Mar 10, 2022
How to become a better coach.
It’s been a little over a year since I’ve been teaching Jiu-Jitsu regularly, and in that time, my approach to teaching has already gone through several evolutions.
I’ve gone from using teaching as a way to help me make a little extra cash on the side to teaching every single day, both children and adult classes. I teach advanced students, I teach beginners, and I teach private lessons and seminars to people who specifically want to learn from me.
I’ve even taken classes with some of the most renowned technicians in Jiu-Jitsu today, like Keenan Cornelius, John Danaher, and Dante Leon.
I’ve learned a lot about teaching from taking classes with such high-level black belts, and I’ve done my best to adopt similar methods to my teaching.
However, teaching kids presents challenges that you don’t face in adult classes.
Here are 5 tips I’ve learned from mentors and through my personal experience of teaching kids classes in the last year.
1. Break it down - all the way down.
Confession time: when I started BJJ, I had no idea what the word “lapel” meant.
Last weekend I taught a seminar on lapel guard, but 5 years ago, I didn’t know what “lapel” meant.
When my coach told me to grab “the skirt” of my partner's gi, I felt confused. I mean, I was not wearing a dress, and I had no intention of changing into one for whatever move we were about to execute during class.
When I teach nowadays, I make sure to use as specific language as I possibly can, because, for younger students, specificity is key.
“Your hand grabs the collar” is not enough. Which hand? Where on the collar?
This has also trickled into my adult classes and made me a better all-around instructor.
2. Make sure the entire room respects you.
I started teaching kids’ Jiu-Jitsu classes at a friend's academy in downtown Chicago, and the first thing I noticed when I went into that training room was that all of the kids in the class had a lot of respect for their instructor.
When he spoke, they listened - much more so than when I was teaching the classes. Respect takes time to cultivate, and it was a challenge for me to cultivate it myself at first.
I can’t help it - I have a bit of a laid-back demeanor. Because of my wrestling background, many of the formalities that you see in most martial arts academies seem foreign to me. I go from “zero to 20 push-ups” a bit too quickly sometimes.
Luckily, a friend spoke up for in one of the early classes I taught and explained some of my accomplishments (apparently, a world title at the purple belt is a great way to get a room full of 8-year-olds to respect you) to the class, and after that interaction, I noticed the kids respecting me much more.
Dealing with behavior issues takes away from the class. Before you even start teaching Jiu-Jitsu to kids, you have to learn to command the room you’re in.
3. Avoid getting (too) angry.
Adults do not respond well to being screamed at.
Yelling creates tension in the class, and for the most part, I feel it creates a divide between me and the students.
It’s really easy to get angry with students. Sometimes they don’t listen, sometimes they talk during instruction, and sometimes they’re just rude to each other.
They don’t know how to behave yet, and sometimes, it makes me want to pull my hair out.
However, one of the most important qualities of a kids instructor is being able to command a room without becoming “the bad guy”. This creates a collaborative environment and helps students to thrive.
Remain a "kid at heart" yourself.
The other day, one of the kids in my class told me that I look like “someone who works at a grocery store”.
I cackled when I heard that.
I don’t know about you, but I have no idea what that means. Although, I’m pretty sure it’s not good.
It made me happy though because this student also listens really well in class and is absorbing the information I’m trying to teach every day. It makes me happy that I can joke around with my students, even if they’re 11-years-old.
Moments like that would never happen in an adults class, partially because a lot of Jiu-Jitsu students fear their instructors.
I don’t want to be a teacher that my students are afraid of. I want them to respect me and listen to me, but I don’t want them to be afraid to talk to me if they’re having a problem in class.
I’m not a drill sergeant, I’m a kids Jiu-Jitsu coach.
5. Positive reinforcement is what makes champions.
One teaching strategy that I stole from my Jiu-Jitsu coach Jeff is borderline excessive positive reinforcement.
I don’t just want my students to like Jiu-Jitsu, I want them to like learning Jiu-Jitsu.
Because of this, when I teach the kids, I try to make sure that they know just how proud I am of them when they execute moves well. I give out fist bumps, high-fives, and if a technique is “beautiful”, I make sure I shout “beautiful!” as the student is practicing.
This positive reinforcement activates the student's dopamine (reward) center in their brain, and as a result, they begin to associate good technique with a good feeling.
This makes the students happier, more motivated, and it makes the entire learning environment better for all involved.
Just because you are good at Jiu-Jitsu does not mean that you are good at teaching Jiu-Jitsu.
Just because you are good at teaching Jiu-Jitsu does not mean you are good at teaching beginners. Or kids.
Depending on what skill level and age level of student that you are working with, you as a teacher are required to put on a different hat.
This has been one of the most important lessons that I have learned in the last year.
If you find yourself in a situation where you’re teaching beginners or kids for the first time, I hope these 5 tips can help you run a smooth class and make your students, their parents, and your instructors proud.
Teaching kids is hard work, and it can be frustrating, especially in the beginning. However, it will make you better as a teacher and grappler in the long run. That, I can guarantee.
“If you can't explain it to a six-year-old, you don't understand it yourself.” - Albert Einstein