By Brendan Hufford
In short, no.
Being a top competitor does not make you a top instructor.
I realize this is going to step on a lot of people’s toes. There are plenty of examples of top competitors who are also great instructors whom people will defend. But, there are also a lot of top-tier grapplers who are absolutely horrible as instructors. People just don’t want to admit it.
The latter ground of instructors will ask, “What do you mean I’m not a good instructor? I’ve been training for nine years and I’ve won thirty different championships. Just look at all of my medals!”
This is exactly my point. You have been training to compete, not to instruct. Sure, you may have gleaned a bit of instructional skill from your instructor, but your main focus has been to compete, not instruct, and these are very different skillsets.
Qualities of a top competitor
The ability to put jiu jitsu above everything else in their life
Unyielding drive to compete; and to win
Desire to be a perfectionist
Willingness to sacrifice other aspects of life (such as friends, family, and romantic relationships) for competition success
Qualities of a top instructor
Willingness to help their students
Large amount of content knowledge
Interpersonal (communication) skills
Intrapersonal (self-reflective) skills
Passion to support others over themselves
Skill sets have little overlap
As you can clearly see, the lists above are very different. If you want to see a great example of this, ask a top student who has never taught before to teach a class some time. They will likely do one of two things: they will teach exactly the same way they were taught, or they will be at a complete loss and utterly fail. This is a great example of how training to “do” and training to “teach others to do” are very different.
In a recent podcast interview, Jordon Schultz (multiple time world champion at brown and purple belt), lamented the way that he treated his students and training partners at his old academy.
“When you’re trying to be a world champion and you have that burning desire and that extreme focus and you’re isolating yourself, I became socially unaware of my surroundings. I wasn’t the most friendly guy. I may have trained too hard with people who weren’t there for the same reason as me, and that was just a product of what I was trying to do.”
Here we see Jordon, who has won the World Championships as a purple and brown belt, admit that he was a less-than-stellar teammate and instructor during that time period. I am sure that a lot of people paid him for private lessons due to his competition success and what they got in return was less than what they expected.
But, what is really cool is that we see Jordon start to move away from the single-mindedness of a top competitor and toward the mindset that will likely lead to him being a top instructor in the future. A great teacher has to not only understand what they are teaching, but how to communicate it to others. In Jordon’s case, his instruction suffered because he was not able to effectively communicate with students. Communication isn’t a vital part of being a top competitor in the same way that it is to be a top instructor.
In addition, when technique and ability are outside of your conscious awareness, you may not know how you do what you do. This is a huge barrier that keeps many top competitors from being able to teach what you know to somebody else, especially people who learn kinetically, while other students in the same class may learn visually or verbally.
A lot more goes into instruction than just having the skills to do what you teach. I had a friend who booked two private lessons with a world-famous grappler over the course of two days. The first private lesson essentially consisted of said grappler rolling very hard with my friend for an hour or so, and throwing in a technique here and there. My friend is quite a bit older and, like Jordon’s teammates above, obviously has very different goals from this grappler. As my friend had already paid for the private lessons, he just told the world-famous grappler to keep the money for the second day as it wasn’t worth my friend’s time to train like that.
This world-renowned grappler just had no concept of how to translate the things that he did on the mats into meaningful instruction for a student.
BJJ Instructors versus Sport Instructors/Coaches
For one reason or another, BJJ students expect their instructors to be superhuman. We, as students, expect our instructors to be both top competitors and top instructors. Even when they are no longer in their athletic prime, we demand for them to still beat us every single day on the mat.
No other sport expects this of their coaches and instructors. Nobody expects John Madden to have out-thrown his quarterbacks. Nobody expects Bob Bowman to out-swim Michael Phelps. Nobody expects Phil Jackson to beat Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one basketball.
But for some reason, we demand it of our instructors. And maybe this is part of the reason that a lot of instructors can’t put all they want into their instruction. Despite years of hard training and the injuries that come with them, we demand that instructors be able to wipe the floor with us.
John Madden never played professionally, but posts one of the highest winning percentages ever. Bob Bowman was never anything exceptional as a swimmer, but is one of the best swimming coaches in the world. Phil Jackson played basketball professionally and was a top alternate on two championship teams, but won eleven NBA championships spanning almost twenty years as a coach.
Professional development is the key to being a top instructor. If Phil Jackson was more focused on beating Michael Jordan instead of coaching him, he never could have found such a high level of success. The same is true with BJJ. Instructors need to seek out new ways to improve the physical, mental and technical attitudes in their students.
Is competition success necessary?
In short, yes.
Like Phil Jackson, some of the best coaching seems to come from a combination of experience at the highest level of sport and experience from years of coaching.
Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell argues that intelligence has a “threshold.” That you only need to be above a certain intelligence quotient (IQ) to see benefit from it. I would argue the same is true of competition success as it relates to being a top instructor. Although it looks great on the sign out front, you don’t have to be a 27-time Mundial (World) Champion to be a top instructor. You don’t even need to have ever won a championship to be one.
A great example of this threshold is Roy Dean, a man that many consider to be an exceptional instructor (myself included). Awhile ago, Roy posted a video of his competition footage from the 2009 Mundial Championships entitled “The Hammer and the Nail.” In the first match, Roy wins via a loop choke against Sebastian Munoz. In the second match, Roy loses very quickly to top competitor Victor Estima. This is a great example of Roy Dean having experience of the highest level competition that puts him above the minimum threshold necessary for being a top instructor. While Victor Estima and Roy Dean may have been very far apart in terms of competition, I would argue that the gap between them as instructors is very different.
At the end of the video, Roy thanks both Victor and Sebastian for the chance to share the mat with them and “discover who he is.” It is often said that in Brazilian jiu jitsu, you either win or you learn. This is why it is necessary to compete: to learn. In that match, Roy learned valuable lessons that likely made his abilities as an instructor skyrocket.
Despite the fact that being a top competitor does not necessarily make you a top instructor, a minimum level of competition success is necessary. But that is it, just enough competition success to get you over the threshold.
Frankly, a lot of top competitors aren’t that much better as instructors and coaches than a guy who has never won a major IBJJF title. They just aren’t. When choosing an instructor, don’t be blinded by competition success. Take a look at the instructor’s ability to bring out the best in you and help you meet your personal goals as a student of BJJ and you will insure your long-term success in Brazilian jiu jitsu. As Paul from BJJNorcal.com puts it:
“You don’t eat at every restaurant in your neighborhood, you aren’t friends with everyone you ever met, and you absolutely won’t want to be coached by some BJJ players. However, if you check out a few schools, you’ll see very quickly where to want to be. You’ll find the place that you feel at home. When you find that, consider yourself lucky and have fun.”