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Coaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for Junior Athletes by Alister Yong.

The attraction to martial arts/Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

It is an undeniable fact that aggression/violence is a part of animal/human nature. Although violence in a civilised society is known to have negative connotations, the practice of martial arts done correctly is essentially the practice of the positive aspects of violence. Ostensibly, martial arts simply teach people self-defence and discipline but these basic benefits are only the tip of the iceberg of its full potential in one's life. To truly adopt martial arts into one's life changes a person’s way of living entirely with its ability to reveal the full spectrum of human emotions, reactions, and physical abilities through daily training/competition experiences. The understanding of these experiences is difficult to put into words to fully encapsulate the true benefit of having them in one’s life. Experiencing the highest highs of being a world champion to falling so far down from grace is very possible in the lifetime of a martial artist and only the truest of martial artists dig deep for the strength to find the light in both extremes. Martial arts coached correctly is a powerful life practice that gives a person the skills to be a physically dangerous individual who is also simultaneously very caring for others around them.

Now comes the question of which martial art you choose as there are only so many hours in a day. In general, the best martial arts for the multi-purpose of self-defence, character building, long-term friendships, and competitive experiences are sport martial arts that have proven themselves through history of their competition success. Within these are the categories of striking or grappling arts that one must choose from. Striking arts have the benefit of distance management in a striking altercation but have minimal control of the damage one takes and gives during practice and a real-life altercation. The aftermath of a striking match usually shows clear signs that both parties took serious bodily harm that may even have effects of long-term damage. Grappling artists on the other hand usually have the ability to hold and control even much larger opponents to oneself with minimal long-term harm to both parties. Even grapplers, with minimal training, have the ability to hold a much larger opponent in controlled positions while still having the ability, if need be, to cause serious damage to them. The ability to control how much damage you wish to inflict on a dangerous opponent while still walking away completely safe is the biggest reason why I myself am a proponent of grappling sports such as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Wrestling, Judo, and Sambo

The 5 Pillars of Coaching Junior Athletes in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ)

Each and every coach has a similar but overall different set of beliefs they choose to espouse and instil into their team. I myself believe there to be 5 pillars (in order of importance) of what makes a good junior Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) training program that appeals to both competitors and hobbyists:

1. Safety

2. Maturity (Perseverance, ups and downs of achieving success, working well with others for whatever reason)

3. Technical Competition Abilities

4. Enjoyment

5. Winning and belt promotions

Safety

In reference to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, safety/security is one of the most basic of all human needs which is why it must be the most important principle of any physical sporting team. Children and young adolescents may not have the highest regard for their own physical safety but their parents/guardians will almost always have the highest concern for safety in a combat sport. It is the responsibility of the coaches and assistants during the course of a training session to fully ensure the safety of all their athletes regardless of age. This is simply a question of “would you allow your children or yourself to train in an unsafe training environment on a daily basis?” Injuries are an inevitability of even everyday actions of life but as the dangers of risk in combat sports are so much higher than most sports, it is of the upmost importance to priorities the basic practice of safe training.

Maturity

Mentoring athletes from a young age is an important aspect of coaching for any team. In my personal experience, the growth of maturity in the team has proven to be the best way to increase learning abilities and team comradery. Maturity can be trained by giving the athletes small responsibilities with minor consequences if they fail. Examples of simple responsibilities are welcoming new students, tying their own belt, teaching others of simple team practices, basic personal hygiene, and understanding the importance of punctuality. The consequences may be as small as a few words in front of the class or simple physical exercises such as push ups to prove to the group that you genuinely mean what you say. A mistake many coaches make are to say there are consequences without implementing any punishments for wrongdoings which only encourages negative behavior. Many coaches do not see the value in coaching maturity but it has benefits to both coach and athlete to maximise their efficiency in increasing the overall team performance.

Technical Competition Abilities

It is very possible to win competitions simply with grit, strength and minimal technique, though, this has proven to have a roof in its ability to reliably bring in success in the highest levels of combat sports. Skill acquisition and the increase in technical abilities should be the main focus of a combat athlete’s day-to-day training. Legitimate technical competition ability in an athlete is a powerful skill that brings in consistent results, be it wins or losses. Consistency in results of the team paves a clear pathway to improvement for the future from the perspective of a coach.

Regardless whether or not an athlete wants to enter into competition, it is morally wrong for a coach to knowingly teach their athletes subpar techniques while masking them as legitimate competition techniques. It is a dangerous promotion of false self-confidence that also dampens the potential progress of the more serious athletes in the team. As the two methods of teaching take the same amount of time to learn for the athlete, there is no reason for a coach to knowingly teach illegitimate techniques to students.

Enjoyment

Training programs should have the majority of its time spent into fairly serious skill acquisition but the feature of enjoyment in must not be mistaken for wasted time. Overly serious training sessions over long periods of time take a toll on the mental well-being of an athlete as they gradually take away the joy from the sport. Enjoyment in the eyes of many is one of the many simple wants or needs of life itself. Always remember that the majority of these athletes do not get paid for their efforts, rather, they or their parents/guardians pay for their valued time. Some sport BJJ junior program examples of these are skill acquisition related games, treats as rewards, and teaching playful techniques that aren’t necessarily high percentage but are still visually attractive. Enjoyment in a training program should not be fully neglected but rather given in small portions to remind the team and their parents/guardians that they have made a good choice in a long-term investment for themselves.

Winning and Belt Promotions

Out of the 5 pillars of coaching, winning and belt promotions should be the lowest priority of the team as they do not have the same long-term benefits as the others. Winning medals and being promoted are what most people see in social media and website but their true glory only last a few days or weeks at most. People change focus to the next challenge very easily though it is never discussed. This also has a strong association with the stress that comes with consistently winning for an athlete. My coaching method in these situations are to push the question “how did I win” more than “did I win or lose” as there are much deeper benefits to those answering the “how”. The question of “how” allows the athlete to question the techniques, tactics, and specific opponent they faced to build effective improvements for the next match without unneeded emotional ties to simply achieving victory. Emotional stress on a non-professional athlete is simply wasted energy that eats into their personal growth as an athlete and as a maturing human. Similar teachings apply to belt promotions as people often try to compete with others around them rather than improving oneself first. My personal teachings for non-professional athletes are that competition results and belt promotions are an estimate gauge for an athlete’s progress that shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of an athlete’s aspirations.

Do not confuse this belief as neglecting this aspect of training as there are clear motivational benefits to them but must be the bottom of the hierarchy in building a strong base to a coaching program.

Clear Goal Setting Strategies

It is the coach’s responsibility to ensure the team, the athletes, and the coach themselves have clear long-term, medium-term, and short-term goals they work towards to ensure growth for everyone. The primary question in setting a long-term goal overall for BJJ is “what are the parameters of the athlete’s potential bout?” In modern BJJ, there are four main answers to this question: self-defence, International BJJ Federation (IBJJF)/Australian Federation of BJJ (AFBJJ) rules, ADCC rules, and submission only rules. The large majority of teams cater to all four of these pathways but must always have a strong focus on one or two for the larger majority of the team for simplicity’s sake. Currently, most BJJ junior programs teach the IBJJF/AFBJJ without consideration of the others though they still have athletes involved in them.

The rules of IBJJF/AFBJJ are easily accessible on their website/YouTube channel but, to put simply, are basic rules that encourage the athletes to be on top of their opponent on the ground to work towards a better position. It is a good all-round ruleset for those first starting out the sport but must be stated outright to all that it is the main focus of the team. Movements, techniques, and strategies greatly change for all four possible pathways to teach the sport. If a team were to focus solely on the IBJJF/AFBJJ rules then their growth in skill towards that regard will be highly effective.

Clear long-term team goals are an important part to setting other effective technical, marketing, and strategic goals for the team. The head of a coaching program should be able to confidently answer which parameters their athletes are preparing for. It is very likely that they have multiple athletes seeking to branch out into multiple competition rule sets. It is the coach’s responsibility to shift their focus with their athletes as needed.

Conclusion

The purpose of this book is to educate families, athletes, and aspiring coaches on the full skillset that encapsulates being a BJJ coach with my own personal coaching experience. Participating in martial arts has almost always been seen in the eyes of a practitioner but my hope is to open the general public to the eyes of the coach. My experience in martial arts/combat sports encompasses many facets of striking and grappling arts but the attraction to grappling is undeniably greater. History in combat sports has proven that the close distance combat abilities of grapplers have the upper hand in the majority of combat situations. Preparing a grappler for a specific competition ruleset is the duty of a coach but a well-rounded grappler can transition well between a large variety of combat sports. Almost no one prepares individuals on choosing coaching as a career choice, as a result, many coaches unknowingly develop subpar training programs. This remains to be properly researched but may be a major motive as to why many young athletes leave the sport after just a short time. With the small sample size of my team, the lion shares of focus being invested in the first 3 pillars of my methodology (safety, maturity, and technical competition abilities) shows promise in growing young athletes into fully capable grapplers in their adult years.