I had a new jiu-jitsu experience a couple weekends ago. I walked into a jiu-jitsu competition with anticipation, then at the end of the day I walked out for the first time without a single medal or belt, and I was happy about it.
It was the first competition I went to where I didn’t compete. After a packed competition schedule in 2013, I reset and decided to back off of competition for 2014 except for IBJJF events when possible. When I heard that two of my students were going to the Albany NAGA, I checked to see if anyone was going down to coach them. My wrist was still recovering from a sprain, so there was no way for me to compete and I wasn’t planning on going down. Our school owner, Marc, had a MMA fight that weekend, and our black belt Jordan was cornering him, so our two main coaches couldn’t do it. I decided I should handle coaching duty, rather than allowing a backup black belt from another associated school handle our students, .
I’ve coached at a competition before, but I also had to worry about my own matches, and I couldn’t keep focus on coaching or even catch every match that my teammates engaged in. This was to be my first time focused solely on my fighters.
One student was a white belt with a little more than a month of experience and no competition experience. My other student was within a week of getting his blue belt. Both had friends or family there to support them and I focused on making sure everyone was where they needed to be. At times it felt like I was herding cats, and I only had two people to worry about. We handled figuring out which division everyone was competing in, weigh-ins, and making sure everyone knew where they had to be at any particular time.
The matches went spectacularly well. The new white belt fought to a 2nd place in no-gi, and just missed out on 3rd for gi. I couldn’t have been happier with his performance. My other fighter got double gold. They were all tough matches against guys who could have turned the tables at any time. While it was a blast having my fighters do so well, that wasn’t what put me into deep thought about the whole experience.
Coaching for Instruction
Coaching someone during training is a low stress educational environment where I am analyzing someones game and giving them tips for what to do and what to work on. I enjoy this role immensely, and being an instructor is a critical part of my jiu-jitsu journey. I can be creative and I have a chance to mold how someone thinks about their own progress in this extraordinarily deep discipline.
I take this role as a challenge and a serious responsibility. My goal is to help people achieve their goals efficiently. As they are ready for concepts, I have to recognize the right time to give them what they need when they need it. If they ask me for information, I have to be able to present it in a way that they can retain it and integrate the knowledge with what they already know.
Considering how many hours it takes to be proficient at anything in BJJ, this is a necessarily slow process. If someone isn’t ready for a technique, it’s OK to hit the topic again in a few months or even further out. Time is a luxury we can indulge in, but don’t want to waste.
Coaching for Competition
The biggest adjustment to my thinking was integrating the whole competition coaching scenario into how I think about my students. There were many times in each match that I thought my student was about to make a critical error, and I shouted instructions. Yet I wasn’t a puppet master, responsible for their success. I couldn’t make them win based on my competition skill. There was no stopping the match to teach them an important facet of jiu-jitsu.
They won their matches on their own merits. My only role was to remind them of what they already knew. Their fights were won in their hours on the mats in the months leading up to competition day. The new white belt partially won his matches early that morning when I reviewed side control escapes with him before we left the academy.
The competition mat is a test of what you already know. As an active competitor I know this intimately. I never cared if I had coaching because I assumed I would win on my own merits. All I ever wanted to know was how much time was left and if my opponent was up on points. If I had ever competed in a no time limit submission only match, I wouldn’t need any input, and I’d prefer not to have any input in case my opponent was listening to my coach as well.
Yet when I saw my students forgetting things I knew they already knew, all I had to do was shout a reminder and they took it and executed what I had seen them execute properly on the mat many times before. Reflecting on the experience after, I realized my view of a competition coach was skewed. My role wasn’t to tell them what to do. I could watch the clock and the score and give them things to focus on based on that, but ultimately the match was in their hands. They had to decide for themselves what came next.
Another aspect of my responsibility to my fighters was nothing more than to be a cheerleader and praise their deserved success, and help them deal with their mistakes and defeats. I played doctor to an injured elbow, conventional mat coach when reviewing their matches with them, and a loudmouth coach telling anyone and everyone how awesome my guys were.
I couldn’t know how this coach-only role was going to change my perspective. I only saw a responsibility to my team that needed to be fulfilled. Now that I have done it, I see more value in it than I realized. I start to understand why phenomenal competitors like Marcelo Garcia can hang up competition so that they can focus on their students, and I can see why dividing your focus between your own competition goals and your students goals is a compromise.
I’m in no way going to give up competition any time soon, but I now know that my path towards being a great instructor will necessarily mean striking a careful balance between my own goals and the goals of my students that I want to see succeed as much as I want to succeed for myself.
Every time I turn around, jiu-jitsu gives me new challenges to enjoy and overcome. Best of all, my definition of winning has now expanded to my students and I have a broader pool to draw my wins from. At some point in the future, I will no doubt choose to focus exclusively on my students competitions. At least now I can see how that’s not a step down, but simply a step onward that is filled with its own rewards.