In this episode, I am talking with Sarah Schoback, the “Ninja of the North.” She was on the show, American Ninja Warrior and she built Obstacle Academy in the twin cities as a “Ninja” gym, while still being a mother of two girls! We talk about her business built on a mission and values, and so much more.

We discuss:

– Overcoming Physical Obstacles And Life Obstacles

– Benefits Of Ninja Teams For Kids

– It’s Okay To Be You And Be Weird

– Learning That Failure Is Part Of The Process

…and more! 

Listen to the full episode here:

Here are some highlights:

Sarah Schoback Overcoming Physical Obstacles Led To Her Overcoming Life’s Obstacles 

“I would say that my story is a little unique,” Sarah said. “I’m the owner of Obstacle Academy and a mom of two beautiful girls. Before opening Obstacle Academy, I was predominantly at home with my girls. I kind of found myself wanting to get more in shape, but not liking the traditional form of fitness. So I started going to a gym to train Ninja Training, ’cause why not? Who doesn’t want to Ninja Train? And what I realized is that there wasn’t really anything close by.”

“I became instantly addicted to it. It was fun. It made me feel good about myself. I was able to see the parallel of overcoming physical obstacles in front of me, as well as how I overcome obstacles in my life, and I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed being able to do something with fitness that I could use mentally to help me in other areas of life.”

Schoback Started Her Own Gym To Be Closer To Her Girls 

“I knew it was good for me mentally to have that workout time, but I also didn’t like being away from my girls so much,” Sarah said. “So I started thinking, what are some ways to make that commute less? Most people’s thought process doesn’t go immediately to opening their own gym, but that was the direction that I took. I like to take things into my own hands, and so that’s what I decided to do. So we opened about a little over four years ago, and we started planning about five years ago, from this December, it was back in January 2015.”

“We realized there actually had never been a female to solely own a gym at that time. There had been other females who owned gyms, but they were partners with other people, which is very cool, but there hadn’t been a female who had solely owned a gym. In addition to that, there really were not a lot of Ninja gyms around. So it wasn’t like there was this playbook that I could look at and replicate. You went into it, and you had to create your own vision and decide the direction that you wanted to go in.”

Working Together As A Team While Still Working On Yourself 

“After truthfully, about six months into the business, we slowly started to change our business model towards becoming more of a training facility,” Schoback said. “We didn’t start right away going into teams, we kind of started with core programs that kids and adults could go to for so many weeks. Then from there, we realized we wanted something even more. We wanted these kids to get the individual attention from coaches in a group setting where you could focus on each kid, but also they can be together as a team. So they could be building up one another, supporting one another, seeing other people accomplish their goals, while they’re trying to reach their own.”

“For me, that’s something that’s really important because often in life, we think we should go through these things on our own, and we think that we don’t need that support of each other, but life is hard. It’s gonna throw so many curve balls at you and we need each other. To see each other’s successes and each other’s challenges so that we can get  through them together and we can push through those hard days to get to those good ones. ‘Cause you’re not always gonna have a good day, and you’re not always gonna have a good practice. Life isn’t always gonna be rosy, but to be able to see for each other that you can have a tough day and the next day you just conquer what you couldn’t the previous day, it changes the way that you look through life as you’re faced with obstacles.”

Switching Business Models Completely

“This was not gonna be a sprint,” Schoback said. “This was going to be a marathon, and we needed to ride the whole thing through. We weren’t going to achieve greatness on day one. It was gonna be hard. We were gonna have to work long hours and we were gonna have to develop a lot of practice programs, protocols and all sorts of things that would require so much work and patience that we had to stick to it. We couldn’t let ourselves give up when something got hard, and it’s hard. It takes a full marathon and I don’t regret any of it. In the process, we started with 30 kids in our youth program that were very passionate about Ninja. Their parents loved the new vision that we had for the gym as much as we did.”

“So they were in full support, and we had no idea at the time what type of community would be built. I had hoped for this community and I wanted that community, but you never know because it’s not just me and my hopes. It’s how the people are gonna respond and how we work together to build that community. From those 30 families, the love and support and respect that they have for us, that they have for the coaches, that they have for each other, is what has brought those 30 kids to now. Our program is over 200 kids, and now that’s a three year process. We didn’t go from 30 and 3 months later we were at 200. It was a process.”

Sarah Helping A Nervous Little Girl Acclimate To The Gym 

“It overwhelmed her to the point where she actually did not wanna participate,” Schoback said. “She kinda stayed off to the side and she stuck by her dad. So I walked over to her, I talked to her for a little bit, ’cause I know I’m her coach and I helped her once before. I kind of talked her through a few things. Just the words weren’t quite getting her over that hump to wanna overcome going in there. So I actually pulled her aside and I brought her to a section of the gym where none of the other kids were, but her and her dad were. I said, ‘Let’s warm up together and let’s forget about everybody else, just you  and I’ ’It’s just you and me right now, we’re gonna warm up together and then we’ll take it step by step.”

“So I warmed her up for a few minutes, got her comfortable with the obstacles, got her laughing. Then I slowly transitioned her over into the group of the other kids. I introduced her to the other little girls that were there so they could exchange names. I put her on some rings, and then I actually just slowly walked out of the gym and let the process happen from there.”

It’s Important To Learn That Failure Is Part Of The Process

“Those moments are exactly why I did this. That is why I wanted to change the format of the program to no longer focus just on bringing in revenue, or just on having people come in one time,” Sarah said. “I wanted them to be able to come in and have their lives changed forever, even if they never remember me. Even if they never remember their coaches when they’re adults. Those  moments are what actually change your life, they help you build the confidence in yourself to overcome the things that you are challenged in everyday life. It is such an amazing thing too,  because I hear story after story from the parents that have had not that exact situation, but something similar. Where their kid was not as confident or maybe they were even bullied at school, or they hadn’t found a sport that they liked or something.”

“They just didn’t feel a part of something and they didn’t have that sense of somebody rooting for them. Then they come to the gym, and they start accomplishing these goals and getting these obstacles, and they watch how their personalities change. They start getting bolder and more confident in other areas of their life because they’re starting to see. They’re starting to build that ability to try an obstacle, fail. Try again, fail. Keep going until you get it. It no longer becomes this overwhelming experience of failure and defeat, it more just becomes the process, and it’s so beautiful.”

Lindsey Explains Creating A New Idea And Sticking With It

“It doesn’t matter what it will take, or how long it will take, or the hours that it will take, or the loss of revenue that it will take, we’re going this way,” Lindsey said. “Yes, we could book 17 birthday parties and meet our revenue goal, but we’re not going to. We’re going this way. That is what takes you from the beginning and being nobody to being an industry leader. When you don’t see what you want out there, and you say, I will create it and it will just take however long it takes.”

Benefits And Reasoning Behind Ninja Teams For Kids

“My oldest daughter, she is now 8, but two years ago, and this happened actually after we started the team program, but not long after we started the team program we found out she had  been severely bullied at school,” Schoback said. “She was going to public school at the time, and it’s actually tough to talk about. I try not to cry too much, but she came home one day and she’s 6, and she said, ‘I wish I weren’t alive.’ And she’s six, man, to hear those words, it stabs you right in the  heart. Through conversation with her, and then going in to the school counselor, to find out the first day of school, she was punched by a kid and threatened if she told anybody. Then basically from that point on, until March, she had been physically and mentally bullied to the point of her getting to say those words as a 6 year ­old.”

“No 6 year old should have to feel that way. The reason why I started the team program is because there are so many kids out there that are experiencing that. Maybe they can’t pay attention while in school, maybe they’re too small, maybe they’re too tall, or maybe they’re too skinny. There’s always something that somebody’s gonna find to bully them for being different. I wanted kids to have a home. I have a home where you could go and it would be okay to be you. It would be okay for you not to fit this mold that the world put on you. Not only would it be okay, but others would love you for that, and others would build you up.”

How Sarah Schoback Got Career Minded Coaches

“I knew from the beginning that we were gonna be picky about our coaching,” Sarah said. “I wanted the right people who have the same vision that we did and were going to create that support system as well as coaching that I really wanted and I knew that in order to do that, I needed to pay well. If I wanted to keep that, I also needed to pay well, and so instead of looking at the lowest dollar you can possibly pay someone, I wanted people to be able to work and actually be able to pay their bills. I also wanted them to know that I appreciated the work that they were putting in, and I would say for me, I’m a firm believer that people will put into something what you put into that.”

“If I want my employees to love their jobs to feel appreciated, then I need to do that myself. I have so much respect for all of our coaches, and it’s funny  because I would say that people and a lot of my staff have learned over the years that you don’t really mess with my staff. They’re basically my family, and obviously, there would be certain circumstances that I obviously wouldn’t defend if something happened, but you don’t mess with my family. You don’t talk bad about them and you don’t treat them bad.”

Money Is Not The End Goal

“That’s not been my goal in this. It’s not been, make the most money possible or try to get as much out of this financially. It’s been about the community and the well-being of not just the  people who come, but the people who work there,” Schoback said. “I really think it’s unfortunate that more businesses don’t wanna take care of their staff in that way, because I think you’re not looking out for everyone. No one’s gonna be happy all the time, that’s not life, but you’re filled with joy. Joy and Happiness are two completely different things.”

“I want my employees to have joy on a daily basis, and not being worried about work is one of those things that can help bring joy. Yeah, I would say that’s one of the biggest differences that we do in our business. I don’t run things to build profit for myself, I run things to build the community and treat my employees well.” 

Appreciating Employees For The Small Details Truly Matters

“There are so many small things that people don’t realize happen and go on in a business,” Schoback said. “For me as a business owner to recognize those small things that somebody is doing, it makes a huge difference because I do see all the small things. I know when they’re doing something above and beyond, or when they’re doing something that kids won’t see, or the coaches won’t see. I do see those small details and I appreciate every single one of them. As an owner, being able to recognize those things in your employees, it changes everything for them because they know that you appreciate it and that you saw those small things.”

“When you see those small things, it also helps them want to do those small things because we don’t need constant praise in our life for everything we do, but it gets hard doing things that people don’t see. It’s hard to wanna do those things, and so if you see them, you recognize them and you bring it to light. You say, ‘Hey, I saw you did this, thank you for that, and I appreciate you did this extra thing.’ It makes all the difference in their work experience.”

Businesses Making It Through Covid-19 

“Our community that we built up has helped us sustain all of this,” Schoback said. “It is heartbreaking to see businesses go under and I know we’re not at the end of that. Other businesses are gonna go under and as a small business owner, it really is heartbreaking to see. But for us, I would say the community that we have built, would not let us. If we ever got to the point of being that extreme of being financially strained, I don’t think parents would let that happen. There would be fundraisers, they would help make it happen.”

Schoback’s Gym Didn’t Halt Communications During Covid, They Got Creative

“Sarah was doing Zoom workouts with the kids Monday through Friday,” Schoback said. “We had Hunter writing up daily workouts for the kids to be able to do all during the week, we had different challenges people were doing and we stayed in communication with parents, got in touch to find out how people are doing and how they’re getting through this. Even Hunter did some insanely bizarre crafts with his roommate to get kids up pumped up and just honestly survived this time completely at home. Even those efforts during those 3 months of having to have our doors closed to people coming in, it helped carry our community during those three months.”

Masking Up At Obstacle Academy

“It was also something that I know people have controversy over, masks, but we decided to take a stance on that right from the very beginning,” Sarah said. “The state didn’t even require that. We just made the decision. I was like, ‘Nope, we’re gonna require it right from the beginning.’ We had a few people that were not the most pleased about that, but after a couple of weeks of  the kids being in there and working through, we had no issues with it. People are feeling safe as they come in, and we’re doing the best that we can.”

“That’s all we can do right now. Staying connected, staying transparent with them about what’s going on at the gym, and just keeping that community connected even on these levels that are making people nervous. They’re unsettled, and wanting to make sure their kids are taken care of in an environment at a time, that there really isn’t a lot of security around. It’s those small things that help the community  continue to stay with us because they know we’re not in it to look out for what’s just best for us,  we’re looking out for what’s best for everyone.” 

Sarah Schoback’s Advice On Pursuing Goals 

“Stick it out,” Sarah said. “There’s gonna be some rocky times, but if you feel confident in your vision, stay confident through the rocki­ness and what you want to accomplish will happen.”

Connect with Sarah:

Website: www.obstacle-academy.com

Instagram: @obstacleacademy

Facebook: Obstacle Academy

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