Here’s the terrible thing about being a coach- it makes you a bad athlete. If you are lucky enough to become a professional coach in the sport you love, all that time you used to dedicate to making yourself a better athlete now goes to becoming a better coach (the thing that actually pays the bills!). All that time you used to spend competing on the weekends? That is now work, supporting your athletes in their games. All that time you used to train in the evening with your teammates? That is now time you spend trying to make it up to your significant other for spending so much time at work!
After 6 years of becoming a progressively worse rugby athlete, and spending my life working with players who will be better than I could ever hope to be, I became sufficiently demoralised to stop playing rugby. In September 2016 I made the switch to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It made sense to me: it has violence, it’s a physically taxing sport, and you can tap out if things get risky (good luck getting paid as a coach if you have a serious injury). In very short order, I caught the bug and began training multiple times per week. I was lucky enough to be promoted to blue belt in August 2017, and I’m actually writing this from Phuket, where I have travelled to train for a week at Tiger Muay Thai and MMA with my good friend and blog contributor Graeme Morris.
On a professional note, it has been extremely interesting to evaluate my learning experiences in BJJ through the prism of being a professional coach working with athletes of my own. I was 11 when I took up rugby, so I took the learning process for granted. This blog post is a summary of the top coaching lessons I have learned since I began learning BJJ. Long may the lessons continue.
1. Strength really doesn’t seem to transfer that well 🙁
Once you get below the minimal level of strength required to be effective in your weight class, more strength will really make zero difference to your success as a combat sport athlete. Technique and tactics are king, and once strength training eats into your time to develop these qualities, the quality of your performance will suffer.
2. Tactics and technique are far more trainable than physiological variables
The research is fairly unequivocal in that most physiological variables can only be improved a few percent per year in moderate to highly trained athletes. Some variables like speed or anaerobic capacity, even less so. So how is it that athletes are able to make massive strides in speed, explosiveness, endurance and effectiveness from week to week, month to month? More efficient technique, more intelligent tactics. Spend your energy where the return on investment is highest (technical and tactical qualities). Don’t kill yourself chasing fractions of a % for physiological gain.
3. When you “psych yourself up”, you perform like shit
To execute the tactical plan, and perform technique in the most relaxed, fluid and efficient manner possible requires a psychological state of focus and concentration, not wild aggression. Much to my surprise, the best feedback from my teachers has come when I was too tired to be overly aggressive and was forced to be more methodical and smooth in my approach. This is true in all sports, but the evidence is far more vivid in the combat sports. Here’s what happens when “psyching up” goes wrong:
4. Combat sport is hell on the joints- train accordingly
Some ways are obviously smarter than others when it comes to training for contact and combat sports e.g. high-low sequencing of training, not sparring with full intensity too frequently etc. However joint pain is just a cost of doing business, regardless of how intelligently you train. You cannot expect to train like a weightlifter or powerlifter if you are a combat sport athlete. Feel free to use a template as a basis, but modify accordingly- be prepared to limit eccentrics and big impacts, change joint positions and grips, perhaps even drop your volume and training frequency when you are really beat up. At some point, sport practice and heavy weight training compete with one another, and sport practice should be the last thing to suffer for the vast majority of the preparation.
5. Crossfit was right, but so was I
Since beginning Jiu Jitsu, my weight has steadily dropped without any effort, despite eating like a primary school child who has been left home alone for the weekend. Crossfit was right, if you train with huge levels of lactate, it can act as a potent fat loss stimulus. Unfortunately I was right too. If you condition every week pushing lactate through the roof, you empty the bank account. When it comes time to develop speed, strength and power, there is a lot less to go around, and these abilities unsurprisingly suffer. If you’re looking to maximise these outputs, glycolytic work should be reduced to the absolute minimum.
6. The relationship between fatigue and breathing is circular
Everyone knows that when you get tired, you breathing becomes more laboured- more from the chest, faster and deeper. But getting choked on a weekly basis has taught me the relationship is circular- when you breath more from the chest, faster and deeper, you fatigue quicker. The more you can control the breath, breathe from the diaphragm, less frequently, and only as deep as necessary, the better you can preserve your energy. This is the biggest thing I have taken away from sparring with high level guys- relaxation.
Note- there has been some research I’ve read this year to suggest similar findings with regard to facial expression. When you’re tired, you wear a fatigued look on your face. But when you wear a fatigued look on your face, the perceived exertion of exercise is significantly higher, which would hasten time to exhaustion according to the hazard theory of fatigue. Hazard to organism = remaining exercise time / RPE. If you want to maximise your durability during intense competition, manage your breathing and wear a neutral expression on your face.
This makes perfect sense in the context of central governance theory, whereby the brain takes information from a variety of internal and external cues when making a decision about whether to continue exercise or fatigue.
7. Drills are a great middle ground between skills and sparring
I’ve written before how the ultimate goal of high performance athletic training should be perfect synchronisation between the physical, tactical, technical and psychological forms of preparation. The better synchronised the programme is, the less competition exists between the four areas, and the more efficient the training process. The physical training no longer derails tactical preparation, the psychological “toughness” training no longer leaves players physically in the dirt etc.
I’ve learned that skill work may be great for technique development, but it contains none of the useful sensory information required for optimal skill and tactics. Likewise skill training can lack the psychological or physical rigour required to properly prepare for competition. Conversely, 100% sparring provides way too much psychological and physical stress, with such high levels of arousal that technique and tactics go out of the window. Bad habits be damned, just survive!
Drills- the application of technique in a semi-controlled and resisted fashion- are the happy medium. The drills contain enough sensory information to serve tactical and technical improvement, they are physically and psychologically rigorous enough to force concentration and development of work capacity, but they are not so intense that technical skill breaks down. For this reason drills should form the bulk of the practice, though skills or sparring may take on a greater role for learning new techniques or preparing for competition respectively.