Competition Coaching

I’ve had the pleasure of attending more Jiu Jitsu competitions in the last year than all of my 20 years of grappling combined. I’ve  never been much for competition. It just never was fun for me. I tried it a few times way back in my Tae Kwon Do days and a couple of times as a Jiu Jitsu student. I think I’m just not a very competitive person by nature and I don’t get much out of a win. I am much more interested in understanding how Jiu Jitsu works than winning matches.

Having said all that I’ve been lucky enough to have a child who loves competition. She can’t get enough and the drive to prepare for competition and all that comes with it is very appealing to her. I think that we may have done about one tournament a month for the last year or so. This has given me a lot of time to watch how people coach athletes during competition. It’s no surprise that I notice the coaching as much as the athletes as coaching is where my interest rests. I’ve seen the gamut from very good to very poor coaching and have come away with the conclusion that most people who coach athletes during competition have no idea what they are doing. Or more importantly they have not given any thought as to how to do it.  Based on what I’ve seen over the last two years here’s how to be a great competition coach for your Jiu Jitsu athlete:

What they Need Most

Most athletes really just want someone to be there for them. Nobody likes to compete alone. Jiu Jitsu competition can be terrifying for an athlete and just having someone they know and trust there ringside can make a huge difference in calming their nerves before and during a match. Your most important job is just this. A handshake and good luck before a match. A reassuring “You are OK!”, “You are doing great!” during a match. A pat on the back and a “I’m proud of you” after a match. That’s 90% of your job. Anything more you do is extra and not very important at all. This is what I have found.

It’s Not About You

Way too many times I see a coach on the edge of the mat who is way to emotionally invested in the match. We all want our athletes to win. What I see though is a coach screaming at the top of their lungs the entire match. This does not have a calming effect on the athlete. In fact it will usually result in the athlete feeling more anxious than not. The athlete will pick up on the coach’s frantic emotional outbursts and will get distracted and anxious and will not do their best. The coach has then made things worse.  I see coaches in this state yelling things like “escape! escape! escape!” over and over at a frantic volume to the athlete as if the thought had never occurred to them. This is a coach who is engaging their own anxiety and not attending to the needs of the athlete. It’s a shame to see. It communicates to your athlete that you don’t trust them to execute their Jiu Jitsu.

Let the Athlete Control the Match

Another extremely unhelpful kind of coaching I see way too often is a coach on the sideline who needs to dictate every move to the athlete on the mat. I have never seen this work. The instructions from the coach are ALWAYS too late. By the time the coach yells out the instruction the moment is past. Grappling is dynamic and the constant motion makes it impossible for a coach to provide step by step instructions in real time. The athlete needs to pay attention to the match that they are fighting and not a coach giving step by step guidance. I guarantee if they try to listen to the coach and execute the moves as they are being described they will not be able to pay attention to the actual match that they are trying to win. This is not helpful at all. In fact it’s a distraction and another way that the coach communicates to the athlete that they don’t trust the athlete to know what to do. If you communicate to your athlete that they can’t solve problems for themselves on the mat they will not have the confidence to win. Leave the athlete alone. Let them problem solve and learn.

I’m lucky enough that my daughter gives me coaching feedback. This past weekend she was in a no gi bracket where she went up two weight classes in order to get some matches. Her first opponent was huge. She was extremely muscular and looked like a beast. My dad fear kicked in and I pictured this beast of a girl ripping her arms off. I told her before the match to protect her arms and neck. She told me not to tell her that. She wanted positive reassuring messages. I got it right away and changed my tone. It was a good lesson for me.

Here’s How to Coach Well

  1. Know when your athlete’s bracket starts and make sure they get a decent warm up.
  2. Make sure your athlete has their water bottle, mouthpiece, and whatever else they need handy.
  3. Talk to them in a calm and reassuring tone while they wait for their match. Say positive things. Don’t give match advice. It’s too late for that. Your voice and positive messages will help them to stay calm.
  4. During the match say positive reassuring things like “You are doing great” “You are safe here. Take your time” etc. Hearing you say positive things in a calm voice will be the most helpful.
  5. Never give more than 2 or 3 technical instructions per match. Any more than that and you will cause your athlete to lose focus.
  6. Only give technical instructions about posture. Never about tactics or techniques. Simple instructions like “keep your head up”, “break those grips”, “keep your hips low” etc. are OK. Instructions like “put your left hand on the back of her right shoulder up high” or “reverse de la riva to simple sweep” are not OK and will likely make things worse.
  7. Keep track of time and points. Some athletes want to know both during a match. Check with your athlete beforehand to see if they want you to let them know about points and time. If so let them know at the halfway point, the one minute point, and the 30 second point. When they get a position that awards points like mount let them know when the ref awards them.
  8. If your athlete wins pat them on the back and say “I’m proud of you!”
  9. If your athlete loses pat them on the back and say “I’m proud of you!”
  10. Resist the temptation to make excuses for a loss. It’s not helpful.
  11. Don’t talk about the match for a bit after a loss as the athlete needs a few minutes to come down from an emotional experience. They won’t be able to hear you.
  12. After they have a few minutes to calm down go over the positives with your athlete. When you talk about the things that went wrong do so in a positive way. “You had some trouble with back mount. I can’t wait to get back into the gym next week and work that with you.  We have a bunch of great stuff to work on.”
  13. Win or learn is the right attitude. Losses are not personal failures. They are wonderful learning opportunities. Wins are rewards for hard work. Losses are opportunities to make your game better. It’s your job as coach to help the athlete to understand that.

Here’s a video of Ella grappling up 2 weight classes against a much bigger and stronger opponent. I was scared to death when I saw this girl. The video doesn’t do a great job of showing just how much bigger and stronger this girl was. I know I had to remain calm and let Ella do her thing. You can hear both me and the other athlete’s coach on the sidelines here. My coaching wasn’t perfect. I had a hard time not getting emotionally involved in the match. At one point Ella’s arm was twisted in a way that it looked like it was going to break. After the match she told me it was fine and wasn’t close to a tap. To my eyes it looked like it was breaking. I did manage to remain calm through the entire match and I believe I was more helpful than not. How well did I do?


If you look at the list of things to do you can see that none of it requires a black belt. Any teammate can be a good coach for another teammate. All it requires is a cool head and an interest in the well being of your fellow athlete.