I’ve known about Loyalist Martial Arts Academy (Loyalist MMA) for a few years now and have been a big fan of the sport. In fact, in my 20's I boxed in the U.S. and Mexico for years. But, that's a whole other story that would lead down a completely different rabbit hole.
Fast forward to present day, I've pretty much done what every other out of shape man in his mid-to-late 30's has done. Tell myself that I’m going to go try it out, "next week" for the past, oh I don’t know, 3 years now?!
Luckily, thanks to Blog BOQ, I've found my reason to visit the MMA Academy here in Belleville. I approached Loyalist MMA online and they were very receptive about the idea of doing a story for the blog. Full disclosure, I thought this story was going to be about dudes and chicks being bad ass athletes snapping necks and cashing checks! Turns out, I couldn't have been more wrong. I linked up with the owners, Tim Keller and Mandy Keller, who are not only partners in business, but partners in life too. Also in attendance was Andrew Babcock, who is one of the trainers and Tim’s right hand. We met at their location on 33 Vermilyea Road in Belleville and all gathered ring side to talk more about what their business has to offer.
We began discussing what Loyalist started out as in the beginning, and where it is now. I was very impressed with their newly updated gym, where they just pumped in a wack of cash for new mats, a ring and bags to add to what I saw as a truly beautiful training facility. Why is this relevant? Because this was a local business professing to be a successful training facility that actually looked professional! If you're from around here, then you know what I mean. There is a whole lot of over-promised and under-delivered within this area when it comes to Martial Arts, but that's not the case here.
"We are not a gym, we are an academy,” said Tim. What that means is that Loyalist is not a place you come to just to work on your physical health; a huge part of what they do also focuses on improving your mental health. There, you can not only learn all the styles of popular Martial Arts such as, Jujitsu, Muay Thai and Boxing, but you can also learn how to strengthen yourself mentally.
This was where my idea about this story took a right when I thought it would go left. Tim started talking about the youth at the gym, a topic we stayed on for majority of the time I was there for night #1.
"We talk with these kids and we see a whole generation that expect that just showing up is enough. That’s not the case. We show them hard work pays off and we are there to support them," Tim explained. I was soon going to see what he meant. It was evident as the kids poured into the academy. As I’m snapping photos, parents were dropping off their kids. A few of the kids were having full blown panic attacks and seemed anxious to start the class. As I’m talking to Tim he stops me and says, “hold that thought" and proceeded to walk over to the parents and kids.
I watch Tim head over to the first family as one child is hyper ventilating and crying, begging his mom not to leave him there. Tim calmly says to the child, “ hey man, what’s up?” The kid said nothing and cried even more. The child's mother looked as if she was about to cry herself. I recognized that look she had of helplessness and guilt, and you could see she was ready to just not push the subject. Tim, with his golden calm voice says to her, “it’s okay, but you need to let go." She looks at Tim, as if her expression said, are you sure? Tim nodded and she let go of her embrace and the child hung on tighter and began to gag from the tears and panic. That would have been enough for me right there (I don’t do puke lol). Tim then rested his hand on the child's shoulder and said, “Hey man, we want you here. I promise you if you trust me and let go, you will have the time of your life.” Then, Tim sat down there beside the kid on the mat against the wall, watched the rest of the class warming up and said nothing. Then, the child’s cries began to settle down and Tim said, “good man." The child looked at him confused. Tim then said, “Okay, now come with me," while holding out his hand. He walked the child, still sniffling the tears away, over to the rest of the class. As the child's mom looked to the instructor, he said, "you are going to be fine, I promise you." It was the most sincere thing I’ve seen in a long time.
Shortly after, Tim came back to chat with me. He gestured to the boy that had been upset just moments ago. I looked over, and the kid had a huge smile on his face and was warming up with the rest of the class. He appeared to be having the time of his life, just like he was promised he would. Tim then said to me,
“This is why we do this. I have daughter the same age and I teach her that fear is not something that should hold you back. It will always be there, but you have to give these kids the tools to believe in themselves. We are failing our youth when, instead of providing tools to cope and showing them what we are capable of, we just say 'oh, your uncomfortable? Well you don’t have to be' and then just let them walk away from anything and everything. That’s insane, that’s being lazy. Then we all wonder why children don’t listen or give up so easily. Not here. We care.
We have something called, Mat Time. We bond together and talk about each others' fears and we let the kids know that, we at this academy, do not tolerate making fun of anyone's disabilities, or short comings or lack of experience. We are a unit and we show them new tools and ways they can apply what they learn here to overcome their fears at school or in any social setting. We let them know that bullying and teasing are just completely unacceptable and that we can take a stand together."
Tim then says, “This is the deal. We can’t expect to be a profitable business if we don’t invest in them. Yes, this is a business, but it’s also a lifestyle and with that comes a responsibility for us to lead by example. I am a big believer in asking people to do things only after we give them the tools. That means we don’t hand out medals or belts for coming out. That is madness. That undervalues the work and you miss that life-changing moment that gives you that confidence. You avoid emotional triggers. How can someone learn how to be critical-thinking person if all they know is a lie that life is all success? You do fail here sometimes too, but then you learn why you failed and now you get to take that sadness and frustration to the mat. We get [the kids] to focus that energy into how they are going to come back and work hard on the areas that they are weak in. Then we hype them up. We get them excited to go back and beat the weaknesses that stopped them."
At this point I’m stunned. This place teaches failure is normal and that you should expect it. On the other hand, they also say, regardless of any failure, we are not giving up on you and they are going to show you that you have the ability to come back and beat it.
This all sounds relative, but as the night went on, I saw it over and over again. Tim is definitely not all talk. He went and helped child after child who was feeling like they could not do the class and was down and out. He helped them silence that voice in their heads that said "I can’t" and transfer that into a rear naked choke. That moved me in so many ways, as a grown man that has son the same age as the kids attending this class.
Loyalist Martial Arts Academy helps you see what you are naturally good at and facilitates with never giving up on what you are not good at. They then give you the tools to be successful.
Tim went on to say, "In theory we show that, yes you are the one facing the opponent on that mat, but you're also part of a team that is there with you mentally. We are most certainly here for your wins and to celebrate, but we are with you even more so for your losses.
I went home and was kind of in a daze. I spoke to my partner about the experience that I had at Loyalist and I got emotional. I think it was because I've known first hand how important the lessons taught at Loyalist are. The kids that come there are gaining as much, if not more, emotional and mental strength as they are physical. I can’t stress enough the importance of this. We live in a society where just showing up is enough. An ideology, like marital arts, will continue to give kids mental strength to overcome failure by forcing them to deal with disappointment and defeat.
Loyalist Martial Arts genuinely cares about your kids. No one is left behind, no matter your age, sex, social economic background, race or sexual orientation. None of that is relevant. The students and instructors are a unit. What is relevant, however, is your ability to forgive yourself for your shortcomings and the willingness to let them help you go down the road of self-improvement with a family that loves and cares about enough to ensure that you can see your own ability and potential.
I spent a lot of time at Loyalist MMA and this is only part one of a two-part story. I have only scratched the surface on how amazing this place is. We look forward to telling you more about Loyalist MMA in the second piece, but I felt compelled to share with you the eye-opening experience I had just being there for the first night. It changed me to just see it.