I don’t remember my first tournament.
I mean, I remember being there. I remember being scared out of my wits, having about six months’ worth of training under my floppy white belt, and I remember immediately pulling guard. After that, my adrenaline dumped, and when the clock ran out, I didn’t know what I’d done to get my hand raised.
Years later, I think about that experience a lot, especially as I watch my white and blue belt friends taking the plunge into the competitive side of jiu-jitsu. I think about how now, as a purple belt, I still get the pre-competition jitters, but I can keep myself calm mid-match. I may lose, but I know enough jiu-jitsu and can rely on my own style enough that I can make conscious decisions mid-match rather than feeling like I’m fumbling around in the dark.
I especially think back on my first experience as a white belt competitor when I look around at jiu-jitsu tournaments now. I think about it when I see coaches rushing from mat to mat to make sure all of their students get cornered properly, and I think about it when I see coaches standing around socializing while their own newbie students nervously step onto the mats with no one around to support them.
I think about that experience a lot when I see instructors giving their all to coach their purple and brown belt students, then treating their lower belt students like the siblings their mom forced them to bring along.
It’s not that those upper belts shouldn’t be coached, but rather that seasoned athletes will (or rather, should) need far less coaching than their lower belt counterparts. By this point in their jiu-jitsu journey, a lot of what they do is going to be second-nature. They will know if they should shoot for a takedown or put their leglocking skills to use. The question racing through their mind is less likely to be “What do I do now?” and more likely to be “How can I make this better?”
In contrast, a new, inexperienced jiu-jitsu athlete going to a tournament for the first time will need that wise, familiar voice in their corner. Even if they know how to escape armbars or tighten triangles, that fundamental knowledge may go out the window when they realize how much more stressful it is to execute those techniques in competition than at their home gym. They will probably need reminders to slow their breathing and rehydrate. They will be extra stressed, extra confused, and in need of extra support.
As a coach, it is literally your job to offer that support. Even though you students may not be paying you to actually be there in their corner on that specific day, your work (or lack thereof) on that day may determine whether those new students choose to continue their journey with you or start questioning if another gym may be better for them. Beyond that, though, your support could define your new student’s perception of competition. A positive experience can plant the seed for a passion for competing that could span years into the future, while a negative one could dissuade your student from ever competing again.
If you are the head instructor at your academy and have stepped up to coach your students at a tournament, that work needs to apply to all of your competing students. Don’t go all-in when coaching your upper belt students, then turn the other way when your lower belt students are up. Don’t sleep in and show up after your white belt students are scheduled to compete, or, if they’re up later in the day, don’t head home early to relax because the “real” work is done.
If two of your students are up at the same time, have another, more experienced student help you out. If you don’t have any experienced students, ask coaches from other gyms if they’d be willing to help you out. If none of those options are possible and you’re forced to choose between coaching a lower belt and an upper belt, ask your students what they’d feel comfortable with. Personally, if my coach had to choose, I’d rather him leave me with an empty corner than leave a new competitor to fend for themselves, but it’s understandable that a long-time competitor might feel that the hard work they’ve put in over the years makes them more deserving of their coach’s efforts in a competitive situation.
Not all coaching situations are ideal in competitions, and you shouldn’t feel bad for making tough choices when they’re necessary. But if you have the option to coach every single white and blue belt at a competition, you need to do it. Just because they probably won’t turn into The Next Big Thing in grappling overnight doesn’t make them any less deserving of your time and attention. As the future of the sport, they need to feel valued and receive the coaching they require so that one day, they can pass on the favor to the newest newbies in the competition scene.