How Much Competition Experience Should be Required for Coaching?

By Kaitlin Young

Does a trainer need to have his or her own fights in order to properly train fighters? If so, how many fights does a trainer need? This can be a hot-button issue in the martial arts world.

Teaching martial arts comes with an identity (and many times an income), one that is dependent upon others perceiving the teacher as competent. It’s no wonder there is resistance when we attempt to discuss proper qualifications in an industry that has been subject to almost no basic standards. How can a person tell the good from the bad, or navigate the murky middle? Anytime the question of direct experience comes up we hear cries of “So-and-so didn’t have one fight and he was a GREAT trainer” or “So-and-so was a GREAT fighter and still was an awful trainer.” Yes, occasionally these situations occur, but they are not the norm. The technical portion of martial arts is a big component, though it is not the only one nor even the most important one if we are speaking about fighting. The primary role of a coach, after all, is that of someone who helps us perform at our best in their area of expertise.

Performance vs. Technical Instruction

Let’s set aside the performance aspect for a moment and look at technical instruction. A person doesn’t need live experience to teach martial arts from a technical standpoint, do they? What if the student only plans to train recreationally? In some ways it is not very difficult to teach a person proper technique, provided the instructor is knowledgeable or learned from someone who is knowledgeable. Some students will learn more easily than others, but with time and practice, techniques can be passed on. In this manner, martial arts are not very different from any other type of personal training. A person can be taught the mechanics of a knee in the same way they can be taught the mechanics of a squat. A good trainer will have a number of cues to help the person move their body the correct way. With time, you’ll have a very nice, technically sound movement.

There is One Major Caveat

Kneeing a bag allows for considerably more error than kneeing a resisting human being, just as doing a bodyweight squat allows for considerably more error than squatting with a bar that holds more than twice one’s own bodyweight. In both cases, adjustments must be made under the increased pressure that would not be required in the situation with less demand. Kneeing a taller person can be different than kneeing a shorter person. The depth of your hip socket might determine what your perfect squat looks like. We have an expectation of personal trainers to know these adjustments, even if our primary goal does not involve heavy squats. Shouldn’t we expect the same of someone teaching us an armbar or a knee?  

It is difficult to learn these nuances without ever having done them under pressure. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a bit of an anomaly, as it requires all practitioners to do BJJ as it was intended before they are able to increase their rank. (This could be a blog of its own – perhaps it will be.) Other martial arts, particularly the more violent ones, have scores of practitioners who have never participated in the activity as it was intended. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. We all derive different benefits and meaning from martial arts training.  Additionally, the student/instructor relationship and chemistry has diddly-squat to do with fight experience. That said, it strikes me as somewhat dishonest to teach a martial art without understanding its context, at least to some degree.

The Common Mistake

It’s not uncommon to hear someone say they just want to have a few fights and then plan to coach. Some experience is better than none, right? It depends. One common mistake made by coaches without varied experience is that they can fall into a pattern of equating their limited experience to all bouts. It’s easy to maintain the fantasy that they would never falter, in the way that many fighters will inevitably do, if they retired at 5-0. Or perhaps they never felt an opponent break under the pressure if they retired at 1-3. They have not experienced the highs and lows associated with fame and a fighting career if they’ve never made it to the professional level. The Dunning-Kruger Effect can pose a real problem in this sense, as sometimes a little experience emboldens a person into believing that they are an authority on all situations. While nobody can have ALL the experience, one can have enough to know when they DON’T know. They can recognize when a situation is outside of their scope and they possibly need to outsource for the fighter’s best interest. With only a handful of fights, a person is likely to have a very narrow scope. This is not necessarily a problem, so long as they are aware of it.

Being Both the Hammer and the Nail

When we look in contrast at people who have had tens or even hundreds of fights over the span of a decade or more, they have had significantly more varied experiences. Over that timeline it can be almost guaranteed that they have been both the hammer and the nail.  They’ve been the dominant killer and one who just couldn’t get it together. They have also likely given these roles a great deal of thought and consideration as they pushed themselves to continue. They’ve fought with varying injuries, illnesses, pressures, and opponents.  They’ve done enough puzzles to understand how pieces fit together. They have witnessed many other fighters enjoy triumphs and make massive mistakes. This does not necessarily make them a great trainer, but they have much more information at their disposal and a greater understanding of athletes in general.

In short, it’s a very good start.

In the martial arts world, once one becomes the head of a school or even just an esteemed coach at a gym, there is a level of power present. Most people who have been around martial arts for several years can bullshit their way to appearing as a qualified coach on paper without technically falsifying anything. They are teaching to a room full of newer people who are probably unable to distinguish a person’s level of expertise and will defer to them whether it is deserved or not. This power is quite intoxicating for some and it is often abused. It is easy for instructors in this position to stop asking questions and choose only to answer them, whether those answers are accurate or not. The feedback from providing these answers to a competitor can be muddled. A loss may easily be written off as entirely the fault of the athlete. He or she didn’t train enough, or didn’t listen to the game plan, etc. A win on the part of a talented athlete may be incorrectly attributed to good coaching, when the athlete succeeded in spite of the coach’s poor performance rather than because of it. It takes time for a team’s patterns to develop and become visible. An unaware or unwilling coach may choose to simply overlook them without giving it a second thought – especially if it means that the coach may have been wrong.

Putting Coaches on the Pedestal

While coaches and gym owners may find themselves too busy caring for their students’ needs to entertain the thought of competition for themselves, sometimes they’ll choose not to compete specifically because they are afraid their students will see them lose. The anxiety around this is somewhat understandable. We live in a culture with a very stunted view of loss, but what they are saying is that they would rather have the illusion of effectiveness than to truly demonstrate or test it. In essence, it is more important for them to seem competent than to actually be competent — or to become more competent.  Coaches can find plenty of criticism for athletes when they allow their ego to stifle progress, but it should be noted that there are plenty of coaches swimming in that pool right along with them.

The attitude highlighted above shows a fear of being seen learning. It is a fear of no longer being seen as an all-knowing master. It is a fear of losing power. Too much certainty is almost always a red flag. One edge previous competition provides an instructor is that of already being seen learning, and at times failing, very publicly. They likely spent many more years asking questions, rather than nominating themselves to only provide answers. Their feedback has been sharp and immediate. While they have the years of development in technical prowess created by the high pressure of competition, they also tend to partake in less negative coaching behaviors. For instance, the use of shaming and separation typically comes from coaches who were inexperienced fighters. Not all coaches who were inexperienced fighters demonstrate them, but most often this ego-saving behavior tends to come from a coach who was a relatively inexperienced competitor.

Quantifying Development

There are plenty of people coaching who were unable to compete for whatever reason or are simply past the point where their body would allow for it, yet they still put themselves in positions to ask questions and learn from others who have something more or different to offer. There is not a hard and fast amount of fights a coach should have because development can’t accurately be quantified. Have they learned enough to help others perform at their best, both technically and mentally? If not, are they willing to bring in additional staff or send their athletes on training trips to do so? Are they still working to develop their own skills? Active competition can’t help but foster a growth-based mindset, though there are other ways to develop similar mental attributes. Regardless of one’s starting point, coaches must continue to grow and adapt just as we would expect of any other profession. If they choose not to, they are no different from the athlete who refuses to consistently show up to practice, and we all know how much coaches hate that .