school’ with constant drama and negativity, think about leaving. Otherwise, you might find yourself getting caught up in the negativity and reinforcing the gym’s toxic culture yourself.
My trainer would pull certain people aside and have heart-to-heart conversations in which he made them feel special, but also criticized other people in the gym. He would often play members against each other in this way, manufacturing feelings of superiority or even rivalries between them.
Unethical Business Practices
Does your gym operate like a multi-level marketing scheme? Are people regularly conned out of money, or into investing in projects that never come to fruition? Are staff underpaid or exploited? These deceptive management tactics are sometimes seen at toxic gyms.
Lloyd Irvin has also been a culprit in this regard, using internet marketing trickery in an attempt to fix his reputation, duping people out of money with his ‘MMA Millionaire Mastermind’/MMA Cartel’ program, and being hit with a tax lien of over $1,000,000.
Toxic Masculinity and Sexual Misconduct
Toxic gyms often have an undercurrent of misogyny, with sexist attitudes and behaviours that can pave the way for abuse. This was described in detail in How to Be an Ally to Women in Muay Thai.
Sexual Harassment Framed as ‘Banter’
At my gym, sexual jokes were commonplace. In fact, making them was part of the trainer’s charm.
Misogynistic comments about female students, myself included, were made frequently. But if I ever attempted to join in on the ‘banter’ and defend myself with my own quips, I was met with a look of disgust and an awkward silence. It was OK for me to be the butt of sexual jokes, but to express any agency over my own sexuality, or to try to flip the narrative, was inappropriate.
Manipulation and Coercive Control
At the toxic gyms I’ve observed, the gym members who were controlled the most were always female. In The Cult of Lloyd Irvin, fighter Jordon Schultz is quoted as saying the same about his gym. “The people he had the most control over were females..Any task at any time. They were extremely obedient”, he said. Some gym owners will deliberately market themselves as trainers of women in order to get this kind of control.
In a statement released after leaving Team Lloyd Irvin, Schultz described how a female student confided in him about being controlled by Irvin.
“She started with the question “Are you supposed to do anything to become a World Champion?” I replied, “Yes, there are sacrifices you must make to become a World Champion and you are going to have to do some things that other people won’t do to become a World Champion”. She began to cry as she explained. She said that when she first joined the team she was given a set of rules. She was told exactly how she should act. Everyone on the team follows the principle of the Android. An Android does what they are commanded with no question and no hesitation. Whatever the Programmer says the Android does”.– Jordon Schultz
A Pattern of Sexual Relationships Between Instructors and Students
Louis Martin described the gendered power dynamics he observed at his gym, and how they played out in relationships. “Martial arts have a very real undercurrent of dominance”, he wrote. “I think that a lot of young men bring their girlfriends to the dojo as a way to control them. I know there are numerous exceptions here. But I’ve seen it firsthand. Men who are black belts enlist their girlfriends as white belts. It sort of solidifies the power dynamic”.
Some coaches take advantage of this power dynamic by getting into romantic or sexual relationships with multiple students. In many cases, these types of coaches can be manipulative or even abusive.
These power imbalances don’t just apply to trainer-student relationships. They can take place between any individuals who sit at different positions within the social hierarchy of their gym. This means that those with respected fight careers, higher rankings (depending on their martial art), or closer relationships with the leader, can all have a degree of social dominance over newer, younger, and less experienced gym members.
In 2017, a British fighter was interviewed about the physical, emotional and financial abuse she suffered at the hands of her ex-partner, a family member of the owner of the gym she trained at in Phuket. “[There were] things like having the motorbike keys taken away from me if I didn’t make breakfast so that I couldn’t leave the house; my bank card being ripped up so I couldn’t access my money and towards the end, when I wanted to leave, my passport being ripped up”, she said. “It consistently escalated. There were no boundaries to what he was capable of. I belonged to him and he would tell me when and where I would go”.
Sarah Gohier, fighter and creator of Women of Muay Thai, wrote a post about how she got into Muay Thai as a means of healing after experiencing childhood sexual abuse and an abusive marriage, only to be raped by a fighter at her gym whom she was in a relationship with.
“I began a secret situationship with a pro fighter where I trained. I was still not fully healed and didn’t see red flags until it was too late. Our situation ended after he raped me. I was silent for over a year because of his status in the gym and I feared losing my community, Muay Thai, and everything that I built my strength around”, she wrote. Eventually, she was able to confide in the gym owners, who advised her to go to the authorities. “Unsurprisingly, no actions were taken on either front”, she said. “There was no policy on how to handle sexual misconduct and they didn’t want to make one, so I left”.
Since sharing her story, Sarah says she’s “heard countless stories of women losing their gyms after already being violated and betrayed”.
In some gyms, these factors can create an environment that allows sexual harassment and abuse to take place with impunity. According to reports, this was certainly the case at Team Lloyd Irvin. Schultz wrote that the woman who’d confided in him was coerced into sexual acts.
“Her instructor would both ask and instruct her to do sexually inappropriate things with him. Re-affirming his instructions with things like “I thought you said you wanted to be a world champion, and you said you would do anything I tell you to do without hesitation”..This activity went on for a couple months and then he asked her is she would give herself to him sexually, and if she would have sexual intercourse with him.”– Jordon Schultz
Since coming forward with my own story of being sexually assaulted by a Muay Thai trainer in 2017, I’ve continued to receive reports from other women in the sport, across various countries. Many have described feeling unable to speak out because the perpetrator is so well-liked and respected within the gym. Some said they were dismissed or even punished for doing so.
Often, abuse also happens outside the gym, where the power dynamic is still in full effect.
In a 2017 case involving Canada’s Southside Muay Thai, a co-owner and instructor was accused of sexually assaulting a minor student during a flight back from a trip to Thailand. In the UK, there have been several cases of Muay Thai instructors sexually abusing young students. In one such case, Matthew Kendall, owner of now-defunct Telford Thai Boxing, was found in bed with a 14-year-old girl at a hotel they’d checked into for a fight event. The victim’s mother described being blindsided by the discovery of the abuse, describing how Kendall had groomed the parents as well as the child. “I trusted him with my life,” she said.
In a full-contact combat sport, physical abuse can be disguised as nothing more than tough training, and those who refuse to tolerate it can be brushed off as not cut out for it. Others in the gym may not pick up on this, especially if a trainer is known for being particularly heavy-handed. Those who do are likely to feel unable to speak up due to the power dynamics at play.
Accidents happen, and sometimes injuries can occur due to negligence. Other times, it’s more sinister than that.
In 2012, Laura Dal Farra wrote about how her hand had been broken during padwork at a gym in Thailand, and how she suspected the injury was intentionally caused by her trainer.
In Netflix’s Untold: Deal with the Devil documentary, boxer Christy Martin described how her marriage to her trainer (who was 25 years her senior) became abusive. She described how this began in training, with him knocking her out in a sparring session. “Was it abuse? Yes. He’s smart, he disguised it”, she said.
“Each time, he’d pretend that it was just a sparring session gone wrong. But he was a pro. He knew what he was doing. It was him showing me that he was dominant, and that no matter how good I thought I was, or how tough I thought I was, he could always knock me out.
It was like, Whoops! What happened there? I must have slipped with that right.
At home, though, there was no need to hide anything. One time, late in our marriage, after I told him I was going to leave him, he hit me so hard that he put my teeth through my lip”.– Christy Martin, A Deal with The Devil (The Players’ Tribune)
The abuse continued to escalate, and years later, he was jailed for her attempted murder.
This year, a fighter on the Singaporean national Muay Thai team made a report against head coach Robert Yap for misconduct. In a video from Channel News Asia, Lena Tan describes being left with injuries after a violent physical assessment. The assessment was part of the appeals process against Tan’s removal from the national team.
She claims that Yap punched and kicked her with excessive force, using the same frequency and power as one would in a fight. “I suffered injuries from that. This is not normal”, she said. Her bruises can be seen in the video.
“That whole incident affected me for a period of time, and to be honest, I lost the drive to train for a while”, she added. Tan sought treatment at a medical clinic and filed a complaint with Safe Sport Singapore, as well as a police report.
Cases like these don’t just occur during training. In July this year, Hia Dtee, owner of Bangkok’s TDed99 gym, was filmed hitting one of his fighters in a dressing room at Omnoi Stadium, as punishment for losing a title fight. While the incident later drew much criticism online, it appeared to go unchallenged at the time.
Some Gyms Become Toxic Over Time
Many gym founders and instructors don’t necessarily set out with the intention of creating these cult-like environments, but power dynamics over time can start to facilitate these toxic cultures if left unchecked. That’s why it’s so important for members to know the red flags, and for gyms and associations to have policies in place.
For those who do have ill intentions, martial arts provide a unique opportunity. Krus, sifus, and senseis are revered, and abusers gravitate towards these positions of power, where they can sit at the top of their social hierarchy.
The relationship between a fighter and their trainer can often become extremely close and codependent, but it shouldn’t have you questioning your self-worth.
As with an abusive relationship, the red flags often don’t seem obvious at first. Similarly, people reading the list above may think ‘if I experienced any of these things, I would just leave’. But it’s not that simple when you’re already in it. My follow-up post, ‘Why It’s So Hard to Leave a Toxic Muay Thai Gym’, explains this in more detail.
Take a look at the Influence Continuum, which illustrates the differences between healthy and unhealthy leadership. How does your gym measure up?
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