About the author: Sam Joseph is a 3rd degree black belt, head instructor and owner of Buckhead Jiu Jitsu in Atlanta.
The relationship between a Brazilian jiu jitsu practitioner and coach is one that has many layers. BJJ coaches are friends, mentors and sparring partners. They also unilaterally decide when students are ready to be promoted through the belt ranks. Based on the important roles coaches fill, relationships with them can have tremendous impact on your journey. With that in mind, here are some things most coaches have in common that may surprise you. And while I certainly am not attempting to speak for ALL BJJ coaches, my almost 20 years of training, competing and teaching make me very comfortable sharing what I believe to be some typical views in the coaching community. The goal of sharing these insights is to facilitate a better understanding of your instructors’ perspectives and thereby enhance not only your relationship with your instructor but also your personal satisfaction with your academy and BJJ!
Your Coach Wants To Promote You!
As an athlete, it can be easy to feel like your coach is “holding you back” from a belt you have earned. You can focus on tournaments you have won, or the training partners at your rank and/or higher ranks that you dominate, or the time you have spent without being promoted, and that will make you feel like something you have earned is being withheld.
Your coach, while considering all of these things, also has the benefit of a few different perspectives. First, their view is often much wider than yours simply because they have been exposed to more BJJ. You have seen the people you have competed against and your training partners, but their “BJJ world view” is greater. It includes yours and their years of training and teaching, so their view of a white, blue, purple, brown or black belt may be different to yours. In straightforward terms, they have seen more BJJ. That greater frame of reference often leads to a “disconnect” in expectations and that is one reason why I recommend that my students compete as often as they feel comfortable and I also implore them to train when travelling. These practices expand their frame of reference and often promote real growth and improvement.
Another point that gets lost when considering promotions is that your coach is not only comparing you to others, but also to yourself. Many times, you are being evaluated against your own potential and not by “whom you can tap” or “which tournament you can win”. Alliance black belt, Derek Kaivani, likes to say, “You take a steak off the grill when it is ready, not when the piece of meat on another grill is ready”. This stresses the importance of focusing on self-improvement rather than imperfect comparisons to others that can do more harm than good. Coaches take both comparisons together with your individual journey into consideration every time they award a belt rank.
This process takes real time and energy and that results in coaches being emotionally invested in student promotions. The most enjoyable conversations I have with other BJJ coaches are about impending belt promotions. Regardless of their different personalities and/or coaching styles, when coaches talk about how their students’ improvement is about to be rewarded, they light up with pride and joy. In short, your coach WANTS to promote you!
Your Coach Pushes You Because They Believe In You!
I spent the majority of my formative years at the Yamasaki Academy under Fernando and Mario Yamasaki and Francisco Neto. Throughout my time there, the training was rigorous and they actively encouraged me to compete. Sometimes their prodding was welcomed as it supported goals that I had, but at other times I just wanted to train.
A tournament in Boston in my second year as a blue belt changed how I viewed their encouragement. In the semi-final of my division I beat a tough Brazilian opponent, but had pulled my groin in the process. I was limping badly and did not think I could contest the final. When I proceeded to tell Neto I would forfeit, he looked me in the eyes and, without hesitation, said “Take the pain”. I walked away, got on the mat, won fairly convincingly and, to this day, that tournament is one of my fondest BJJ memories. I was incredibly grateful to Neto for “forcing” me to give it a go in the final when, left to my own devices, I likely would have sat out.
It was not until later that I understood the main reason WHY Neto had no issue sending me back on the mat when, at the time, I felt like I had no shot of success. Neto simply believed in me, and my jiu jitsu, more than I did at the time. My coach pushed me because, where I saw potential failure, he saw the opportunity for success and confidence that would spark continued development in my game.
Multiple IBJJF World Champion, Marcus “Buchecha” Almeida, alludes to the impact of a coach’s belief whenever discussing his first absolute division black belt final victory over Leo Nogueira in 2012. Buchecha was losing and feeling discouraged until he looked to his corner and read the belief in, his then coach, Cavaca’s eyes. Buchecha took it from there and secured the first of his Mundial absolute division gold medals. Be open to the idea that your coach is pushing you towards the greatness and success that they see for you, and watch how much you benefit from that point of view!
Your Coach Wants You To Make Memories!
I started my BJJ journey in 1998 in Atlanta under legendary coach and co-founder of the world champion Alliance team, Jacare Cavalcanti. Before relocating for work and transferring to the Yamasaki Academy, I had the pleasure of training under Jacare for two years. There were a lot of things he was great at but when I look back, the thing that stands out the most was his ability to tell stories. I can remember sitting around for hours and being captivated as he shared his stories about his experiences with the Gracie family, the BJJ lifestyle, early MMA (or vale tudo) fights, etc. What made him so captivating was his natural enthusiasm and his earnest desire to inspire us to stay the course and create stories of our own. It was as if his stories were seeds that he hoped to see grow into the fruit of experiences his students would have and subsequently share.
And as a coach now, one of the great joys I have is seeing my students do things that I know they will cherish in the future. To that end, I often encourage students to push themselves and try new things that will broaden their BJJ experience. Coaches want you to have vibrant and rich BJJ lives that will be worth remembering and recounting. Remember that when your coach pushes you in a new direction.
Your Coach Wants You To Have Fun!
Along the same lines, your coach wants you to have fun. Not everyone who gets on the mat wants to be a world champion, nor is a black belt even a goal for many. What all practitioners do have in common is that having fun making training easier and gives you the ability to have longevity in the sport. As gruelling as training BJJ can be, fun motivates you to continue. And, as your coach knows, showing up is the greatest ingredient in the success recipe of your BJJ adventure.
Realising how much coaches are on your side can have a significant impact on your BJJ journey. This understanding empowers you to navigate the inevitable stumbling blocks as part of a team moving towards your BJJ goals rather than trying to find your way alone. And the steady improvement that often comes from accepting your coaches’ support contributes to your happiness with the sport and the overall BJJ lifestyle. See you on the mat!