For the longest time, if you were to ask me what I do for a living, I would tell you that “I teach Mixed Martial Arts,” more specifically Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. But I’ve noticed that recently (and by that, I mean in the past few years) my response has changed to “I’m a BJJ Coach” or “I Coach Mixed Martial Arts.”

This got me thinking into what the precise differences are between a teacher and a coach, and, if this change in paradigm with me was indeed organic, what brought it on. In the world of martial arts, specifically the traditional martial arts, the head of a school or leader of the class, was the “Sensei” or “Master” … I was never truly comfortable with this, as it’s a title, which denotes hierarchy. It is not relevant to our particular social culture, and is no way indicative of what this person’s role is within their given school or community. It was simply too contrived. By contrast, when I think of a teacher or coach, I think of job titles, with specific responsibilities to their student/athletes that involve direct contributions to their continued improvement. That’s the baseline for me. It begins with a willingness to contribute your time, knowledge, and expertise. This is what in my opinion these two roles begin to have in common. We will take a more detailed look at this in just a moment.

Looking back: How MMA changed EVERYTHING

Like most of my generation who were training martial arts pre-UFC (before the explosion of BJJ and eventual evolution towards modern MMA) most of what was mainstream would be considered by today’s standard, traditional martial arts. This is the era where I would have never considered myself or labeled myself a coach, I was a teacher. Why? I realize in hindsight (what is obvious today) that what I was practicing had a distinct metric for improvement and advancement, and this was the ACCUMULATION of knowledge. (how many techniques do you know? How many drills? How many sets of this or that from the curriculum, etc) It was almost more of an academic endeavor, which is great … if you’re in academia, if you’re practicing something which ultimately espouses real world skill of a physical and combative nature, you might need to take a second look at this particular paradigm. This was a huge revolutionary light bulb that came on because of the onset of the UFC, basically thrusting Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and as time evolved the combat sports that made up the other components of modern MMA (boxing, muay thai, judo, and wrestling) into the spotlight. The reality of this type of competition highlighted the real world effectiveness of these forms of fighting. No longer were the best experts in the field of hand to hand combat considered martial artists … they were the BJJ fighter, The Muay Thai fighter, the Boxer, The Wrester … and eventually the well-rounded Mixed Martial Artist who is a hybrid of all these to varying degrees. The age of the true Martial Arts ATHLETE had arrived, and it did so not on shoulders of MARTIAL ARTS, but on that of what we consider combat SPORTS.

Evolving from Students to Athlete, Teacher to Coach

So there was the shift … you don’t have a boxing teacher or wrestling teacher in your corner or as your prepare for your competition, you have a COACH. This isn’t to discredit the important teaching phase/component of a student’s development (I’ll address this as well in another post), but the real point to be made is that the key to all their success was a different metric, an entirely different paradigm. These students/athletes measured their progress through PERFORMANCE, not the accumulation of knowledge but rather the application of skill (more specifically, within a live scenario). No longer did I have students who needed to learn more or worse yet, something new. I began to look at my students as athletes that needed to perform better! In a lot of ways, this became incredibly liberating for both parties involved, as it opened the door to explore the depth of what it take to build real skill with the individual. Ironically, it wasn’t until this moment of realization and expression for both parties that I began to truly see the artistry in what we do. It took becoming a coach in combat sports to make me feel like a true martial artist.  It took competing in a sport, to make me feel like I had real life combat skills (for more on this and many of the other benefits of competition, check out Jasper’s previous post, Why Does Competition Make Us Better).

I would like to use the term skill-building, as a way to bridge the gap in coaching vs teaching MMA. For real world, tangible results (TRUE SKILL) in a performance-based endeavor, you must be taught the correct form and guidelines. Once that is accomplished, you must pressure test the validity of your skill. For our purposes, this means competition. You must simply get out there and play the game … a lot. This holds true for whether we’re talking about basketball or boxing or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. A coach’s job is to enhance your performance. If you’re not used to ascribing to an athletic paradigm, you may misdiagnose the accumulation of knowledge as the answer to that roadblock or riddle you may have encountered in your field-testing. A good coach often times doesn’t teach you anything new, but rather reminds you of what you already know. Their expertise is in problem solving, and hopefully passing that quality onto their athlete, to be able to properly self-diagnose. The less he’s needed and the subtler his input is, the better he’s doing his job. However, this should not be confused with a lazy or apathetic approach, as his skill as a coach is a direct reflection of his athlete’s performance. This approach has also opened up a whole new pool of resources.  I have never been an avid fan of team sports, like basketball or football, but I became much more intrigued into the methods and intricacies of winning coaches. Success leaves clues. Regardless of athletic endeavor, the ability to motivate and improve athletes is indeed an art and science unto itself. Someone who is synonymous with coaching and success is the legendary, UCLA Basketball coach, John Wooden (if you’re not familiar with him, you should definitely check out his TED talk here).

In the physical CROSSWORD PUZZLE that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu sparring can often become, a good coach won’t try to TEACH you a NEW word, he’ll give you a better clue so you find that word all on your own, at most he/she will fill in one letter of that word, just a nudge in the right direction, because a good coach knows that if you come up with the answer on your own, it’s yours forever, you’ll always own it … and that is the definition of TRUE SKILL. All these benefits and realization thereof were a result of a major shift in paradigm that for me became encapsulated in one word (and would eventually make its way into the very name and identity of our gym) … ATHLETICS.

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