This is a follow-up post from Toxic Gym Culture in Muay Thai & Other Martial Arts.
A fighter recently messaged me to discuss a difficult situation she was experiencing at her gym, and asked a question that struck me.
“Have you ever been threatened by a gym when you tried to leave?”
While I haven’t been threatened simply for leaving a gym, I have been threatened for writing about it afterwards. That’s what kept me from opening up any further about the experience for several years. Until now.
Students and fighters at toxic gyms can feel trapped, knowing they’re being mistreated but still unable to leave. Threats like these are just one of the more extreme aspects that can hold them back, but often, it’s much more complicated than that. There are much more subtle dynamics at play before ever reaching that point.
Barriers to Leaving a Toxic Gym
Even if you know that your gym is no longer a good place for you, it’s not as easy as just packing up your gym bag, walking out the door and never looking back.
Here are some reasons why you might feel like you can’t train anywhere else.
We Form Such Strong Bonds at the Gym
There’s a level of intimacy between people in the gym, not only because of the physical closeness of training together, but also experiencing wins, losses and hardships together.
When you’re together day in and day out, lines can get blurred along the way. The bonds created between people at the gym can be so strong that they become almost impossible to tear yourself away from. Relationships with trainers and training partners can also be fraught with emotion. The gym isn’t just a place to train. It’s home, and the people there become family.
When your entire life and social circle are built around this group, you may feel as though you’ll be totally lost and alone if you leave. If your gym is particularly toxic, you could lose more than just training partners. In response to Toxic Gym Culture in Muay Thai & Other Martial Arts, some people said that when they’d left their gym, the remaining members had been encouraged to cut ties with them and remove them from all forms of social media. That can hurt.
The Gym is Part of Your Identity
We can start to define ourselves by our gyms and the experiences we have there.
Carrying your gym’s name can be a huge source of pride. When that name becomes a pillar of your identity, you can barely criticise it, let alone leave if things get bad. If you do start to think about leaving, the lingering question of who you’d be without your gym could hold you back.
You Think You’ll Get Worse if You Leave
If you’ve constantly been told that other gyms are inferior to yours, you may worry that you’ll become less of a fighter if you leave.
When you’re told that your trainer ‘made’ you, it’s hard to find the confidence to go on without them. This is especially true if you’ve internalised manipulative messages from them like ‘no one believes in you except me’.
I fell into this mindset, and didn’t think that my skills were truly my own. They were given to me by my trainer, and for that reason, it was hard to believe that I was truly capable without him. On top of that, I was told that I wouldn’t improve as a fighter if I went anywhere else. When you’re conditioned to believe that your gym is the best, this is a natural idea to accept.
Those Who Leave Are Silenced or Discredited
It’s hard to speak out against this kind of gym after leaving without coming off as bitter or resentful. That very idea is weaponized by the leaders of these gyms.
If you’ve previously heard your trainer express this sentiment about others who’ve left, you might fear becoming the target of that same vitriol. You don’t want to become just another one on the list of bad apples and ungrateful fighters who dared to speak ill of the gym that built them.
You Can’t Have a Sincere Conversation with the Leader
It was difficult to have a conversation with my trainer without him making it about loyalty or turning it into a philosophical lecture. This made it impossible to broach the topic of parting ways.
This is a technique that toxic trainers use to distract you from the real issues and reel you back in. When you try to start a conversation about leaving, they talk in circles to convince you that everyone else is the problem.
When You Try to Leave, You’re Manipulated into Staying
You might consider leaving for months, or even years, before coming to a final decision. When you finally do, it can take multiple attempts, especially if your trainer manipulates you into staying each time.
“This is your home, you belong here”, they might say. You’re made to feel guilty and that you owe them for all they’ve invested in you. They might make empty promises to placate you, keeping you holding out for one big fight or opportunity.
It’s Not All Bad
Like any form of relationship, an experience with a toxic gym may appear to have several redeeming qualities, which keep you sucked in.
A gym that’s become toxic can also be a source of positive and meaningful experiences. It’s never all bad. If it was, no one would be convinced to sign up at these gyms in the first place.
My gym didn’t always feel toxic. For a long time, I was completely in love with it.
It was a wonderful place for beginners. In a sport where you’re often thrown in at the deep end and left to figure things out for yourself, I was given lots of attention, support and specific instruction. I was trained in a systematic way that worked for me.
That gym undoubtedly changed my life for the better, in huge ways. I’m not sure where I’d be if I’d never found it. That’s what made it so heartbreaking to realise that it was no longer a healthy place for me.
You Don’t See the Signs at First
While the negative and controlling aspects of your gym may be clear from the outside, you can’t see them when you’re fully invested in it. That’s part of the design.
There were little things at my gym that didn’t seem quite right. Often, other people would point them out, but they could never convince me to leave. I wasn’t ready to accept it yet, so it wasn’t enough for me to be told. I had to reach a breaking point on my own.
You’ve Invested Too Much Time to Leave Now
The sunk cost fallacy often stops people from being able to tear themselves away from toxic gyms.
If you’ve been with your gym for many years, you may feel as though you’ve invested far too much time to simply leave. This idea can keep you roped in for far longer than you need to be. You can be grateful for the experiences you’ve had there without subjecting yourself to further harm.
You can’t get back the time or money you’ve spent on your gym, but you can take control of what happens next.
Fear of Repercussions
You may be afraid of not only upsetting your trainer, but also of facing a backlash from them that could hurt your career. If your gym has a strong connection with a certain promotion, leaving could mean never being able to fight on that promotion again. This can mean that opportunities for certain fights or titles will be kept out of your reach.
Sometimes, this is an unwritten rule, and other times, it’s explicitly stated. If your trainer is manipulative, they may even threaten you when you try to leave, or finally succeed in doing so. You might be told that if you leave your gym, you can forget about fighting on certain shows or in certain areas.
In some cases, these threats extend further than your career.
When I finally managed to leave my gym, I wrote a blog post about the process. As someone who’s always written honestly about my journey with Muay Thai, it was important to include that part of it, too. I made sure to be as vague as I could, choosing not to name the gym or provide details of any of the negative things that happened to me there. Knowing that my story could help others, I wanted to tell it while being as respectful as possible. Understandably, the gym owner didn’t see it that way. In response, he sent me a threatening voice message.
“I can make your life miserable”, he said. “You want me to fight back?”
Thankfully, he never did. Still, those words have echoed in the back of my mind ever since. In writing this article, I’m giving myself closure and no longer letting them have a hold over me.
Leaving a Toxic Gym Can Feel Like Leaving an Abusive Relationship
Here are some things that toxic gym owners and trainers commonly say to fighters who leave their gyms.
“I made you a champion. You owe me”
“You’re nothing without this gym”
“No one else will ever train you the way I do”
“You think you’re too good for my gym?”
“You were a loser before you came here. If you leave, you’ll always be a loser”
To anyone who’s ever been in an abusive relationship, these may sound familiar. They’re forms of manipulation, used to convince you to second-guess yourself just enough to stay. If a trainer is having to resort to these tactics to keep you, they’ve already revealed themselves. This is not what a healthy training environment looks like.
The Ideal Follower
Manipulative trainers often target students with low self-esteem, who are seeking acceptance and unsure of their path. Often, these people are vulnerable in some way. Those who have something that the leader can take advantage of, whether it’s money, certain skills or other assets, can also become unwitting targets.
I had a distinct lack of self-esteem which meant I was more than happy to blindly follow. I took pride in being a good, coachable student, and at this gym, that meant never asking questions or talking back. On top of that, I didn’t believe any other gym would take me seriously. This also meant I accepted any explanations or excuses I was given. It was always easy to believe that I was at fault or not good enough.
Understanding how and why I was susceptible to this kind of toxic environment was an integral part of leaving it behind.
Moving on is a Process
Making the transition out of a toxic gym can be difficult, especially when emotional damage has been done. It takes time to process the experience, and to learn what a healthy trainer-student relationship should feel like.
If your gym has become part of who you are and you’ve come to view your trainer as a close friend, mentor, or even a parental figure, it’s incredibly complicated to disentangle yourself from those feelings. It takes more than just leaving the gym and finding a new one. The healing process can be long and complicated. These experiences can have lasting effects, not only on your relationship with the gym, but also with the sport as a whole, and even with yourself.
My experience with toxic trainers has affected my relationship with Muay Thai to this day. It’s part of the reason why I now draw a line between the gym and my life outside of it. For many years, they were one and the same. While that lack of separation helped me while I was fighting, it also made it much more difficult for me to recognise any problems.
For me, moving on and learning to have a life outside the gym was an adjustment. Now, the people I train with are friends, but not family. I also avoid trainers who describe themselves as ‘father figures’ and ‘life coaches’. This has become a red flag for me.
Now that I’m no longer fighting, it’s easier to set these boundaries. I don’t feel pressured to tell anyone if I won’t be at the gym, or feel guilty for missing training. I train for myself, and while I love and respect my trainers, I don’t need their validation to define my self-worth.
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