The role of a coach in grappling sports
by Lincoln Han
I wrote this essay as a response to a well-known Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach’s comment on the web criticizing those teachers who do not spar with their students as having not sufficient credibility. This is written with the perspective of a coach at a high-level professional judo club, where people train full-time.
First, in the context of sport, one needs to step away from the “sparring” culture or grappling and look at all the other sports. My first sport was not grappling, but swimming. When I was a kid, I never thought about competing against my instructor (coach) and for many years I just swam. When I first began grappling, I had a vague idea of what a grappling coach is. I thought the coach mostly as a teacher.
Later when I took up judo, one of my early senseis or coaches was over sixty and had multiple joint-replacement surgeries; I did not expect him to step on the mat to spar with younger players, even though he did sometimes. Later, as a black belt, after I spent several years training competitive judo with high-level teams, I gained a broader understanding of a coach’s role. That consisted of no time on the mat sparring with athletes. Even so, it does not undermine the quality of the training program or the coach’s credibility.
In one club, where I went often, the main coach was a man whose son became an Olympic champion. Many would think that the father must have been a great world-class athlete. It was not the case, have had began judo as an adult, the man was not highly accomplished in competition (not even a national medal), but he was highly accomplished in coaching. From his team, they produced several Italian national medalists, two European medalists, and several world medalists.
I recall having done one newaza randori with him, that was it. You will rarely see him doing randori with other athletes, most of whom are young enough to be his grandson! Though I remember more of his teaching and training drills when I was just trying to keep up and survive until the end of the training. I learned a great deal about having the heart to win, tactics in competition, and the will to persevere despite adversities. He would spend a lot of time analyzing the matches, and prepare the athletes psychologically to keep pushing.
My coach for several years, Janusz Pawlowski, a true professional in every sense. Seen at Mittersill winter training camp.
My other coach at the other judo training center where I spent several years also has some great athletes. Do we spar? Certainly, we do a lot of it, but not with our coach. The training consists of not just sparring, but mostly of drills, technical practice, and movement patterns. The coach is more than twice the average age of our athletes, and this type of training is hard enough on an 18-year-old, it certainly is not suitable for someone his father’s age.
Why would we need to fight the coach when he is the one monitoring our training? If he is busy doing randori with us, who is looking at the players? We had a national medalist in almost every weight category and it’s more than enough to keep the level challenging. My coach is a two-time Olympic medalist and three-time world medalist. There is no doubt in our mind that during his prime he would wipe the floor with every one of us (as those who have trained with him around his prime would testify). However, it’s his coaching that is more important to the athletes.
The coach’s role is to develop and improve the athletes, not to compete against them. The coach’s role is to teach techniques, to guide athletes, to develop a suitable program for each group and level of player. On the mat, the coach has to announce the drill program, show some techniques, keep track of the timer and keep an eye on the athletes to see if they are doing something right or wrong.
The last point is very important, as a full time athlete who competes regularly against some tough opponents, when I am doing randori, I don’t want my coach to be busy with something else. I appreciate if he could glance over every now and then to see what I am doing. There are many players on the mat and it’s not easy to keep one’s attention divided on all the players, and it’s impossible if the coach is doing randori himself! If the coach trains together, doing all the drills and randori, then he wouldn’t have the mind or the energy to focus on the athletes.
Off the mat, the coach has to supervise our physical preparation program, travel to competitions with the players. That’s another reason a coach should not compete at the same event as his athletes, because he needs to run around coaching them. It often happens that several weight categories take place simultaneously, so the coach(es) have to quickly get from one mat to another. When we are at a training camp, the coach looks at our fights against other players and scout players whom he thinks could benefit us.
The coach also has to be involved in keep update to date with the latest development in the sport: rules, techniques, upcoming players, etc. Overall, at a high-level training center, being coach is a full-time job that takes all day. The athletes already have their plates full. I don’t see how one can have the physical or mental energy, or especially the time to be both.
In all of the professional judo clubs I attended, we had great athletes on the mat, day after day. It was enough just to train with them and I’ll be exhausted at the end of the night. The quality of a coach’s program shows in his athletes, not himself. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the coach has been an accomplished athlete himself, but it is not necessarily a requirement. I don’t even know who Mike Tyson’s first coach was, and I don’t think most people ever wonder if Mike sparred with his coach regularly. In our combat grappling martial arts, there seems to be mentality to “the coach must spar”, which misses the whole point of what is a coach.
There is such a thing as a competitor-coach who is an active competitor and also coaches a small number of competitors. I had done that out of necessity, but the core group has to be small to be manageable. Any large groups (beyond 10 people) generally require a dedicated coach. Even then, as a competitor, I often would miss the matches of my other teammates because I was competing at the same time as them. It’s inevitable. At times one has to balance the resource limitation and necessity and find the most optimal way to accomplish the team’s goal.
At the lower levels, such as at a recreational club, the coach could choose to spar with the players to let them learn about different techniques applied in various situations. Often for practical reasons, such as insufficient players, the coach could be a valuable training or sparring partner. Because the coach often has certain level of mastery of his sport, the precise movement, control, and motion can be a valuable lesson to the student who could learn by feeling the movement instead of just seeing. However, this is a choice that the coach makes, it is not a necessity.