The Role of a Coach in Preparing an Athlete for Competion

A post by Marco Perazzo about what makes a successful competition team got me thinking about the coach-athlete relationship before and during the “competition season”. It may seem absurd for me (a purple belt) to write about the role of a coach, especially given that majority of jiu jitsu tournaments I competed at I attended alone. But I’ve always worked best under a coach, and have gained an understanding of the kind of relationship that works for me. It’s all complicated by the fact that I’m 29 years old with a more-than-full-time career, and am not as focused on sport as I may’ve been when I was 16 on my high school’s wrestling team. So this blog post is about coaching, but from the perspective of a competitor with zero coaching experience.

I think that a coach has three roles in relation to the athlete: (1) on the mat, (2) in competition, and (3) off the mat. That’s in increasing order of time and mind that it takes from the coach. Loyalty, trust, and respect develop with time, and I believe the athlete has to earn the coach’s time through hard work and dedication. A coach’s time is kind of like a father’s approval. Many of us go through our whole life without getting it, especially the  dudes that cry during the Lion King scene where the father dies.

On the Mat (at the School)

The coach sets the mood of the training, provides technical fixes to techniques, and makes sure to push the people that need to be pushed. Not much special one-on-one attention is required here. In many ways, the coach is the conductor/general, and it’s the training partners that really push the competitors to step up their game.

In Competition

I always loved having a coach on the sidelines. I draw a lot of strength from being able to look up and see someone who has been by my side for a long time, who has seen me win and lose tough battles. A coach can provide step-by-step technical instructions, watch the time, the ref, and the score, or most important in my case: yell at me when I’m tired and need to step up the intensity.

Off the Mat

This one is the most scarce forms of a coach’s attention, but I believe it’s one that can have the biggest effect on a competitor. It’s where you sit down and plan out your goals with a coach. Together you outline the competitions, the training regimen, the drilling sessions, the competition a-game, the b-game, the competition strategy. A lot of times all of these things are already known, but they are put on paper, they become hard reality. They become a guiding principle and motivator and a source of strength through the days when the last thing you want to do is drill, train, and watch competition footage.

Coaching an Amateur

1983-dan-gable-with-tim-rileyThe problem, of course, is that most competitors in jiu jitsu, even those obsessed with the sport, are not willing to do whatever it takes. They have work. They have family. They have other aspiration and responsibilities. The following story about Dan Gable as coach is only possible with someone who has a singular unbroken focus on a goal of winning. Coaching someone like that is much easier than coaching a part-time competitor. This is an excerpt from a 1984 Sports Illustrated story:

“You’ll get pinned.” The words snarl and snap as they come from Gable’s mouth. How could anybody allow himself to get pinned? Suddenly, he’s focusing on the efforts of 126-pound Iowa senior Tim Riley, who’s clearly at the brink of mental and physical exhaustion. “Riley,” barks Gable, “you have to move your feet more in order to create openings.” With that, Riley quits and walks off the mat.

“Sorry you couldn’t make the end of practice,” Gable calls after him.

“I could have made it,” says Riley, “I just didn’t want to.”

“Naw,” says Gable. “You just weren’t tough enough to make it.” Gable shakes his head sadly, as if unable to grasp how an athlete—especially one of the best collegiate wrestlers in the country—couldn’t finish practice. The next day, of course, Riley is back with an apology and excuse, and of course Gable takes him back. And Riley redoubles his efforts. But Gable muses softly, “In wrestling, you don’t break down, you don’t quit. See, that’s the problem in life. It’s too easy to turn on the TV and pull up the covers.” Gable has never pulled up the covers. He’d have to be tutored to learn how to quit.

0 thoughts on “The Role of a Coach in Preparing an Athlete for Competion

  1. ian coughlan

    Very interesting post and very relevent to me. My coach is generally only involved in the judo side of things but when required its great to know you can go to him for a quit word about things. I recentlyhad to have a heart to heart with my coach about my diminishing performences, its amazing that without me even telling him he knew that i was extremly disheartened by the new rules and he empatised and just told me not to worry the passion will come back, very reasuring, thats the difference between a good coach and a great coach

    1. Lex Post author

      I think I didn’t mention that part… that a coach can be a close friend in father-son kind of way. Good point, thanks Ian.

  2. Lance Wicks

    Hi, nice article… Thought provoking.

    My feeling is that the three areas you mention are on a sliding scale dependant on level.
    Meaning that the higher the coach and athlete level the more of area 3 is required and less on the mat coaching.

    The truely elite level coaches I have observed/met/studied all seem to have very little technical input and lots of life input.

    1. Lex Post author

      That’s a great way to look at it. The level of the athlete determines the interaction. Still, I think the level at which the third level become important is not that high. In judo, once you reach black belt (3+ years of dedicated training), I feel like the off-the-mat role becomes very important.


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