by Jeff Meszaros
I’ve played all the big roles at Brazilian jiu jitsu tournaments: The stressed-out competitor sweating in the bullpen, the furiously screaming coach who is in obvious need of anger management counselling and the referee who seems to be daydreaming rather than watching the match. I’ve done it all, and quite badly.
I’m just kidding, of course. I actually was never stressed-out when I was a competitor and when it comes to coaching and refereeing, I think I’ve done alright. In fact, I’ve got a few hints to help you get on the fast-track towards excellence or at least the reasonable level of mediocrity I personally strive to achieve.
To be a referee, it all boils down to not caring what anyone else thinks. So I’m a natural for that gig. But, if you want to be a coach, there are a few things to keep in mind. I don’t think these are too well-known since, from what I’ve seen, terrible coaches vastly outnumber terrible competitors and even terrible referees, who exist in abundance, present company excluded of course.
People often say that coaching is even more stressful than competing. This is true for some people, like those who get angry at their toaster for not making their toast fast enough. For people like that, watching a student trying to strangle someone is infinitely more stressful than actually strangling someone yourself, which I can personally attest is a wonderful way to relieve pent-up aggression. Fighting wildly to not get strangled is also quite good for stress relief. After you’ve nearly been strangled, nothing else seems as important.
But coaching isn’t stressful for all everyone. For some people, coaching is easy and it’s no big deal to show up mid-way through the day while nursing a hang-over and see a few of your students fight. Then, you hang around to pose with the team trophy and then you bounce like a rock-star to the post-tournament party where you also somehow manage to show up incredibly late. In contrast to the coaches whose eyes look like they might fire out of their heads at any moment, these are the guys who don’t care. They are also terrible coaches, but at least they are not giving themselves high blood pressure in the process.
The best coaches are the ones who care but not so much that you consider getting a restraining order to stop them from beating you to death if you lose in the finals of your division. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle, between the coaches who don’t give a damn and the ones who spend the whole day screaming like they’re watching their house burn down. That’s where you want to be. How will you know if you’ve got it right? Here are a few things to look for:
Learn the Rules and Prepare Your Team
The rules you use in your academy may not be the same rules that are used at the tournament. For example, at your club, it might be common place to bite each other just to simulate the reality of a street fight. But that won’t fly at a tournament.
As the coach, it’s your job to learn the rules and prepare your team. See how points are scored. See which moves are legal and illegal. Develop a strategy for each of your competitors using these rules along with their relative strengths and weaknesses.
Does that sound like a lot of work? Well, being a good coach is hard work. Get used to it or go find an easier job, like being a referee. Just kidding, that is also quite hard.
Help them Make Weight
The process of winning a tournament begins long before the tournament itself. One of the gates a competitor must pass through before their first match is making weight. As their coach, you are responsible for helping them make weight without them becoming as weak a kitten in the process. If they have a ridiculous idea like going on a miso-soup diet for a month, you should tell them how terrible an idea that is and that if they want to do that, they can register as being from “Team Idiot”.
Actually, that may not be the most people-friendly way to handle it, but it’s your responsibility all the same. Tell them it’s not a good idea to eat a rack of ribs the night before a tournament. If they respect you, they should listen. If they don’t listen and you see them shaving their head and eyebrows the next day in a desperate attempt to make weight, then you bust out the “I told you so” and maybe next time they’ll listen to you.
Coaches Should Actually Go to the Tournament
I sometimes see students from jiu-jitsu clubs coaching one another at tournaments because their instructor has decided not to come. I find that amazing since, I think, any student willing to fly the team flag at a competition deserves to have their instructor there to support them.
Incredibly, it seems not everyone agrees that they should support their students who are putting it all on the line. Maybe they’re busy running class that day or maybe the tournament is too small for them to bother with. Or maybe it’s something else. I once knew a coach who wanted to charge his students a coaching fee in order to have him accompany them to tournaments. He asked me what I thought of that and I said it was an awful idea. Ironically, he was offended by my answer.
Sure, that’s crazy, but it isn’t hard to understand that coaches should support their students and go to tournaments.
Coaches Should Actually Go To the Rules Meeting
I remember once, years ago, a tournament that was having an early-morning rules meeting. So I went early and, through some wild lapse in judgement, they actually had me run the rules meeting so all the people who were refereeing that day came to know me as the source of all wisdom. Then, throughout the day, whenever there was a question about the rules, they asked me. This gave me a golden opportunity to manipulate the refereeing in the favour of my team. I didn’t do that, of course, but you see my point.
Coming early and going to the rules meeting made the refs respect my opinion more than the other coaches who came to the tournament later, sipping on Starbucks coffees while wearing wrap-around designer sunglasses to hide their hang-over eyes. These fellows were aghast to realize that the refs were all looking to me for input and, with even the slightest shake or nod of my head, I was able to have the ref raise either competitor’s hand. Now that’s what I call power.
The advantage of this wasn’t just myself basically being given the powers of mind-control. Everyone who came to the rules meeting was able to become slightly more up-to-speed on what would be going on that day. Those who came later were left out and their competitors paid the price.
I recall one blue belt got caught in a knee-bar (which is illegal for that belt) and when the ref looked over, I raised my left eyebrow ever-so-slightly and signalled a disqualification was in order. The other coach just raised both eyebrows in surprise as his student was cast out and said “but we didn’t know!” as if that was any kind of excuse.
The moral of the story is: Go to the rules meeting.
Help your Students Relax & Warm Up
Many students have no idea what to do when they’re at a tournament and about to step onto the mat for their first fight.
Often, students don’t warm up enough and step onto the mat as cold as a canned ham.
Other times, they do the hardcore conditioning they are accustomed to doing at the start of each class and step onto the mat feeling depleted.
Your job, as coach, is to guide them between these two extremes and help them get a light sweat going on. Have them wear a hoodie over their kimono and pummel for a few minutes. Have them do a few burpees to get the legs going. If a spare section of mat is available, have them lay on it and feel the friction coefficient of their back on the ground. Have them take some deep breaths, put your hand on their back and say “This is your day. Relax and do what you know how to do.”
Then turn them loose and, no matter what happens, give them a hug afterwards and tell them you’re proud. And you should be proud because that person just risked their life because they believed in the jiu-jitsu you taught them. What else can you ask of a person?
Don’t Put Too Much Pressure on Students
Competing in a tournament is tons of pressure for most people. Having more pressure put on you by your coach is enough to make some people crack, which could mean any number of things, all of them bad. I’ve seen people throw up, suddenly decide not to fight and worse.
A few years ago, I saw a match begin with a coach yelling “No F*****g mistakes!” at his student. Can you guess what happened? Rather than fearlessly implementing his game-plan, the guy froze like he’d just seen a bear walking through the room and he remained frozen for the duration of the match, which saw him get decimated by his opponent. Then, afterwards, his coach screamed at him and berated him for freezing. It was really something to see.
I remember I had a driving instructor when I was young who was cut from that same cloth. It was impossible to relax and drive responsibly with him shouting and putting his feet up on the dashboard every time I made a U-turn. Honestly, I’m amazed I never crashed the car with him screaming “Turn here!” at the last possible second. And when it came time to do my road test, the guy evaluating me just sat in the passenger seat and enjoyed the ride. Do you know how many demerits I got? Two. For not parallel parking perfectly. That just shows the power of not yelling.
If you need an example, check out the coaching style of Greg Jackson, who has coached countless UFC champions. Whenever the camera cuts to their corner, you see him smiling and being as relaxed and positive as a kindergarten teacher. And that’s how he coaches the best fighters in the world. If you can find a better example to follow, let me know.
Don’t Let the Cat Out of the Bag
Imagine you’re competing in a tournament and you are down a few points so you need a submission to win. Then, like a miracle, your opponent sticks his arm out and you see your opportunity. Then, just as you are about to swing into an armlock, your own coach yells “Armlock him!” and, hearing this, your opponent retracts his arm and you lose your chance. How would you feel? Probably not so good.
This is why, as coach, you shouldn’t yell out what your fighter should do unless you are speaking a different language than his opponent or you can give instructions in a secret code. If you must yell something, yell out the time and the points or just single words. “Go”, “Relax” and “Heavy” are some good choices.
I once saw Rickson Gracie coaching his son Kron and he only said one word one time. He just sat and watched and then, suddenly, he said Now” and that’s when Kron did an armlock and won the match. It was a fine example of how, if you do enough coaching at your club, you don’t need to yell much at the tournaments because your students already know what to do.
Get Them to Chill Between Matches
I read somewhere that Marcelo Garcia sleeps between his matches. I find that amazing since I have a hard time sleeping if my wife is snoring but he can sleep in a gymnasium full of people screaming like they’re pooping a pineapple? Incredible. But also very wise, since people sometimes experience such an adrenaline dump in their first fight that they become totally exhausted and for their second fight they look like a totally different person who doesn’t know any jiu jitsu at all and, it seems, has forgotten how to use their arms or legs.
So, as the coach, it’s your job to get your students to relax between matches. Get them to take some deep breaths, have some coconut water and lay down if there’s room for it. Then tell them “Go do what you know how to do … again”.
Coaches Are Supportive Afterwards
If your student wins the gold medal, it’s easy to congratulate them and take credit for it in a not-so-subtle kind of way.
But if your student loses, you have to take the role of psychologist. Especially if they lose in the finals because nothing hurts as bad as winning a silver medal. Trust me on that. That being said, I’ve seen some coaches give their students wicked verbal beatings right after they’ve lost a big match. I can’t fathom what kind of a sociopath would do that, but I’ve seen it happen a few times.
Once, I saw a coach actually chase his student around a stadium, screaming at him for losing in the finals. Since then, that particular person has changed coaches and I can’t say I’m surprised. So don’t be that guy.
If your student comes up short, get off your high horse and be their friend. Give them a hug and be their shoulder to cry on. Then go and buy the first round of drinks. That’s what friends do.
Volunteer at Tournaments When You Can
Santa. The Easter Bunny. Tournament Volunteers. Elves that repair shoes at night. Which of those things is not like the others? Answer: Volunteers. The other things don’t exist and that’s totally fine. But do you know what would happen if tournament volunteers didn’t exist? I’ll tell you what would not happen: Tournaments.
So if you only have one student competing that day, take some time to help the tournament. Be a scorekeeper or a ring-runner or a referee. It’s better than sitting around complaining that the tournament could run more smoothly. Isn’t it?
I remember when I was a kid, a teacher told me that every time you point a finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you. After that, I began pointing in more of a Japanese style, with all my fingers and my thumb pointing towards the person in question. I don’t think that was what she was suggesting, though.
When you’re the coach, it’s easy to take credit for someone winning a gold medal. I myself have been that arrogant coach who proudly says “I taught him everything he knows” in a gloating chuckle.
But can you be the person who owns up to having taught them the mistakes they made? Because if you taught that person everything they know and they lost, then it’s your fault, isn’t it? So, don’t be so quick to blame your students for the mistakes they’ve made.
If you taught them, some of the pie hits you in the face too. Admit that and share the sour taste of defeat with your student. Then pinky-swear to help them overcome the problem so it never haunts their tournament performance ever again.
Earn Gratitude and Show Gratitude
Respect isn’t all that far from admiration and you can’t make someone admire you by beating them to death all the time so, if you want to earn your student’s respect, the best way to do it is by showing respect to them. And that shouldn’t be too hard a leap to make since it’s their money keeping you from having to get a real job or, alternately, become one of those bottle-collecting guys with beards and wild eyes.
So, before a tournament and after, show gratitude to earn gratitude. Tell them how proud you are of them, regardless of their performance.
Don’t think you deserve their unwavering worship. That’s how cults begin.
BJJ Coaching Conclusions
I could go on and give you a few other pointers like don’t yell at the referees and don’t yell at the other team’s fighters but that’s more of a “be a good person” thing, which should be in a separate article.
Perhaps the last thing you can do to win coach-of-the-year is to bring a camera and review the tape with your students. They do that in all major sports, so if you can do that for your students, and take time to review each of their fights with them, that should win big points.
About the Author: Jeff Meszaros is a blackbelt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and also has black belts in taekwondo and hapkido as well as a brown belt in judo. He is also a frequent contributor to Grapplearts.com
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