Coaching Martial Arts and Combat Sports at any level is not easy. Therefore, becoming a truly world class coach in any discipline is not something that happens by accident. Unfortunately, due to the old school/traditional approach to Martial Arts development, instructors are often left to their own devices when it comes to mastering their ability to teach/coach others.
- Love what you coach
- Know your discipline
- Be yourself
- Create your system
- Look for mentors
- What do YOU want as a Martial Arts coach
- Strengths and weaknesses
- Be honest
- Know your athletes/students
- Build a positive culture
- Develop a team
- Be data driven when coaching Martial Arts
- Give back to the community
- Learn to let go
- Keep it fun
- Look after what's important
Love what you coach
It may seem obvious to love what you coach but it is a hugely important aspect of being a great instructor or teacher.
Enthusiasm is caught, not taught
Most coaches within the world of Martial Arts and Combat Sports have transitioned directly from being experienced practitioners or athletes themselves. In the beginning coaching Martial Arts can often be done on a volunteer basis and/or for very little monetary gain. This love and enjoyment therefore is key in helping coaches stay within the role, especially when things are difficult.
Keeping this love can be difficult though. Like any work that is done as a paid or unpaid job, repetition can sometimes become laborious. Add to that any of the many issues Martial Arts coaches can face within their role and you have a position that can easily be left if the individual that fills it has any doubts about what they do.
Know your discipline
Another potentially obvious aspect of being a great coach is that of knowing your Martial Art, Combat Sport or discipline exceedingly well. Of course, you don't need to be perfect or know everything. In fact, it is those coaches who acknowledge that they don't know everything who end up becoming the very best in the world.
Having said that though, the more experience a coach has within their art or sport (whether as a practitioner, athlete or other key figure), the more they bring to the table when they first start coaching others. In some Martial Arts, belt systems and/or certification are the primary way of showing ability and knowledge within that particular discipline.
In others, where there are no belts or grades, practitioners are judged on their own individual ability and competitive experience within their sport or art. A small few use other methods such as external governing bodies or experts to assess capability as a coach or instructor.
No matter how the experience is gained, a Martial Arts coach with a good understanding of their discipline, art or sport is in a strong position to help others on their own journey towards excellence.
Some people can be guilty of rushing into coaching Martial Arts without having the relevant experience themselves. As most Martial Arts and Combat Sports are not heavily regulated, these inexperienced individuals can set themselves up as professional coaches quite easily. To avoid treading this path, it is important for any would be coach to make sure they are in an over prepared state as opposed to an under prepared one i.e. high belt grade, years of experience as a successful athlete etc.
It is tempting, especially when first starting out in the world of coaching Martial Arts, to try and copy the teaching style, mannerisms and approach of the individuals that coached them. In one sense, this is a good idea. If you have been coached well and shown systems that have proven to be successful, carry on with the same dynamics.
What then do I mean by being "yourself"? Firstly, you have to value your own experience, find your voice and understand what you personally bring to the table as a coach. Novice or less experienced coaches can often be guilty of doubting what they can do for a student or athlete in comparison to a more experienced coach. Whilst there is some element of truth in the notion that more experience is indeed helpful, the intent and individual desire behind what you want for your student or athlete more than makes up for this discrepancy.
Finding your voice takes time. I would always normally suggest finding mentors and gaining experience helping existing coaches prior to setting out on your own. This experience is hugely helpful in figuring out your own particular coaching style and language. Volunteering at an established gym is often appreciated by the coaches that work there and is a great way to spend time on the mats leading or assisting training sessions.
Don't doubt the value of your own personal experience. You won't connect with every student or athlete on a deep level, because no Martial Arts coach ever does. However, those that you do will do so because of who you are and the journey that brought you to them at that moment in time. Relationships are paramount in coaching Martial Arts and Combat Sports. Use the experience gained on your journey to help those that you coach find an easier path through theirs.
Create your system
What do I mean by system in this respect? Firstly, it is not one individual system. Think of it as an organic, ever evolving myriad of systems that changes in line with the continued development of a coach. At it's base layer, it is a physical curriculum including multiple layers of techniques, movements and art/sports related fundamentals ranging from beginner to elite level.
On top of this is an assortment of drills, concepts and methods used to instil this relevant physicality. Working alongside this are similar ideas on tactics, competition related topics and mental skills training.
There is no one singular defining way to create these systems. Those who study traditional Martial Arts such as Judo will already enjoy having a long established dogma of their discipline. Others, who train in Combat Sports such as Kickboxing, will have to either use the system they themselves learned from their own coach or put one together on their own.
However, these alone are not enough. Just because you have the map, it does not mean you have the necessary skills to guide someone else to get to their destination. Hence, why you have to take at least some ownership in creating your own personal systems. How you coach is just as important as what you coach.
Look for mentors
If you are lucky to have had a great coach from the start (or at least one at some point during your own training or time in Martial Arts), then you are likely to already have at least one role model/mentor.
However, people can often be guilty of setting out alone when they look to do things their own way. One thing all world class coaches have in common is a having a small group of individuals they themselves look towards for advice and help.
Understanding and accepting that you don’t know everything is part of the journey towards excellence. Mentors can take many shapes. Sometimes they may be other coaches, athletes or martial artists. Other times they may be people who excel in areas that touch upon Martial Arts, business or any other aspect that impacts your day to day life. The common theme is simply someone who has the maturity and experience to offer you both fresh eyes and a different perspective on any problems or issues you may need help to overcome.
What do YOU want as a Martial Arts coach
Ok, I know you want to be a great Martial Arts coach. Otherwise you would not have read this far! But, in order to become the very best coach that you can and lead the life that you want to lead, you have to first ask yourself what exactly it is that you want.
What is success to you? Where do you want to be in 1, 5, 10 years time? What matters to you?
Everyone answers these questions differently. And, they are often answered differently by the same person at different times throughout their own life and coaching career. As a result, reminding yourself of these questions is actually something that can help recenter yourself, no matter where you are on your journey.
A Martial Arts coach who wants to take professional fighters to world titles is going to need different skills and a different journey to someone whose primary aim is to help the local kids within their community. Some coaches see success as having more money and huge gyms, whilst others see it in how talented their students are or the titles their fighters have won.
Knowing where you want to go will help you keep track of what you should be doing at any given time in order to get there.
Strengths and weaknesses
As mentioned above in the section on mentors, we cannot possibly know everything there is to know or be good at thousands of different skills. Some Martial Arts coaches excel relating to children and/or younger athletes. Others find teaching children difficult and therefore find much better results with adults.
Knowing what you are good at and what you are not good at will help you formulate a plan when it comes to coaching or your continued professional development. For example, you may need to bring in outside help for advice on nutrition if you have an athlete wanting to excel at world level. Or you may need to pay someone to set up a website or look after your social media accounts if you want to take your coaching or gym to higher levels of income.
From a coaching point of view, some can be guilty of only coaching the aspects of their sport that they themselves are good at or enjoy. Unfortunately, this can then lead to weaknesses being passed on or inadvertently developed in those being coached. Understanding and accepting your strengths and weaknesses across the board will lead to faster gains and smarter coaching.
Honesty can obviously cover many different facets. Within the world of coaching martial arts and combat sports, part of the way you can set yourself apart from others is through the standards you set for yourself.
If an athlete or student comes to you wanting to be trained in something that you are not strong at or possibly not even do. Let them know and give them the option then to look elsewhere or change what they want from their training. If you have trained an athlete for years and you know that they would now be better off training elsewhere in order to fulfil their competitive goals, tell them.
When you are coaching athletes of any level, be honest with them with regards to their progress, what they need to work on and what they need to do in order to reach their goals.
It can sometimes be difficult to be honest. Especially when you are trying to earn money, run a business or potentially protect someones feelings. However, in the long run it always leads too much better outcomes for all involved.
Following on nicely from honesty, is the need to maintain standards in what and/or who you coach. Time and time again you will see coaches across the world produce below par athletes or students as a result of not maintaining sufficiently high standards.
This leads to what is often referred to as a “McDojo”. A Martial Arts coach or gym that is more concerned with high numbers of students/athletes and profit than the actual standards of those they train. It can of course be a difficult line to tread. The need to earn money and run a business can sometimes feel difficult when looking to maintain or raise standards.
There are also plenty of people who don’t want to take their training that seriously. Maybe they just want a once-a-week fun training session or are not heavily invested into the sport in question.
Look to yourself
Part of the answer to this is looking back at what you want yourself as a coach. If you want to create athletes or fighters that achieve world success then you need to make sure your standards are high enough to allow this development. As a result, you will often need to turn away those that don’t want the level of coaching that you offer. As typically there is a price to pay in terms of their commitment in order to achieving it.
The other part to this is understanding what each student or athlete wants from their training and where they are in their life. That way you can adjust what you expect from each of them accordingly. A novice adult student may never be able to do certain skills or techniques proficiently given the late age they started training. Or, they may never go beyond a certain level because they are only training once a week. Allowing everyone to feel successful and grow without impacting on the standards you set is the other key balance to get right.
Look back towards the system you have created and what you want as a Martial Arts coach to help guide you in understanding what kind of standards you want to set or maintain. Coaching Martial Arts successfully to a wide range of students or athletes, whilst maintaining these standards takes practice and experience.
Know your athletes/students
Being a truly great Martial Arts coach means to really know and care for those that you train or teach. A huge part of getting those that you coach to reach their full potential is understanding what drives them, what they care about and what their goals are.
No athlete or student is an island. Their chosen Martial Art or Combat Sport is not likely to be the sole thing that defines them. They will have a life outside of training. Work/study, family and friends will all have an impact on an individuals ability to train or compete.
Learning about these and how they affect your student or athlete will help you develop a training plan that works for their life. It will also help you help them when one of the other aspects of their life starts to have a negative impact on their ability to train or compete.
Build a positive culture
What is a positive culture within a Martial Arts gym, school or club? The answers to this question could fill a blog post on their own. Typically though, a positive gym culture will include the repeated use of most of the other topics mentioned above and below.
- Coaches that are professional in both their ability to teach and by the examples they set
- High but not impossible standards for those that train (and for the coaches who coach)
- Set systems and curriculum in place to help those that train progress no matter what level they are
- A gym ethos and community built on supporting everyone within it
- An ability to train hard but still have fun
Things that tend to have a negative impact on a gym are usually the opposite. Martial Arts coaches who are unprofessional in some way. Lax or inconsistent standards across the board. No set systems or curriculum for coaching and no separation between what is taught to beginners/advanced students/athletes. A gym ethos built solely on what every individual gets for themselves and/or where egos take over. A place where most people rarely enjoy training because of the issues raised with having a negative gym culture.
It can be very easy for a Martial Arts coach to put their own training or study to one side, when they start to get busy coaching others. This is to be expected and is one of the reasons why I think it is hard to be both a competitor and a coach in any sport.
However, coaching Martial Arts, just like training should be ever evolving. Most coaches in Martial Arts and Combat Sports start off life as simply keen practitioners or accomplished athletes themselves. As such, their love of training and/or competing is what brought them to the role. It is also what has given them the necessary tools to be a potentially good coach themselves.
I say potentially because being good at a Combat Sport does not necessarily mean someone is going to be a good Martial Arts coach. There are a multitude of different skills needed for this transition to be successful. This is partly where the need to continually study and learn comes in.
The many shapes and sizes of Education
I don’t think every coach needs to sign up for a Masters degree at the local university (unless of course they really want to) but I do think those that want to be the best coaches they can be, will continue to look for ways they can develop themselves. This might be through the mainstream education providers such as colleges and universities. It might be through reading books, attending workshops or learning skills outside of the sport itself i.e. business, psychology etc.
For most, it is often primarily about keeping on top of current training methods, learning new tactics and gaining insights from leading coaches around the world.
This is actually one of the main reasons behind the Warrior Collective.
I wanted to visit coaches around the world and learn from them in order to become a better Martial Artist and coach myself. This website and everything I have filmed or created for Warrior Collective is me sharing what I have learned with those who share my desire for self improvement.
If you are following Warrior Collective on any social media platforms (YouTube, Instagram, Facebook or TikTok) then you will be able to take advantage of regular videos such as those shown below. These are all there to give you ideas for your own training and to help you learn how some of the best are coaching Martial Arts across the world.
For those of you (like me) who like to dig deep into learning new coaching methods, then there are a vast number of full length instructional volumes on this site to take advantage of. Each one I personally created with the featured coach(es) going over complete systems as to how they coach or train at the highest level. Some examples of these are below.
Develop a team
If you are new to coaching Martial Arts and are just starting out, it may feel like having a team is way off. However, not only is it something that all coaches should aim for, it actually happens sooner than we may realise. What is a team in this sense then? A team could be construed as you and the athletes/students you train. It could describe the relationships you build between yourself as a coach and anyone else involved in helping your athlete to compete (whether these are paid or unpaid).
Just as no athlete or student is an island, no coach is able to be successful solely on their own. Developing a team relies heavily on the systems you have created, and your ability to foster positive relationships and a strong gym culture/community.
If your team is made up of people outside of your personal remit i.e. nutritionist, physio etc then take the time to get to know them personally. Understand what they want out of the relationship and help them learn the best ways they can help you or your athletes.
If your team is one you are making yourself then dedicate time to it. Don’t just delegate roles and jobs to others without giving them a thorough understanding of how to do it. If you want others to invest as much into coaching Martial Arts as you do, then you need to help them develop the same passion you have for it.
Be data driven when coaching Martial Arts
This may sound a little out of place with regards to this blog post but hear me out. Data is never subjective. The numbers don’t lie. How does this fit into the world of Martial Arts coaching or instruction? In a few ways actually.
From a competitive point of view, as coaches, we should be tracking our wins and losses. Why? Well, first of all, it is important to keep up to date competition records for all athletes. But, mostly, it is the only way we can track the results of how we are coaching over both the short and long term.
Obviously wins and losses don’t paint the whole picture. How deep you want to go with it is down to you. In other sports such as American Football and Basketball, they have a whole series of analytics to consume after every event. These can include data on successful passes, intercepts and yards covered.
MMA promotions such as the UFC give insights into measures such as significant strikes landed and successful takedowns.
What data can you collect then? Well, depending on the Martial Art or Combat Sport you coach, you can create training data based off what you want your athletes to do regularly and/or improve upon. Aside from weight, this could include general data such as rounds trained or distance ran, or more specific numbers such as punch count in each round or PB times for conditioning routines etc.
As a professional coach, it also pays to track business related data so that you can maintain a successful gym. Without a sustainable income, no coach or club will be able to survive for long.
Give back to the community
One of the great things about being a coach is that you interact with people in a positive way on a daily basis. However, this can sometimes limit your connections solely to those that have this opportunity to spend time with you in the gym.
Coaches want to help people. That is what they do. Therefore, helping those that live in their community is something most great coaches aspire to achieve. How can you do this? There are many ways. First of all, simply by running a Martial Arts gym professionally and ensuring it has a positive culture, goes a long way to giving back to the area you are based in.
However, if you want to go further than this (and most do) you can get involved with running or helping with events for local or national charities, give out free coaching sessions to schools or groups and take an interest in the issues faced by the wider community.
Training is about what we personally take from Martial Arts. Coaching Martial Arts is about what we give to others. The best coaches however do not limit what they give purely in terms of physical Martial Arts instruction, but by the positive impact they have in the world.
Learn to let go
As a coach or gym owner, one of the main difficult things you will have to learn to deal with throughout your time coaching is when students or athletes leave. As coaches invest a lot of time and energy into their athletes (and very often a lot of care and hope), it can be gut-wrenching when some decide to stop (and especially when they start training elsewhere).
This impact is doubly negative if the athlete or student in question then starts to talk negatively about their experiences with you or your gym in some way.
As Martial Artists, we strive to have an element of the Bushido code about what we do. Loyalty then is something we admire and hope that we can inspire in those that we teach or train.
However, I have to be honest with you. Firstly, no matter who you coach or teach, at some point in the future they will stop training with you. The nature in which they leave is not fully down to you as everyone has their own reasons as to why they do what they do. Some simply stop enjoying it. Some have other things in their life that they start to prioritise more.
Of course, there will be times when you need to take a little ownership. Maybe you didn’t develop as strong a relationship with them as they needed at that point. Maybe they stopped progressing.
Either way, it is important to remember that everyone stops at some point. If you could have done something better then learn from the experience. If not, then don’t dwell on it. You are likely to have had a positive impact on them during the time they were with you and that is the exact goal you set out to achieve when you started coaching in the first place.
Reflect on the why
Secondly, if they leave to go elsewhere, you need to take a moment to reflect. As above, this can be down to them i.e. they have moved homes, changed jobs or simply feel they are no longer getting what they need from you. The latter maybe something you would disagree with but you have to remember, this is how they feel about it.
Again, sometimes you may have some involvement in their decision to go elsewhere. This could be down to a lack of competitive success, an underdeveloped relationship with you or a desire to train skills that you do not offer.
As mentioned above, it is important to let go here. Yes, you want everyone you coach to stay loyal and train with you until they stop training but this is not feasible nor realistic given the many reasons this can occur. If they speak negatively about you publicly, don’t get dragged down to their level. Keep it professional.
Another facet to this is actually understanding when it is time to tell a student or athlete to train elsewhere. For example, if you have a talented athlete who is capable of making it is a professional fighter and you as a coach/gym, lack the experience to help them fulfil this ambition, then it is best to sign post them to somewhere they can achieve this. This does not mean you are not a great Martial Arts coach. If anything, it means you are a phenomenal one. Only the very best coaches put their athletes needs above themselves.
Keep it fun
Of course, we love training. It is why we do what we do! However, we can sometimes lose sight of keeping it fun when we are looking to train towards competition or increased physical performance. Training hard is what we need to do in order to develop. However, keeping it fun is what will allow athletes to maintain their love of the sport over the long term and especially through any periods of difficulty.
Positive relationships and strong gym cultures go a long way in helping this. How you keep training fun though is down to you!
Look after what's important
Moving away from looking at the needs of others for a moment now as we seek to understand what exactly it is that is important to us. You have a life outside of coaching. Maybe you have other work, study, a partner, children and friends who all play a part in your life.
One of the biggest mistakes made by coaches and gym owners is to neglect the other important things in their life for the sake of coaching. Yes, you will need to be dedicated in order to be a successful coach and/or gym owner. No, you do not need to sacrifice everything else that is important to you to make this happen.
Make sure you dedicate time each week outside of coaching to what is important to you. Make sure you continue to train yourself if that is what you enjoy. On the weeks you find yourself crazy busy and unable to spend this time with them, set more apart when the weeks are quieter so that you address the balance.
You legacy is what you leave behind. You gift to the world. What is it people will remember you for when you are gone? This may seem a deep way to end this blog post on being a great Martial Arts coach, but it is an important one. It is the big picture. It is your long game.
What are your goals? What do you want to achieve, both within the world of coaching, and outside of it?
Remember, everyone you coach and interact with on a day-to-day basis is going to form part of this. One of the main goals of being a great martial artist is being an even better human being. Thus, becoming a truly world class coach means keeping this, and everything else mentioned above in mind.
Your legacy is your impact on the world. Fortunately, being a coach allows you to purposefully make it a more positive one than some. Be proud of yourself, enjoy the ups, learn from the downs and keep focused on all the amazing work that you do!
If you enjoy this article then you may well love 7 Great Muay Thai Books you NEED to have on your Book Shelf or Why do people start training in Martial Arts - I asked 1000 people to find out as already featured on this site.
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