What is Coaching?

248705_487643611286696_1995895587_nThere are a few terms that get used in BJJ Academies in reference to the Instructor.  Master, Professor, Sensei, Coach to name a few. Whether the format is a formal class, free training, open mat or a Seminar, someone is in charge. There may even be more than one person in charge, depending on the size of your academy or the number of higher-grades in attendance. But what does this person in charge do?

They set the rules. They tell us what to do. They instruct. But it really isn’t that simple.

They also coach. And they do all of this while paying respect to the art and protecting the well being of their students at all times.

For the sake of this article let’s refer to the person in charge as the Instructor. Now whether they Instruct, Teach or Coach depends on a couple of key factors:

  • The recipient – how new is the student to BJJ or Grappling
  • The scenario – are you at a competition, a class or an open mat
  • The Instructors teaching style – how do they convey information to their students

In a class scenario there is typically a mix of belts on the mat, meaning that the Instructor may have to apply more than one method for the subject to relate to as many of the students as possible. Some Academies run separate Beginner and Advanced classes to help manage this.

Instructing refers to the process where someone demonstrates a technique while providing commentary on the steps being taken to complete the task. As an example the Instructor may tell you they are teaching the Triangle. Hearing the words “I put my left foot on their right hip” is consistent with receiving instruction. Instruction provides the ‘What’ and a generic version of the ‘How’.

Teaching is the next step in the process where usually after receiving instruction, students practice the technique while the Instructor checks in on each pairing and provides real time advice on the required steps. “That’s right, make sure your foot is placed firmly against their hip to maintain the distance and break their posture” might be the words you hear during this phase. Teaching provides the ‘How’ that is specific to the individual and adds a generic version of ‘Why’.

Unlike Instructing and Teaching, Coaching is about asking the questions, rather than giving the answers. It is about leading the student to the realisation that it is up to them to bring the ‘What’, ‘How’ and ‘Why’ together. It takes practice for both the Instructor and the student to become comfortable with this approach towards nurturing development. On one hand, asking a brand new white belt to show you a progression from Inverted Half Guard to Taking the Back would be ridiculous. But asking a mid level blue belt why they are shooting up for a triangle without controlling their opponents posture can help the student to connect their actions to outcomes.

On the other hand, as a student we have to challenge thoughts like “Why won’t they just tell me what to do!”

Effective coaching doesn’t just focus on the negative e.g. “what the hell where you thinking” – but it doesn’t avoid it either. It’s all about balance. Sometimes when we are rolling we can get so caught up in the moment that when someone asks us “Hey what did you do to counter xyz?” we don’t even remember the position. Positive coaching such as “Hey I liked what you did to counter xyz, did you deliberately keep your posture strong to make it difficult to move you around?” again helps students to join actions to outcomes.

Developing as a coach is also about working on your listening, not just asking the questions. Remember, two cauliflower ears, one mouth.

Why Coach?

Effective Coaching is a skill and like all skills it develops over time, with practice. But if the idea of Coaching doesn’t appeal to you then you need to consider the benefits.


  • Develops self awareness and the ability to make good decisions
  • Creates longer development cycles and shorter plateaus
  • Increases the rate of improvement over time


  • Challenges us with thoughts or strategies that we may not have encountered otherwise
  • Broadens our influencing skills both on and off the mat

Now for the really good news: You don’t have to be the Head Instructor at your Academy to develop your skills as a coach. The next time free training starts and you have an odd number of students on the mat, volunteer to sit out. Approach a couple of newer players and ask them permission to watch and give them feedback. Assuming they agree, resist the temptation to say “Don’t do that, do this!” Instead, ask them what they noticed, such as “Did you notice that you ignored his collar grips and tried to pass the guard instead? Or “Did you deliberately wait for them to open their feet before starting to work for that single under pass? If they have a bit more experience, try asking them “From this position, what were you thinking of doing next?” Of course, talk about this with your Instructor first to make sure they are cool with it.

Don’t try and coach someone while you are rolling with them. Not only do they not get a chance to digest what you are saying, but I have always felt it is a bit disrespectful to them. Good coaches are not disrespectful. Everyone knows the white belt guy that is getting dominated during free training but he just won’t stop dishing out the advice to his partner? Kind of like “the only way you are in Back Mount is because I told you how to get there – now I’ll talk you through how to choke me”. Don’t be that guy.

Good Luck in your Training.

Article by: Steve Phillips

About The Author

Steve Phillips

Steve Phillips is a BJJ Brown Belt who has been training at the Ground Zero Jiu Jitsu Academy in Melbourne for over 10 years. During the past 15 years working in the Financial Services Industry Steve has held roles in Training and Development, Continuous Improvement, Coaching and Leadership. www.groundzero.com.au

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