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Most Jiu-Jitsu Coaches Aren't That Good
They're just held ridiculously low standards.
You probably read this headline and thought something along the lines of this:
“You don’t understand bro, my coach is just amazing…”
The amount of times I’ve heard this statement (or some iteration of it) is stunning to me.
Many new grapplers worship their Jiu-Jitsu instructors like deities. They call it “respect”, but to me, it looks a lot more like willful ignorance, blind admiration, and a stunning lack of self-awareness.
People don’t like to look at their training environment with an unbiased eye and ponder if their situation is really a good one. They don’t like to look at their coach square in the face and decide if he or she really knows what they’re talking about and wants them to succeed.
This is an exhausting task, and if the answer is no, a rational person would have to find a new training environment. That is even more exhausting.
It’s much easier to worship the person who gives you your belts. It’s much easier to put someone on a pedestal than it is to actually respect them.
Because of this, many Jiu-Jitsu coaches end up taking on tasks that are well beyond their credentials.
We end up giving life advice we’re not qualified to give (self callout?), teaching moves that don’t actually “work”, and developing egos that are out of this world.
For a long time, I thought that most Jiu-Jitsu coaches were good people who were good at their jobs, but now, after a few years of visiting gyms, befriending many coaches, and even coaching myself, I’ve realized something a little concerning:
Most Jiu-Jitsu coaches are not all that good at their jobs, and they are held to incredibly low standards (by the culture and their students) that allow them to perpetuate mediocrity throughout their academies, communities, and even the entire Jiu-Jitsu industry.
From not-so-humble beginnings…
Early Jiu-Jitsu instructors in the United States were one step short of drill sergeants.
They yelled at students. They manipulated them. They didn’t teach them much Jiu-Jitsu. They didn’t even know much Jiu-Jitsu themeslves.
These instructors lack of knowledge wasn’t their fault — most early BJJ instructors in the US didn’t have world-class competition experience. However, the subtle manipulation that happened over the course of the early years of BJJ in America is almost 100% at the fault of the early instructors.
I wasn’t training in the 90s and early 2000s when Jiu-Jitsu was first becoming Americanized, but I have had to experience and deal with the pitfalls of the “old school” mentality numerous times throughout my career.
Weird handshakes, bowing to pictures of dead guys, matching uniforms, all of these things originate not from Jiu-Jitsu’s culture, but due to insecurity, machismo, and a desire to maintain control over a martial art that is constantly evolving.
As someone who came to Jiu-Jitsu almost straight off of a wrestling mat, these formalities have always been a very strange concept to me. Wrestling has no “formalities”. There’s no bowing in wrestling. Crosstraining in wrestling is not “problematic”, it’s encouraged because that’s how you get better.
At least in my wrestling experience, there was very little bullshit. That’s why I liked wrestling more than every other sport that I played growing up.
The idea of calling a random dude who owned a gym “professor” solely because he had spent more time training in a gi than I had seemed ridiculous and made me feel silly.
To me, as a white belt, wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu were very similar, except that in Jiu-Jitsu, I had to learn from the beginning because I was new. The “weird rules” in Jiu-Jitsu almost made me quit long before I even got started. I’m lucky that I stumbled into a healthy training environment when I moved back home to Chicago from Oregon a few years ago. This environment allowed me to get better at Jiu-Jitsu without worrying about who I was bowing to or what color my gi was.
It helped me grow into a person I don’t mind being.
Because of my wrestling background, strange, borderline excessive rules at martial arts gyms designed to enforce “respect” have always been strange to me. Why can’t people in the gym just be nice to each other? Are our egos really that bad? Is the sport itself not humbling enough?
These questions and more have always made me feel a bit uncomfortable in academies that require a strict code of behavior.
Jiu-Jitsu coaches should be held to higher standards.
As much as I love to romanticize the personal development value of Jiu-Jitsu, the harsh reality is that “good training environments” in grappling are few and far between. Plenty of gyms are showing bad techniques in a toxic environment, and many others are either toxic or trapped showing 2007’s Jiu-Jitsu.
Progressive (both socially and technically) Jiu-Jitsu environments are rare.
However, because of the cultural romanticization of Jiu-Jitsu black belts and instructors, there is very little improvement happening throughout the culture.
Most people do not expect a lot out of their coaches because they “have enough on their plate”, and as a result, the quality of the culture does not progress.
This is normal throughout the Jiu-Jitsu culture. Just look at Fight Sports, Lloyd-Irvin, or Unity. All of these gyms have had sexual misconduct allegations in the past decade, and instead of going out of business or being banned from competition, the gyms still are thriving on the international competition scene.
Why? Blind loyalty, if you asked me.
The majority of grapplers accept personal responsibility for their failures and do not dare question the authority of their “coach”.
I was at a tournament once and I remember listening to a fellow competitor rant and complain about the verbal abuse he took from his coach, and then he justified this by saying “he cares about me”.
That’s fucked up, but it’s a cycle that will not be broken unless the competitor takes his training elsewhere. That’s a big thing to ask a young kid who’s desperately trying to “make it” in grappling.
This issue goes both ways.
Some coaches are overbearing and manipulative, and others are non-existent.
I’ve trained at a gym before where the black belt instructor would regularly ghost his own classes without even announcing it to his students, yet he also claimed to care about his gym’s competition results.
In life, actions speak louder than words. If Jiu-Jitsu coaches were held to any standards at all, this would be true for them too.
Athletes need coaches to win. This is true across all professional sports. Jiu-Jitsu is not different.
Bad coaches lead bad teams.
The difference is because Jiu-Jitsu gyms are also private businesses, it’s impossible for a coach to get fired unless he goes out of business or ends up in jail.
The only way to get a better coach as a grappler is to find one yourself, but when you have blindly submitted to your current coach and his or her reign, it’s really hard to break out of that relationship.
“Abusive” isn’t the right word, but it’s the only word that comes to mind.
The worst part is that even you do break out of your “cult”, you risk losing friends, making enemies, and becoming alone in an already lonely journey.
As a result, many grapplers choose to stick out and train in crappy gyms led by crappy people, and the culture never improves.
Can we do something about it?
Closing Thoughts: What can really be done?
Teaching people how to fight and teaching people how to do martial arts are 2 different things. Teaching people how to compete in sport Jiu-Jitsu is also different.
The problem is that people are coming to one place looking for personal growth, self-defense, and gold medals all the same time.
Instructors are worried about losing business, so they adopt larger-than-life personas to keep their clientele under control and build larger businesses.
So what can be done?
Well, a little more honestly wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
But then again, what do I really know? I’m a 24-year-old Jiu-Jitsu competitor with a blog. My opinions are my own.
I just know that I don’t want to surround myself with people who constantly claim to be something they’re not. I have enough awareness to snuff out bullshit, and when I go into martial arts academies these days, I smell a lot of it.
I can’t fix this problem myself, but I’ll leave you with this: if you’re in an environment where questioning the status quo feels threatening, you’re probably in a shitty environment.
Think about it, and get out while you still can.
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